Syntax

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This workshop is a review of a few basic ideas about English syntax. It will help prepare us for some elementary study of historical syntax in English.

Let's make some very broad generalizations about present-day English syntax.

--English sentences tend to follow a Subject-Verb-Object order:

The SVO order of simple English sentences is not always mandatory. If you want to "topicalize" an element of a sentence in English, you tend to put it first, as in this OSV example:

In poetry, almost anything goes. Emily Dickinson, painting a winter scene, can say

and we get the picture, even though the sentence has a VS order. But word order is crucial to meaning in many sentences, especially for distinguishing subject from object:

The inversion of Palin and the substance gives the sentence an entirely different meaning. In order to topicalize Palin in this arrangement, we have to change the "voice" of the verb and make the sentence passive, with Starr as subject:

Writing teachers may tell you the passive voice is terrible, but it's frequently a good way of calling attention to the object of an action by placing that object in the position of subject of the sentence, because in English sentences the subject tends to come first.

SV seems so natural to native English speakers that they tend to see it as the natural order of the universe. While in written English we can sometimes be creative and bend the rules, in spoken English we tend inexorably to put our subjects first, follow them with verbs, and then say something after the verb about either the verb or the subject. But there are nearby languages in space and time that follow quite different "natural" arrangements. In Irish, one says

which means, "The sun is shining," but in literal word order means "Is the sun shining." The natural English order in this kind of sentence is Subject-Linking Verb-Complement; in Irish it's Linking Verb-Subject-Complement. If an English speaker uses the Irish order, the "inversion" of subject and verb means that the sentence is most likely a question, not a declaration.

In some languages, the function of a word in a sentence is signalled by inflectional endings. We still have a few inflectional endings in present-day English – think of the difference between "dog" and "dog's" – but for the most part a word's function is heavily dependent on its place in word order. In classical Latin, word order was very important, but it was reinforced by inflectional endings that showed how the sentence was to be understood. Poets could manipulate the language into some very elaborate word orders, as in these lines from Vergil's Aeneid, Book VI that describe how hard it is to twist off a magical golden bough:

word for word:

a word order which suggests why a lot of students don't make it into fourth-year Latin. But to Vergil and his contemporaries, even though the word order would have sounded funny (or poetic) even to them, the -o endings on "duro" and "ferro" connect those two words no matter what else is going on, giving the phrase "with hard steel" (the "with" being signalled by the -o "case ending").

When English poets try to do the same adventurous thing with word order, as in Milton's famous line from Paradise Lost:

they can end up sounding like Yoda.

 

In English, adjectives tend to come before the nouns they modify.

In French, however, "a black dress" would be

In English, a genitive (indicating that something possesses something else) can come before the thing possessed.

In French, the common phrasing is for the genitive to follow the thing possessed:

Of course, as you can see in the phrase "the English course's design," use of the genitive inflection in present-day English, though quite available and grammatical, can sound awkward at times. Much more natural is "the design of the English course," which is called periphrastic genitive – a genitive that uses a phrase rather than an inflectional ending. English periphrastic genitives come after the thing possessed, and are much like French genitives.

New genitives in English tend to be periphrastic and come after the thing possessed. If you have a new motherboard and you want to talk about its speed, would you say

or

You could say either and be understood. But the periphrastic genitive sounds better and comes more naturally in a wider range of circumstances.

It may not seem immediately apparent, but with English genitives, we are observing a typical long-term linguistic change. Two alternatives in syntax co-exist; one is losing ground. Such a process takes generations and may leave a final result that is an irregular system full of subtle idiomatic alternatives.

To illustrate, let's take a phrase we've already looked at, Luke 2:9 in Old English:

þa stod drihtnes engel wiþ hig and godes beorhtnes him ymbelscean: and hi him mycelum ege adredon.

Two genitive phrases occur in this sentence: "drihtnes engel" and "godes beorthnes": "God's angel" and "God's brightness"--though the ending is spelled differently, it's the same English genitive inflection we use today.

These phrases translate two ordinary Latin genitives: "angelus Domini" and "claritas Dei," where the genitive comes after the thing possessed.

In Middle English translations of the Bible made in the 1300s, the phrases are rendered "þe aungil of þe lord" and "clernesse of god." (The most famous later translation, the 1611 Bible, has of course "the angel of the Lord" and "the glory of the Lord.")

The Old English genitive order, with the genitive first, gave way as early as the 1300s to a genitive-last order. But the older order is still available, though not preferred in these kinds of phrases. What we see at work is a long process, never entirely resolved. Genitive-first phrases tend to persist most strongly where persons are the owners:

Genitive-last phrasings are most common when the possessor is an abstract or impersonal noun, or plural, or a phrase:

Though once again, it's not like you can't use the alternative in any of these cases, at more or less risk of sounding awkward.

 

Verbs are harder, so I want to stress just one element here: verb tense, the relation of the grammatical form of the verb to time. In Latin, there are a lot of verb tenses. In the basic "mood" of Latin verbs, the indicative, there are six tenses:

How many tenses do English verbs have in the indicative mood? The answer is seen in the translations above.

But there are some caveats to be aware of. Is there a true present tense in English? Suppose somebody calls you while you are sitting at the table doing a jigsaw puzzle. How do they ask you what you're up to? Does the conversation go

That sounds crazy. Instead, to express simple present action, we use what's called the "progressive aspect" of the verb:

The unmarked present tense, by contrast, tends to refer to habitual or characteristic activity.

Although it's even more complicated than that. We can turn the progressive into a future tense just by adding an adverb of time:

Now think for a moment about that question: "What do you do?" There are two "do"s in that sentence, but they aren't really the same word. One is the "content" verb "do," which means to undertake various activities in the real world. The other is the "dummy" verb "do," which is used in English for all sorts of functional purposes in sentences: here, to signal a question.

In earlier English, someone might have asked:

Well, actually I don't know if anyone ever actually said "workest thou in plaster?" – it's going to be a Googlewhack that leads to this page alone. BUT it is a plausible early-modern English way to ask if someone does drywall.

The dummy use of "do" is a development in late Middle and Early Modern English that strongly distinguishes Old English (where it never appears) from Present-Day English (where we don't go a day without using it many times). Syntax changes over time in many such large ways. Though it can be more conservative than phonology, syntax can take many different formal arrangements, which makes one language's "grammar" difficult for speakers of another language to learn.

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