On Plurals and Gender and Other Grammatical Aliens


A personal confession is very much in order: when I am not being a nose-sniffing supercilious grammar snob there stalks dark and deadly within the cavernous crevices of my murky mind a grammar nazi. I do not apologize, but simply obey those deeper imperatives of my linguistic being.
People who really should know better – like, for example, television news-writers and the pretty people who read their output, and even the odd proof reader or two of the nation’s mainstream print media – at least merit kudos for their consistency (and since these are not foolish consistencies I disavow the Emersonian cautionary about hobgoblins and little minds) in being wrong about plurals that have made it into modern English directly from Latin or ancient Greek.
To take the latter first: my special bête noire is the excellent and workmanlike but often so unfairly traduced word ‘phenomenon’. Why, you might well ask, should ‘phenomena’ be mapped onto the singular number (which ‘phenomenon’ already has fully covered) to give us such catachrestic horrors as “the phenomena is well known …” in place of correct “the phenomena are well known …” (or “the phenomenon is well known …” ). I suspect that some inadequate English teacher in error once told the speaker/writer that foreign words ending in ‘a’ are feminine singulars, an observation on said teacher’s part that deftly illustrates the truth about (since in this little piece we are citing literary authority of the highest order) Alexander Pope’s couplet from his An Essay on Criticism [1709]:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
– if you see what I mean!
While I’m in this general paideutic neighborhood, just down the proximate street of hyper-correctness lives the chilling collocation “… between he and I …”, prompted as it no doubt is by your Mother’s correct correction years ago that one does not say “… him and me are going to the playground …” but “… he and I are going to the playground …”. And so, bereft of syntactic context, the phrase “… him and me …” triggers a grammatical red alert status that mindlessly emends the putative offender to “… he and I …” – regardless, as I say, of the larger syntactic web in which it is enmeshed.
And how about that retired Ms. Mary Masters who is now listed in her (former) university’s literature (if you can believe it!) as a professor emeritus? Recent sex-change operation, anyone? The gender violation is ghastly enough when encountered in something like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but in a university (which shall remain nameless!) alumni bulletin? Or was that the alumna bulletin? alumnus? alumnae? Tomato, tomahto potato, potahto! Gosh, it’s all so dreadfully complicated, is it not … ? Really!!
Now that we have warmed up, let’s move on to something really serious – and fun: the subject of the gerund. How many English teachers in the local high schools of your community could give you a definition of ‘gerund’ and a coherent explanation of its usage? Formally, gerunds are those pesky derivatives of verbs that end in –ing. Oh, that’s easy. So in a statement like “that winter morning saw many shuddering riders at the bus stop,” the –ing word ‘shuddering’ is a gerund. Piece of cake! NOT SO FAST. Here ‘shuddering’ is a present participle — a verbal, yes, but NOT a gerund. Succinctly put, a gerund is a verbal noun and a present participle is a verbal adjective; both just happen to end in –ing. OK, if the –ing word precedes a noun, it must be a participle … well, not exactly. What about a phrase like ‘playing card’? Here ‘playing’ is a gerund – after all, it is not the card that is doing the playing. How about, ‘the mother looked at her playing child’? Present participle – after all, it is the child who is doing the playing!
Good grief in high heaven! Soooo, what is the difference? In the former, there is a deeper structure to the phrase that goes something like this: ‘playing card’ < ‘card for playing’, a structure that obviously doesn’t apply mutatis mutandis for ‘playing child’! Now, say aloud to yourself ‘playing card’ and ‘playing child’ several times, and, being a native speaker of English, you indicate in your pronunciation that you intuitively know which is a gerund and which is a present participle. Thus, PLAYing card as opposed to playing child – the gerund here clearly stresses its initial syllable, the present participle does not – technically speaking, the gerund is syllabically heterodyne, the present participle, syllabically homodyne. Now, that is simple. In confirmation, say the following sets [gerund is first, present participle is second] aloud and pay close attention to how you stress the –ing word: ‘wrestling mat’ vs. ‘wrestling conscience’, ‘dining hall’ vs. ‘dining guests, ‘quitting time’ vs. ‘quitting player’, ‘riding school’ vs. ‘riding passenger’, ‘walking stick’ vs. ‘walking dog’, etc. etc. etc. To be sure, depending on how you stress the –ing word, in that last set ‘walking dog’ could well be pronounced ‘WALKing dog’, but then you are altering the deep structure and addressing the dog’s function (a dog for walking) and not its action (a dog that is doing the walking). Many so-called tonal languages (e.g., some Amerindian languages, some African languages, modern Chinese, etc. etc. etc.) or semi-tonal languages (e.g., Norwegian, Swedish) do this kind of thing with pitch (rather than stress, as in English) to a much, much greater degree with very consequential semantic import.
Of course, quite broadly speaking, if the –ing word is preceded by ‘the’ and has nothing to modify, it’s probably a gerund, as in ‘the singing was very loud’; compare ‘the singing man was very loud’ – present participle. And consider these sets: ‘I hate the waiting’ [gerund] vs. ‘I hate the waiting crowd’ [present participle]. So what would you make of ‘I hate the waiting room’? Think deep structure … That’s right, a gerund – entirely analogous to ‘playing card’ above, that is, a ‘room for waiting’ – it is not the room that is doing the waiting, is it?
All clear?
[Be glad that unlike Latin we do not have a ‘gerundive’ in English. If you think the ‘gerund’ is a hoot, well … OK, since you coerce me so charmingly, try here, here, and here – so I’m show-boating, but hey, my blog, my fun!].
So let’s get back to the original springboard for this most intriguing disquisition: the subject of the gerund. It is, of all things, the possessive of the personal pronoun! Thus, many people will say (or, worse in my view, write) something like [1] “I don’t like him doing that nasty stuff” when they obviously mean [2] “I don’t like his doing that nasty stuff”, or [1] “You can’t stand your sister singing” when they obviously mean “We can’t stand your sister’s singing”. Well, both are correct, but they mean different things, and my sense is that when people actually mean the latter they say the former, and don’t know the difference. Thus, [1] says that you don’t like the person when he is doing nasty stuff, but [2] states that you don’t like the action of the person involved. We can probably hear this more readily in a phrase like “I don’t like him whining” vs. “I don’t like his whining”. We usually mean the latter, and that’s usually how we put it. But in general we tend to be sloppy about this (as so many other) finer distinctions.
Now, finally, you will of course say, “So what! I speak English just fine, and who needs to know all that stuff? What good will it do me in my life in the world?” OK. Where do we draw the line? Is it good to know the difference between ‘infer’ and ‘imply’? between ‘who’ and ‘whom’? between ‘I have written you about it’ and ‘I have wrote you about it’? Think about that!
What good will it do me in my life in the world to know how to take the first derivative of (sin2x/cos2x) [the 2 should be superscripted!]? Again, where do we draw the line? Is it good to know the difference between 3+3 and 3×3 (or that 3•3 is the same as 3×3)? the difference, in figuring for two loans the percentage of a year’s interest i on a sum s for each, between dividing s by i (s/i) or i by s (i/s)? the difference in price per unit of two different kinds of bananas of the same size if a dozen of one cost $3.24 and half a dozen of the other cost $1.74? Think about that!
I won’t even throw in among my final words – utter anathema in today’s leveling culture [incidentally, is that -ing word a gerund or a present participle?] – that pin-pulled hand grenade of (absit omen!) intellectual snobbery and anti-utilitarian elitism: the sheer pleasure of learning and knowing just for the sheer pleasure of knowing and learning – in hateful spite of their creativity-killing anti-egalitarian preciosity!

