Comparatives and superlatives in English may come automatically to you, but, if you think about it, the rules are fairly complicated. Can you answer these questions?
We say “prettier” but we say “more repulsive,” not “repulsiver.” Why?
We say “wise” and “wisest,” but we say “learned” and “most learned.” Why?
It is wrong to ask, “Which of the two (boys/girls) is the cutest?” Why?
What is wrong with saying “the most unique” and “the most complete”?
What exactly is wrong with “more better”?
OK. Here are the rules:
Rule 1: One-syllable adjectives
One syllable adjectives add “-er” to make the comparative, and “-est” to make the superlative. Examples: brown/browner/brownest; strong/stronger/strongest.
If the adjective already ends in an “e,” a second “e” is not added. Thus, you would add just “-r” or “-st.” Examples: true/truer/truest; strange/stranger/strangest.
If the adjective ends in a consonant, with a single vowel before it, the final consonant is doubled. Examples: red/redder/reddest; fat/fatter/fattest; big/bigger/biggest.
If the adjective ends in “y”, the “y” turns to an “i” before the suffix is added. Examples: dry/drier/driest; spry/sprier/spriest. Nowadays it is considered correct not to change the “y” to “i” for many one-syllable adjectives ending in “y.” Examples: gay/gayer/gayest; fay/fayer/fayest; coy/coyer/coyest. They seem to be the words in which the final “y” sounds a little like a consonant, and can be heard as a subtle “yuh” sound when the suffix is added on.
Rule 2: Adjectives of three or more syllables
Adjectives of three syllables or more never take “-er” or “-est”; rather, they use “more” and “most”: Example: beautiful/more beautiful/most beautiful; critical/more critical/most critical.
Rule 3: Two-syllable adjectives
Two syllable adjectives cause the most trouble. Some follow Rule 1, as if they had just one-syllable, and others follow Rule 2, as if they had three or more syllables.
If the two-syllable adjective is just a one-syllable adjective with a prefix added on, use Rule 1. Example: unkind/unkinder/unkindest.
If the two-syllable adjective ends in “y,” use Rule 1; that is, change the “y” to “i” and add “-er” or “est.” Examples: pretty/prettier/prettiest; homely/homelier/homeliest.
If the two-syllable adjective ends in “-ow,” use Rule 1. Examples: narrow/narrower/narrowest; hollow/hollower/hollowest.
If the two-syllable adjective ends in “-le,” use Rule 1; that is, add “-r” or “-st.” Examples: gentle/gentler/gentlest; little/littler/littlest. (Some authorities advocate using this rule for all two-syllable adjectives ending in “-e.” Examples: handsome/ handsomer/handsomest; contrite/contriter/contritest. Most current spell-checkers dig in their heels at this point, and direct you away from here to Rule 2: handsome/more handsome/most handsome; contrite/more contrite/most contrite. Personally, I agree with the spell-checkers.)
All other two-syllable adjectives must follow Rule 2; that is, they form their comparatives and superlatives with the aid of “more” and “most.” Examples: famous/more famous/most famous; gruesome/more gruesome/most gruesome.
Rule 4: Irregularities and Exceptions
Finally: There are (surprise, surprise!) irregularities to learn. All but a few adjectives are regular, and that is a good thing. But a handful of adjectives do not follow the rules laid out above, at least not strictly. Here are the exceptions:
much (or many or some)/more/most
little (in amount)/less/least
late (in order)/latter/last
old (applied to persons)/elder/eldest
A couple of others meddle with the spelling a little, like “far/farther/farthest.” (“Further” looks like a comparative, but there is no “fur,” and “furthest” is of dubious status: it should be “farthest.”)
Comparatives are valid for just two — and only two — compared entities. Do not use comparatives when talking about three or more compared entities. Use the superlative. For example: “She is taller than her two sisters“; “She is the tallest of her three sisters.” Consider this sentence: “Can you write best with your right hand or with your left?” “Best” is wrong, as you have only two hands: use “better.”
The name for the adjective form that is neither a comparative nor a superlative is “the absolute.” So the “absolute” form of “prettier” is “pretty.” Some absolutes are really and truly absolute, in that comparatives and superlatives simply make no logical sense. They are binary: either they are what they say, or they are not. There are no shades of grey. The adjective “dead” is a good example. To say that somebody is “deader” than someone else is nonsense. Also, be careful of “unique,” as it means “one of a kind.” Thus, something can not, by definition, be “more unique” than something else. Like “dead,” either it is, or it is not. “Complete” is another example. If something is “complete,” there’s no adding more to it. It can’t be “more complete.” TV news reporters sometimes use the boastful phrase that their news is the “most complete” among the local channels. They should amend it to say, “most nearly complete.”
Only one comparative/superlative per customer, please! “Better” is enough; “more better” is a double comparative, and it is wrong. Drop the “more.” Likewise, Shakespeare’s line (in Act III of Julius Caesar), “. . . the most unkindest cut of all . . .” is wrong because it is a double superlative. Drop the “most.”
A Quick Word About Adverbs
Adverbs follow the same rules as for adjectives. Some, by their nature, have neither a comparative nor a superlative form. Examples: now; then; very; around. For those that, by logic, can have degrees, and hence comparisons, the rules are like those for adjectives. As most of them have two or more syllables and end in “-ly,” the applicable rule will usually be Rule 3(2) (timely/timelier/timeliest) or Rule 2 (happily/more happily/most happily).
So . . . the answers to the quiz at the top of this post? How did you do? The answers are, in order:
In “The Wall,” Pink Floyd sang, “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control.”
