grammar is relationships

This is not a post about American versus British English. I hope you’ll indulge me. It's come out of some Twitter conversations this afternoon.

It started when I read this sentence in James Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns:
Function words require social skills to use properly.

And I wondered how it had got(ten) past a copyeditor. So I did a Twitter poll to see if other people were happy with the sentence. The poll looked like this: 

So, 25% of more than 300 people thought it sounded fine. 75% felt there was something weird about it. Given how I phrased the question, it's possible that the 75% had 100 different reasons for thinking it weird. But considering some of the tweet-replies I had, I know that at least some people had the same reaction that I did. 

The problem with the sentence for me is that there is no reasonable subject for the verb to use. Compare it to this sentence with the same kinds of parts in the same order:  
 The law requires every driver to drive safely.

In that case, the subject of the infinitive to drive is every driver—every driver is to drive safely. So, what you've got is:
  • Main verb: requires
  • Subject of main verb: the law
  • Object of main verb = infinitive clause: every driver to drive safely

But that doesn't work for Pennebaker's sentence. Social skills to use properly is not a complete clause because (a) there's no object of the verb to use (to use what properly?), and (b) social skills is in a position where it could be the subject of to use (as in the driving example), but it's not.  The sentence could be "fixed" in a number of ways that involve making it clearer that function words are the things being used.
  1. Make the infinitive into a passive, so it's clear that function words is the object of use: Function words require social skills to be used properly.
  2. Move use closer to function words so that it's clear how they relate to each other: To use function words properly requires social skills. (Or Using function words properly requires social skills.)
  3. Move function words closer to useIt takes social skills to use function words properly.
Number 1 is a little ambiguous (it sounds a bit like function words are bossing social skills around), so I'd prefer 2 or 3, where it's really clear that function words is the object of use

But there are sentences with require that do work more like Pennebaker's sentence:
Crops require water to grow.

Here, it's not the water that's growing, it's the crops. So it doesn't work like the driving sentence—the object of require is not water to grow. In both sentences, I've put the object of require in blue, so you can see that the sentences have different structures. Another way that you can tell they're different structures is that you can replace to with in order to in one and not the other and can rephrase one with that and no to, but not the other.
The law requires every passenger in order to drive safely.
Crops require water in order to grow.
 The law requires that every driver drive safely. [or drives if you're not a subjunctive user]

Crops require that water grow.

So one of the reasons I wanted to write this post is to make this big point:
Grammar isn't just where words go in a sentence, it's how they relate to each other.
The fact that the crops sentence is the same shape as Pennebaker's sentence doesn't mean that Pennebaker's sentence is grammatical, because it still has the problem that there is no subject for to use. Notice that it can't be rephrased in either of the ways that the other two can:
Function words require social skills in order to use properly
Function words require that social skills use properly
The last possibility is to interpret use as being in middle voice (as opposed to active or passive voice). This is when the verb acts kind of like a passive (where what would have been the active object becomes the subject), but doesn't get the passive be +past participle form. English has some verbs that work this way.
I cut the bread easily. (active voice: subject is the cutter)
The bread is cut easily. (passive voice: subject is what's cut)
The bread cuts easily. (middle voice: subject is what's cut)
Grammar Girl has a podcast and post on middle voice in English if you're interested. English has more of a 'middlish' voice than a 'middle', as we're really limited in how we can use it and it doesn't have a special verb form, as it does in some other languages. As Grammar Girl notes:
[English] middle-voice sentences usually include some adverbial meaning, negation, or a modal verb, or a combination of the three. “The spearheads didn’t cast very well” has both negation (“didn’t”) and an adverb phrase (“very well”). “The screw screwed in more easily than I thought it would” has the adverb phrase “more easily than I thought it would.”
While Pennebaker's sentence does have an adverb, properly, it's not one that I'm super-comfortable using with a middle construction (?The bread cuts properly), but maybe some people would like it better than I do. (Proper is used more as an adjective and adverb of intensity in some colloquial BrEs than in my AmE.)

So, are the 25% who like the sentence reading it as having middle voice? I'm not totally convinced, because I think that the English middle doesn't do well with fancier sentence constructions as with require:
?That bread requires a good knife to cut easily.
?That bread requires a steady hand to cut easily.
Putting an object between requires and to makes it confusing—is it the bread or the knife/hand that is cutting easily? If it's the knife or hand, then the sentence would usually require an it to stand for the bread: The bread requires a good knife to cut it easily. 

