Category: Key Terms

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.

The Thesis

What is a thesis?

  • The controlling idea that is supported by the body/argument of the essay;
  • It provides direction for the reader and the writer;
  • It is an assertion with which a person can reasonably disagree.

However, bear in mind that the thesis is a conclusion (which appears in introduction) at which you, the writer, arrive by the process of writing.

Start with a topic and articulate a question about what you want to explore. Here is an example:

  • Topic: The role of women in Bernard Malamud’s The Natural.
  • Question: Do women function to help or hinder the progress of the hero’s quest in Bernard Malamud’s The Natural?

Now begin the writing process:

  • Define key terms and state your question in the first draft of the introduction;
  • Begin drafting the essay after you have formulated the question;
  • Return to the introduction after you have completed the first draft; rephrase the question as an assertion.

Here is what one of my students came up with. I think it is pretty good:

Harriet Bird and Memo Paris interrupt and hinder Roy’s development in The Natural, thus expressing a misogyny inherent to heroic quest narratives.

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.

“Of” is a Preposition

A brace is broken in my favorite guitar (an acoustic-electric Guild that is, like me, becoming a bit vintage ( Properly functioning braces ensure clean tone, and they keep the whole contraption from collapsing under the general butchery of my musical performance. Prepositions are to sentences what braces are to guitars. They go mostly unnoticed, but without them you might as well be flopping on the ground like a fish. This might be what compels people to stick them where they don’t belong, like after the verb “could.”

Steve could of been a rock star if only he could play or sing.

Here is a hint: Prepositions are always followed by nouns or noun phrases. “Been” is always a form of the verb “to be” and is therefore never a noun. So absolutely under no circumstances put the very fine preposition “of” before the verb “been.” Use “have,” the equally fine helping verb. There is, of course, an exception. It may be that you intend to sound like a knuckle-dragging moron. If that is the case, then by all means, identify yourself.

Steve could have been a nice person, but it turned out otherwise.

Eloise may have finished her homework.

Annie B should have thrown away that mayonnaise. 

Dangling Participles

Most of us were taught that particular words fall under some categorical part of speech. “You,” for example, is a pronoun. “Johnson” is a (proper) noun. “Flabbergast” is a verb. “Of” is a preposition.

But words are sloppy. For instance, as everyone at least intuitively knows, we can “verb” pretty much any noun: “Dude, you just Johnsoned my last cupcake!” And we can turn just about any noun into an adjective: “That was a real Johnsonic moment.”

It may be that we are not quite sure what these terms mean, but we do know how they are functioning. All native speakers of English are capable of sensing that the following sentence is potentially meaningful: “Flang quibbited tep farleys.” We just have to know the meaning of the words. A lot of grief could be saved if we were taught to think less about a word’s category and more about its function.

Participles are verbs that have shifted their category in order to function as adjectives. They usually end in -ed or -ing.

Slurping his Jack and water, the keyboard player hit a blistering solo.

Adjectives are a kind of modifier: they modify or provide more information about a noun. “Slurping” tells us more about the keyboard player. “Blistering” refines our understanding of the solo. And like all modifiers, participial modifiers can be misplaced, thus giving us our legendary dangling participle.

While getting hammered, the keyboard player nursed his fragile ego.

Who or what is getting hammered? The ego? The keyboard player? We can’t be sure. The modifier, and meaning, dangles. This might clear things up:

The hammered keyboard player nursed his ego-inflating double sour mash on the rocks.