The Rolling Stones sang the now-famous lyric “I can’t get no satisfaction.”
The 1968 song “Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone is better known as “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”
Elvis made popular “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.”
There’s no doubt about it: popular music makes double negatives seem normal and correct. Yet, English simply does not condone them. Most double negatives are obvious and easy to avoid. When there’s a “no” and a “not” hovering around the same clause, you know it’s a double negative problem. Slightly more subtle is the combination of a negative verb and a negative pronoun, as in: “I don’t want nothing.” Of course, you know that it’s correct to say “I don’t want anything” or “I want nothing”, but it’s not correct to say both in the same sentence. In fact, this subject is so easy and uncomplicated, that a user of double negatives must be doing it on purpose. It’s hard to imagine a person so lost in his syntax that he doesn’t know any better.
Other languages deal with this problem differently. (Spanish, for example, not only accepts the double negative, but requires it.) English is uncompromising. Only one negative per clause, please!
In these days, the plague of “like” centers around its substitution for perfectly good verbs, such as “become” or “say.” This post assumes that you do not lapse into what used to be called “Valley-Girl-Speak,” along the lines of: “Well, I was like ‘yuck’ but he was all like ‘why’ and, like, I was all ‘whatever’.”
A half-century ago or more, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company came out with a promotion for Winston cigarettes that caused a stir in the circles of those who notice the premeditated use of bad syntax in advertising: “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” The problem is that “like” is used as a subordinating conjunction. “Like” is not a conjunction; it is a preposition. The correct word to use is “as“: “Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should.”
Well, you can say that “like” has become a conjunction simply because so many people use it that way. After all, that is how language grows and changes. True, you will hear “like” used incorrectly by hordes of ignorant or reckless speakers. In informal speech, you will probably get away with it, at least if there are no Grammar Nazis around. But it is wrong, and you should know better, especially when putting pen to paper or speaking to those who themselves do know better.
As a preposition, “like” takes a noun or pronoun as an object: “She plays ragtime piano like a professional.” Notice that there is no verb in the phrase. It is not a clause. If you want to use a clause, then “as” is your word: “She plays ragtime piano, as any professional wouldplay.”
One other thing: Because “like” is a preposition, it should never be used as a synonym for “as if,” which, like “as,” is a conjunction. If you hear yourself say, “I feel like I’m coming down with a cold,” stop. It’s better to say, “I think I’m coming down with a cold,” or “I feel as if I were coming down with a cold.” This second option uses the subjunctive mood because there is uncertainty about the statement. Also, it is a regional mannerism to utter “feel like” when you mean “think” as in “I feel like she should be more polite.” Perhaps your feelings are involved, but you are saying what you think, so be direct and explicit: “I think she should be more polite.”
In the same vein, it is perfectly correct to say, “I feel like a nut,” whether it means you crave a nut, or whether it means that a nutty feeling is overtaking you. You could say that in the case of a craving, the verb is really a phrasal verb: “feel like” (meaning to have a yen for). In the second case, the verb is “feel.” The prepositional phrase “like a nut” acts as an adverb to explain what you are feeling.
Of course, “like” can also be used as a verb, as in “I like coffee, and she likes tea”. That should present neither a problem nor a confusion. “Like” is sometimes used as a noun on Facebook: “How many ‘Likes’ did you get?” That nominalization, unique to Facebook, is not even arguably standard usage.
British poet Henry Reed (1914-1986) wrote “The Naming of Parts,” a well-known anti-war poem in which a World War II recruit finds himself stuck in a lecture on the assembly and disassembly of the Sten gun, a British semi-automatic rifle. He day-dreams about the natural beauty around him (and, it seems, about love-making), all in lieu of listening to his sergeant drone on about weapons.
Well, for you, dear reader, natural beauty and sensual urges are surely more engaging than either British guns or English grammar; so I have tried to keep this post as brief as possible (or at least, “brief-ish”). Relax, for today, we have “Naming of Parts.”
It may not surprise you to know that linguists do not agree on how English words should be classified into parts of speech. They do not even agree on the number of categories, nor in their functionality. To keep it simple, and to stick to the basics, we’ll look at the parts of speech that used to be taught in the schools.
Eight Parts of Speech
English has eight parts of speech, as shown in the illustration.
Note: Some teachers add “articles” or “determiners” as a ninth and separate class. Determiners include articles, cardinal numbers, possessive pronouns, words like “whatever” and “both,” and any other adjective which, unlike common adjectives, specify the noun referred to, rather than merely describe (or modify) it. But the traditional eight parts of speech is good enough for most people, if you put the articles or determiners in with the other adjectives, where they traditionally have resided.
Identifying the eight parts of speech is not hard, once you become comfortable with the ground rules. It’s like knowing the name of a friend: There was a time — when she was still a stranger — that you had pay close attention and use effort to remember her name; but now you know her name automatically. The same is true with the parts of speech. In a very short time, you will identify them with no effort. But be on guard for the tricky ones, which can be of more than one kind.
The three most important parts of speech in English are verbs and nouns, plus pronouns, as substitutes for nouns. A verb and a noun (or pronoun) are absolutely essential for a sentence to be a sentence. (You may think that a command, like Run!, is a sentence and has no noun or pronoun, but it is not an exception to the rule: Imperatives (commands) have a subject that is implied (not spoken). The implied subject of a command is “you.”)
A verb (per the classic definition) is a word that indicates an action or a state of being. This should be pretty simple: “go” is a verb (because it indicates an action), and “friend” is not (it’s a noun!).
