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Look around the room you are in right now. What do you see? Probably nothing out of the ordinary. You will see all kinds of objects, large and small with different shapes, sizes and colours. If you are in a bedroom you’ll see a bed, a wardrobe and perhaps one or more chairs. On the bed there will be one or more pillows and a duvet or blankets. If you are in a kitchen, you might see a sink with a tap, a stove, a table and perhaps a washing machine. You’ll seldom think of this consciously, but all the objects around us belong to categories. In the home such categories include ‘furniture’ (chair, bed, desk, sofa), ‘bedding’ (pillow, duvet, blanket), ‘appliances’ (kettle, fridge, microwave), and so on. You can think of these categories as pigeon holes, as in the image below:

Philosophical thinking about the notion ‘category’ goes right back to the ancient Greek philosophers. Aristotle set up particular categories on the basis of their characteristics, and he thought of them as sharply bounded, as in the image. He also argued that all the members of a particular category are equally representative of that category. The Aristotelian way of looking at categories was very influential. A famous taxonomy of the natural world was proposed by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae (1735). He divided the ‘Kingdom of Animals’ into six classes: mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, insects and worms, each of which was typified by a set of unique characteristics. It is perhaps not surprising that Aristotle’s views were so long-lasting, because his way of thinking allows us human beings to make sense of the world around us.

However, in recent decades scholars have argued that the Aristotelian system is perhaps a bit strict. For example, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) mused about the notion of ‘game’ in his Philosophical Investigations (1953), and noticed that it is not so easy to define. Think about it for a moment. Do games involve winning and losing? Are they always entertaining? Are they played by more than one person? He decided that it is impossible to define games in an Aristotelian way by enumerating a number of characteristics that must apply to all of them. Instead, he said, games bear ‘family resemblances’ to each other, much like when members of a family have a similar-looking ears, share eye colour, etc.

Psychologists have also wondered about the way we should view categories and concluded that within them we should perhaps recognise prototypical members and peripheral members. For example, within the category of birds we have prototypical birds such as sparrows and red robins, and less typical birds such as penguins and ostriches. As you will know, the latter can’t fly.

What does all this have to do with grammatical categories, you may be wondering? Well, in grammar, we also use all sorts of categories, such as noun, adjective, verb, phrase, clause, etc. When we describe the grammar of a language these categories are useful, because they help us understand how it is structured. In many grammar books the grammatical categories are seen in an Aristotelian way by regarding all their members as being equally representative. But is this the right way to view them?

Within the class of verbs, take the words eat and must. Are they equally typical members of their class? Arguably, this isn’t the case. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that just as a sparrow is a more typical bird than a penguin, eat is a more verby verb than must? The reason is that eat behaves grammatically more like a verb than must, as becomes clear from the following examples:

He eats his breakfast on the bus.
They ate all their sandwiches within a few minutes.
She was eating nuts throughout the film.

As you can see, eat can take a third person –s ending, can occur in the past tense and in the progressive construction. But none of these are possible for must.

All the examples below are ungrammatical:

*He musts leave early tomorrow.
*She musted have seen this.
*They are musting to send their CV.

So we see that particular words can be more or less typical representatives of their grammatical categories. Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, language is a natural phenomenon and life shows us there are always exceptions to the rules.

(This blog first appeared on the Macmillan International Higher Education blog.)

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We warmly invite you to come to the British Academy in London on Tuesday 9 July 2019 1:30 – 7 pm to celebrate the life of the eminent linguist and scholar, Professor Lord Randolph Quirk CBE (1920-2017).

Randolph Quirk was born on 12 July 1920 on the Isle of Man. He studied at University College London, where he later became Quain Professor in English Language and Literature. He was Vice-Chancellor of the University of London from 1981 to 1985.

Quirk became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1976 and was knighted in 1985. He was President of the British Academy from 1985 to 1989 and became a life peer as Baron Quirk of Bloomsbury on 12 July 1994.

He is well-known for founding the Survey of English Usage at UCL in 1959, but most of all for the monumental Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985), which he co-authored with Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik. This book, which became known as Quirk et al. is one of the great standard reference grammars of English.

If you knew Randolph personally, were inspired by him, or would simply like to learn more about his impact on linguistics and the university, you are more than welcome to attend.

