A Grammatical Note on the Usage of Certain Colloquial Words

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To summarize this blog post, here is a helpful diagram showing correct forms of direct address.

To summarize this blog post, here is a helpful diagram showing correct forms of direct address.

The colloquial English word “guy”, in its singular form, is always masculine. In English, the gender of a noun is not as much of an important principle as it is in other languages, because neither the definite nor indefinite article change forms depending upon the gender of the noun, and not even adjectives have gender. But the noun “guy” is singular in that it is exclusively used to refer to a male person. As is to be expected, the plural form “guys” is also masculine and refers to a group of male people. There is one interesting exception to this rule. When used as a direct address, “guys” is gender neutral. A person can start a statement with “Hey guys,” regardless of whether the addressees are male, female, or a group including members of both genders. (If you live in the Southern portion of the United States, the term “y’all” serves the same purpose. Unlike the word “guys”, it is actually a pronoun, since it is a contraction that contains the pronoun “you”.)

The word “dude” is a colloquial term similar to “guy” in usage, but the two are not interchangeable. For one thing, “dude” is used primarily as a form of direct address, and the plural form is significantly less common than the singular. Like the word “guy”, “dude” is technically masculine, but can be used as a gender-neutral form of address. This is handy, given the fact that, as previously mentioned, “guy” is only gender-neutral in the plural. If it wasn’t for the useful word “dude”, there would be an inconvenient gap in the English language, for there would not be a good gender-neutral colloquial term to be used to address just one person. (I am deliberately not counting any words that are fairly unusual or that could be considered profane or derogatory. I also am not counting “hey you”, for the word “you” is actually a pronoun, as previously noted. Additionally, I am not counting “person”, because it is unusual and a little awkward to address a person as “person”. I, of course, do it quite often, for I am unusual and awkward.)

In short, the word “dude”, when used to address someone, is the singular form of the word “guys”, despite the fact that this is grammatically absurd. This just goes to show that colloquial English is just as weird and confusing as the more formal form of this language.

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Time Travel and Grammar and Pterodactyls and Stuff

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It has suddenly and randomly occurred to me that I know what would make a degree in English a more awesome thing to have. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anything against the English degree I do have. I understand and appreciate the benefit of all the different literature classes I took. Of course, I did find some of these classes much more interesting than others, but I don’t at all regret choosing English as one of my two majors. It is a cool thing in which to major, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways it could have been even cooler.

Flaming PterodactylOne problem with majoring in English is that it is very difficult for an English major to be wildly successful, financially secure, and highly accomplished shortly after graduating. I mean, I had intended to become a time-traveling Viking ninja Vulcan pirate princess who rides through the sky on her valiant flaming pterodactyl, saving the world from alien invasions and other disasters. (Except I only just now made up the bit about the flaming pterodactyl, but I like it, so I think I’m keeping it in my official life plans.) But here I am, three weeks after graduation, and my current lot in life is applying for jobs while making plans to attend grad school for library science. Which is, of course, a cool thing to do, but somewhat lacking in time travel and epic interstellar warfare and pterodactyls and stuff, and I don’t even get my own awesome theme music.

Dear Albert Einstein, You really messed up my life with that whole not-traveling-faster-than-the-speed-of-light thing.

Dear Albert Einstein,
You really messed up my life with that whole not-traveling-faster-than-the-speed-of-light thing.

When I was a small child, I was told that America was the land of opportunity and that I could grow up to be whatever I wanted, but now they suddenly tell me that I can’t. Time travel isn’t possible, they tell me, and it probably won’t ever be possible because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and I can’t even have a pterodactyl because they’re extinct, and even if I did have one, I couldn’t set it on fire because then it would die. I tell you, my dreams are dead. Deal with it, people tell me. Life is tough, they helpfully add. And so now I’m left to live my ordinary non-time-traveling and pterodactyl-less life and to wonder if maybe things would have worked out better if I’d been a physics major or a biology major or something. I guess we’ll never know. Except that I haven’t ever heard of anyone else having time machines or flaming pterodactyls, so I suppose it’s not possible no matter what your major is. This is very sad and clearly means that the entire educational system is flawed and uncool.