State-of-being verbs are simple bridges that connect the subject to a predicate noun or adjective, as in “I feel good” and “He is a builder.”
Every verb has a few different forms. For example, the infinitive, which is the root of the verb plus the word “to,” as in “to work” or “to goof off.” Infinitives are often used as nouns, which can be confusing. For example, “Go now, if you want to go.” The infinitive “to go” is the direct object of “want.” The same is true of gerunds (verb forms ending in “ing” that look identical to present participles). “Seeing is believing” uses two gerunds: one as the subject, and one as a predicate noun.
There is also a verb form called the “perfect passive participle” (often abbreviated as “ppp”), which is used as an adjective. Example: “dressed,” in “She arrived, dressed for the prom.” Here is another example: Consider “The pie was eaten.” “Eaten” is the perfect passive participle: It is called “perfect,” because the action has been completed. (“Perfect” in its original sense meant (and still means) “completed.”) It is called “passive,” because the subject of the sentence is a “patient,” that is, the target of a verb in the passive voice. And it is called a participle because that term means that it shares some of the characteristics of an adjective, even though it is a verb form. (The word comes from the Latin participium and is related to our word “participate” in the sense of “take part in.”)
Also note that you can say “I have eaten the pie.” In this case, the perfect participle is not passive; it is part of a verb in active voice: “I” is the subject, “have eaten” is the verb, and “pie” is the direct object.
This brings up the subject of auxiliary verbs, also called “helping verbs.” They are special verbs that help to create the several tenses, moods and voices of other verbs. “To have,” “to be” and “to do” are the main ones, used in creating the perfect (completed action) tense, the progressive (ongoing action) form, and the emphatic form respectively. Other auxiliary verbs are called “modal verbs” and are used to express necessity or possibility. They do not change form. They are: can, could, may, might, must, ought (to), shall/will, should, and would.
The classic definition of a noun is “a word that names a person, place or thing.” Some people think that “places” are also “things,” and thus abbreviate the definition to “person or thing.” Go with whichever version you prefer, but remember that “city” is a noun, and “Pittsburgh” is, too. Proper nouns are the names of specific persons, places or things, and are capitalized. Common nouns are generic, and are not capitalized in English (in German, they are).
You probably know that Hobbes is wrong: Pronouns are stand-ins. They take the place of a noun. There are several different kinds to choose from:
The noun to which a pronoun refers (or which it replaces) is called the “antecedent” (literally, “that which has gone before.”) Pronouns are supposed to agree with their antecedents in number and gender. For example, “Will everyone please take his seat.” “Everyone” is singular, so the possessive pronoun must be singular. Either “his” or “her” is correct; “their” is wrong. Also, when using pronouns, be careful about the “indefinite antecedent” problem. Years ago I saw a newsletter from a fundamentalist preacher who gave out “magic prayer handkerchiefs” to anyone who sent him money. The newsletter was filled with testimonials: “Dear Brother Bob, I had a tumor on my scalp, so I put the magic prayer handkerchief on it before bed, and when I woke up, it was gone!” All the testimonials followed this pattern, as if written by the same person. You never knew for sure what it was, exactly, that “was gone!”: the bed, the tumor, her scalp or the magic prayer handkerchief. Stay alert, and do not fall into the magic prayer handkerchief problem.
Adjectives describe (the old-fashioned term is “modify”) nouns and, very rarely, pronouns. All the characteristics of a noun will be expressed as adjectives. In the sentence, “The quick, brown fox jumped over the lazy, yellow dog,” the adjectives are “quick,” “brown,” “lazy,” and “yellow.” Numbers (both cardinal and ordinal) can be treated as adjectives, though some linguists put cardinals in the determiner category. Consider: “Hawaii is the fiftieth state of the Union” and “Three blind mice“. The same is true of the articles (definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a” and “an”)). They function as adjectives, and evolved from (demonstrative) adjectives, so let’s consider them to be adjectives. Also, as noted above, the perfect passive participle of a verb acts as an adjective as well.
What adjectives do for nouns (describe), adverbs do for verbs. They also can describe adjectives and other adverbs. Here are three examples:
Mary played “The Moonlight Sonata” perfectly. (The adverb “perfectly” describes howshe played, and “played” is a verb.)
The 1964 Mustang is exceedingly rare. (The adverb “exceedingly” describes “rare,” not the verb (is); neither does it describe the subject (“Mustang”); rather, it tells us how rare it is, and “rare” is an adjective.)
She practiced her routine really smoothly. (The adverb “really” describes “smoothly,” another adverb, indicating how smoothly she practiced.)
Most adverbs, like those in the examples, end in “-ly.” Be careful: not all words ending in “-ly” are adverbs, in fact, there are many non-adverbial, “-ly” words. For example, “early” can be an adverb (“We ate early”), but it is not always an adverb; sometimes it can be an adjective (The early bird . . . ). A word like “slovenly” looks like an adverb, but it is an adjective. Of the many non-adverbs that end in “-ly,” here is a small sample: chilly, curly, deadly, friendly, ghastly, hilly, homely, lovely, lonely, measly, smelly and ugly.
Adverbs not ending in “-ly” include adverbs that tell you about time (now, yesterday, tomorrow, always, never, often), place (here, there, inside, upstairs), and extent of the action (very, too, almost, also, enough, rather). They do not end in “-ly,” but they are adverbs nonetheless.