Post scriptum:
By the way, for those who never understood the ‘chain rule’, the first derivative is (tan x • tan x).

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11 Responses to On Plurals and Gender and Other Grammatical Aliens

  1. Olen Vierk says:

    First of all I want to say awesome blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your head before writing. I’ve had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints? Many thanks!

  2. Julie Rose says:

    Olen presupposes it is necessary to clear one’s mind before setting pen to paper in order that his thoughts flow freely and encounter no impediment to his writing. On the contrary, I find a cluttered mind a stimulus for writing. One thought leads to another. Sometimes those thoughts are connected, as they should be, and other times they are dissonant but act as prompts for incorporating a related concept into what you are writing – or not. This is especially true of fiction where your virtuous male protagonist suddenly does something completely out of character that you, as the writer, did not plan or intend. He simply jumped onto the page and you must now leave him there and let his behavior dictate what will come next . Writing is, after all, much like taking a trip by train with stops along the way. You may choose to get off, take a side trip, return to the train refreshed, or you may sit on the train and avoid any detours. In the end, the train will reach its destination Julie Rose

  3. Julie Rose says:

    Grammatical Aliens
    Jack’s nemesis is gerunds. Mine is over/more than. I am sick to death of encountering the misuse of “over” – a simple word connoting space or position. For many years I worked for an organization that refused to change the line at the foot of its stationary from “over 100 years ” to “more than 100 years.” No amount of explanation about the difference between space and excess was sufficient to effect change. The writer of Grammatical Aliens and I are both MORE THAN sixty-five years old. We are NOT OVER sixty-five. IF you try to teach anybody that concept I guarantee you will encounter blank stares and resistance. OK, I admit I’m a word snob which leads me to ask if respect for the proper use of one’s language is snobbish. Julie Rose

    • Shawne says:

      I appreciate your snobbery, Julie. We as a culture have simply forgotten how to ‘hear’ the words and how they sound, anymore, I’m convinced. We’ve become quite lazy.
      I bite my tongue more often than not, however, because of those blank stares – or worse!
      This is a terrific blog, Jack! I’m glad to have stumbled upon it.
      Shawne, in Colorado

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