Category: Grammar

Is it an Infinitive or a Preposition?

On their final exam, I asked students to identify the infinitives in the following sentence:

The mission was to boldly go to the Klingon Kingdom to retrieve the bald man.

They had been drilled pretty heavily on this stuff, and I am pleased to report that nearly everyone got the right answer. (The exception was one weepy young man who suffers an odd combination of reckless over-confidence and exam anxiety.)

An infinitive, you may recall, is the base form of a verb, usually accompanied by “to” (which we call the infinite particle). But “to” is also a very common preposition, so you can see how weepy young men might get confused.

The sentence contains two infinitives and one prepositional phrase.

to [boldly] go: infinitive

to the Klingon Kingdom: prepositional phrase

to retrieve: infinitive

Telling them apart is a pretty simple matter. Verbs come after the “to” in infinitives and nouns (or pronouns) follow prepositions. However, in either case, modifiers will often come between the “to” and the verb or noun. As I discussed in a previous post, splitting an infinitive with a modifier used to lead straight to the brig, but we have become a lax people; those days are past.

While on the subject of our laxity, I should probably mention that sometimes nothing at all comes after “to.” Folks, a few of them perfectly good people, just put it on the end of the alleged sentence, especially when they ask questions. “Where to?” “What’s she up to?” “Do you really want to?”

Notice how in these cases we are in very murky grammatical territory, which is probably why strict grammarians rap your hairy knuckles when you end a sentence with a word like “to.”  “Where to” can reasonable be reconstructed as something like, “To where should we go now?” (preposition) or, “I wonder where to go now?” (infinitive). You might notice that figuring the function of words in non-grammatical lumps requires that we perform some grammatical reinventing. Best to get it right the first time.


The Noun Clause

I still have about a hundred papers and tests to grade. The grades are due by noon on Wednesday. The registrar is from Texas, and she knows where I live. But I have been tardy with my blog, so I am just going to have to take my chances with Calamity Jane.

Students in my grammar class had some trouble distinguishing noun clauses from relative clauses. Go figure.

Remember that clauses contain a subject and a predicate (unless the clause has been “reduced,” but we’ll save that for another time). Noun clauses and relative clauses are both subspecies of dependent clauses (they can’t stand on their own as sentences; see this post). The functional difference between the two is pretty simple: noun clauses have a nominal function; that is, they act as nouns in a sentence and therefore function as complements, subjects, indirect objects and direct objects. Relative clauses function as adjectives. Look at these two sentences:

I am going to punish the man who turned in his grades late.

“Who turned in his grades late” is a relative clause because it telling us more about the “the man.” It is functioning adjectivally.

I don’t understand who would do such a thing.

Because noun clauses are functioning as nouns, they can always be replaced with a word like “it” without butchering the grammar of the sentence. So, “who would do such a thing” is a noun clause. You might also remember that relative clauses generally follow nouns and noun clauses generally follow verbs.

Which or That?

These terms are not nearly as interchangeable as common usage might lead you to believe.

The guitar that Matty keeps in his basement does not suffer from overuse.

The guitar, which Matty keeps in his basement, does not suffer from overuse.

“That” is used to introduce what are called restrictive clauses. These kinds of clauses limit meaning. Matt might have a bunch of guitars, but the one he keeps in his basement just gathers dust.

“Which” introduces a nonrestrictive clause. In the second sentence we are simply given some extra information, in this case, about where Matt stores his guitar. We signal that this information is dispensable by using the nonrestrictive term and by surrounding the clause with commas.

Matty also has a dog that he is careful not to over-exercise.

Matty’s dog, which he is careful not to strain with exercise, can breakdance in English and Spanish.

Here is a punctuation guideline: if you use “which” then also use one or two commas, depending on where you put the clause. Here is a sentence that needs just one comma:

Matty’s dog eats a lot of spam, which helps explain the flatulence problem.



Stop Using Adjectives to Modify Verbs

Papers are coming in again. Colleagues who were once happy are now forlorn, a few openly weep in public, Scott (whom I promised not to name)  has begun sucking his thumb. This is all to be expected. Sherman Alexie once observed that playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers was like fighting in Vietnam. The same might be said of grading the first round of freshman compositions. The likelihood of emerging from the encounter without significant emotional damage is slim.