I’m not sure if my cool idea would actually help matters much in that regard, but it would be cool anyway, which is all I’m really aiming to achieve right now. And, while it doesn’t actually facilitate time travel, it would in theory be quite useful in the event that science people manage to invent time travel despite the whole speed-of-light thing. My idea is this: English programs should, in addition to fostering writing skills and teaching literary analysis, involve linguistic studies such as etymology and grammatical development over history. It wouldn’t surprise me if some English programs already do so, but that certainly is not widely considered to be a standard element of college-level English education. I think it should be. Here is a list of reasons for this suggestion.

Pictured: Old English

Pictured: Old English

1. If you’re going to study literature, and you logically decide to include old literature because it’s awesome and educational, you ought to be able to read things that were written a long time ago. Granted, as it is, it’s not uncommon for English majors to learn some Middle English in order to read the Canterbury Tales. I did, and it was pretty awesome. (Note: Neither Middle English nor Old English is the correct term for the language of Shakespeare or the King James Bible or any other writing of that time period. That’s still modern English; it’s just old-fashioned compared to today’s colloquial English. Middle English is very different from modern English, and Old English is literally a different language.) But very few people bother to actually become proficient in versions of English any older than that of Chaucer’s time. It would be very interesting to read even older works, such as Beowulf, without modern translations.

2. It would solve various problems related to the issue of grammar. I admit that I am one of those people who gets annoyed every time I see someone else make a grammatical error. A misplaced apostrophe or a “me” when it should say “I” is enough to distract me, and frequent repetition of such mistakes cause me to question the intelligence of the writer. (I admit that such mistakes do indeed happen in my own writing occasionally, usually because of typing errors, and you can be sure that I am even annoyed with myself in such cases than I am with other people when they make mistakes.) Yet I don’t actually understand grammatical rules and terminology that well. I know when a word is wrong because it’s in the wrong tense or it’s singular when it should be plural or something like that, but I can’t explain things like why one preposition fits a certain context better than another or adequately define things like “pluperfect tense” or “subjunctive mood”. I learned grammar by following the example of people and books that used correct grammar, not by actually memorizing grammatical terms. The grammar that I learned through my schoolwork as a kid all went in one ear and out of the other, and it was neither obvious nor problematic because I was already capable of using correct grammar, even without actually understanding it. Even now that I’ve picked up a more detailed understanding of grammar, I still think it’s a confusing and horribly boring topic. But yet it annoys me greatly that there are so many people who aren’t capable of using correct grammar. I realize that the reason for this is that most people were exposed to more bad grammar as children than I was, but still, that shouldn’t have to mean that bad grammar is considered perfectly acceptable. Sometimes, the meaning is actually altered or at least obscured by grammatical errors, and even when it isn’t, they are a distraction. So clearly, grammar cannot be deemphasized in education, even though it’s boring and hard. But I think it would be both more interesting and less difficult if the rules made sense, and it seems to me that they would make more sense if there was historical context. English is basically a muddle of other languages, so our grammatical rules presumably have their origins in the grammar of these other languages.  There must be some interesting and informative stories behind the development of English grammar.

3. On a similar note, it would be an awful lot easier for an English speaker to learn a new language if he/she already had a good grasp of linguistics. There are relationships between languages, and these relationships are interesting and useful, and I can’t see more about them because I don’t really know much about them. But it would be very cool to be able to use knowledge of one language to more easily learn another language.

I helpfully have provided a picture of a cow. You're welcome.

I helpfully have provided a picture of a cow. You’re welcome.