Adverbial phrases are combinations of words that act as adverbs. The most common ones are prepositional phrases that describe something about the action of the verb: “He researched the question on a computer.” This prepositional phrase is used as an adverb to tell how he researched the question. The phrases need not be introduced by a preposition, however. For example, “He researches the same question every year.” “Every year” is an adverbial phrase.
The real test is whether the word or phrase tells us something about the action of the verb (rather than information on a noun, pronoun or adjective).
Prepositions have “objects” — nouns or pronouns that elaborate on, or provide context to, the subject, verb or objects in a sentence. Prepositions connect these “objects” to the rest of the sentence. The nature of the connection or relationship varies according to the preposition employed. Consider two sentences:
He ate his dinner with enjoyment.
He ate his dinner without enjoyment.
The two sentences have opposite meanings, and the only difference between them is the preposition used to relate “enjoyment” to the verb “ate.”
Prepositions can indicate such characteristics as position, direction, location, means or method, ownership, and many other traits of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. They can be one word only (as in “during,” “except,” “from,” “off” and “underneath.” They can be comprised of two or three words, too. (Examples are: “according to,” “opposite of,” “as soon as” and “in connection with.”)
Conjunctions are links: that is what “conjunction” really means. The connection is between (or among) words, phrases or clauses. For example:
tea and sympathy (words)
in the city and in the country (phrases)
She likes country music, and I like rock-n-roll(clauses).
Coordinating conjunctions connect two items of the same status or importance. For this reason, they can be used with words in a series, parallel phrases or two or more independent clauses. The coordinating conjunctions are: “and,” “but,” “or,” “nor,” “for” (in the sense of “because”), “yet” and “so.” By far the majority of instances will employ “and” or “but.”
“Or” is often used with its partner, “Either,” to indicate alternatives among words. “Nor” should be used with “Neither,” to negate those alternatives. It is common to hear (or read) something like: “She was neither friend or foe.“ That should be “neither friendnorfoe.”
May you start a sentence with “And” or “But”? Purists will say “no,” because there must be at least two independent clauses in a sentence if the conjunction is to do its job. Others say that there is no prohibition against linking two independent clauses, each of which comprises its own sentence. This is more a question of punctuation than grammar. And starting a sentence with a conjunction can increase the impact of the thought, and enhance its communicative effect. You can adopt the rule that you prefer: professional writers have been doing the same for centuries.
Punctuation with coordinating conjunctions: words and phrases in a series should be offset by commas. The more modern practice is to omit the comma before the last item (sometimes called “the Oxford comma”). Independent clauses are separated by a comma before the conjunction. There is no punctuation immediately after a coordinating conjunction. If the phrase or clauses are internally punctuated with commas, use a semicolon as a separator.
Subordinating conjunctions are used to connect two clauses, when one of them is an independent clause, and the other one is a dependent or subordinate clause. The subordinating conjunction describes the nature of the dependency. The clause not containing the subordinating conjunction should be able to be a complete sentence all by itself, while the clause containing the subordinating conjunction seems incomplete, as it depends upon something outside itself (that is, the independent clause) in order to make sense.
There are many such conjunctions. The more common ones are: although, because, however, if, moreover, since, though, unless, whenever, while.
“That” is a subordinating conjunction, too. Much of the time it can be deleted. For example: “He knew that he was in trouble” versus “He knew he was in trouble.” In the second case, the “that” is still there functionally; it is just understood rather than explicit.
Sometimes the order of the clauses in a sentence can be reversed or modified. For example, it is equally correct to say, “Because the weather turned ugly, school recessed early” or “School recessed early because the weather turned ugly.” Some subordinate clauses must follow the independent clause in order to make sense. Try to reverse the order of clauses in this sentence, and you will see the point: “I enjoy western music; however, I can take or leave country music.”
In all events, it is not correct to start a sentence with a subordinating conjunction and then end it without its independent clause. That is a sentence fragment.
Punctuation with subordinating conjunctions: The punctuation for most subordinating conjunctions is the same as for a coordinating conjunction; that is, a comma separates the clauses. This works with “since,” “though,” “although,” “unless,” “while” and a several others. According to some style manuals, “because” does not need to be preceded by a comma. (“He ate because he was hungry.”) For “moreover” and “however,” use a semicolon after the independent clause, then insert the conjunction, followed by a comma. Note that “however” can also be an adverb: “However mean you be to me, I’ll still love you.”
Interjections are utterances without a syntactical role in the sentence. They express emotions, exclamations, protests, greetings or commands. If they are mild, they may be offset by commas. If they are intense, they will be put in a separate sentence and followed by an exclamation point. Here are some examples:
Oh well, tomorrow is another day.
Sorry! or Sorry, we’re out of onion rings.
Excuse me! or Excuse me, can you tell me how to go to Elm Street?
Wow! What a sunset!
Interjections are not often used in formal writing. They are more common in speaking and in written dialogue.
From here, you may want to go on to the following pages and posts:
Suppose you need to repair something on a car or a bike. You go to a parts store and ask for the exact item that you need to replace. Let’s suppose that the clerk hands you something for a completely different model. “This will not work,” you say, “This is the wrong part.”
English is made up of parts, too. And, like auto or bike maintenance, it is important to use the right part for the right job. A modern trend, initiated (I surmise) by the onslaught of small, electronic devices, is to use words that are one part of speech (say, nouns) as other parts of speech (such as verbs). “Text” is a good example. For centuries, “text” has been a noun. Since the 1990’s (or so), it has also become a verb.
