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Warsaw Will

You might expect the Telegraph to do a stupid grammar quiz, but the BBC? And to lift "that" question when it had already got so much flak in the linguistics blogosphere? As for the "which-hunting" question, it's all rather sad, really.

I'd just like to add something about "I was sat". I would suggest this is as much a matter of idiom as grammar. I'm not convinced by the passive argument: nobody "sat me here". On the other hand I do think it looks very much like an adjectival participle construction as in the French "J'étais assis" or the English "The house is situated between two large oak trees.", "She's a bit run down at the moment." or "I'm done with the photocopier if you want it."

In any case Burchfield called this "on the fringes of standard English" some twenty years ago, and its use seems to me to be increasing amongst speakers of otherwise absolutely standard English, and not only Northerners. An Ngram graph suggests that its use in British-published books has tripled over the last two decades or so, and I seem to hear it in non-dialectal contexts almost every day on BBC Radio 4. For example, from the narrator in a recent radio adaptation of a Swedish crime novel (Standard English) "Larrson was sat at his desk". Isn't it time we accepted "is/was sat/stood" as a standard idiom, if perhaps colloquial? It seems to me sheer snobbery not to.


John Cowan

My comments (also posted at Caxton):

Question #1 assumes facts not in evidence, namely whether there was a win against Australia. (Someone must beat them sometime in something, no?)

#3 is indeed contrived (and the only one I got wrong). Plenty of people say and write "my brother Benedict" even if they have only one.

#4 is flat wrong: "Less than three coffees" is idiomatic for expressions of measure that are the plurals of mass nouns, at least in English as I speak it.

#7 shocks me: I thought Brits other than Fowler himself were immune to that/which crackpottery. Of course either one is fine in restrictive clauses, as it was Middle English and ever after shall be, world without end.

#9 is again flat wrong: there is nothing wrong with "I was sat in the chair" if someone else forcibly put me there.

#10 is fine with me, because of the separating comma before the allegedly misplaced clause. If the dress had been tightly integrated with the King, there'd be a problem, but set off as it is, it's plain that it means the Queen. (And have no kings worn dresses?)

Peter Harvey

Thank you Will for that comment. I don’t disagree at all that it can be seen as an adjectival form; in a sense all passives are adjectival but in Spanish we have a clear difference. ‘Estaba sentado’ definitely means that I was already in a seated position. We see the difference in:
* His arm was broken when he fell.
* His arm was broken when I met him.
The fact that there is the slightest ambiguity means that it is invalid. It's badly thought out. I am a speaking examiner for the Cambridge exams (among other things) and I know how much effort (over years) it takes for a new exam to be approved.

Peter Harvey

Thank you John. In general I agree but having recently dealt at length with the Telegraph and the Guardian (twice) I just wasn’t in the mood to go through the whole lot again!

#1 is in fact the possessive apostrophe question. I am not convinced that ‘the man next door’ is sufficient to imply unequivocally that he is the only occupant of the house. It could be that he is a keen gardener and the rest of his family have no great interest it.

In #2 the definite article is supposed to show that there was such a win; that is in the context of the question. The grammar point is that ‘may have’ is present (it is possible that it has happened but we don’t know) and ‘might have’ is past (it was possible that it would happen but it didn’t). For me the BBC’s answer is correct but its reasoning, on the basis of comparative probability, is invalid. I have mentioned this point before: http://lavengro.typepad.com/peter_harvey_linguist/2006/10/well_he_may_hav.html

#3 is a horror, even in this adapted form (which has also removed Nevile Gwynne’s ‘I should like to introduce …). The commas in ‘Benedict, my brother, who’ indicate a non-restrictive clause. This is different from ‘my brother Benedict, which, as you say, can be interpreted either way. The BBC’s explanation: ‘The absence of a comma before "who doesn't" implies that there are other brothers’ leads us to consider the possibility of:
‘…my sister Clara, who lives in Madrid, to Benedict, my brother, who doesn’t, and to my only other sibling, Hilary.’
which is quite incomprehensible. When the number of commas in a sentence approaches the number of words, it’s time to start rewriting!