4. Language and history are just as interrelated as literature and history are. I’m making a distinction between language and literature here in that literature refers to specific works while language refers to the vocabulary and grammatical traditions by which that literature was written. This point obviously relates very closely to the second one. Etymology is interesting and historically relevant. For example, there’s a very good reason why the English words for “cow” and cow meat (also known as “beef”) are different, while the English word for “chicken” and chicken meat (also known as “chicken”) are the same. I first heard this story from my father when I was a young child, but I looked it up to make sure I was getting the facts right. The facts are that the word “cow” has always been in the English language because it comes from the very old Germanic word for the animal, but the word “beef” has only been in the English language since the 1300s and comes from the Old French word “buef”. The word “chicken”, like “cow”, comes from an Old English word which came from an ancient Germanic word. You see, the pre-Norman dwellers of England were Germanic, and they had cows and chickens, but then the Normans came and became the important people in England and continued to speak French for a long time after that. The Germanic English people still had cows and chickens, and they still ate chickens, but dead cow was a food for the richer people, and thus, it was their name for dead cow meat that remained in usage. We hereby see that an event in English history determined the course of the English vocabulary. I would presume that practically every word in the English language has some story behind it that likewise relates the history of that word’s usage.

5. If we ever do invent time travel, we need to be able to communicate with the people of olden times. I seriously doubt that they would be able to decipher our strange modern dialect. Of course, this issue could be avoided if we had a babel fish like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or if we used TARDISes, which automatically translate for you. But seriously, let’s be realistic here. What are the chances that we’re going to get both flaming pterodactyls and magical translation technology? Not to sound like a broken record, but that pterodactyl is really important to me.

PterodactylSpeaking of which, I shall end this blog post by announcing that I am in the market for a pterodactyl (not a toy one, a real, live, full-size, flying pterodactyl) and I would appreciate it if you would all promise to let me know if you find out where I can get one at an affordable price. Thanks.

On Sentences That End With Prepositions

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These Aren't the Droids You're Looking ForI just suddenly realized something that disturbed and nearly traumatized me. In the original and coolest Star Wars movie, when Obi Wan Kenobi says, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” he ends a sentence with a preposition. At first I wasn’t sure what to think about this. It seemed to me that the world is in a dismal state indeed when even a respected Jedi master ends sentences with prepositions, and when the resulting sentence becomes an iconic quotation throughout all of the coolest areas of pop culture. But then I remembered. Obi Wan Kenobi wasn’t from this world, he was from a galaxy far, far away, and he wouldn’t have been speaking English, either. Of course we all know that Star Wars is more than just a science fiction story- it really happened- but the film version that we have available in our own galaxy was made in 1977 and filmed with English-speaking audiences in mind. Therefore, most of the major characters speak English in the movie, but in real life, they spoke some other language native to their own galaxy. In translation, sentence structure often gets altered, thus resulting in the catastrophic placement of the preposition.

I suppose that I ought to acknowledge at this point that it’s technically not forbidden to end sentences with prepositions in English. John Dryden, a seventeenth-century English poet, insisted that it was incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition, but this was in fact true of Latin, not English. It is worth further noting that at one time, particularly in the Renaissance, it was considered cool to make English sound more like Latin. The fact remains, though, that there are grammatical differences between different languages, and that Latin rules don’t necessarily apply to English. Still, it is generally agreed that ending English sentences with prepositions should be avoided, and I maintain that there is nearly always a better way to state the same sentence.

It would seem that examples are in order.

1. “I can end sentences with prepositions if I want to.”

Here, I think that the sentence would be fine with the preposition omitted, thus resulting in the sentence “I can end sentences with prepositions if I want.”  A couple other possibilities are “If I want to, I can end sentences with prepositions” and “I can end sentences with prepositions if that’s what I want to do.” I would like to point out, though, that there’s a difference between “can” and “may”.

2. “Prepositions are good words for ending sentences with.”

