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“All grammars leak”: How modern use and misuse are changing the English language

Anthropologist Edward Sapir once wrote, ‘unfortunately, or luckily, no language is tyrannically consistent. All grammars leak.’ Sapir was talking about the irregularities of language. For me, this leakiness is especially evident in what I think of as doppelgrammar words.

Many of our most common words have come to serve more than a single grammatical role, so a word serving one part of speech will often have a homonym—a grammatical doppelganger—that serves as a different part of speech. Often this arises from what is called functional shift, when we take a noun and make it into a verb as in ‘to adult’ or ‘to gym.’ This shiftiness makes it hard, and perhaps impossible, to think of a word as having just one categorization.

Here’s an example. Recently, a friend told me that her daughter’s teacher had told her to never use the word ‘that’. She wondered if the advice was legit.

It depends, I said, which ‘that’ we are talking about. This humble four-letter word can serve as a pronoun, adjective, conjunction or even an adverb. When we say ‘hand me that,’ the word is functioning as a demonstrative pronoun, referring to something oriented away from the speaker (as opposed to ‘this’). But if we say, ‘hand me that book,’ it is functioning as an adjective, though again indicating orientation. If we say ‘have you seen the person that was just here,’ the word is a pronoun again, a relative pronoun linking the noun ‘person’ to the clause ‘that was just here.’ Whew.

‘That’ can also be a straight up subordinating conjunction introducing a clause functioning as a noun: ‘I told you that I would be right back.’ This ‘that’ is the one that writers often cut to make prose move along more quickly: ‘I told you I would be right back’ is often preferred on grounds of conciseness. This is what my friends’ daughter’s teacher was talking about. And, last but not least, ‘that’ can even be an intensifying adverb, as in ‘yes, it is that complicated.’

Now, we might quibble about these characterizations—perhaps the adjective ‘that’ and the demonstrative pronoun ‘that’ are related, ‘hand me that’ being a reduced form of ‘hand me that book.’ But the larger point is pretty clear: our simplest words serve more than a single function. Grammar leaks, and words have doppelgangers.

Magnetic Fridge Poetry by Steve Johnson CC by 2.0 via Flickr
Magnetic Fridge Poetry by Steve Johnson. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

‘That’ is not the only word that does double (or triple or quadruple) duty. The words ‘have,’ ‘be,’ and ‘do,’ for example can be auxiliary verbs (you may know these as ‘helping’ verbs because they ‘help the main verb’) or the main verbs themselves. In ‘I have just arrived,’ the word ‘have’ helps the main verb (arrived), but in ‘I have a question,’ it is the main verb.

Sometimes words are so common and we don’t even think to question their status. Take the word ‘up.’ It’s a preposition, right? ‘I walked up the block for a cup of coffee.’ But ‘up’ can also be an adverb as in ‘he jumped up.’ Or it can be part of a compound verb ‘we fixed up the house’ or ‘she wrote up the report.’ ‘Up’ can even be used as an adjective or verb: ‘it was an up day for the markets or ‘the university has upped tuition again.’ The stereotypical characterization of ‘up’ as a preposition doesn’t do justice to its flexibility.

The flexibility and homonymy of English words is pervasive: words like ‘yesterday,’ ‘today,’ and ‘tomorrow’ can be nouns or adverbs. Compare ‘tomorrow is another day’ with ‘I’ll finish the work tomorrow.’ The word ‘who’ can be an interrogative pronoun (who left?) or a relative one (I saw the person who you mentioned). ‘Before’ and ‘after’ can be prepositions or subordinating conjunctions: ‘I left after class’ or ‘I left after I saw them.’ ‘Well’ can be an interjection or an adverb, as in ‘well, I never would have believed that!’ and ‘the old car runs well.’  And of course, ‘you’ and ‘they’ can be singular or plural pronouns.

So if you expect a word to have a unique meaning or function, you are likely to be disappointed. Words are pressed into service for new functions all the time and the list of such grammatical doubles goes on and on.

Sometimes, though, the status of a word becomes a matter of minor controversy. A librarian I know was called out on social media for using fun as an adjective (a fun event). ‘As a librarian, you should know better,’ her on-line scolder remarked. Well, ‘fun’ has been an adjective for quite some time. Others get annoyed about the shift of a ‘super’ from adjective status to intensifying adverb (as in ‘she was super smart’).

And a few years ago, the media was abuzz with concerns about the word ‘because’ being used as a preposition (as in ‘because reasons’ or ‘because science’) rather than sticking to its more traditional role as a subordinating conjunction (because language changes). People who thought the usage was an abomination when they first heard it were using it regularly within a few weeks, at first ironically and then routinely. And Oxford Dictionaries lists these uses of ‘because,’ ‘super,’ and ‘fun,’ tagging them—for now—as informal.

So before we get too judgmental about nouns being used as verbs, or adjectives being used as nouns or as adverbs, let’s take a moment to appreciate the flexibility of the parts of speech. As Edward Sapir put it, the multiplicity of ways in which we express ourselves may be a ‘welcome luxuriance’ or ‘an unavoidable and traditional predicament.’ Which it is may depend on our temperament.

Featured image credit: “Bookshelves” by Alexandre Duret-Lutz. CC BY SA-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Eric John Large

    Thank you Edwin L Battistella for your instruction!

  2. j robinson

    Some teachers in notes for parents are using “teach” as a noun, i.e. “your next teach”, meaning session of teaching or helping your child. And my bete-noire is using “it looks like” in place of “it looks as if”, although I expect I am sometimes guilty of this myself in some instances, e.g.. “it looks like rain”. And we are all creatures of habit, good and bad, and happy to feel superior to our fellows as English usage is so flexible.

  3. Bas Aarts

    Edwin, surely you don’t really want to say that ‘that’ is an adjective in ‘Hand me that book’, or even that it ‘functions as an adjective’? This analysis goes back to Curme, among others, but there are no modern grammar books that adopt it, for very good syntactic as well as semantic reasons.

  4. dm10003

    Children set the stage for “Because reasons” probably millennia ago in every language when they asked “Because why?” when tired parents anwered them with “Because”.

  5. Mykeljon

    I was disappointed to see common errors in your examples. “Have you seen the person that was just here.” If you are referring to people, you should use “who.” “I saw the person who you mentioned.” Who should be “whom.”

  6. Jo

    Nope mykeljon if you consult the sticklers (say Fowler) you will find that “that” is used for restrictive clauses, “which” or “who” for non-restrictive.

  7. Sergio Sánchez Padilla

    Thank you for such lovely reflection. I would just like to mention that even though the personification metaphor “Words are pressed into service for new functions” is very nice and thought-provoking, I think that the metonymic system is the one that brings about all these novel uses. Furthermore, metonymies understood as neural access nodes is the driving-system operating behind all this flexibility and versatility of language. I hope to read more from you soon.

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