Gentler, Cuddlier Grammarians

Rachel Toor bravely confesses in her most recent Chronicle article, “My Little Bag of Writing Tricks,” that she doesn’t do grammar.

“Identifying the parts of speech never made it into my repertoire,” she says. To see this from a university teacher of writing is like seeing a scientist admit to never having been much good at multiplication.

“Once someone starts talking about verb moods, dangling whosits, and misplaced whatsits, I squirm,” she goes on. “When I try to struggle through their prose explanations, my brain hurts.”

The blame is laid bluntly on people in my trade: “Grammarians intimidate me,” she says.

Toor’s own trade is teaching creative writing. “I’ve learned enough to be able to explain basic things to my students about common writing mistakes,” she says, “but I can’t get technical.”

If we grammarians weren’t quite so intimidating I might be able to explain to her that the situation is nothing like the way she envisions it. She imagines there is an unimpeachably respectable body of technical analysis that she should have mastered. The truth is that the traditional presentation of English grammar is a hodge-podge of simplistic semantic intuitions, irrational carry-overs from Latin, and outright analytical errors that has been in need of an upgrade for centuries.

Take Toor’s reference to “verb mood,” for example. Latin had robust verb mood inflection (different endings for indicative and subjunctive verb forms), but contemporary English shows just two vestigial traces of it, in relatively rare contexts, and in formal style only. Using the terminology of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), they are as follows:

  • In the mandative construction exemplified by It is essential that this be done soon or I insist that he report to me directly, formal style calls for the plain form (the one used in infinitival clauses) rather than the 3rd-person singular.
  • In certain clauses that refer to unrealized situations, where most verbs use the preterite form as in I wish they cleaned it more often, in formal style the verb be takes the special irrealis form were instead of was in the 1st- and 3rd-person singular, so we get I wish it were cleaned more often and If only she were here now.

That’s essentially all there is to verb mood in English. This is not like a graduate course in differential equations. Two picky little points, but each quite simple to describe.

On a different point about verb inflection, Toor apparently blames herself for glossing over a distinction:

I refer to words ending with “ing” as “ing words.” (I know that they can be gerunds or participles, and that there’s a difference.)

No, Ms. Toor, you are right to see no difference between gerunds and participles in English!

Adding the -ing suffix to the plain form of any verb produces the form that could perfectly well be called the “-ing form”; CGEL calls it the gerund-participle rather than name it after its last three letters, but that’s only a terminological choice.

The important substantive point is that while Latin had a distinction in form between gerunds and present participles, English doesn’t. Not even the copular auxiliary verb be (which has more different forms than any other verb) exhibits such a difference. Here are all the forms of be alongside those of three other verbs, arranged in an order that permits me to use dittos where a shape is identical to the one in the cell above:

Plain (infinitive) form: be grasp write hit
Plain present, 1st person singular: am
Plain present otherwise: are
Default preterite and irrealis mood: were grasped wrote
Preterite 1st and 3rd person singular: was
Past participle: been written
3rd singular present: is grasps writes hits
Gerund-participle: being grasping writing hitting


Notice that several distinctions apply solely to be; but even for be, a single gerund-participle line in the table is all that’s necessary; separate “gerund” and “present participle” lines would be redundant: The contents would be identical for every verb in the language.

So if Toor had looked in CGEL, she would have found herself vindicated, not rebuked. Gerund-participles have all sorts of syntactic uses, including some cases comparable to those where Latin would use its gerund form and some cases analogous to uses of the Latin present participle; but the Latin distinction just isn’t there in the English verb paradigms.

After bravely admitting that she doesn’t care for grammar, Toor promptly got bullied in the comments by a grammar troll hiding behind a pseudonym. Way to go, fobean, reinforcing the stereotype of grammarians as intimidating and nasty.

Those of us who care about analytical understanding of syntax should remember to be thoughtful and approachable as well as intelligible and informative. The world needs gentler, cuddlier grammarians to counterbalance the irascible, bow-tied, hostile, contemptuous pedants of Rachel Toor’s nightmares.

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