#7 I have only met this problem fairly recently, and then as an American phenomenon. As I have explained (http://lavengro.typepad.com/peter_harvey_linguist/2013/05/english-and-the-guardian.html), Fowler’s own view was that such a distinction would be desirable as an ideal but could not be made universal as a practicality. Fowler is much more tolerant than people often realise.

#9 Agreed, as I have said to Warsaw Will.

#10 agree there too.

All in all it’s a mess that is unworthy of the BBC. There is much talk in Britain at present about language testing. I am not sure if this is a real example of an actual official test for schoolchildren, a real example of what is being officially proposed, or the BBC’s pure invention to entertain its viewers.

John Cowan

Thanks for the response! To introduce myself briefly, I am 55, was born and raised just outside the New York City isogloss bundle, and have been living in the city itself for more than thirty years. Syntactically and lexically, I am a typical Yank of my generation; phonologically, I am fully rhotic and have the father-bother and hurry-furry mergers, but none of the other usual American ones; I have a touch of selective /æ/-tensing that I've picked up as an adult. Notwithstanding all this, I am not a professional linguist. :-)

When I referred to #1 above I of course meant #2, and I agree that the definite article presupposes the existence of a win against Australia. I'm also aware that there is a shift ongoing, which I do not have, from might to may in remote-possibility sentences. The point I should have made was a different one, though. The might is the only contrary-to-fact version in my English, but may is perfectly legitimate concessively.

Thus "The win against Australia might have been a turning point, but it didn't turn out like that" implicates that it was not a turning point and so the referent of it is the win, which is clearly what the BBC intended. However, "The win against Australia may have been a turning point, but it didn't turn out like that" implicates that it was a turning point, and the referent of it is something else in the (implied) discourse. In particular, it is reasonable to infer a later reversal of fortune: the win was a turning point, something else was another turning point, and it (the whole story) ended badly for the original winners.

Peter Harvey

I think that the 'it' means the situation in general with no precise referent. There was a possibility at the time that the win against Australia would later be seen as a turning point but in fact the situation did not develop in that way. 'May have been' implies that we don't yet know the outcome and is incompatible with the clear statement that it didn't turn out that way, i.e. it was not a turning point.


Thank you, thank you, and thank you again! I was sitting here screaming at this stupid quiz when I took it!

Peter Harvey

I am very pleased to have been of assistance.

Barrie England

Can we put it this way? ‘The win against Australia might have been a turning point, but it didn’t turn out like that’ means that we now know that the win against Australia was not a turning point, but it seemed possible at the time that it was. By contrast, ‘The win against Australia may have been a turning point, but it didn’t turn out like that’ means that we don’t know if the win against Australia was a turning point or not, but [something unspecified] didn’t go according to plan.

In practice, any such distinction has pretty much disappeared, at least as far as informal prose of this kind is concerned. In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters reports the ‘Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language’ and the ‘Longman Grammar’ as regarding ‘these and other modal verbs as unmarked for tense, because their use so often reflects speaker / writer stance rather than time in the world being referred to.’ She also reports that ‘”may” is much commoner than “might”’ in nonfictional writing . . . and becomes the unmarked choice between the two modals . . . Its use in formal prose remains answerable to questions of grammatical logic, but it can be rationalized in interactive styles of writing.’

Peter Harvey

I can't disagree in principle with your first paragraph but I am not happy with your introduction of 'something unspecified'; it smacks a little of deus ex machina. With no further context we are obliged to assume that the pronoun has the obvious present reference.

For present expression of future possibility I see no difference between It may rain this afternoon and It might rain this afternoon and teach accordingly. It is in the forms with the perfect infinitive that I see a difficulty that not only erodes a useful distinction but can lead to ambiguity.

Her house fell down yesterday. She may have been killed.
is, or should be, different from
Her house fell down yesterday. She might have been killed.

Fortunately, this distinction is one that very rarely comes up in teaching.

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