Chief Surgeon: What’s the bleeding time?
Medical student: Ten past ten, sir.
– Doctor in the House (1954)
One of the advantages of an enduring but currently recreational relationship with the science of linguistics is the opportunity to appreciate what might be termed the poetry of ‘metalanguage’ – the language used to talk about language. By this, I mean the wealth of metaphors which are often used to describe relationships between and within words, clauses, sentences – and even sounds. And just like poetry, it allows us to look beyond the everyday things we take for granted. The “swivel-chair linguist” Stan Carey has been regularly featuring a ‘bookmash’ on his blog where he creates a sort of ‘found poetry’ from the titles of books in his library. But where Mr Carey has a thing about book spines, I have a soft spot for gerund-participles.
The gerund-participle is the rather clunky name which some linguists use for what many of us nowadays simply refer to as an ‘~ing word’ and it is this form which I find so striking in the lexicon of language study. The verb as noun, as adjective, or even as adverbial, is grist to my rhapsodic mill. The euphonic bliss of an alliterative bleeding, blending, bleaching and blocking far outweighs the fact that I long ago forgot precisely how most of these terms relate to the language of language. Mind you, I’m on marginally safer ground with the near-Masefieldian delights of squinting, spreading, splitting and stranding.
A ‘squinting modifier’, for example, is an adverb or phrase that appears to modify either what precedes it or comes after it, as in “Working often makes me tired” (is it because I work too much, or do I have some debilitating condition which affects my ability to work?). ‘Squinting’ is so much more expressive than boring old ‘misplaced’. And the use of ‘stranding’ to describe the perfectly grammatical placing of an element such as a preposition at the end of a sentence (e.g. “Who did you give the money to?”) produces a little frisson of abandonment. Well, whatever floats your boat, as the saying goes.
Actually, ‘floating’ floats my boat too. When it’s used with a category like ‘quantifier’, it (much like our squinting modifier above) provides us with a name for something native speakers rarely give a second thought to, yet can cause problems for the unwary English learner: words like both and all which can move from one position to another without changing the sense (all the tickets were sold/the tickets were all sold).
And who among us has not been taken in by a participle or modifier dangling impertinently before our eyes? This might occur when the subject of, say, a participial phrase is different from the subject of the main clause. The classic textbook version is invariably along the lines of: Turning the corner, the old mansion loomed dark and menacing. Thank goodness old mansions aren’t too nippy on their feet…
The –ing words used in phrases such as dangling participles, floating quantifiers, squinting modifiers and preposition stranding are pretty effective in conveying some sense of movement in sentences and with this in mind, my personal favourite has to be ‘pied-piping’. This particular process can be seen clearly when one wants to avoid (for whatever reason) the preposition stranding found in “Who did you give the money to?” The more formal version would require the interrogative ‘whom’ to lure the preposition ‘to’ to tuck itself in behind it (like a Hamelin rat following the piper), so we get “To whom did you give the money?”
These descriptive terms obviously come from someone sitting down and thinking how best to categorise the constructions and processes we take for granted (‘pied-piping’, for example, was coined by an eminent syntactician with a penchant for odd metaphors, who was also responsible for something called the ‘do-gobbling rule’). It’s all part of a very human need to understand and map the world around us, and even though our little –ing words can come across as frivolous almost, there’s something sublimely lyrical about them too.