In principle, there is nothing much wrong with this, for so long as it helps to generate clear and unambiguous communication. This is one of the ways in which language grows and changes. Lots of nouns have become verbs in the past, and we are so accustomed to them that we don’t even notice it. Examples: “Shouldering a burden,” “tabling a discussion,” and “when it storms.” These are called “neologisms” (literally, “new words”).
Shifts in parts of speech can also occur in the reverse direction: verbs can become nouns. This act, called “nominalization,” can be spotted as a tendency ever since the shadowy beginnings of English. For example, the “reveal” at the end of a TV drama (instead of “revelation”) has been around at least since the 1950’s; some say it can be traced back a few centuries. For more on nominalizations, and how they can be viewed with favor, see Henry Hitchings’ thoughtful piece in the New York Times.
On the other hand, in the mouths of the ignorant, inarticulate, careless and indifferent, the migration of words from one part of speech to another can cloud meaning, and turn the merely confused into the incomprehensible. Taken to its logical end, the trend could have us all speaking the way we think cavemen must have spoken, with word fragments punctuated by grunts.
Consider Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass. Humpty Dumpty used the word “glory” in a nonsensical way, and Alice objected:
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
So, even though it may not seem a very modern attitude, having a careful respect for the parts of speech in English does preserve coherence of thought and language.
It is possible that you have gone through many years of schooling without knowing that nouns have “cases.” You may think “case” means a container or a unit of counting (like “24 to a case”) or a mystery project of someone like Sherlock Holmes. All that is true; but it also means an instance of something (as in “In any case, you should call home.”).
In grammar, “case” means the form of a noun, pronoun or adjective that indicates its functional relationship to other words in the sentence. In many languages other than English, the “case” of a noun is indicated by a special form — usually an ending, called more generically “an inflection.” (Verbs have inflections, too; however, they do not have “cases.”)
English shed most of its inflections some time ago, so we do not use special forms to indicate how a noun or adjective is used in a sentence. We need to pick up this information in other ways, by word order and context. Some pronouns, on the other hand, are still inflected. See Keeping Subjects and Objects in Line.
Even though English has few inflections for nouns, adjectives and pronouns, it still uses “cases.” Most of the other languages originating in Europe do, too. The source of this approach to language traces back to ancient Greece. When Latin evolved, it adopted the cases used in Greek. Hundreds of years later, Latin became the mother of the modern romance languages, and a grammatical model for German (thanks to Luther’s adoption of Latin as a grammatical template for the translation of the Latin bible into German).
English has a double inheritance from Latin: (a) directly (as the written language of medieval times), and (b) from Norman French (via the Norman invasion of 1066). The third major ancestor of English, Anglo-Saxon, came to England long before German received the “civilizing” influence of imported Latin grammar. This may explain why English evolved to be so noninflected, as compared with the tongues of its continental neighbors.
Though most English words are noninflected, their functions in an English sentence do reflect their cases. Here is a recapitulation of the cases used in classical times, which remain valid for analyzing modern English usage. Remember, this subject applies only to nouns, pronouns and adjectives.
Nominative – Used for the subject of a sentence or clause, and also for its adjectives. Also used for “predicate nouns” and “predicate adjectives,” which follow a state-of-being verb (Examples: “to be,” “to seem,” “to feel”). Predicate nouns and adjectives equate to or describe the subject of the sentence. (Don’t call this the “subjective case”; “subjective” will be understood as something else entirely.)
Possessive (Genitive) – Used to describe possession, ownership or close association (as a personal trait, for example). In English we have possessive pronouns, which are in the genitive, technically speaking. The apostrophe-s for nouns is also a genitive inflection. Often, however, we just use a prepositional phrase, with “of” (Example: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”)
Important: Do not use the apostrophe-s with pronouns! They are already in the genitive case, and need no further inflection! “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”; “its” (without the apostrophe) is the possessive pronoun. And, while we’re on the subject: Do not use apostrophes to make nouns plural! The shamefully careless or ignorant might post a sign that says, for example, “Television’s for sale.” Don’t use a genitive inflection in the place of a common plural, please!
Objective (Accusative) – Used for the direct objects of verbs and the objects of prepositions. Example: “Give me liberty or give me death!” “Liberty” and “death” in Patrick Henry’s famous oratory are in the accusative case. We cannot discern this by looking at the words (as there are no inflections), but we do know it from their functional relationship to the other words in the sentence, particularly, the verb “give.”
Dative – Used for indirect objects of verbs. Example: In the imperative sentence “Call me a cab,” the “me” is an indirect object. Were it a direct object, the response would be, “OK, you’re a cab!” Often, the dative is expressed in a prepositional phrase with “to”: Instead of saying, “Give me it!” we say “Give it to me!”
Three other cases existed in ancient days, but they did not survive the transition to modern times: The vocative, used when addressing someone, the locative, used when referring to a place or location, and the ablative, used mainly to express separation, source, cause, or means. The most famous vocative is “Et tu Brute?” The phrase was quoted by Shakespeare in his play, Julius Caesar. The “–e” ending on “Brutus” is the vocative inflection. The locative and ablative are not necessary in English because we use prepositional phrases to articulate the concepts that they expressed.
Standard English requires knowing about nouns and pronouns, specifically, what their functions are in a sentence. To get to the subject of subjects, we have to do a little work with the concept of the sentence, and the role of verbs:
What is a sentence? The sentence is the basic unit of speech, because (by definition) it expresses a complete thought. It will not be a sentence — that is, the thought will not be considered to be complete — unless it contains both a “subject” and a “predicate.” A string of words that does not include a subject and a predicate is called a “sentence fragment.”
