Funny thing about Infinitives

rogersgeorge on October 13th, 2016

Did you know that infinitives can have a subject? Normally we think of the infinitive form of a verb as the form we use when we refer to the verb itself; it’s the citation form. We use it to mean the verb itself without anyone doing anything about it. Think of Shakespeare’s famous line in Hamlet:

To be or not to be, that is the question.

In fact, this construction treats the verb itself as a noun.

But that’s not the funny thing I’m thinking of regarding infinitives. The funny thing is (1) that infinitives can have a subject, just like a regular verb and (2) the subject is not in the nominative case!  Sometimes the subject is in the possessive. In Tennyson, for example:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:

Usually the subject is in the objective case:

He helped me to fix the car
I want him to get the prize

Which leads me to the Pickles comic that encouraged me to think about all this. (She gets it wrong, by the way—should be “whom.”)


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Haven’t Seen this Mistake for a While

rogersgeorge on September 17th, 2016

Back in the days of yore, when cigarette companies were allowed to advertise in magazines, an ad created a big row by having the headline “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch.”

I think every English teacher in the country was up in arms for their usage of the objective case (us) for the subject of a sentence. I recall at the time that saying things like “Us kids all hate English” sounded fairly normal, though I understood the distinction. I think the English teachers won that battle, because I haven’t heard or seen that construction for a long time. Then this appeared:

Us humans are pretty good at making our presence felt wherever we live out our resource-intensive lives.

It’s in an article about the Pacific Northwest in New Atlas. Take out the word “humans” and the mistake becomes immediately obvious.

Now a test: is this sentence correct?

Most of us humans are pretty good at making our presence felt wherever we live out our resource-intensive lives.

If you said it’s correct, good for you! The subject of the sentence is “Most,” and “us humans” is the object of “of,” so now the objective case is appropriate.

I hope the writer was just trying to be old-fashioned.



An Interesting Comment

rogersgeorge on May 21st, 2016

I hardly ever get comments to this blog, but I posted a link to one of my posts on Google+ the other day, and a friend made a comment that’s not only worth repeating, but it deserves a post! Go follow the link if you want to see the cause for the comment. Here’s his comment:

I think I get it right most of the time…but still have a hard time saying, “Whom do you think you are!?”….the other thing you taught me and I keep forgetting is where the quote marks go in a sentence…not sure I got it right above…

Lorin Walker (a former boss, by the way, and still a friend) says he has trouble saying “whom do you think you are?” Well, he should have trouble saying that, but not for the reason he thinks! We usually put the subject first in English, and the nominative (subject) form of the word is indeed “who.” So we’re used to putting “who” at the beginning of a sentence.

With questions, however, the subject generally doesn’t come first, the object does, and that’s where “whom” comes in. So you generally start a question with “whom.” Except for one thing: the type of verb.

Remember predicate nominatives? They look like direct objects, except they go with linking verbs (mainly some form of “to be” but also other verbs that are equivalent to an equals sign, such as seem and appear.) So in Lorin’s example sentence, the first word goes with (is the predicate nominative of) the last word, “are”! He could say “Who do you thing you are?” with impunity, and be so correct that he’d fool a lot of amateur grammar nazis.

PS: I just now saw a headline, in the Los Angeles Times, no less:

Who does your member of Congress support for president?
A sure sign that “who” is going to be considered always correct at the beginning of a sentence. Too bad, because sometimes (such as in this headline) it’s not. You can figure out why, can’t you?
PPS: Lorin got his quote marks in the right place. End punctuation goes inside if it’s part of the quote, and outside if it’s not. Except in American English, where commas and periods always go inside.

A Mistake that Bears Repeating

rogersgeorge on January 1st, 2016

That is, I should repeat mentioning it so you won’t do it! I’m pretty sure nobody memorizes my little grammar lessons, and besides, repetition is the mother of learning, right?

Anyway, in English, we use the objective case for words that are objects of prepositions and direct objects. That means me instead of I, them instead of they. Other languages, that have more cases, can use any of several other cases with prepositions. We say their prepositions take the accusative, or the dative, or the genitive. But nobody uses the nominative with prepositions. Nominative is reserved for the subjects of sentences.

English speakers tend to get confused when their prepositions and  verbs have a compound object. I think this error descends from a common correction in sixth grade English class that I won’t get into right now. So we say, the prize goes to Bill and Bob, or Tom whipped Bill and Bob, which are correct. (Nouns in English don’t show case except for the possessive.) But when we use pronouns (which do show case), lots of folks revert to the nominative, and they say it the way the third cell in this comic says it. I’m pretty sure Scott Meyer knows the correct way to use a compound direct object, but he drew his character as someone who doesn’t. Thank you, Scott, for giving me a good example of what not to say!

Basic Instructions

I don’t think it’s correct for a kid to whip his parents, but if Dad is describing it, he should say, “his mother and me.”

When not to use whom

rogersgeorge on January 6th, 2014

Most of the time when you run into a lesson about who and whom, it’s about using whom when you want to use who. I’ve even posted about it. (Search the site for “whom” for a few other examples.) Usually these articles compare the subject (who) with the direct object or object of a preposition (whom).

There’s another time to use “who,” but first a little background. In Indo-European and Semitic languages at least, the verb “to be” and its various forms and equivalents (seem, appear)  are somewhat special. “To be” etc. is equivalent to an equals sign , and the name for this kind of verb is a copulative. Your grade school teacher probably called them linking verbs. Copulatives couple things together. That means that a noun at the end of a sentence that uses a copulative isn’t a direct object. It’s a predicate nominative.

For example:

Tom is a dentist. Tom and Dave are dentists. They are good dentists, and they are also my cousins.

If we use and equals sign in place of the verb, the meaning is the same:

Tom = dentist; Tom and Dave = dentists.

Predicate nominatives have the same case as the subject, even though they might be where you expect a direct object. It’s the verb’s fault. Copulatives take the nominative, we say. (“We” being linguists, grammarians, and now you, I hope.) So this guy approaches the pearly gates, and St. Peter asks who it is. “It is I,” says the man. Peter mutters to himself, “Ah, an English teacher.”

So be alert! Use “who” with linking verbs. Here’s an example of a professional writer (and his editor, apparently) in a Live Science article who wasn’t paying attention:

There’s no telling whom the original owner of the teeth and finger was, but the cave where they were discovered was both a hermitage, or dwelling place, and the site of a grisly medieval massacre. [8 Disturbing Archaeological Discoveries]

That “whom” really grates. It’s not only at the beginning, where you expect nominatives, but it’s with a linking verb, which takes the nominative.

So there you have it. Two times to use who, not whom. As subjects and with linking verbs.