Arrant Pedantry

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I Request You to Read This Post

Several weeks ago, I tweeted about a weird construction that I see frequently at work thanks to our project management system. Whenever someone assigns me to a project, I get an email like the one below:Hi Jonathon, [Name Redacted] just requested you to work on Editing. It's all yours.

I said that the construction sounded ungrammatical to me—you can ask someone to do something or request that they do it, but not request them to do it. Several people agreed with me, while others said that it makes sense to them if you stress you—they requested me to work on it, not someone else. Honestly, I’m not sure that stress changes anything, since the question is about what kind of complementation the verb request allows. Changing the stress doesn’t change the syntax.

However, Jesse Sheidlower, a former editor for The Oxford English Dictionary, quickly pointed out that the first sense of request in the OED is “to ask (a person), esp. in a polite or formal manner, to do something.” There are citations from around 1485 down to the present illustrating the construction request [someone] to [verb]. (Sense 3 is the request that [someone] [verb] construction, which has been around from 1554 to the present.) Jordan Smith, a linguistics PhD student at Iowa State, also pointed out that The Longman Grammar says that request is attested in the pattern [verb + NP + to-clause], just like ask. He agreed that it sounds odd, though.

So obviously the construction has been around for a while, and it’s apparently still around, but that didn’t explain why it sounds weird to me. I decided to do a little digging in the BYU corpora, and what I found was a little surprising.

The Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) shows a slow decline in the request [someone] to [verb] construction, from 13.71 hits per million words in the 1820s to just .2 per million words in the first decade of the 2000s.

And it isn’t just that we’re using the verb request a lot less now than we were two hundred years ago. Though it has seen a moderate decline, it doesn’t match the curve for that particular construction.

Even if the construction hasn’t vanished entirely, it’s pretty close to nonexistent in modern published writing—at least in some parts of the world. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GLoWbE) shows that while it’s mostly gone in nations where English is the most widely spoken first language (the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand), it’s alive and well in South Asia (the taller bars in the middle are India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). (Interestingly, the only OED citation for this construction in the last fifty years comes from a book called World Food: India.) To a lesser extent, it also survives in some parts of Africa and Southeast Asia (the two smallish bars at the right are Kenya and Tanzania).

It’s not clear why my work’s project management system uses a construction that is all but extinct in most varieties of English but is still alive and well in South Asia. The company is based in Utah, but it’s possible that they employ people from South Asia or that whoever wrote that text just happens to be among the few speakers of American English who still use it.

Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting example of language change in action. Peter Sokolowski, an editor for Merriam-Webster, likes to say, “Most English speakers accept the fact that the language changes over time, but don’t accept the changes made in their own time.” With apologies to Peter, I don’t think this is quite right. The changes we don’t accept are generally the ones made in our own time, but most changes happen without us really noticing. Constructions like request that [someone] [verb] fade out of use, and no one bemoans their loss. Other changes, like the shift from infinitives to gerunds and the others listed in this article by Arika Okrent, creep in without anyone getting worked up about them. It’s only the tip of the iceberg that we occasionally gripe about, while the vast bulk of language change slips by unnoticed.

This is important because we often conflate change and error—that is, we think that language changes begin as errors that gradually become accepted. For example, Bryan Garner’s entire Language Change Index is predicated on the notion that change is synonymous with error. But many things that are often considered wrong—towards, less with count nouns, which used as a restrictive relative pronoun—are quite old, while the rules forbidding their use are in fact the innovations. It’s perverse to call these changes that are creeping in when they’re really old features that are being pushed out. Indeed, the whole purpose of the index isn’t to tell you where a particular use falls on a scale of change, but to tell you how accepted that use is—that is, how much of an error it is.

So the next time you assume that a certain form must be a recent change because it’s disfavored, I request you to reexamine your assumptions. Language change is much more subtle and much more complex than you may think.

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Relative What

A few months ago Braden asked in a comment about the history of what as a relative pronoun. (For my previous posts on relative pronouns, see here.) The history of relative pronouns in English is rather complicated, and the system as a whole is still in flux, partly because modern English essentially has two overlapping systems of relativization.

In Old English, there were a few different ways to create a relative pronoun, as this site explains. One way was to use the indeclinable particle þe, another was to use a form of the demonstrative pronoun (roughly equivalent to modern English that/those), and another was to use a demonstrative or personal pronoun followed by þe. Our modern relative that grew out of the use of demonstrative pronouns, though unlike the Old English demonstratives, that does not decline for gender, number, and case.

In the late Old English and Middle English periods, writers and speakers began to use interrogative pronouns as relative pronouns by analogy with French and Latin. It first appeared in texts that were translations from Latin around 1000 AD, but within a couple of centuries it had apparently been naturalized. Other interrogatives became pressed into service as relatives during this time, including who, which, where, when, why, and how. All of these are still in common use in Standard English except for what.

It’s important to note that what is still used as a nominal relative, which means that it does not modify another noun phrase but stands in for a noun phrase and a relative simultaneously, as in We fear what we don’t understand. This could be rephrased as We fear that which we don’t understand or We fear the things that we don’t understand, revealing the nominal and the relative.

But while all the other interrogatives have continued as relatives in Standard English, what as a simple relative pronoun is nonstandard today. Simple relative what is found in the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but at some point in the last three or four centuries it fell out of use in the standard dialect. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure when this happened; the Oxford English Dictionary has citations up through 1740 and then one from 1920 that appears to be dialogue from a novel. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that in the US, it’s mainly found in rural areas in the Midland and South. As I told Braden in a response to his comment, I’ve heard it used myself. A couple of months ago I heard a man in church pray for “our leaders what guides and directs us”—not just a beautiful example of relative what, but also an interesting example of nonstandard verb agreement.