Again, in this particular case, it would work to simply remove the preposition: “Prepositions are good words for ending sentences.” A better way to restate the sentence is to replace to preposition “for” with “with which to” and to change the form of the verb “ending” to “end”. The resulting sentence is “Prepositions are good words with which to end sentences.” Some people might say that it’s more awkward that way, but it really isn’t. It just sounds a little funny to people who are accustomed to ending sentences with prepositions. You should probably be aware that it’s a bad idea to argue that point too much, or else someone might decide to hit you.

3. “Ow! What did you hit me for?”

“What for” questions can be easily changed into “Why” questions.  In this case, the restated version would be, “Ow! Why did you hit me?”

4. “Now my arm is bleeding; where are the Band-Aids at?”

It seems to me that the preposition “at”, when it appears at the end of a question or statement, is generally unnecessary because it’s redundant. In the case of this example, the offending preposition can simply be removed without messing up the sentence at all: “Now my arm is bleeding; where are the Band-Aids?”

5. “She just hit me because I end my sentences with prepositions, and that’s not something she can put up with.”

Here’s another place where the “with which” rule could be used. (“She just hit me because I end my sentences with prepositions, and that’s not something with which she can put up.”) There are a couple of problems with this, though. One is that it sounds like it still ends with a preposition, because “up” is often a preposition. In this case, though, it isn’t, because it’s a particle that’s part of the verb “put up”.  Therefore, that problem doesn’t really count, but the other problem is that this sentence really is pretty awkward. The best way to fix it is to use a different word in place of “put up with”, and the ideal word with which to do this is “tolerate”. Thus, the sentence now reads, “She just hit me because I end my sentences with prepositions, and that’s not something she can tolerate.”

6. “No wonder I couldn’t find the Band-Aids myself; that’s a weird box to keep them in.”

In my personal opinion, the “in which” version of this sentence would sound just fine. (“No wonder I couldn’t find the Band-Aids myself; that’s a weird box in which to keep them.”) I realize, though, that some people might find that to be a bit awkward. It might work better to restate the sentence without the preposition “in”. For example, you could say, “No wonder I couldn’t find the Band-Aids myself; that’s a weird box for them.” I would still go with the first choice.

7. “Because this box has pictures of flesh-eating dinosaurs all over.”

For this kind of sentence, all you need to do is to finish the prepositional phrase. It needs a noun or pronoun to clarify what the phrase “all over” means: “Because this box has pictures of flesh-eating dinosaurs all over it.”

8. “I just put a Band-Aid on.”

Again, all you need to do is add a word to explain what you’re doing with that preposition. You could say, “I just put a Band-Aid on my arm”, or, if you’re feeling a bit melodramatic, “I just put a Band-Aid on my mutilated and bloody arm. Oh, see the blood! Surely this hideous grievance must be avenged!” If the original sentence had referred to an article of clothing, (“I just put a shirt on.”) it would probably sound better to just move the preposition: “I just put on a shirt.”

9. “Now I’m going to hit her arm next time she walks by.”

You could fix this sentence in the same way: “Now I’m going to hit her arm next time she walks by me.” But I have a cheater’s method for sentences like these. Just invert the sentence structure so that the preposition ends up in the middle of the sentence: “Next time she walks by, I’m going to hit her arm.” This doesn’t always work; it’s basically just a way of rearranging a sentence that’s already valid and grammatically correct. I only use it because I hate when sentences end with prepositions. And I have already reluctantly acknowledged that such things are occasionally permissible.

This brings me back to the quotation from Obi Wan Kenobi. This one isn’t so easy to fix. The sentence “You aren’t looking for these droids” doesn’t really work; it slightly changes the meaning by making “you” the subject of the sentence. Obi Wan Kenobi could have said, “These aren’t the droids for which you’re looking”, but that’s somewhat less quotable. The best alternative I can offer is “These aren’t the droids you’re seeking”, but that sounds a little unnatural. I’m going to have to concede that the original sentence, which ends with a preposition, is the best one.

But only because Obi Wan Kenobi is a Jedi master from another galaxy.

Note: No arms were harmed in the writing of this blog post.