So, anyhow, when I put the Pennebaker sentence up, some people wondered if it was like this dialect phenomenon, found in some parts of the US (particularly western Pennsylvania) and some parts of the UK (particularly Scotland):
The car needs washed.
It was natural for them to make that connection because both Pennebaker's sentence and the needs washed sentence would work in other dialects if the final verb were made passive. But note that what needs to be added to the sentences to create a passive is different in the two cases. In needs washed, the washed is in the past participle needed for a passive. But in Pennebaker's sentence the infinitive verb is not in any way in passive form.
The car needs to be washed.
The function words require social skills to be used properly.

So, I asked the 25% who accepted the sentence to write back and tell me where they were from. And it turns out they're from anywhere.... New Jersey, California, New England, southeastern US, eastern and western Canada, up and down the UK, the Caribbean. That makes it look like it's not a dialect feature. 

An interesting thing about the 25%, though, was that a few got in touch to say: "I clicked that the sentence was fine for me, but once I started thinking about it, I was less sure."

After the dialect idea didn't pan out, I joked that the next step was to give personality tests to people who didn't like the sentence. And while it was a joke, I think there is probably something to the idea  that some people read for meaning and don't get the grammatical 'clang' that I got because getting the meaning is good enough. If they can get the meaning without a deep look at the grammar, the grammar is irrelevant. I'd wonder if people who get a 'clang' with this sentence are also more likely to also notice misplaced modifiers and dangling participles. A lot of us who notice these things notice them because we've been trained in looking at language analytically, or we're just very literal readers. Had I heard Pennebaker's sentence, I probably wouldn't have noticed that there was no workable subject for the verb use. I would have just understood it and gone merrily on my way. But in reading, CLANG.

Anyhow, the main reason I wanted to blog this was to make that point that Grammar is how words relate to each other. That two sentences with the same shape can be working in very different ways. And on that note, I'll leave you with an experiment that Carol Chomsky did way back when. She gave children a doll with a blindfold over its eyes and asked them if this sentence was true—and if not, to make the sentence true.
The doll is easy to see. 
Notice how that sentence doesn't work like this sentence:
The doll is eager to see.
In the first, the doll is being seen. We can paraphrase it as The doll is easy for me to see. In the second, the doll is who will do the seeing. We can't paraphrase it as The doll is eager for me to see, because it means The doll is eager for the doll to see. The words easy and eager determine how we interpret the relations of the other words in the sentence. In linguistic terms, they license different relationships in the sentence. (In these sentences it's adjectives doing that relationship-determining, but in most sentences, it's the verbs. In our requires sentences above, we can see that require licenses a range of possible sentence structures—words do that too.)

Understanding that a blindfolded doll is easy to see is something that most kids don't master till they're into their school years. When asked to make the doll easy to see, the younger kids take off the doll's blindfold. This shows us that kids take a while to fully take account of the grammar, not just the words, in sentences.

Hope you didn't mind my little grammatical foray...


  1. This is interesting. Thank you for discussing it.

  2. To properly use where no function words have been used before.

    Social skills: The final frontier.

  3. I would have been in the 25%, had I read your tweet earlier. I will admit that I had to read the sentence a few times to work out the meaning, which happens to me a lot with academic language. Both of the "bread requires" sentences also sound fine to me, even the first time through. I think you're right about reading for meaning. I just assume a published work has proper sentences and I try my best to figure them out, not analyze the grammar. I'm a former chemist and computer scientist, if that gives you any clues. LOL! Great post!

  4. For me, "The bread cuts easily" and "I cut the bread easily" have subtly different meanings - in the second example, someone else might have had trouble cutting it!

    Also, whereas my husband, from Northern Ireland, would say "the car needs washed", I grew up in Southern England saying "the car needs washing"!

    1. I wanted to make a similar comment: "needs washed" is very Northern Irish as well as Scottish.

    2. It's also famous as an extremely regional speech pattern around Pittsburgh, PA in the US.

    3. You are right about the subtly different meanings! The podcast linked in the post goes into more detail on this: "The bread cuts easily" is sometimes called a "dispositional middle voice", because it refers to the disposition — the inherent nature — of the bread.

    4. I’m in North-East England, and “needs washed” sounds reasonably OK to me. I think people round here would say “The car wants washed”, or similarly might say to a child “Your face wants washed”. Interpreting these literally, it kind of personifies the car (or the face) as if they have asked to be washed!

  5. I missed the survey, but I would have been with the "absolutely fine" crowd. I'm also fine with "Rocks require muscle to lift."