However, contrary to all expectations, I have been pleasantly surprised by my first batch of papers. Maybe I am getting soft. Anyway, here is a sentence from a better-than-average writer:

Once the tomb was examined closer, archeologists realized that the skeleton was flanked by a dragon and a tiger.

We don’t “examine closer.” We perform a “closer examination.” The writer has put an adjective in the adverb position. To test this, recall that adverbs are one of the few parts of speech that we can move around in a sentence without butchering meaning.

The tomb was closer examined.*

Now let’s try the adverb:

The tomb was more closely examined.

The tomb was examined more closely.

Unfortunately, it seems the English-speaking world has resigned itself to confusion of the adjective good with the adverb well. Sigh.

“How are you?”

“I’m good.”

“I doubt it. I just saw you kick that puppy. But how are you feeling?”

“I am well, thank you.”

Attributive and Predicative Adjectives

Apologies if this post is a little too technical, but I neglected to address the categories of adjectives in my grammar class last week. I figured I might as well take care of it here. I will try to be brief.

Some adjectives come before the noun they modify. These attributive adjectives are the easiest to identify and the ones with which we are most familiar. Here is Paula Fox from her fine and melancholic memoir, The Coldest Winter:

I stood on the Champs-Elysee, down which the black-booted Nazis had marched.

But adjectives can also come after the noun they modify. Between the noun and these predicative adjectives will also be a linking verb, usually a form of to be (e.g., is, am, was). Here is Paula Fox describing the room she rented in Paris just after World War Two:

It was cheerless, shabby, and barely heated.

Brief enough?

Nouns, Noun Phrases, and Subjects

It is an unfortunate testimony to human iniquity that people who can’t identify the subject of a sentence are considered indisputable morons even by people who couldn’t pick an adverb out of a basket of proper nouns.

Find the subject of this sentence:

The guy in front of the orchestra drooling all over his shirt owns that skinny dog barfing in the hallway.

Most people probably identified “guy” as the subject, and many perfectly capable grammarians would agree. But if I was wondering whom I should hold accountable for the vomit in the hallway, and you told me “the guy,” then I would be annoyed at your lack of specificity. The dog is owned by the drooling conductor. He is “the guy” I need to talk to.

Subjects of sentences must be or function grammatically as nouns (even those gerunds that try to pass themselves off as verbs).

Tony drools.

Drooling is his way of showing affection.

“Tony” is obviously a noun; “drooling” is functioning as a noun.

The subject of the sentence with the puking dog is everything that comes before the verb “owns,” and everything that comes before the verb “owns” is called a noun phrase. Noun phrases have a key noun (often called the headword), but they can also have prepositions, adjectives, and even verbs. In short, they contain the headword and all the words and phases that modify it. Functionally, the entire phrase is a noun, which creates the confusing situation of other parts of speech being subordinated to their noun (or nominal) function.

Identifying the main verb is the key to identifying the subject in sentences with long noun phrases. (Identifying the action on which the meaning of the sentence hinges is, in turn, the key to locating the main verb.)

An early faculty meeting after a late night in Shooter’s Bar and Grill makes Matt grumpy.

What makes Matt grumpy? The answer is your noun phrase/subject.

Adjectives and Commas

I tend to prate on about avoiding adjectives. I picked this habit up from reading too many books allegedly about writing well. “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” wrote Mark Twain. And just about everyone who has thought seriously about effective writing has come to a similar conclusion. Adjectives, the notion goes, are descriptive shortcuts, and, like most shortcuts, they are favored by the lazy. Compare these two sentences:

The day at the lake was cool, bright, and windy.

The wind swept the shadows of clouds across the lake.

The first, with three adjectives, is stale and abstract. The second is more concrete and puts our imaginations to work. But adjectives are, in fact, often necessary and can enrich effective writing. I like this sentence and both of its adjectives:

A northwest wind swept the shadows of small clouds across the lake.

I happen to think that the adjective, “northwest,” conveys the idea of coolness, but another writer might want to emphasize the cold, putting two or even more commas in a row. How should these be punctuated?

Here is a guideline: You should leave out the commas if the adjectives modify each other.

A dark gray cloud hovers over my soul.

You should include the commas if the adjectives do not modify one another. Generally, if you can rearrange the adjectives without confusing the meaning, then you need the commas.

That fat, lazy, smelly bigfoot is sleeping in my hammock again. Dan?