Monday 7 January 2013

Grammar for teachers cont'd: nouns,pronouns

So now let's move on to 'nouns'. Again, instead of trying to say what a noun 'is'. Let's look at how we make nouns behave and how we get them to function in sentences. And again, we'll look at them 'vertically' and 'horizontally'.

One thing about nouns is that we can ask of them whether we can move them between being 'singular' or 'plural'. This is 'vertical'. (Think of the chain analogy: replacing one link with another in the same place.)

So the word 'car' can be 'car' or 'cars'. These are the only two forms of 'car' that we can make in English. I say that because in some languages nouns can vary depending on things like: are they the subject or the 'object' of the verb and so on.

We have several ways of doing plurals in English e.g.:
'car' - 'cars'
'child' - 'children'
'man' - 'men'
'sheep' - 'sheep'
'mouse' - 'mice'
'house' - 'houses'
'roof' - 'roofs'
'hoof' - 'hooves'

Just for fun here are some old ones:
'cow' - 'kine'
'shoe' - 'shoon' (see Walter de la Mare's poem about the 'moon'!)

Because people who have spoken and written English over many centuries have absorbed words from other languages then these make us think about how to do those plurals. Do we do them according to the language they come from, or do we anglicise them?

'criterion' - 'criteria' or 'criterions'?
'stadium' - 'stadia' or 'stadiums'?
'index' - 'indices' or 'indexes'?

It's best to ignore people who demand that things should be said or written one way or another just because they say so. We produce the 'right' version by mutual consent and it has always been that way. Because it's by 'mutual consent', there is constant change depending on many factors including such things as vibration and international communication.

Some words that are plural in their original language or original phrase have become singular:

'the media' 'is on to this' or 'are on to this'?
'zoological gardens' abbreviated to 'zoo' - so, 'the zoo is' or 'the zoo are'?

Are there some nouns that can't be made plural?

The only answer to this is to investigate and experiment. A lot of words that people might say are not 'count nouns' (ie you can count the entity being  described as a 'noun') can with usage be made plural. One of the bizarre things about listening to football commentators, for example, is the way they talk about a type of player by naming a player and making him plural:
'We might ask, where were the Lampards, the Terrys and the rest?'
A commentator might identify 'France' as a particular kind of economy and say,
'But the Frances of the world are lagging behind...' or some such.

Nouns which refer to feelings - 'anger', 'jealousy', 'irritation' seem as if they can't be made plural until someone speaking or writing finds a way when the need arises:

'The room was full of anger - different angers - but anger all the same'.

Our ancestors invented 'pronouns' - words that are said to indicate people (without naming names), things and entities (without saying precisely which one.)

For things and entities we have 'it' and 'they' and if we want to indicate where the 'it' or 'they' are we have 'this' and 'that' at our disposal: 'This is nice.' 'That was good'.

We also have a group of words which when used on their own behave as nouns: some, both, any, each,  all. However, more often than not, they are in a phrase as with 'some of you' or 'all of them' and the like. We'll come back to that kind of construction in just a moment.

Now the interesting thing about pronouns is that we get them to do a lot more work than this, and we have also retained their 'vertical' variation.

So, I say, 'He hit the boy' and 'He hit him'. We don't say, 'He hit he'.
Why not?
And what other pronouns are like this?
What if it's 'she'? 'He hit her.'
What if it's 'they'? 'They hit them'.
What about the other 'personal pronouns' and 'impersonal pronouns' ?
'He hit you'
'He hit us'
'He hit me.'
'He hit it'

So you could draw this up as a table:

I - me
you - you
he - him
she - her
it - it
we - us
you - you
they - them

You remember 'transitive verbs'? So when the verb is acting on someone or something, and that person, animal or entity is a pronoun,  you can see what we usually say or write.

But there's one more variation to put on this table: when the person or entity is a pronoun and that person or thing possesses something or somebody:

'Whose is it?' 'It's mine', 'It's yours', 'It's his', 'It's hers', 'It's theirs' and I suppose you could say, 'Whose collar is this? [pointing at a dog] 'Its'.

So now the table goes:

I - me - mine
you - you - yours
he - him - his
she - her - hers
it - it - its
we - us - ours
you - you - yours
they - them - theirs

These three forms for the pronoun have names: nominative, accusative and genitive.
The table is called a 'declension' or a 'paradigm'.
Talking in this way, rather separated away from their use, is of course treating the words 'vertically' not 'horizontally' or,  as some would say,  'paradigmatically' not 'syntagmatically'.
(End of that outburst of terminology.)

Does it end there?
Not quite.
We arrange nouns around verbs - as agents, as receivers of actions from verbs, but also coming after the words we call 'prepositions', some common ones being, to, from, by, with, without, at, on, in, up, into, down, around, about and some in phrases like 'out of' , 'away from', 'off of', 'on to' and so on.

What happens to the personal and impersonal pronouns after prepositions and preposition phrases?

'To me'
'To you'
To him'
'To her'
'To it'
'To us'
'To you'
'To them'

So this is the fourth position in our table:

I - me - mine - me
you - you - yours - you (this one used to be: thou, thee, thine, thee)
he - him - his - him
she - her - hers - her
it - it - its - it
we - us - ours - us
you - you - yours - you
they - them - theirs - them

This fourth position is called 'dative'.

So, we have seen how nouns have 'declensions' or 'decline' or 'have paradigms' .
In modern English, nouns only vary between singular and plural.
The personal and impersonal pronouns vary in four usages, ie when we use them in four different ways.
And you could say, they vary between singular and plural as well: 'I' to 'we', 'you/thou' to 'you', 'he/she/it' to 'them'.

Now, what I've drawn up is the standard English way of declining all these. In the many spoken dialects of the UK, USA, Australia and around the anglophone world, people's usage of these pronouns will vary widely.

One interesting thing to do with your knowledge of grammar is to see if you can construct declensions for non-standard use of pronouns. So, rather than bully or heavy people who use non-standard forms, you can investigate it.

It may well be that you can bring these investigations into the classroom and this will turn out to be a better way of 'teaching standard English' rather than simply saying: 'What you are saying is wrong. It should be like this.'

It's also worth remembering and reminding your class that if they are native speakers or have learned English by 'immersion' (ie as migrants who have lived in an anglophone environment for a while, this grammar is learned without it being named or made explicit.  Aren't we all clever!

In the next blog, I want to look at some horizontal ways of describing what nouns do and how we may need some improved terminology.

In the meantime, here's a teaser: what is the difference in the ways in which we use 'a car' and 'the car' and 'car' (without either 'a' or 'the')? Why have we got these differences?