As every good English teacher knows, there's hardly a single principle of grammar that's not accompanied by a list of variations, qualifications, and exceptions. We may not mention them all in class (at least not until some wiseacre brings them up), yet it's often the case that the exceptions are more interesting than the rules.
The grammatical principles and structures that I call "oddities" probably don't appear in your writing handbook, but here are a few that may be worth discussing all the same.
- The Group Genitive
As we all know, one way to form the possessive in English is to add an apostrophe plus -s to a singular noun (my neighbor's parakeet). But interestingly, the word ending in 's isn't always the rightful owner of the word that follows it.
With certain expressions (such as the guy next door's parakeet), the clitic -s is added not to the noun it relates to (guy) but to the word that ends the phrase (door). Such a construction is called the group genitive. Thus it's possible (though I wouldn't say advisable) to write, "That was the woman I met in Nashville's project."
- The Whimperative
The standard way of expressing a request or command in English is to begin a sentence with the base form of a verb: Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia! (The implied subject you is said to be "understood.") But when we're feeling exceptionally polite, we may choose to convey an order by asking a question.
The term whimperative refers to the conversational convention of casting an imperative statement in question form: Would you please bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia? This "stealth imperative," as Steven Pinker calls it, allows us to communicate a request without sounding too bossy.
- Notional Agreement (a.k.a. Synesis)
We all know that a verb should agree in number with its subject: Many people were arrested at the Battle of the Beanfield. Now and then, however, sense trumps syntax.
The principle of notional agreement allows meaning rather than grammar to determine the form of a verb: A number of people were arrested at the Battle of the Beanfield. Though technically the subject (number) is singular, in truth that number was greater than one (537 to be precise), and so the verb is appropriately--and logically--plural. The principle also applies on occasion to pronoun agreement, as Jane Austen demonstrated in her novel Northanger Abbey: But everybody has their failing, you know; and everybody has a right to do what they like with their own money.
Next month we'll introduce a few more apparent oddities. (See A Few More Oddities: Illeism, Semantic Satiation, and Garden-Path Sentences.) Meanwhile, why not post a comment if there are any grammatical structures that have left you bemused or perplexed. (And that, my friends, is a suggestion, not a command.)