Grammatically Speaking, Spring 2004

by Richard Firsten
Posted December 4, 2003.


Dear Richard,

I've been tutoring a student from Turkey. During one of our private classes, he said, "My family are coming for a visit next month." I told him he should say, "My family is coming." He looked very surprised and insisted that he had learned to say are with family when he started learning English back in Izmir. I felt pretty insecure at that moment and didn't know how to respond because he's very intelligent, and I don't think he was confused--or was he? Is it actually okay to say My family are...?

Neil Cranmer
Los Angeles, CA USA

Dear Neil,

Although it may seem surprising, your student is right, but I should note right away that he's right more for British English than for American. There are some nouns, especially in British English, that can take a third-person singular or plural verb; family is one example. A speaker focusing on family as a whole unit can say my family is, but a speaker focusing on all the individuals that make up the group would say the family are. Some other nouns that are typically used in this way in British English are audience, committee, government, and jury.

American English has something like this. For example, an American might say, "We sent the company what it had asked for" or "We sent the company what they had asked for," and listeners wouldn't blink at hearing either pronoun.

Thanks for your question, Neil. Now, you don't need to feel insecure over this!


Dear Richard,

I have to admit that there are times when I get so frustrated by not having answers for my students right at hand that I could scream. (You'll note my level of angst!)

I teach an advanced grammar class at a university. Recently, a student raised her hand and asked me a question that left me quite perplexed: "Can you explain this sentence to me?We were sent the report. I don't understand this. Does it mean that the report sent those people somewhere? That sounds crazy to me!"

I just stared blankly and said I'd get back to her. What on earth is going on in the language here?

Thanks for your help!

Angst-Ridden
Amherst, MA USA

Dear Angst-Ridden,

Don't reach for the Prozac yet! In my teacher reference, The ELT Grammar Book (Firsten, 2002), I devote a whole section in the chapter on the passive voice to this kind of sentence, which tends to drive students and teachers batty.

There's a group of verbs called ditransitives. They're verbs that take both a direct and an indirect object, and send is one of them. Let's look at the basic active sentence that your student's example came from:

(Somebody) sent the report to us.
S V DO IO

When you use a ditransitive verb, you can actually form two passive-voice sentences based on the active sentence it's in, one concentrating on the direct object (DO) (The report was sent to us), and the other dealing with the indirect object (IO) (We were sent the report).

Other ditransitive verbs are award, buy, give, and read. There aren't too many verbs in this group, but they tend to be quite common ones.

I hope this will take away your angst, Angst-Ridden!


Dear Richard,

I know that sometimes we ESOL instructors teach one thing in class and then hear the opposite out there in the real world. A case in point is the reflexive pronouns. Can some of them be used in place of other types of pronouns? For example, is it correct to say, "The only people who saw the accident were Bill and myself"?

I hear things like this all the time, and I'm now getting confused about what's right and what isn't. Please help me out on this point of grammar.

By the way, I love your column. Keep up the good work!

June Landsman
Detroit, MI USA

Dear June,

Thanks for the compliment on my column! Now, as to your question: It's a tough one. I say so because I'm a firm believer that when a majority of educated native speakers consistently say something in a certain way, that way should be accepted as an alternative way of saying it.

At the moment, I won't tell you that using the reflexive pronoun in the example you cited is correct; it should be, "The only people who saw the accident were Bill and I/me." I'm quite aware, however, that many native speakers would opt for saying myself instead. This phenomenon has been around for a long time and deals exclusively with the first-person singular and second-person singular and plural:

A: How are you doing?
B: I'm hanging in there. How about yourself?
A: How are you doing?
B: Yeah, how's everything?
C: I'm hanging in there. How about yourselves?

So, June, I would still teach reflexive pronouns in the traditional way, explaining that they always refer back to the subject:

And even though it's still not considered proper to use myself, yourself, and yourselves as the subject of a sentence, who knows what will happen in the future?

That was a great question, June. Thanks for sending it in!


Brain Teaser

The Brain Teaser from the previous column (in TESOL Matters, Autumn 2003) was: What's the difference in meaning between these two sentences? (Capitalized words receive main stress.)

I saw a CAT FISH.
I saw a CAT fish.

And can you explain why they're different?

The answer:

There were quite a number of correct responses, but the first one that came in was from Adrianne Ochoa of Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States. Here's what Adrianne had to say:

The difference between the two sentences has to do with word stress. In the first sentence, I saw a CAT FISH, both cat and fish are stressed because cat is a noun andfish is a verb in this case, and nouns and verbs are both content words that normally receive stress in a phrase. It means that the cat was fishing, whereas the second sentence, I saw a CATfish, means that the person saw a particular kind of fish (a catfish). In this sentence, fish is not stressed because it's part of a compound noun, and only the first element in a compound noun is usually stressed.

You did a wonderful job, Adrianne. Thanks for the response!

And here's a new Brain Teaser: What's the difference, if any, among the following phrases: made of, made from, and made with?

Please e-mail grammar questions or Brain Teaser answers to grammspeaking@aol.com, or send them to

Richard Firsten
Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center
750 NW 20th Street
Miami, Florida 33127 USA


Reference

Firsten, R., with Killian, P. (2002). The ELT grammar book: A teacher-friendly reference guide. Burlingame, CA: Alta Book Center.