Grammatically Speaking, September 2006

Dear Richard,

I haven't been teaching EFL long, and I'm a little embarrassed to ask other teachers when I don't quite understand how to answer a grammar question that a student may ask me. Frankly, I never realized how tough a job it can be to teach English! Anyway, here's where I need some help:

A high-beginning student told me that he'd seen a book with photos of the American Old West. He's fascinated with cowboys, Indians, and that era of U.S. history. He came across a photo that showed a poster with a picture of a desperado's face on it and the words "Wanted for Bank Robbery" above the picture. He didn't understand why they had put the word wanted in the past tense and with no subject. He was totally confused, and so was I. I really didn't know how to explain wanted in that context. Can you help me out here? Thank you!

Name Withheld

Dear EFL Teacher,

I'm sure many readers can sympathize with your plight. I'm also sure many readers appreciate the fact that you realize how tough English language teaching can be!

The first thing to deal with is the fact that wanted is not the past tense in this case; it's a past participle. Why is it a past participle? Because what's on the poster is a reduced form of the passive voice, the verb form that shows us when the subject of a sentence is not doing the action, but receiving it. It's not that the desperado wanted anything; it's that the authorities wanted him.

Since that desperado (outlaw) was the subject of the poster, the authorities used the passive voice in the heading. What they were really saying was, "The outlaw in the picture below is wanted (by the authorities) for bank robbery," ergo, "Wanted for Bank Robbery."

In case your knowledge of the passive voice is lacking, I'm sure you'll find lots of information on forming and using it in various reference books and textbooks. Thanks for a not-so-embarrassing question. And please feel free to write in again anytime.

Dear Mr. Firsten:

I hope you can help settle a dispute I'm having with a colleague. She insists that one should write, "The person to whom I introduced you is an adjunct instructor" and never "The person I introduced you to is an adjunct instructor." I told her I thought that was nonsense, that there's nothing wrong with writing the latter. She claims that in formal writing, ending a clause with a preposition is verboten, but I think that's extremely old fashioned or narrow minded. What do you say?

Jo-Lynn Gilmour
Durham, NC USA

Dear Ms. Gilmour:

I'm afraid that there isn't one easy take on this issue, so all I can do is give you an answer with which I think many English teachers would agree--or that I think many English teachers would agree with.

I remember my junior high school English teacher insisting, just as your colleague does, that my classmates and I stop using postposed prepositions. My teacher, however, insisted that we not use postposed prepositions under any circumstances. I think that was a bit too reactionary on her part. It seems that just about all educated native speakers recognize a spoken or written clause without a postposed preposition (the person to whom I introduced you) as being very formal. Most people say they would not speak that way; they're much more comfortable with a postposed preposition (the person I introduced you to). Finally, most people say that even in writing, they prefer to reflect the spoken language and use postposed prepositions.

Is there a sound reason for this? Yes, there is. It's much more in keeping with how Germanic languages work, and English is a member of the Germanic language family, along with High and Low German, the Scandinavian languages, Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, and others. And, interestingly enough, the battle over whether to use postposed prepositions started in earnest in the eighteenth century with one man, Bishop Robert Lowth of the United Kingdom. It seems that Bishop Lowth had gained a great deal of influence and cultural power at court and in academia. His grammar book, one of the first of its kind, became a bestseller. Unlike the current tendency to view grammar as descriptive, the bishop was prescriptive, that is, he told you what you should say and how you should say it. He also had a love affair with Latin grammar, and did his best to force English grammar into Latin structures--which is totally bizarre. Since Latin never ends a clause with a preposition, Lowth figured English shouldn't either. So there you have it. It's fascinating how this man influenced the way English has been taught for so long.

It's perfectly fine to use postposed prepositions, Ms. Gilmour. If you're more comfortable with using them in formal writing, do so. If you prefer avoiding them in formal writing, do so. I hope this has helped, and thank you for sending in a really interesting question.

Hey, Richard!

I was having dinner with a friend the other night, and your name came up in relation to a question we were puzzled about. I said I'd write and ask.

My friend asked about the expression All he did was talk (or eat, sleep, complain, work, study). What is talk in that sentence? What is this construction? I know it's grammatically correct, but if a student asked me, all I'd be able to say is that it is an expression. (Is it idiomatic, or is there some other explanation for it?)

Rick Kappra
San Francisco, CA USA

Hi, Rick!

Good to hear from you. As to your question, in that sentence, talk is called the bare infinitive or to-less infinitive. It's not idiomatic, just a reduced form--of which there are many in English. It would be equally fine to say All he did was to talk. I hope that answers your question, Rick.

Brain Teaser

Here's the Brain Teaser from my June 2006 column:

In sentences like He had his house painted and She got the appointment changed, what do you call the verbs have and get? What do they mean, and do they mean the same thing?

The first acceptable answer was sent in by Katsuya Yokomoto of Kawasaki, Japan:

I believe in the sentences He had his house painted and She got the appointment changed, both have and get are called causative verbs. However, they seem to be a bit different in meaning. The causative verb get seems relatively unclear in terms of who changed the appointment (she or someone else) and there may have been some difficulty in changing the appointment. On the other hand, have seems to indicate that the agent of to paint is not he. This distinction may be clear in a sentence like My wife had/got her purse stolen.

You've made some very good points, Katsuya. To begin with, you've correctly identified the names for these verbs in this context. When you have something done, you're not the one doing it. When you get something done, unless there's more context, the sentence can be ambiguous. What is known is that the task probably involved some level of difficulty.

You raise another interesting point in your final example, which brings out a completely different meaning of the use of have or get. Although this may not be the way everyone perceives it, many people would say that the sentence implies the speaker's wife had been careless about where she put her purse and therefore should take some responsibility for what happened to it. It certainly communicates something different from simply saying My wife's purse was stolen.

Before leaving this topic, let's take a quick look at the grammatical constructions:

subject + have/get + direct object + past participle of verb (a reduced passive voice since the direct object receives the action)
He had/got his house painted.

subject + have + direct object + bare infinitive verb (active voice since the direct object does the action)
He had the painter touch up some spots.

subject + get + direct object + infinitive verb (active voice since the direct object does the action)
He got the painter to touch up some spots.

Thank you for a very insightful response, Katsuya!

And now for a new Brain Teaser:

Look at these two sentences:

They like each other.
They like one another.

Do they mean the same thing or different things? Can you use them interchangeably?

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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