Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Over-Adjectivalization of English?

"Yet when it comes to race, Obama's first year has shown us again and again that race does not matter in America the way it used to. We've come more than a mere long way - we're almost there" ~ John McWhorter

Greetings Grammophiles!

From the quote above, you might think this post is about race. Well, it is only in a roundabout way. Rather, this post is about the words we use when discussing tricky, complicated subjects. Does any phrase strike you as odd in the above quote? Perhaps a word string that requires a second glance just to make sure you read it right? If you selected "mere long way," you and I have a similar filter for grammatical oddities. Here we have two adjectives followed by a noun (mere + long + way), or is it one adjective followed by a noun phrase (mere + long way)? Either the way is long and mere or the long way is mere. To be fair to Mr. McWhorter, who writes for a living (while I just write for a hobby), the contrasting, multi-functional phrase achieves its desired effect. It makes the reader stop and think how exactly far have Americans come in terms of race? What words best describe our progress?

Race is one of those subjects that does not lend itself to simple explanations. It is a tricky, complicated idea that involves biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and politics--just to name a few. As a consequence, simple phrases and sentence constructions never quite seem adequate. Complicated subjects require complicated expressions. In this way, "mere long way" seems more poetic than descriptive, but poetry can sometimes create more confusion than understanding. Just ask Ovid, who found himself banished to Tomis on the Black Sea for a few lines about love.

There is a grammar lesson in all of this, I swear. How many adjectives can be strung together and still be "grammatical"? Well, as many as you like, provided that they are all "coordinate" (have relatively similar meanings, for more on this idea see here). Here's an example:

Mr. Q was the biggest, fastest, strongest, smartest, most excellent human being on the planet.

Every adjective relates to Mr. Q's superlative nature in some way. But throw in the word "weakest" anywhere, and we start asking questions. How can he be the fastest but also the weakest? The same principle applies to "long" and "mere," two contrasting expressions, in the same adjective string. How can the way be "mere" but also "long?" Can a "long way" be "mere?"

To his credit, Mr. McWhorter's poetry seems to be catching on. Frank Gardner used the same expression to describe the progress being made by Afghanistan's fledgling army (see here). However, the expression does appear in the same sentence with the phrase, "like a newborn calf struggling to stand up on its feet." Ahh, and they say English majors do nothing but sit and read poetry all day! Well, someone has to figure out these crazy, convoluted simple concepts.

As always,
Brady Spangenberg

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Counting Nouns

Greetings Grammophiles!

In theory, the number aspect of subject-verb agreement seems like a very easy task. Just make sure that if you have more than one subject, a plural subject, you use a plural verb. All you need to do is decide between "one" versus "more than one" and you have your answer.

But some nouns do not allow themselves to be counted (non-countable nouns), while others function as plurals even though there is really only one thing. One of my favorite examples is "homework." Back in college, I had a German friend who always said "homeworks," which works great in German (Hausaufgaben) but is rather jarring to the English ear. Homework, it seems, always functions as a singular subject, no matter how much of it there is. In this respect, homework is like weather, water, sand, and coffee. You can fill an entire beach with sand or a large pot with coffee, but they are generally still singular in usage.

This rule seems simple enough. But what about the "sands of time" or the "coffees of South America" or Keats's "moving waters at their priest-like task"? This is where the confusion begins. Many nouns have both countable and non-countable senses, so it isn't enough to say that one can never use "sands" or "waters."

However, some noun-countable nouns do seem more resistant to pluralization than others. "Homework" would be one. Yet other nouns, such as "experience," seem perfectly at home in either the non-countable or countable camps. "In my experience" expresses an idea almost identical to "from my experiences I can tell you." How can we know how much or how many experience(s) we have had? Here is a list of certain "problem" plurals a best-guess recommendation for usage. As always, I welcome any additions, suggestions, or amendments to my list.

experience: a toss-up. Just try to consider whether you want to discuss your experience as a collective whole or individual experiences over time.

homework: non-countable. It is possible to have homeworks (my spell-checker flags this word by the way), but usually these are expressed in phrases like "pieces of homework."

time: both. As an abstract concept, like in "time flies," it is non-countable. As shorthand for various points in time, it is countable. An example would be a singer discussing his performance "times" or a track runner referring to the "times" she ran in a previous meet.

water: generally non-countable. I have only really seen "waters" in poetic or proverbial contexts (the waters of the ocean blue). For general usage, stick with "water," and if you must pluralize, go with phrases such as "bottles of water."

weather: always non-countable. I can imagine saying "the weathers have been terrible," but I have never heard or read such a thing. Stick with the singular.

In closing I just want to point out that there are also certain nouns that are always expressed in the plural even though they represent a single object. The three most common are "glasses," "scissors," and "jeans/pants/shorts." Just as my German friend had a little trouble with "homeworks," I too had some trouble in Germany when I kept referring to my jeans in the plural. If it's a pair of jeans, then that means there are two, right?

Best Regards,
Brady Spangenberg