The central figure in the subject is a noun, either a person or a thing. The main element of the predicate is a verb, either in active or passive voice. The subject names who or what it is that either takes the action described in the predicate (active voice), or suffers the action of the predicate (passive voice). Here are two examples:
The dog ate the lizard.
The dog was eaten by the lizard.
In both examples, the subject is “the dog.” In the first example, “ate the lizard” is the predicate, and in the second example, “was eaten by the lizard” is the predicate. The meanings, of course, are totally different.
The first example is “active voice,” and the active noun (the noun that does what the verb describes) is “dog.” “Dog” is the actor. Some grammarians call that “the agent.” (“Agent” comes from Latin for “doer.”)
The second example is “passive voice” and the passive noun (the noun on which the action of the verb is performed) is “dog.” “Dog” is the one who suffers the impact of the action. Some grammarians call that “the patient.” (“Patient” comes from Latin for “sufferer.”)
If you have trouble keeping these concepts straight, think of Mark Knopfler’s song (sung by Dire Straits and also by Mary Chapin Carpenter), “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.” The windshield is the “agent” and the bug is the “patient.”
Why does this matter? What does it have to do with subjects and objects?
Well, many active verbs have “objects.” If the subject is the agent (because the verb is in active voice), and if there is a patient (on which the action of the verb is taken), that patient is a “direct object.” The “ob-” prefix in Latin means “in the way of,” and an “object” is right in the path of the verb’s action.
So . . . why does knowing the difference between subjects and objects matter? If you were speaking German, Russian, Greek or Latin, for example, the noun you choose for an object will have a different grammatical form from that used for a subject. But you are lucky. This is English. We do not add endings according to the grammatical function of nouns (subject or object). We used to do that, but not in modern times. There is a little bit of bad luck: We still change the forms of some pronouns, according to their use as subjects or objects.
We call the subject form of these changeable pronouns the “nominative” case or form. Why? “Nominative” comes from the Latin word for “name,” and the subject “names” the actor (or the recipient of the action in the case of passive voice). We call the object form of these changeable pronouns the “objective” case or form, for obvious reasons. (Sometimes grammarians will call the objective case the “accusative,” which is a borrowing from classical languages.)
Consider two similar sentences:
I love you.
You love me.
In the first sentence, “I” is the subject and “you” is the object. In the second sentence, the roles are reversed, and “you” is the subject, and “me” is the object. From this you can conclude that the first person singular personal pronoun (“I/me”) changes form according to its function as a subject or as an object. You can also conclude that the second person singular (and plural) personal pronoun (“you”) does not change form according to its function as a subject or object.
The other pronouns besides “I/me” that change according to whether they are subjects or objects are: “he/him”, “she/her”, “we/us”, “they/them.” Exempt from this issue are “it” and “you.”
Curiously, among all the other types of pronouns (relative, possessive, interrogative, demonstrative) the problem arises only with “who/whom.” All the others (for example, “which”, “that”, “this”) do not change form between the nominative and the objective cases. The possessive pronouns and adjectives are neither nominative nor objective — they are their own type: possessive. They are already in the correct form.
So far, things have remained fairly simple: In the case of just six pronouns (I, he, she, we, they, who), it is important to know when they are used as subjects and when they are used as objects, because the nominative and the objective forms are different. In all other cases — all the other pronouns and all the nouns (both common and proper) — the same form is used for the nominative and the objective.
Three refinements are necessary at this point:
First, the direct object of a sentence (or clause) is not the only time the objective (or accusative) case is used. It is also used for the objects of prepositions. Therefore, we say “with me,” not “with I.” We should say, “to whom” and not “to who.” Usually it is not difficult to tell if a pronoun is the object of a preposition, so this rule is not very hard to follow.
Second, the objective case is also used with indirect objects. In the sentence, “Call me a cab” the direct object is “cab,” the noun that receives the impact of the verb call. In this case, “me” is the indirect object, the person or thing to whom or for whom the action is performed. Another example: “I gave her a ring.” The direct object is “ring”; “her” is the indirect object, and it is also in the objective case.
Third, some verbs do not even have direct objects. Intransitive verbs, by definition take no direct object. Examples: “He woke up” and “I get around.” That should not pose a problem: If the verb takes no direct object, then there’s no agony of choice of form.
Other verbs, however, do not take direct objects because they are not “action” verbs, but rather, “state of being” verbs. They are more like equals signs in the sentence. That is why they are sometimes called “linking verbs.” The verb “to be” (am/are/is) is the most common state of being verb. Others include “become,” “remain,” “seem,” “feel” (as in “the carpet feels good”), “taste” (as in “the food tastes good”), and “smell” (as in “the rose smells good”). (Note that “I don’t feel well” is correct: “well” in this case is an adjective meaning “healthy”; it is not the adverb form of good, which, of course, would not be correct in this situation.)
To be doubly clear: Consider “I am a student.” The verb “to be” (“am”) does not transfer action, it simply defines: I = student. In that case, “student” would be in the nominative case, to match its subject, the pronoun “I.” So … now the tricky one, in which one of the six changeable pronouns is in the predicate of a state-of-being verb: “It is I” is correct; “It is me” is incorrect. Do not say “It’s me”. Likewise, “This is she” is correct. “It’s her” is incorrect. The wrong forms are not even arguable. Predicate pronouns are the principal cause of trouble in keeping subjects and objects in line. This is because predicate pronouns are not objects. Like all pronouns, they “take the place of a noun.” In this instance, they take the place of a noun that happens to be the subject of the sentence, so they must take the same case as the subject: nominative.
