In this book, we don’t try to cover every possible topic in English grammar, but here are a few that we still need to discuss briefly.
THE EXPLETIVE IT
The personal pronoun it can be used as an expletive (as there is used), to postpone the subject until later in the sentence. The subject will then appear later in the sentence, usually to the right of the verb.
The expletive it can only work with a subject that is a nominal infinitive phrase or a nominal clause.
The expletive it is used less frequently than there, appearing in sentences similar to the following pairs, where the first sentence in each pair contains no expletive. All the subjects are underlined.
To admit my mistakes is difficult.
It is difficult to admit my mistakes.
That I made mistakes is true.
It is true that I made mistakes.
As we’ve seen, the phrase to admit my mistakes is called a verbal (more specifically, a nominal infinitive phrase). And that I made mistakes is a nominal clause.
Like the expletive there, expletive it has no grammatical function in these sentences, only a stylistic function: to postpone the appearance of the subject. In the following pairs of sentences, the grammatical structure is exactly the same in both sentences, and the underlined portions are the subjects.
To trust him is difficult.
It is difficult to trust him.
To understand the theory requires patience.
It requires patience to understand the theory.
That the universe is expanding is a fact.
It is a fact that the universe is expanding.
That you have worked hard became apparent.
It became apparent that you have worked hard.
When we write sentences like these, we typically write the versions with the expletive it; the versions without it sometimes seem awkward.
In English, we also use the pronoun it as a subject in conventional expressions regarding weather or time. In these sentences, it is an indefinite pronoun, not an expletive:
It may rain today. It is about four pm.
Don’t confuse the pronoun it with the expletive it that post- pones the subject. If there is no nominal clause or infinitive phrase later in the sentence, it is a pronoun, not an expletive.
Sentence modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that don’t modify any particular word in the sentence. Instead they modify the entire sentence in an unusual way, by indicating the writer’s attitude or intention about the sentence. The following sentences begin with sentence modifiers:
Clearly, he’s a fool. Frankly, he’s a fool. Sadly, he’s a fool.
To tell the truth, so are you.
Sentence modifiers are concise ways of saying things that would otherwise require more words, even an entire additional clause.
If we rewrote the sentences above without sentence modifiers, we would produce the following sentences (or something like them):
It is clear to me that he’s a fool.
I speak frankly when I say that he’s a fool. I am sad to observe that he’s a fool.
I tell the truth when I say that you are, too.
Sentence modifiers often appear at the beginning of sentences, but, like adverbs, they can be placed elsewhere. Notice, in all the examples in this section, the placement of commas:
So, to tell the truth, are you. So are you, to tell the truth.
It’s easy to mistake sentence modifiers for adverbs. Keep in mind that true adverbs will modify some specific word or phrase
in the sentence: a verb, adjective, or another adverb. This sentence contains an adverb, modifying the phrasal verb laid out:
Mark honestly laid out his plans.
But this sentence contains a sentence modifier that reveals the attitude of the writer:
Honestly, Mark laid out his plans quite well. Similarly, don’t mistake dangling participles (or any participles)
for sentence modifiers:
Speaking frankly, Michael criticized the plan. [A participle, modifying Michael]
Frankly, this plan looks impractical. [A sentence modifier]
This next example is ambiguous when out of context: It could contain a dangling participle or a sentence modifier that looks like a dangling participle. In either case, it probably needs rewriting: delete speaking.
Speaking frankly, Michael’s criticisms seemed reasonable.
An absolute phrase, sometimes called a nominative abso- lute, is a noun phrase often followed by a modifier (a participial phrase, a prepositional phrase, or other adjectivals):
The sun having set, Dracula considered where he might have breakfast.
Some grammarians call these phrases absolute, meaning that the phrases are independent from the rest of the sentence; they are said to play no grammatical role in the sentence.
But in these chapters, we consider absolutes as noun phrases used adverbially, telling us when, where, why, or how the action of the verb is performed:
Dr. Seward being out of town, I will sign the forms for him. The classrooms infested with spiders, we called Renfield.
Harker, his hands trembling, stepped into his English classroom.
This simple test for absolutes may be helpful: If the sentence still means the same thing after you’ve added the preposition with to the beginning of the noun phrase, the noun phrase is very probably an absolute:
[With] the classrooms infested with spiders, we called Renfield. [With] Renfield taking care of the spiders, we left for lunch.
VERBS HAVE MOODS
Earlier we discussed the four-way classification of sentences according to their purposes: the declarative, interrogative, imper- ative, and exclamatory sentences.
Verbs are an important part of that classification, and a related quality of verbs in those kinds of sentences is called modality, expressed by the mood of a verb in certain sentences. Grammarians have discussed and classified verb moods in several ways, but, generally, English verbs are said to have four moods, three of them corresponding with the classifications of sentence purpose:
- Verbs in the indicative mood are those that appear in declarative sentences (Joshua went away).
- Verbs in the interrogative mood appear in interrogative sentences (Did Joshua go?). The use of the do auxiliary in questions is often a mark of the interrogative mood.
- Verbs in the imperative mood appear in imperative sen- tences (Go away!). The disappearance of the subject and some auxiliaries is often a mark of the imperative.
