Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Puzzling prepositions? Why grammarians should stop being contrary.

No, there's nothing puzzling about the preposition. The OED and all other English dictionaries are very clear on what a preposition is. It's just that sometimes, some grammarians think they need to spice up grammar a bit and that's when they do funny things.

Let's look at these sentences:

1. He came after breakfast.
2. He left before I had drunk my coffee.
3. What did you do it for?
4. He felt bad, for he knew he was wrong.

Any person who is not an illiterate fool must know that there are only two prepositions in the four sentences.

The English language would be as simple as ABC if not for a group of upstart grammarians who have come up with newfangled ideas to challenge traditional grammar. The wise thing to do is to just dismiss what they say summarily but one of them happens to be Geoffrey Pullum, a distinguished linguist who writes books such as The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. But I'm pleased to note that the Cambridge Dictionary itself defines a 'preposition' no differently from ALL other English language dictionaries in Britain and other English-speaking countries. And fortunately for those of us who don't fancy re-learning something as elementary as the parts of speech, I have looked up many grammars and so far, apart from Geoffrey Pullum, I believe Bas Aarts is the only other living linguist who accepts this newfangled classification.

First, their idea is not all that new. Otto Jespersen was the first grammarian to come up with this once-a-preposition-always-a-preposition idea. I first read about Otto Jespersen when I was compelled as a boy to read the tracts of the Society for Pure English. As I recall it, he and Henry Fowler battled fiercely over possessives. You would have thought there wouldn't be much to do battle over a subject as boring as the possessive but these two fought with scimitars and deadly daggers. Although I was less capable of impartiality as a boy and I was decidedly on the side of Fowler since I knew him better after having read his King's English and Modern English Usage, I somehow had this niggling feeling that Jespersen was right, at least in that particular debate.

But that debate was one that was fought over the substantive question of which grammatical construction was correct. It was an important grammatical point. To this day, books on usage and grammar make reference to the debate.

What this group of renegade grammarians are doing is quite unnecessary. They are quibbling over the classification of words. Even if their quibbling is justified (which it is not), is it really necessary to rock the boat when the whole English-speaking world including all English dictionaries does not agree with them?

Earlier this year, the schools minister in the UK was asked on the BBC the same kind of question I asked above and he made a mistake which was lampooned by all the newspapers. But of course to this dissenting group of grammarians, the minister was perfectly correct. What I'm happy to see is the sanity of the UK education system. The national curriculum follows the standard English of CGEL (by Quirk et al) and that is undoubtedly the most reliable standard to follow. Any attempt to revolutionise grammar that flies in the face of the OED should be firmly rejected. You can't go wrong as long as your definitions are consistent with those of the OED and if I may add, all other dictionaries on the planet.

You might say that since this view goes against the OED definition of a preposition, we should simply dismiss it as wrong and that's the end of it. But what makes some people come up with revolutionary ideas that aren't useful but will only turn a working framework upside down? What reasons can they have for suggesting a change? Do the proponents of this flawed and erroneous classification have a good reason for coming up with it in the first place?

Pullum mentions that the traditional classification is 'inelegant' but that's subjective. I can't see anything more elegant or more logical than the traditional classification. Surely, when you want to destroy the entire foundation of English grammar, you've got to do better than to say the traditional model is 'inelegant'?

In my search for their rationale, I have only discovered ONE argument which may appear compelling if you don't think it through. I will show why it's a weak argument that means absolutely nothing.

Here's my paraphrase of Pullum's argument:
'Right' as a modern modifier of prepositions cannot be used to modify adverbs. If a word can be modified by it, that word must be a preposition. 
After having read what Pullum wrote I thought he made sense. But I'm happy to say that I still have my grey cells intact, for it took me no more than 2 minutes to see the flaw of that argument. You see, his 'modifier of prepositions' as he cleverly terms it can modify the adverb 'there' quite well. And what he calls a 'modifier of prepositions' is nothing more than another adverb. I've discovered since that Pullum classifies 'there' as a preposition too!

As you can see, the only argument is in fact a circuitous one. Proponents of this view begin by saying that X is a preposition because Y modifies it and when you tell them that Y also modifies Z which is an adverb, they simply reply that they have now re-classified Z as a preposition.

There's one other argument they have which is really a non-starter and it's not worth mentioning here but I will do so. They seem to suggest that the same word can't be a preposition here and an adverb there. But of course it can. I don't know how far they are prepared to go. Will nouns that have undergone the process of verbing be re-classified as nouns with the ability to function as verbs and not as verbs? Or do they restrict their re-classification only to prepositions and if that is so, why the restriction? Is 'for' in sentence 4 above a preposition to them? Pullum says the current traditional classification is inelegant. On the contrary, what he is suggesting is not only inelegant and illogical but also impracticable. I have not read their definition of a preposition. How, I wonder, will they define it? When you call a word a preposition when it doesn't function at all like a preposition, your definition of a preposition is sure to be convoluted, ugly, forced and contrived.

Let me get one important point clear. All they are suggesting is to redefine a 'preposition'. The actual use of English whether formally or informally will not be affected in any way at all. But books on grammar and usage will have to be amended substantially and so will all dictionaries. Schoolchildren will have to re-learn their grammar and language teachers will have to re-classify words.

But what is the purpose of all this? Why would anyone change the classification of words when the traditional system works beautifully and is a lot easier for schoolchildren to learn and understand? It's bad enough that grammarians can't even agree on the terms that they use. Let's take the simple example of the preposition. Complex prepositions can also be called compound prepositions but those who call them 'complex prepositions' probably reserve 'compound prepositions' for yet a different category of prepositions. And some simply refer to complex prepositions as 'prepositional phrases', a term which is uncomfortably wide.

All this is bad enough but it's not the end of the world. It's easy to tell from the examples given what the writer means by the terms he uses. A compound preposition is still a preposition just as a complex preposition is a preposition. Recently I was a little irritated when a grammarian chooses to call 'marginal modals' 'marginal auxiliaries' and semi-auxiliaries' 'semi-modals' but that's really not a big deal. They're all auxiliary verbs anyway. But to call an adverb a preposition or to refer to a subjugating conjunction as a preposition is to turn grammar on its head. Parsing would be a nightmare. This is a thousand times more outrageous than merely using a slightly varied name.

What these linguists are doing is inimical to the study of grammar as a whole. As it is, the fashion these days is to downplay the importance of grammar to such an extent that nobody really bothers with it any more. I have lost count of the number of books on grammar and usage that have gone out of print and I'm talking about books that were written just a decade or two ago. It's in the interest of everyone, particularly linguists, not to confuse the public or to make the study of grammar more difficult by changing a classification that has worked all this while. Apart from being in good working order, the traditional classification is accepted by all dictionaries and is the system known and understood by every English-speaking person throughout the world.

I really hope some of these grammarians will stop being contrary just for the sake of being different. You may look forward to the day when the whole world decides to edit all our dictionaries and adopt what you propose and you will go down in history as the one who turned an adverb into a preposition but don't bet on that. It's more likely that the whole world will just forget about the study of grammar which you've made impossible and you guys will be made redundant by your universities and you'll all be begging on the streets for your bread. You can be sure I won't put a coin in your outstretched hand if you tell me you see even one preposition in the sentence 'The man walked away after the train had left the station'.

Shortly after I posted this blog article, I wrote to Prof Bas Aarts and gave him the link to this blog post. In his reply, he implies that the traditional analysis is incorrect but he doesn't explain why he says so. I attach below the message I sent to him and his reply without any editing:

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