“Who do you want to speak with?” is doubly incorrect: Can you spot the two mistakes? One is grammatical: “Who” is the nominative form of the interrogative pronoun; “whom” is the correct form for the object of a preposition, which is the requirement here.
Granted, “Whom do you want to speak with?” sounds strange and ugly. That may be the fault of the second error in the sentence, which is one of syntax and rhetoric: Do not separate the preposition in a prepositional phrase from its object; don’t stick it at the end of the sentence, down by the period or question mark.
Ending a sentence with a preposition is, in a phrase attributed to Winston Churchill, “the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!” (Evidently, he did not really say that. See this link for more information.) As for using the nominative case when the objective case is required, or vice-versa, see Keeping Subjects and Objects in Line. Our focus at this moment is on error number 2, the incorrect placement of prepositions.
Teachers of ESL (English as a Second Language) have long confronted having to explain why English prepositions sometimes seem to float around without any objects. They tell their students, “These prepositions are really just parts of the verb.” For example, “tear down” is not a combination of the verb “tear” with a prepositional phrase that starts with “down,” nor is “down” some sort of adverb, telling how the tearing occurred. No, “tear down” means something different from its two word parts; it means to demolish, dismantle, disassemble, or destroy. “Tearing” is not involved, really, at least not necessarily, and “down” does not describe how the verb acts. At most, it merely depicts the outcome, brought about by the force of gravity on whatever is being demolished. Though capable of being either an adverb or a preposition, “down” in this case is neither. It makes imminently better sense to consider the verb to be “tear down” and the item demolished to be its direct object.
Now, it is possible to concoct a sentence in which the verb would be “tear” and “down” would introduce a proper prepositional phrase: “Watch the girl tear down the street on her bicycle.” But that is furlongs away from the sense of destroying something!
Not persuaded? Then consider “tear up.” Suppose you receive some junk mail, which you just toss away without reading it. If you “tear up” the junk mail first, does it convey any sense of direction? Is it the opposite of “tear down”? In the same vein, in the phrase “tear off,” the “off” is part of the action, not a description for whatever noun is affected by it.
ESL instructors call these two- and three-word descriptors of action “phrasal verbs.” In this light, “put up with” is a three-word verb, not a verb + preposition/adverb + preposition/adverb. Thus, to say “That is something I will not put up with” is rhetorically correct.
Why does English do this to us? The answer goes back to Old English, and earlier to Saxon, and earlier still to Old German. German (even modern German) has a feature called “separable prefix verbs.” For example, the verb “to wake up” is “aufwachen” (from which we have “awaken.”) But in German the “auf” part separates from the “wachen” part when it is employed (other than as an infinitive) and it goes to the end of the sentence. So Bach’s Cantata Number 140 is called “Wachet Auf” because that is the form “aufwachen” takes in order to say, “Wake up y’all” (“Wachet” is a plural imperative). In English, we would say, “Wake Up!” So you see, we come by these phrasal verbs quite honestly.
Now, does that mean it’s always permissible to end a sentence with a preposition? No. A preposition that introduces a phrase, one that has an object of its own, needs to stay with its object. “Speak with” is not a phrasal verb, so “Whom do you want to speak with?” is not a syntactically correct sentence. It should be, “With whom do you want to speak?”
In general, the rule for prepositional phrases is that the preposition should come first, and then the object of the preposition (together with its adjectives and any adverbs tied to the adjectives). Keep the unit all together. Sometimes the whole phrase can be placed at different parts of the sentence, but the words of the prepositional phrase should stay together, and be introduced by the preposition. For example, “In this valley I shall stay” is correct. So is “I shall stay in this valley.” It is not correct to say, “This is the valley that I shall stay in.” If you need to use a relative clause, say “in which I shall stay.”
In general, the rule for phrasal verbs is a little more complicated than the rule for prepositions in prepositional phrases:
Three-word phrasal verbs (like “put up with” or “look down on”): the three words always go together. They are a unit: “Can you put up with that?” “Beverly can not put up with hateful politics.”
In the case of two-word phrasal verbs, some of them follow the same rule: The words cannot be separated. For example, “run into” is a two-word phrasal verb in which the two words must stay together. You can say, “I ran into John yesterday,” but you can’t say, “I ran John into yesterday.”
Most two-word phrasal verbs are separable. For example, “make up” in the sense of “invent”: “She made that story up” is perfectly acceptable. Also, one can say “She made up that story.” Either way works. There is one catch, however: If the object of the verb is a pronoun, then the separable two-word phrasal verb mustbe separated! “She made up the story” is fine; “She made it up” is also fine; but “She made up it” is not fine at all.
To recapitulate: (1) All phrasal verbs can be kept together, followed by their object, except separable (two-word) phrasal verbs when the direct object is a pronoun. Such a pronoun must go in between the two parts of the phrasal verb. (2) Objects of separable phrasal verbs, if not pronouns, may optionally be placed either in between the two parts of the phrasal verb, or after the phrasal verb, as if the phrasal verb were non-separable.
Remember: All three-word phrasal verbs are non-separable. Some two-word phrasal verbs are non-separable, but most are separable.
A final detail: Some phrasal verbs are intransitive; that is, they do not take a direct object. It follows that all such intransitive phrasal verbs are non-separable, as there is no object to interpose between the parts. An example is the phrasal verb “come about” either in the sense of “happen” or in the sense of “turning around,” nautically speaking: “Tell me, how did this come about?” “When the sloop reached the buoy, it came about.”
