Grammatically Speaking, March 2008

Dear Richard,

I can't figure out whether I should say for we teachers or for us teachers. My inclination is that us is the correct form of that pronoun to use, but we doesn't sound bad to me. Can you please explain which is right and why?

Thanks in advance for your help.

Ackmal Yusof

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Dear Ackmal,

Your inclination is correct. After a preposition, we need to use the object form of a pronoun, so we need to say for us. The reason you might have been thrown is that this is being followed by an appositive, teachers, which refers to the pronoun. If that phrase is the subject of a sentence, you'll use we: We teachers need to express our concerns to the administrators. But your phrase is not the subject; rather, it's the object of the preposition, so for us teachers is the way to go.

This is a case of what we call hypercorrection. Another classic example is when you hear somebody say something like He did this for you and I. It should be for you and me. Once again, if that phrase were the subject, then I would be correct: You and I should thank him for doing us that favor. But it's not the subject in my first sentence, so it needs to be the object of the preposition for.

I hope that clears this up, Ackmal.

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Dear Richard,

I was talking to an old friend, a guy who shares my love of movies. We were reminiscing about some of our favorites, and Star Wars came up, of course. I jokingly blurted out, "May the Force be with you!" and then it suddenly hit me, "What’s may doing there?" I teach ELL students, so I'm always aware of language— it's an occupational hazard, I guess. Anyway, when I cover the modal auxiliaries, I teach my students that may means possibility or permission. So how do I explain its use in that sentence about the Force? I know what it means, but how should I explain it?

May you find a way to help me out!

Movie Fan

Fort Worth, Texas  USA

I’ll do my best, Movie Fan!

May is used in a very formal way to wish something, and it goes way, way back to a commonly used form in Anglo-Saxon. Today it's reserved for situations in which great formality is desired, for example, in religious ceremonies and the like. Some grammarians consider it a form of the subjunctive mood when used this way. A "ghostly" form of it actually exists in quite a few ellipted sentences such as God bless you (May God bless you) and Heaven forbid! (May Heaven forbid!). Just imagine if that character in Star Wars had said, "I hope the Force will be with you" instead of "May the Force be with you." It wouldn't have the same solemnity or power, would it?

If it comes up in class, just explain to your students that it's used in this very formal way to wish for something, and provide a few examples. That should do it. And thanks for the question.

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Dear Mr. Firsten,

I am very confused about the use of the possessive form -'s in English. I've seen many examples of its use that don't seem to go with the rules I learned years ago. I'll be writing to you again about this topic, if it's all right. Right now I've got a question about which of these two sentences is correct:

Those are John and Jane's children.
Those are John's and Jane's children.

Respectfully,

Mounir Bouchta

Fez, Morocco

I look forward to hearing from you again, Mr. Bouchta. I have a hunch I know what kinds of uses you're going to bring up when you write in again. As for the two sentences you've offered here, I have to tell you that both of them are correct, but with different meanings.

If two parties have something jointly, we only need to attach the –s genitive to the second person, so the first sentence means that all of those children belong to both John and Jane together. If the two parties have something separately, we need to attach the –s genitive to each person, so the second sentence means that some of those children belong only to John and some of them belong only to Jane. It's really that straightforward.

Thanks for writing, Mr. Bouchta, and send me your other concerns whenever you're ready.

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Dear Grammar Guru,

My colleagues and I keep going around and around in circles over one issue of grammar: to split or not to split an infinitive. It's amazing how heated our discussions on this topic can get! Those of us who teach writing tend to say it's a no-no more than others do, but we just can't come to any consensus on this. Can you enlighten us about it?

Thanks!

Kayla Frankel

El Segundo, California  USA

Dear Kayla,

Well, I wouldn't consider myself any kind of "guru," but thanks all the same!

Wow, have you sent in a doozey of a question! Your group of teachers isn't alone in debating this point, but grammarians have actually come to a consensus on the subject.

Actually, split infinitives can be found in writing as far back as the 14th century, so they're nothing new by any means. Sometime in the 19th century, language scholars picked up on some rules laid down by English Bishop Robert Lowth in the 18th century. For some reason, Bishop Lowth had an extraordinary influence on the language used at St. James's Court, so whatever he said became the accepted rule. Those 19th-century language scholars liked the way Lowth used Latin grammar as "the most perfect example of human speech" and the one that English grammar should emulate. Because an infinitive verb in Latin is one word, he decided that we should treat the English infinitive verb as one word, too, even though we use two words to form an infinitive. That meant, of course, that we should never split an infinitive, and so that's what was taught.

Well, English is not Latin, and English speakers have been splitting infinitives all along, no matter what was taught in school. Arbitrary and biased "rules" never really win out, and this is a very good case in point. The long and short of it is that there's nothing inherently wrong with a split infinitive. In fact, there are many times when it's much more efficient to have one than not to have one, especially if the word inserted between to and the verb is an adverb.

So please tell those teachers who say a split infinitive is a no-no that they aren't going to win out. Split infinitives are here to stay, and I'm glad you've given me the chance to thoroughly explain this!

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Dear Mr. Firsten,

Perhaps you can answer a problem that's been bothering me. The general rule in English is that all clauses need a subject and a verb, including nonreduced dependent clauses. However, the subordinator as can take a verb without any apparent subject. Examples include as is well known, as can be seen in this picture, and more intriguingly, as befits a person of his stature or as behooves us in such a situation.

In the first two, there is a passive construction, but not in the second two. Indeed, in the second two, adding a subject would seem to be marked. I surmise that this is a surviving construction from older English, given that words like befits and behooves work better than other verbs. Any light you could shine on this would be most welcome.

Many thanks,

T. Leo Schmitt

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

Dear Mr. Schmitt,

There are a number of verb phrases that grammarians view in two ways. In one, as takes the place of the subject it. In the other, the phrases are considered examples of ellipsis, with it being eliminated. They can be in either the active or passive voice. You've cited some good examples, by the way. Another common example is as follows.

I'm afraid I can't shed much light on this subject. I can only mention what grammarians have observed and what seems to be going on in those phrases. Thank you for a very interesting observation!

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Brain Teaser

Here’s the Brain Teaser from my December 2007 column: Is it right or wrong in the following conversation? If the word is right, why? If the word is wrong, why?

A: I hear that global warming may cause more volcanic eruptions in the future.
B: Really? It’s interesting—and frightening!

The first correct response was sent in by Ines Mevs of Broward County, FL:

In response to your latest "Brain Teaser," I think that . . . if I were responding to person A's statement, I would have used that to refer to the part of A's statement about volcanic eruptions in the future.

That's right, Ines. We use that when referring to what the other person has just said. It falls under deixis, which deals with a speaker's perception of how “close” or “far” from something he or she is. Since the other person made that comment (Notice I just said “that comment”?), the speaker uses that as the referent, not it. Well done, Ines!

And now for a new Brain Teaser:

Should we use is or are in the following sentence, and why?

Either greenhouse gases or the destruction of the forests is/are going to be curtailed soon.

Please e-mail your responses to grammspeaking@aol.com, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten

c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center

750 NW 20th Street, Miami, FL 33127  USA

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