Exclamatory sentences, as we saw, have no special form or structure.
There’s a fourth mood, and it’s the important one at the moment because it’s useful in creating sentences that don’t correspond neatly to the four-way classification:
- Verbs in the conditional mood express necessity and possibility.
We create verbs in the conditional mood using a subset of the auxiliary verbs that are called the modal auxiliaries:
can and could shall and should will and would
may, must, and might
(By the way, these modal auxiliaries are the verbs that don’t have principal parts or infinitives.)
These modal auxiliary verbs are always the first auxiliary in the complete verb, and they help us discuss various kinds of neces- sary, possible, or permitted actions. Notice the differences (some subtle) among these sentences:
I can go to the store. I shall go to the store. I will go to the store. I may go to the store.
I might go to the store.
I could go to the store. I should go to the store. I would go to the store. I must go to the store.
Often we clarify and reinforce the conditional nature of these sentences with some modifier or additional clause, as in I could go to the store if I may borrow your car.
Notice that all of the sentences above are in some way about future possible events. So it’s not surprising that one of the modal auxiliaries that we use often is will, because (as we’ve seen) we use it for future-tense verbs: will drive, will have driven, will be driving.
This has had interesting consequences for another modal,
shall, which we don’t use much any more.
According to prescriptive grammars, shall should be used for future tenses only when the subject is in the first person; will should be reserved for future tenses when the subject is second- or third-person:
Today I shall read that article. Today they will read that article.
This conservative use of will and shall also prescribes that will should be used for the first person and shall for the second and third persons when we express an emphatic determination to perform a future action:
You may try to stop me, but I will read that article.
You may try to stop them, but they shall read that article.
Because many U. S. readers and writers are unaware of these distinctions, writers commonly use will in many cases where
we once used shall. But shall is still preserved in some contexts, as in certain questions: Shall we move on now? Let’s continue, shall we?
Another careful distinction is sometimes made between the auxiliaries may and might, recognizing might as the past tense of may. This distinction is today seldom recognized, but is still used as in these sentences:
I may be able to help if I have the time. Last week I might have been able to help.
YA REALLY OUGHTA READ THIS
Ought to (as in You ought to pipe down) is considered an unusual modal auxiliary—by some people. That requires some explanation.
Ought is an archaic form of our verb owed (past tense of owe), so it was once used as a transitive main verb.
Today ought to is used—some believe—as an unusual two- word modal auxiliary, roughly synonymous with should, as in You should [or ought to] pipe down, or That statementshould [or ought to] be enough. (Some dictionaries and grammars draw fine distinctions between the meanings of ought and should that need not concern us here.)
In this analysis, ought to is followed by a present, perfect, or progressive tense verb, or a passive verb:
You ought to see
You ought to have seen You ought to be seeing You ought to be seen
Others argue that ought is still a transitive main verb, followed by an infinitive verb beginning, as usual, with to. In this case, ought is similar to other transitive verbs that can be followed by
infinitives, like have or need. We learned about such structures in Chapters 17 and 18:
You ought to see (compare have to see or need to see)
You ought to have seen (have to have seen or need to have seen) You ought to be seeing (have to be seeing or need to be seeing) You ought to be seen (have to be seen or need to be seen)
If this analysis is correct, we again notice that infinitives can have perfect, progressive, or passive forms.
We form negative uses of this verb by simply inserting not immediately after ought, as Rubeus Hagrid kindly demonstrates in the first of the Harry Potter books:
Now listen to me, all three of you, you’re meddling in things that ought not to be meddled in.
In examples like this, the placement of not suggests (but does not prove) that ought to isn’t a grammatical unit (because it’s interrupted by not), and that the to belongs to the following verb. In other words, sentences like Hagrid’s use may be evidence that ought is a transitive main verb, followed by an infinitive.
A counter-argument might be that ought, considered as a main present-tense verb (Today you ought to clean your room), is strange indeed, for it has no progressive form (oughting?). This suggests that ought is an auxiliary, because some other auxiliaries lack progressive forms (i.e., there is no musting or shalling).
The disagreement among grammarians will surely go on, and we ought not to get involved.
THE SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD
Another mood grammarians sometimes identify (they have more moods than a thirteen-year-old) is the subjunctive mood. It appears in statements about hypothetical situations: e.g.,
suggestions, wishes, speculations, and prayers. The verb is usually the same as in the indicative mood, but in some cases, especially using the verb to be, there’s a difference. The subjunctive often appears in traditional or conventional sentences:
Blessed be the name of the Lord!
I move that this meeting be adjourned.
Sometimes we combine the subjunctive in one clause with the conditional mood in another clause:
If I were you, I would tell him off.
If he weren’t so lazy, he could be a millionaire.
Increasingly in present-day English, we don’t use distinctly subjunctive verbs. Instead we rely on other means to express the hypothetical nature of these ideas. Compare these pairs of sen- tences, in which the first sentence is in the subjunctive mood:
I suggest that Ed drop the matter.
I think that Ed should drop the matter.
If Dad were here, he would know what to do. If Dad was here, he would know what to do.
The use of was in the last example is now regarded by many as acceptable, and the If indicates the hypothetical nature of the first clause.