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Richard Nordquist

A Few Grammatical Oddities: Group Genitives, Whimperatives, and Notional Agreement

By August 24, 2012

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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.

  1. 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."


  2. 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.


  3. 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.)

Comments

August 27, 2012 at 12:03 pm
(1) Soother says:

Jane Austen used “they” and “their”…THAT way? Horrors. I must rethink whether or not I am literary.

OTOSOMP (on the other side of my personality), another example of a group genitive is “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Didn’t both men have the adventure? Why don’t both get a possessive? Yet this common construction is smoother to say and neater in print.

You’re my grammar RN!

August 27, 2012 at 12:31 pm
(2) Nitpicky says:

I think there is a nice distinction here. You already know that Bill and Ted had the same adventure, so there is obviously no need of “Bill’s and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

However, if you write “Bill’s and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” you say that they each had one, but not necessarily the same one, or maybe the same but at a different time.

Pluralizing “Adventure” would also be a clue, but sometimes the plural is more confusing. For example, “Bill’s and Ted’s viewpoint” is perhaps clearer than “Bill’s and Ted’s viewpoints” when their views are the same but their arguments differ. Did I become that annoying kid (as a sexagenerian, I hope so) in class?

August 27, 2012 at 1:12 pm
(3) Tom says:

I always sensed notional agreement was proper but did not know it existed.

August 27, 2012 at 2:37 pm
(4) Nancie says:

I’m a high school English teacher, and can’t wait to use the word “whimperative” in class. (“Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia” will be fun, too.)

August 27, 2012 at 10:25 pm
(5) Lea says:

Hi! Just read this sentence in a blog: “I myself doesn’t understand why it is so.” I would like to get your opinion (or the grammatical rule) on the “I myself doesn’t” stuff. Thanks.

August 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm
(6) grammar says:

Lea,

The intensive pronoun “myself” emphasizes the subject (“I”) but shouldn’t have any effect on the verb (which in standard English would be “don’t,” not “doesn’t”).

Richard

August 28, 2012 at 5:01 am
(7) it's me MAC says:

Can’t believe there’s such things as whimperative and synesis. Can’t wait for more of those oddities

August 28, 2012 at 12:03 pm
(8) Mary says:

I’m jealous I’m NOT a teacher and can’t use the word “whimperative” to a captive audience. Maybe my husband….

August 29, 2012 at 5:47 am
(9) Lovenglish says:

I am a teacher and I am surely going to use ‘whimperative’ in class as soon as possible!

September 23, 2012 at 12:36 am
(10) adee says:

and i’m going to use ‘whimperative’ in my facebook status ;)
look what the world has come to…

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