As for why simple relative what died out in Standard English, I really have no idea. Jonathan Hope noted that it’s rather unusual of Standard English to allow other interrogatives as relatives but not this one.1Jonathan Hope, “Rats, Bats, Sparrows and Dogs: Biology, Linguistics and the Nature of Standard English,” in The Development of Standard English, 1300–1800, ed. Laura Wright (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000). In some ways, relative what would make more sense than relative which, since what is historically part of the same paradigm as who; what comes from the neuter form of the interrogative or indefinite pronoun in Old English, while who comes from the combined masculine/feminine form, as shown here. And as I said in this post, whose was originally the genitive form for both who and what, so allowing simple relative what would make for a rather tidy paradigm.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Hope and other have argued that standardized languages—or perhaps speakers of standardized languages—tend to resist tidy paradigms. Irregularities creep in and are preserved, and they can be surprisingly resistant to change. Maybe someone reading this has a fuller explanation of just how this particular little wrinkle came to be.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Jonathan Hope, “Rats, Bats, Sparrows and Dogs: Biology, Linguistics and the Nature of Standard English,” in The Development of Standard English, 1300–1800, ed. Laura Wright (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000).

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Here’s You a Benefactive Dative

Yesterday I heard an interesting construction that I’ve only heard of once before. Several months ago a coworker of mine was talking about a family reunion she’d been to, at which one of her cousins had offered her an apple and said, “Here’s you an apple.” I’d never heard anything like it before, but I’d completely forgotten about it until I heard it in person yesterday.

I decided to do a little research and see what I could find about the construction, but I came up mostly dry. Mark Liberman mentioned it in a Language Log post on personal datives but didn’t provide any further explanation. It was also mentioned, again without explanation, in a 1946 article in American Speech, “‘Swarp’ and Some Other Kentucky Words”.

Then there’s Here’s You a Blog, so named because the author encountered the construction in Kentucky and liked it. I also found this forum discussion, which includes some speculation on its distribution and origins. It sounds like it’s most common in the Southern US, especially the Gulf Coast, though I just heard it here in Utah, and my coworker heard it around here, too—her cousins apparently live about ten or fifteen minutes away from me. Perhaps it’s a little like the needs + past participle construction in that it’s especially frequent in one region (namely western Pennsylvania and Ohio) but can be found throughout most of the United States.

But while the needs + past participle construction apparently comes from Scottish, I can’t find any evidence about where here’s you a comes from. It doesn’t sound like German to me (though my German is certainly not good enough to say for certain), and though I suppose it could be a Scotch-Irish construction, my three weeks of trying to teach myself Scottish weren’t enough to give me any clue on this.*

What I find most interesting about this construction is that it’s a little different from both regular dative constructions in English, such as I gave him a book or He baked her a cake, and personal datives, such as I love me some ice cream or He caught him a fish. The regular dative appears with ditransitive verbs, that is, verbs that take both direct and indirect objects. The dative is the indirect object and is typically the recipient of the direct object. So in I gave him a book, him is the indirect object, receiving the book, the direct object. Dative pronouns can usually be moved to a prepositional phrase with to or for, as in I gave a book to him or He baked a cake for her.

With personal datives, the dative pronoun is coreferential with the subject—that is, the dative pronoun refers to the same entity as the subject—and in some cases can be replaced with a reflexive pronoun, as in He caught himself a fish. Note that this doesn’t work in many cases—*I love myself some ice cream is just flat-out strange if not ungrammatical. Generally, though, this kind of dative works much like the standard dative; it appears after a transitive verb and shows that the subject is in some way receiving or benefitting from the direct object. While not standard English, the personal dative is apparently fairly common in Southern and Appalachian English.

But here’s you a doesn’t use a transitive verb; it uses an intransitive verb—a copula verb, to be more specific—with a dummy subject. That is, though here fills the subject role of the sentence, it’s essentially a placeholder to call attention to what comes after the verb. And whereas the dative in the personal dative is coreferential with the subject, with here’s you a it is not, because there’s no real subject for you to refer to. What’s more, intransitive verbs—especially copula verbs like be—don’t take objects, but here we have one that seems to have an indirect object.**

So syntactically, there’s no real person or thing that is giving the direct object to the indirect object, and there’s no real action of giving something to someone. But as with some standard datives, this one can be paraphrased with for you. Just as we can transform He baked her a cake into He baked a cake for her, we could turn Here’s you an apple into Here’s an apple for you. This particular kind of dative is called a benefactive dative, meaning that something is being done for or on behalf of someone.

I still don’t feel like I know what’s going on with this construction, and unless I missed something in my searching, it seems that virtually nothing has been written about it yet. Do any of my readers happen to know more about it? Has anyone else heard it, and if so, where?

*Though now I can say such useful phrases as “Halò, Ciamar a tha thu? Tha gu math, tapadh leat. Tha mi a fuireach anns an taigh-òsda.” I’m sure that’ll come in really handy the next time I’m in the Scottish highlands.

**In the Language Log post referenced above, Liberman quotes Laurence Horn as saying that personal datives aren’t actually indirect object and that “they are not arguments at all, but non-subcategorized pronouns.” I don’t know enough syntax to really understand what this means; maybe someone will help out in the comments.

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