This file is an adaptation of a file at John Lawler's Web site.  The reason for having it at the AUE Web site is so that its contents will be included in the index file for the AUE Web site Concordance.  At any given time, this file may not be fully up-to-date.  For the latest version of John's index file, go to

English Grammar FAQ
As posted to alt.usage.english

    These are some of the postings I have made, mostly to the newsgroup alt.usage.english. As a linguistics professor, with a special interest in English and a background including some time as a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, I frequently have to explain how things work to people who don't really know much about English grammar. I don't find it particularly disturbing that people ask questions about English grammar; after all, this is why people ask questions, and this is what I do (in part) for a living. I do find it somewhat disturbing to see how many English speakers are clueless about the realities of English, and how many different varieties of confusion they display, and how often one encounters them.

    The questions I encounter and attempt to answer in this group are thus far more valuable to me than the answers, because any linguist generally knows the answers to these, and has generally gotten tired of answering them. What I value more is questions, which allow me to frame my understanding in a context that makes it more valuable to others. Thus this collection, to keep me from repeating myself so often.

    Each post represents some question (or at least is sparked by a posting by somebody else), which is usually quoted at the beginning in the typical Usenet style (using ">" as a context-citation marker and stacking these as needed for meta-context). I have edited them lightly and deleted some material in the course of tightening them up, and I've deleted a lot of the original context, including names of most of the original posters, so they aren't the same as they were when sent. The longer ones often contain several posts on the same subject, with discussion of issues raised; these are called "extended discussions" below.

    These files now have a concordance, thanks to the efforts of Markus Laker and Bob Cunningham, of the alt.usage.english Website. Click on the concordance link to search for any word or phrase in use here, or in the other sites the a.u.e site points at. One-stop usage shopping.

Series 2 (which dates from 1996 for the most part) is lightly HTML-ized, while
Series 1 (1995) is almost strictly ASCII. In order of size (longest first), the posts in Series 1 are:

  • a list of interesting books about English and language
  • an extended discussion of English tenses
  • an extended discussion of the phenomenon of Negative Polarity Items
  • an extended discussion of English Quantifier/Negative ambiguities
  • an extended discussion of the use of commas in English orthography
  • a very detailed discussion of English modal auxiliaries
  • an extended discussion of mass and count nouns
  • an explanation of how the English phrase the hell is used
  • the use of non-standard English constructions,
    exemplified by amn't and the past participle of wake
  • the origins, spelling, and pronunciation of the word alumin(i)um
  • the proper use of hyphens in English orthography
  • the interpretations of participles in headlines
  • the sense of the English slang term zilch, with usage notes
  • on grammatical "correctness"
  • the placement and interpretation of only in English sentences
  • English phrasal verbs, with bibliography
  • a discussion of the proper use of whom
  • differences between beside and besides
  • "eye dialect" phrases like gonna and wanna
  • the proper pronunciation of vehicle
  • about the American linguist Henry Lee Smith
  • a reference to an article on the English as far as ... construction
  • a clarification on two types of English that-clauses
  • a discussion of equative constructions
  • a modest proposal for a new word in English
  • an apicobuccal description of a ceremony of The Academy

  • Series 2 follows up on some topics and adds some different ones. I've linked these behind the scenes to one another and to the Series 1 posts, to some extent, but be aware that not every concept is necessarily linked. Ars longa, vita brevis, after all.
    Mostly in order of size, the posts in Series 2 are:

  • an extended discussion about the it in It's raining
  • my contribution to the Culture Wars on the use of they for generic or gender-neutral reference
  • a discussion on the history of English, with an excursus on Literacy as Technology
  • The Cliff's (as my students say) on English Object Complements
  • a discussion of the common grammatical rule known asExtraposition
  • a discussion of some of the peculiarities of Indian English
  • a discussion of the varieties of English L-sounds, with phonetic instructions
  • more on phrasal verbs
  • a discussion of the use of that and which in relative clauses
  • the can't help thinking construction
  • the difference between bring and take
  • a discussion of English spelling reform
  • an attempt to make some mathematical sense out of the perennial question of
    whether there are an infinite number of English sentences
  • a discussion of the English vowel schwa, and other central vowels
  • some remarks on doubly-apostrophic contractions like
    couldn't've, wouldn't've, and hadn't've
  • the meaning and usage of the American English distinction between got vs gotten
  • English vowel phonemes, with phonetic charts of those that occur in general and after /r/
  • on the relative importance of writing and language
  • when you should use "a" and when you should use "an"
  • more on the appropriate use of commas
  • the pronunciation, the usage and occasionally the spelling of modal paraphrases like hafta
  • a discussion of the colloquial expression "Quote, unquote"
  • whether buoy rhymes with boy, or aural with oral
  • does verbing weird language?
  • a lengthy and somewhat technical description of the syntactic concept island
  • an experiment you can perform in the privacy of your own mouth to see How Canadians really pronounce house
  • more on a particular class of Negative Polarity Items, including the Give a Damn construction
  • the use and spelling of any( )more
  • an example of what passes for humor among linguists, dealing with Negative Polarity Items triggered in strange ways

  •   These FAQ pages were visited a total of 53,589 times, or 146 times per day, during school year 2000-2001
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