    I'm less comfortable with either sentence if you change "require" to "need".

  6. I can't help thinking that this sentence, which you proposed as a (more grammatical?) improvement ...

    To use function words properly requires social skills.

    Resemembles the original (less grammatical?) sentence ...

    Function words require social skills to use properly.

    ... in one key respect: neither bothers referencing the human beings who are obviously the implicit subject of the sentence.

    Thus when we read your version ...

    To use function words properly requires social skills.

    ... we're filling in the implicit subject to read the sentence as ...

    [For a person] to use function words properly requires social skills.

    It seems to me it's much the same with the (less grammatical?) original ...

    Function words require social skills [for a person] to use properly.

    Later, when meditating on the 25% who found Pennebaker's sentence fine, you note:

    If they can get the meaning without a deep look at the grammar, the grammar is irrelevant. I'd wonder if people who get a 'clang' with this sentence are also more likely to also notice misplaced modifiers and dangling participles.

    When I read your second sentence I got a 'clang' when I read your split infinitive "to also notice". Now, it strikes me that your average split infinitive is quite a bit like Pennebaker's ungrammatical sentence. Which is to say that some people are taught that it's a solecism that must never be used in proper writing and other people are either blissfully unaware that it's a solecism or (and this may apply to you) simply refuse to acknowledge its gravity as such.

    Or, possibly, you didn't get the grammatical 'clang' that I got from your split infinitive because you felt getting the meaning across was good enough.

    I apologize if I sound cruel or gratuitously facetious. Your point that grammar is how words relate to each other is well taken and, as baffled as I was initially by your finding fault with Pennebaker's sentence (I guess I'm a 25%er), I understood and appreciated your analysis of its issues.

    But as someone who still isn't clear when a word like "about" is an adverb and when it's a preposition -- and who's losing interest in knowing the difference as I head into senescence -- there is, I confess, a limit to my appetite for grammatical parsing and nuance.

  7. Some of these usages need great care to distinguish between.

    Can't help wondering why Pennebaker thinks function words need social skills to use anyway.

  8. And I can't think why someone who considers himself an expert on grammar screwed up that sentence.

  9. I'm in the 25%, though on second reading I'm not sure how function words can acquire social skills (snicker). I wonder if the split has to do with whether people are comfortable with an unspoken subject or not. 'Social skills' obviously refers to an unspoken subject 'people' which has been dropped to be able to move the object of the infinitive phrase to the subject position. Or maybe 'function words' has been topicalized in the subject position?

    Would y'all also have problems with a sentence like "Bread requires steady hands to cut properly."? It seems to have the same structure as the aforementioned sentence where the object of the infinitive phrase has become the subject.

  10. I'd be happy with 'To cut bread properly, steady hands are required'
    To use function words properly, social skills are needed. Really? What social skills exactly? Tact, compassion, leadership? Do tell.

  11. I would edit to "The proper use of function words requires social skills" (for formal contexts) or "To use function words properly, you need social skills" (for informal contexts).

    The construction "needs washed" etc. was virtually unknown to me until I started scouring eBay listings in service of a hobby. Subjectively, it seems to appear in 25% to 50% of listings! I grew up in Michigan and had Illinois and Texan parents, then moved to the Pacific Northwest.

  12. I have no trouble with this sentence:

    1a. To use function words is hard.

    Here the subject is the clause "To use function words". The sentence may be transformed into this one:

    1b. Function words are hard to use.

    As far as I know, both sentences are acceptable in all dialects of English. So whatever problem there may be with Pennebaker's sentence, it isn't that it doesn't mention the humans using function words. Now replace 1a's predicate with a slightly heavier one whose verb is a lexical verb, not just "is":

    2a. To use function words requires skill.

    A transform of the same sort produces:

    2b. Function words require skill to use.

    If there is anything wrong with Pennebaker's sentence "Function words require social skills to use properly.", it might be that the syntactic construct is a bit awkward with the slightly heavier predicate, but, for me, the syntax is impeccable.

    For anyone with doubts: how do you feel about a slightly lighter sentence with a similar construct, say: "Chess requires skill to play"?

  13. Rachael Churchill13 August, 2019 09:50

    I'm sceptical about the "easy to see" experiment. From my experience with kids, I expect they were being over-literal and reasoning that part of the doll was not easy to see because it was covered, not that they were mis-parsing the grammar. Did the researchers do a control experiment where the doll's mouth was covered? I would predict that the children would also say that doll was not easy to see, and would make it easier to see by removing the cover from its mouth.

