THAT MIGHTY VERB.

I want to recommend Geoff Pullum’s thorough analysis in Language Log of the following cryptic statement from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian: “They are no longer the subject of that mighty verb, only its painful object.” It cost him a great deal of effort even to figure out what the verb was, but it seems that Jenkins was trying to say that the personages under discussion were forced to react to events rather than initiating actions. Grammatical and terminological confusion doesn’t make for clear statements.
And while I’m at it, let me heartily second Mark Liberman’s recommendation that everyone acquire and consult a copy of Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (or its big brother Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage); Mark says “Geoff [Pullum] used blurb-worthy phrases like ‘the best usage book I know of’ and ‘this book … is utterly wonderful’, and I agree with him”—and I agree with them both. (Read Mark’s post for a convincing refutation of the myth that it’s grammatically wrong to say “5 items or less.”)

Comments

  1. I thought I had no difficulty understanding that sentence, but maybe I did; Pullum’s final interpretation differs somewhat from mine. I took it as a pun, meaning that instead of doing things, Bush and Blair are now done. (Technically, the subject of a passive verb is still a subject, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to take it as an object. Indeed, in its definitions of active and passive voices, the OED uses the term “logical object” to describe the subject in the passive voice.)

  2. Note that MWCDEU is more up to date than MWDEU; it also contains some new articles. One is not merely an abridgment of the other.

  3. But a logical object is not an object, merely a logical correlate of it. It’s crucial to understanding of grammar (and what Pullum is constantly trying to bang into heads) that syntactic notions (such as object) are not the same as semantic notions (such as agent and patient), and the relationship between them is variable and grammatical.
    Logical north might be physically south: see The Jargon File. It correlates to north in an intelligible way. So, the subject of a passive correlates intelligibly with the object of an active, and the appropriate semantic notion (patient, or whatever it is) could be described by the term ‘logical object’ to point up this relationship. But in grammatical terms, it is not an object. The terminology doesn’t matter . . . unless you want to use grammatical terminology.

  4. Note that MWCDEU is more up to date than MWDEU…
    Ah, good. For years I’ve admired and used MWDEU (Vespuccian though it be), but wanted an update. I’ll get MWCDEU, now.

  5. I have to say, I agree with Ran. The sentence was bloody obvious–you don’t have to go 9 sentences back for ‘do’, it’s right there in quotes! Jenkins’ last sentence doesn’t quite work for me, but it’s hardly worth spending a whole blog post ranting about its linguistic misunderstanding… Pullum’s “linguification” schtick has been doggone boring right from the start when he was banging on about “I’m so old I can’t even spell fun”, or whatever it was. The man may be an adept linguist, but he has little nobility in his soul.

  6. I’d have to agree with Conrad — I didn’t have any trouble understanding what Jenkins was getting at, awkward as it might have been.
    And, yeah, the “linguification” bit has been rather silly (the only time I’ve not enjoyed Pullum’s posts), though it’s sort of amusing to watch him get very prescriptivist about what “hyperbole” is supposed to mean.
    I wonder if part of the problem might be a sensitivity to misuse of technical language or concepts from your own field, even when you wouldn’t object to the same phenomenon in other fields. I know that I, as an astronomer, tend to twitch involuntarily whenever I see terms like “light year” or “intergalactic” misused; so if someone told a joke that happened to (mis)use those words, my pedantic reaction would interfere with my enjoyment of the joke.

  7. I second what has been said above. It was painfully obvious what Jenkins meant.
    It’s not a question now what these guys can do — they’ve been done! It’s actually not a bad way of putting it at all.

  8. I was going to ask if the two books are the same length. One is hardback and the other paperback, and the title differs. When I look at amazon.co.uk, I find a paperback of the 1995 one appears (I prefer paperback). But I see the concise one is there too, and both have 800 pages. So I will go for the concise in paperback too. Thanks for the information.

  9. John Atkinson says:

    While the passive voice is probably more common when you’re the recipient of a doing over, it’s not that uncommon for the verb to be active, so the object is of the grammatical variety as well as the logical variety. As in this (from an Australian site):
    “As for this specific FTA, the US negotiators did us like a dinner”
    Which expresses his point more crisply than the corresponding passive, “We got done like a dinner by the US negotiators”, I reckon.

  10. Mark Clarry says:

    What Conrad and John Atkinson said.
    Some very good writers use “linguification”. So it’s not Geoff’s cup of tea, but the conniptions it seems to evoke escape me.

  11. Yes, I find it hard myself to understand Geoff’s obsession with “linguification”; as far as I can tell, he’s the only person in the entire universe to be bothered by it. It really reminds me of the grammar mavens griping about split infinitives or whatever because of alleged impediments to understanding.

  12. That’s partly why I found his attempts to correct all those people (“millions”) who wrote in suggesting it was “hyperbole” to be amusing. “I don’t care how many people are actually using ‘hyperbole’ to mean X as well as Y, it only means Y, dammit.” Sounded suspiciously like a grammar maven.

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