English has hundreds of phrasal verbs. Here are just a few examples of them in their respective categories:
Two-word, separable (transitive): ask out, calm down (someone), find out, hang up (the phone), look up, bring up (either to rear or to mention), keep up (continue), mix up (confuse), pass out (distribute), point out, put off (defer), set up (arrange), show off, sleep off, take off (remove), think over, turn up (adjust volume) warm up (something, as a car), wake up (waken another)
Two-word, non-separable (transitive): break into (invade), bump into (or run into), call on (as a student in class), check into (a hotel or a matter), come across (encounter), do without (something), fall apart, give up (concede), look into, stick to (concentrate on).
Three-word (always non-separable): break out in, cut down on, do away with, drop in on, go out with, meet up with, add up to, give up on, grow out of, hang up on, look forward to, run out of (have no more), warm up to (begin to feel positively disposed towards).
Intransitive (always non-separable): ask around, back off, break down (malfunction), calm down, cheer up, chip in, show up, give in or give out (quit), grow up, run away, sleep around, sleep over, log in (to sign on to a computer account), pass out (lose consciousness), shop around, take off (launch), turn up (appear), work out (exercise), warm up (get ready), wake up (awaken).
What is your opinion about the phrase “Woe is me!”? Is it grammatically correct?
Well, if you said “Yes,” you are on the right track, but why? Your reason for saying so matters a lot. At the end of this post the “real answer” is provided. If you said “Yes, it is correct” simply because the phrase is so familiar that it “sounds okay,” you are on dangerous footing. Consider four points:
Point Number 1: The “sounds okay” approach to grammar is perilous, especially in these days. Incorrect phrases can be heard so often that they have acquired a kind of presumptive legitimacy. But that still makes them wrong, and it makes the utterer appear ignorant of, or (even worse!) indifferent to, accuracy in English usage.
Point Number 2: Let’s suppose that you said that “Woe is me” is wrong. Why would you say that? Well, Probably you know that “is” (the third person singular form of the verb “to be”) works much like an equals sign. This means that it cannot take a direct object because it does not act on anything. By definition, the subject (“woe”) must be in the nominative case; thus the noun or pronoun on the right side of the “is” must also appear in the nominative case, and not in the objective case. To illustrate, “It is me” is wrong because “me” is in the objective case, and “is” doesn’t have direct objects. It should be “It is I” because “I” is the nominative case of the first person singular personal pronoun. This is an example of the sort of phrase about which the “sounds right” school of thought could quickly seduce you into error.
Point Number 3: But if you believe that “Woe” is properly linked with “I” (not “me”), should it be “Woe am I” or “Woe is I”? Here there are two schools of thought. The first says that the subject is in the third person because all nouns (common and proper) are in the third person. Therefore the verb should be “is” and not “am.” If someone calls on the phone and asks to speak with you by your name (i.e., “Is Mr. Smith there?”), you might say, “This is he.” Or you might say, “It is I.” Both are using “is,” not “am.” (Most likely, you would say something like “It’s me,” which is indisputably incorrect.) Under this school of thought, the choice would be for “is.”
A second school of thought would point out that the sentence really says “I am woe,” and the word order was simply inverted, which is permissible in English. Compare “Happy am I when evening comes.” Since the subject of the sentence is “I” (looking at matters functionally), then the verb should be “am.”
Point Number 4: Patricia O’Connor wrote a book entitled Woe is I. She said she chose the title to point out that only “a pompous twit” would insist on correct usage, since the phrase “Woe is me” has been acceptable in English for generations. She is partially right: The expression has been acceptable in English for at least 800 years. She is also wrong in one respect: “Woe is me” is not wrong; it is correct! “Me” in this case is not the subject; it is also not the direct object; it is in the “dative case,” that usage of a noun or pronoun that names the person to whom or for whose sake the action (or being) of the verb takes place. With action verbs, this is usually the indirect object of the sentence. To understand this, consider the old Vaudeville exchange: “Quick! Call me a cab!” “OK, you’re a cab!” This joke hinges on confusing the direct object “me” with the indirect object “me.” The expression “Woe is me” is a construction, considered archaic nowadays, for “Woe is to me,” or, as the King James Version of the Bible has put it, “woe is unto me.”
Check out the following links to authors who have given more meticulous explanations: Jonathon Owen, Jan Freeman, and Arika Okrent (who points out that the same grammatical point persists in German and in Yiddish).
“Everyone must sit in their own chair!” (Shudder!)
Everyone means “every one.” “One” is singular; in fact, it is perhaps the most singular of all words. “Their” is plural. “Their” and “one” do not match. Grammatically, “one” takes “his,” “her,” or “its” — never “their.” So the correct expression is “Everyone must sit in his own chair!” (or “her own chair” or “its own chair”).
If political correctness requires gender neutrality, try “his or her own chair.” (Under the traditional rules of English, “his” does not refer exclusively to males, but rather to members of the human race of either gender (and, by extension, to a few other species — horses and dogs for example). This rule was repealed, apparently, during the Women’s Liberation movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, resulting in a more complicated solution to the problem of being all-inclusive when using a singular possessive pronoun.
In most languages in which all nouns have gender as a matter of grammar, this problem does not arise: You can be gender-inclusive without using a plural pronoun with a singular noun. This is because possessive pronouns modify the nouns they describe, and, when necessary, they agree with the gender of those nouns. The possessive pronouns in other Western languages do not imply anything about the gender of their owner or user.