  14. Rachael Churchill13 August, 2019 10:19

    I think the sentence is fine for the reasons Rosie explains. And I'm an analytical reader who graduated in linguistics and now works as an editor, not someone who just reads for meaning and doesn't notice the grammatical structure.

  15. Interesting example from Rosie, thanks. I agree that that one would be much more likely to be accepted in print and would go unnoticed in speech, though I might look at it twice if editing. Interesting that it works with 'require' but not as well with 'needs' (*Chess needs skills to play), which again makes the case that this is unrelated to the 'needs washed' phenomenon.

    The problem with the 'function words' sentence is not in itself that the subject of 'use' isn't spoken, but that 'social skills' is serving neither the subject role nor the object role, so it's not clear what 'use' relates to. I think the reason the 'chess' sentence works better is that 'play' and 'chess' clearly relate to each other. So, you get a 'play' without a subject or object, but look, there's the object at the start of the sentence. That's using meaning to solve the problem, and it works. But in the function word sentence, it was less clear what was being used, because social skills can be used and function words can be used, so it was harder to resolve the problem of what 'use' relates to. All these issues about judgements and meanings and parsing and grammaticality raise questions for theories of grammar and the relationship between what grammar is and how it contributes to production and comprehension. But I'm on holiday/vacation, so I'm going to stop thinking about it now! :)

    1. I probably have to say 'Chess needs skills to play' is no good for *me*. Maybe it's good for others. And if people who can say 'needs washed' can say '[Object] needs skills to play', then maybe those are related, but the parenthetical point I was trying to make was that the acceptability of the 'requires' sentences doesn't necessarily relate to the 'needs' sentences, since it's the verb that runs the show and they don't necessarily act grammatically the same even though they are semantically very similar.

    2. But Rachael's example wasn't "Chess needs skills to play", but "Chess needs skill (sing.) to play". The first sounds a bit weird to me, but the second fine. I'm not sure why.

    3. Rachael Churchill15 August, 2019 17:14

      It was Rosie's example rather than mine. FWIW, I think the singular and plural versions sound OK.

  16. "Function words require social skills to use properly" is fine to me (until I start really thinking about it. Even then it's more like I see why someone else would find this wrong). The chess example doesn't work for me. I also don't say "needs washed".

  17. I heard an example of the middle voice using 'test' today, which I have never heard before. It was on BBC R2's phone-in, the Jeremy Vine Show (about 25 minutes in), where they were discussing the idea floated by the Opposition to offer university places only once A-level exam results are known rather than on the basis of predictions, as now.

    A young lady had phoned in and said she hadn't got the results her teachers had predicted, explaining that was probably because "I don't test very well".

  18. @Zouk Delors, I can imagine using "test" that way when something is difficult to test, or some problem is difficult to test for, but applying it to a person who presumably doesn't do very well on tests is strange. Even turning it into passive doesn't help. "I'm not tested very well" doesn't mean doesn't mean what's intended either.

  19. Boris: Back when I was in the Air Force (80's-90's), enlisted members had to take tests to get promoted. It was not uncommon to say that somebody was slow to get promoted because "Sgt So-and-So doesn't test well." Now, this is example is kind of specialized because the situation was limited and well known to everyone in the conversation, but it was still AmE and decades ago.

  20. BrE, Scot, mid 60s. I’m not sure if I’ve actually heard “I don’t test well”, but to me it sounds a very natural and succinct way to express what is obviously meant, whatever the grammatical niceties. I have routinely heard “I don’t interview well”.

  21. Thanks for the interesting musings. I'm wondering if part of the problem in English is now compact these structures are. In "function words require social skills to use properly", the verb "use" is indentical to the inifinitive. In a language like Finnish, the verb might be conjugated into a form far different from the infinitive: something such as "käyttääkseen", as opposed to the inf. "käyttää" ("use"). That conjugated form "käyttääkseen" consists of the inf. "käyttää" with a translative case ending (yes, infinitives in Finnish can take case endings too) and a third-person possessive suffix, so it all means something like "for him/her/it/them to be able to use". In English, however, there's so much intended meaning packed into the base form "use".

  22. "Function words require social skills to use properly."

    As I say to mmyself when unsuccessfully trying to parse a cryptic crossword clue, "What else could it be?"

    I see the sentence as a converstional offering that found its way into print, not quite robust enough to stand alone, triggering a pause due to lack of completion in some way.

  23. Function words require social skills to use [them] properly.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)