Speakers:

Bas Aarts
Dick Hudson
Jenny Cheshire
Liliane Haegeman
David Denison
David Crystal

Location: The British Academy, Carlton House Terrace, St. James’s, London SW1Y 5AH

Register here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/english-usage/events/quirk19.htm

The British Academy’s public events are free, but not everyone who registers for tickets attends. To make sure we have a full house we may allocate more tickets than there are seats. We do our best to get the numbers right, but unfortunately we occasionally have to disappoint people. Admission is on a first come, first served basis, so please arrive in good time for the start of the event.

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If you love grammar (and you must do, if you are reading this), you’ll probably already know about Oliver Kamm’s Pedant column in the Times newspaper in which he discusses points of English usage. His perspective is always refreshingly and sensibly descriptive, and averse to unmotivated prescriptivism. The same is true for his delightful book Accidence Will Happen.

In a recent column Kamm discusses the verb warn in the sentence below, published in his newspaper:

Crashing out of the European Union without a deal would generate an abundance of red tape, raise food and drug prices and cause lengthy delays at the border, businesses have warned.

Kamm cites his nemesis Simon Heffer, who argues in his book Strictly English that the verb warn cannot be used intransitively:

We often read in newspapers that somebody has warned that something will happen. This is ungrammatical. The verb warn is transitive: it requires an object. Somebody has to be warned.

Could Heffer be right, if only just this once? After all, we cannot say:

*She warned.

The verb warn requires a specification of who is being warned (optionally) and of the contents of the warning. For example:

She warned (us) that the shop would close very soon.

Because direct objects usually appear after the verb that selects them it may seem as though the verb warn is indeed intransitive in the Times sentence because nothing follows the verb.

However, transitive verbs are not always directly followed by their object. Consider this example:

Tea, I like, but not coffee.

In this sentence the verb like has a direct object, but it is not positioned in its usual place. Instead, it is placed at the beginning of the sentence. Grammarians call this process topicalisation. They would not say that like is intransitive here.

Consider also:

“I will not let you eat all the cake,” he said.

This would be an unremarkable structure in a novel. Here too the verb say is transitive. Its object (the clause I will not let you eat all the cake) has merely been preposed.

Now, something similar is happening in the sentence from the Times. I would argue that the object of the verb warn is the clause Crashing out of the European Union without a deal would generate an abundance of red tape, raise food and drug prices and cause lengthy delays at the border.

This becomes clear when we reorder the words:

Businesses have warned that crashing out of the European Union without a deal would generate an abundance of red tape, raise food and drug prices and cause lengthy delays at the border.

Here the clause introduced by the subordinating conjunction that comes immediately after the verb and is its object. This means that in both versions of the sentence warn is in fact transitive.

Kamm also cites an example of ‘intransitive warn‘ from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590):

And chearefull Chaunticlere with his note shrill/ Had warned once, that Phoebus fiery carre/ In hast was climbing up the Easterne hill . . .

However, in this case too, warn does have an object, namely the clause that Phoebus fiery carre/ In hast was climbing up the Easterne hill.

What about examples like this:

Anne: What were you doing on Sunday afternoon?

Kamal: I was reading.

Surely, this would be an example of intransitive read? Well, possibly, but we would then have to say that the dictionary should list read under two headings, namely read1 (transitive) and read2 (intransitive), which would suggest that they have different meanings. Alternatively — and I would prefer this option — we can say that in such cases there is an implicit object, because Kamal must have been reading something.

Incidentally, have you noticed how Heffer in the quotation above (repeated below) the author violates his own rule, which is typical of prescriptivists?

We often read in newspapers that somebody has warned that something will happen. This is ungrammatical. The verb warn is transitive: it requires an object. Somebody has to be warned.

How so? Because although the verb warn has an object (that something will happen), it is not an object that specifies who was being warned, as is decreed by Heffer.

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word fun as follows:

Diversion, amusement, sport; also, boisterous jocularity or gaiety, drollery. Also, a source or cause of amusement or pleasure.

Which word class does fun belong to? Well, it’s a noun, of course. What else could it be? The OED agrees.

However, the latest edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary allows for fun to appear before nouns, as in this example:

There are lots of fun things for young people to do here.

Could fun be regarded as an adjective in this example? Well, maybe, but we mustn’t forget that, although adjectives are indeed typically placed before nouns, it is also possible for nouns to occur there, as in the phrases lunch menu, mattress protector, business trip, and so on, so this particular example doesn’t conclusively show that fun can be an adjective.

