LINGUIST List 7.779

Wed May 29 1996

Disc: English rhetoric/composition textbooks

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Steven Schaufele, more dirt on English rhetoric/composition textbooks

Message 1: more dirt on English rhetoric/composition textbooks

Date: Sat, 25 May 1996 00:43:21 CDT
From: Steven Schaufele <>
Subject: more dirt on English rhetoric/composition textbooks
In my entry-level job with a typesetting firm specializing in college 
textbooks, my boss occasionally routes rhetoric/composition (`How to 
Write a Decent Essay in Standard English'-type) books my way. I suspect 
him of assuming that, as a linguist, i would find this sort of thing 
particularly interesting and enjoyable. Little does he know!

Last week i got one that, after starting out no worse than any others i'd 
had to plod through, turned out to have some out-and-out errors in 
attempts to explain English grammar. They were bad enough that i finally 
broke down and wrote a letter to the publisher, on my own initiative, 
explaining what was wrong with them and expressing the hope that they 
could be fixed before the book went to press. (As a typesetter working 
for a typesetting firm, i have no editorial authority, neither does the 
firm; there's nothing i can do on my own to fix this kind of thing. 
Correcting obviously misspelled words is one thing, but correcting 
obvious errors of fact is another.)

I'm summarizing my remarks to the publisher here for the sake of general 
interest, and to warn my fellow linguists who may be so fortunate as to 
still be in academia what sort of garbage their colleagues teaching 
rhetoric/composition in, e.g., English departments may be filling their 
students' heads with. Maybe we need more input from competent linguists 
on this kind of thing!

The first, and to my mind most shocking error has to do with that old 
bugbear, the definition of the grammatical concept `subject'. (I 
noticed, in passing, that the authors of the book in question studiously 
avoided even mentioning such abstruse terms as `aspect', `auxiliary', or 
`finite', even though they would have been a big help, stylistically as 
well as pedagogically.) The definition they offered at the beginning of 
one chapter was `the subject is the doer of the action or the focus of 
the verb.' (They never explain what they mean by `focus of the verb'; i 
suspect, from other evidence, it's something roughly approximating what 
we would call `topic of the sentence'. But of course, in this book `topic' 
is a word used to identify a particular sentence within a paragraph, not 
a constituent within a sentence.) Note the attempt to define a 
grammatical concept -- subject -- by the conjunction of a semantic and 
pragmatic concept. In the course of the next chapter, on `sentence 
fragments' (i.e., strings that cannot stand alone as complete sentences, 
including relative clauses), they present the following two examples:

1.(a)	A friend she can always count on
 (b)	The place in the neighborhood where all the tough kids gathered

and go on to claim: `As you can see, "friend" is the subject in (a), and 
"place" is the subject in (b)'. In my letter to the publisher, I 
conjured the alternative strings below to demonstrate that this is 
clearly not the case (i didn't go into the authors' use of the expression 
`verb phrase' to refer to the string `can count on'; i figured that would 
be veering too close to the shoals of real linguistic jargon). I also 
used (2) to demonstrate that (1a) wasn't necessarily a sentence fragment 
at all; it could be construed as a perfectly good complete sentence, if 
given a context that invites its interpretation not as a reduced relative 
but as an example of a topicalized object.

(a')	*Friends she always count on
(a'')	Friends she always counts on

(b')	*The place in the neighborhood where all the tough kids gathers
(b'')	The place in the neighborhood where all the tough kids gather

(2)	Among this rather motley crew of eccentrics Alice isn't sure whom she 
	can trust. A friend she can always count on, but she has yet to find
	in this crowd anyone she could comfortably dignify with that title.

I suggested that the closest thing to a simple but accurate definition of 
subject in English (apart from the rather obvious, but relatively unhelpful, 
assertion that `the subject is what the verb agrees with') would be a 
statement to the effect that `the subject is the one word or phrase that 
in a simple declarative clause has to precede the verb', a definition of a 
grammatical concept (subject) in terms of purely grammatical phenomena 
(linear order). (Granted, this definition would require a definition of 
`declarative clause' to go with it, but that doesn't strike me as very 

My second bugbear was in a discussion of relative clauses: `The verb in a 
[relative clause] must agree with the antecedent [of the relative 
pronoun].' Presumably, this means that English, all evidence (such as 
(3)) to the contrary, is a minimal language in terms of the Keenan-Comrie 
relativizability hierarchy, allowing only subjects to be relativized.

(3)	Fred can be counted on to buy any orange ties that he sees.

Of course, i have to admit, it's never made absolutely clear in the book 
in question that the verb is supposed to agree with its *subject*. 
Perhaps i'm jumping to conclusions...

Introducing a discussion of the distinction between simple, comparative, 
and superlative forms of modifiers, the authors remark, `Both adjectives 
and adverbs have more than one form. The simple form is used to modify a 
single word.' Over the course of many pages, it gradually became clear 
(at least to me) from context that this statement is being contrasted 
with statements to the effect that the comparative form is used in 
comparing two things, while the superlative is used in comparing more 
than two. In my letter to the publisher, i pointed out that the authors' 
`one-word' statement, taken literally, would rule out strings like `the hot 
branding iron' or `reluctantly put up with', and suggested that the error 
lies in the confusion between the linguistic expression (word or phrase) 
and its referent. What the authors presumably mean is that the simple 
form of an adjective or adverb is used to modify an expression referring 
to a single entity.

A page later, the book says, `Often [articles] appear in combination with 
other adjectives that cannot be used without an article ... The adjective 
blue requires an article.' This is in reference to the (4). I pointed 
out that all of the sentences in (5) include the same adjective, but no 
article, and that it was the nature of the noun (a count noun in the 
singular), not the adjective, that required a determiner, not necessarily 
an article.

(4)	Hermine washes the blue car every Thursday.

(5)	Hermine washes her blue car every Thursday.
	Heidi has blue eyes.
	In general, blue cars irritate me.

So, does anyone out there think we need to offer crash courses in how to 
do descriptive grammar to our colleagues teaching English composition?

- -------------------
Dr. Steven Schaufele
712 West Washington
Urbana, IL 61801
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