However, the dictionary has two further examples:

She’s really fun to be with

This game looks fun.

An even more persuasive bit of evidence for the claim that fun can be an adjective is the fact that it is now also found with the comparative and superlative endings –er and –est, so that can we hear people say this:

There’s nothing funner than those new video games.

This is the funnest thing we’ve ever done together.

Not everyone would use the words funner and funnest. Indeed, after I wrote these sentences, red squiggles immediately appeared underneath them, indicating that my word processing software doesn’t like them either! Nevertheless, it seems that these days the evidence that fun can be used both as a noun and as an adjective is quite convincing.

Are there any other examples of nouns used as adjectives in English? I came across this sentence recently:

We have to be adult about this.

Here the noun adult is used in the sense ‘grown-up’. This is less frequent than fun used as an adjective, but language users are experimenting with new usages all the time, as this passage from the Huffington Post shows:¹

Look at me adulting all over the place. Although I still look to adultier adults (i.e. my husband, who is the adultest) for advice, as I look back on the last almost-decade of my life, I realize I actually have learned a ton of lessons.

The passage is interesting, because its author manages to use adult both as a verb (adulting) and as an adjective (adultier, adultest). There is again a red squiggly objection coming from my word processor to warn me that these examples are unusual. Maybe this guidance is not unreasonable, because most English speakers would regard this as playful language.

The new uses of fun and adult again demonstrate that English is constantly changing, and that some words do not exclusively belong to only one word class over time.

¹ http://bit.ly/2wtNZeE

This post previously appeared on Spread the Word, the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries blog.

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The English language uses the continuous or progressive construction to express that an activity or situation is ongoing in time. Here are some examples:

 I’m singing in the rain.

She was waiting for a bus.

The first sentence expresses that the singing is ongoing now (present progressive), and likely to continue for a while, whereas the second indicates that the waiting was happening over a period of time in the past (past progressive).

What is interesting is that the progressive construction saw a meteoric rise in use in the 19th century. This was in part due to the fact that English had no way of expressing a passive progressive such as The house was being painted. Instead, the so-called passival was used, as in The house was painting. It’s hard to believe today, but the introduction of the passive progressive was widely frowned upon, indeed detested, by some writers. R. Grant White writing as late as 1871 regards the combination is being as “an absurdity … monstrous … ridiculous”. He goes on to say that:

In fact, it means nothing, and is the most incongruous usage of words and ideas that ever attained respectable usage in any civilised language

Despite numerous similar attacks on the construction, it increased in use.

Another reason for this was that other constructions which involve the progressive were being used more and more, for example the so-called progressive futurate, as in I’m playing football in the park tomorrow. English speakers use this construction when they wish to express that some activity is planned or scheduled.

Recent research has shown that the progressive has continued to increase in use in the twentieth century. Linguists Christian Mair and Geoffrey Leech have shown that in written British and American English between the early 1960s and the early 1990s the progressive increased by 18.2% and 11.8%, respectively. [1]

In spoken English over the same period there is also an increase in the use of the progressive, but it is much less pronounced, as subsequent research has shown. This may suggest that the increase is leveling out. [2]

Many people have noticed that the progressive is now often used with verbs that previously weren’t used in that construction, for example verbs of ‘thinking’ and ‘emotion’, e.g. understand, love and want:

         I’m understanding what you are saying.

         We’re all loving this weekend break in the sun.

         She’s wanting to finish her class early.

This use was attested in the early twentieth century, well before a well-known fast food outlet started using it. Usage is uneven at the present time, and we can say that this is a good example of a change in progress. Older speakers tend not to like it, or use it perhaps only with certain verbs, whereas the younger generations use it much more. This means that in all likelihood it will be seen as normal much more widely very soon, in the same way that the passive progressive became accepted over time.

This blog post first appeared in January 2018 on Spread the Word (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries).

[1] Christian Mair and Geoffrey Leech (2006) ‘Current Changes in English Syntax.’ In: Bas Aarts and April McMahon (eds.) The Handbook of English Linguistics, Malden, MA: Blackwell.

[2] Bas Aarts, Joanne Close and Sean Wallis (2010) ‘Recent changes in the use of the progressive construction in English’. In: Bert Cappelle and Naoaki Wada (eds.) Distinctions in English grammar, offered to Renaat Declerck. Tokyo: Kaitakusha. 148-167.

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