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HAIRGEL: A Preview

There are two main types of English grammars. Traditional English grammars try to shoehorn English into the ill-fitting glass slippers of Latin. You know you’re reading a traditional grammar if it throws around terms like pluperfect subjunctive and uses Reed-Kellogg sentence diagrams. Modern English grammars apply a more descriptivist approach, treating English much as a field researcher treats an obscure undocumented language or as a biology student treats a fetal pig. You know you’re using a modern grammar if your grandmother rejects your analyses because they’re not what she was taught in school.1

While other universities have been rushing to release their own modern grammars, the Harrington Academy in Rochester decided to leapfrog the competition. The Harrington Academy in Rochester Grammar of the English Language (or HAIRGEL, as it is often abbreviated) is widely considered to be the first postmodern English grammar. A work in progress, HAIRGEL is released a dab at a time. Through a lucrative (for them) contract with the Harrington Academy, SpecGram has exclusive rights to publish previews of new chapters as they become available. In the excerpt that follows, HAIRGEL documents a newly discovered part of speech.

12   The category of postnominals

This book takes the controversial but ultimately well-supported view that English grammars have long made an error in focusing on prepositions. The units misidentified as prepositional phrases should be recategorized as postnominal phrases.

Insufficiency of the traditional definition of a preposition

The word preposition comes from the Latin for “to put before”. Any word is a preposition by this definition, since it comes before something.2 If all words are prepositions, no words are.

The fundamental nature of postnominals can be revealed via the semantic restoration effect. A cough test,3 in which an entire word is replaced by the sound of a cough, illustrates this point.

  1. Caitlin is going to Rome.
  2. Caitlin is going to ⟨cough⟩.
  3. Caitlin is going ⟨cough⟩ Rome.

In [ii], where is Caitlin going? Will she be back in time for cribbage and scones tomorrow? Contrast [ii] with [iii], which has 100% of the information content of sentence [i].4

In the above example, the meaning is very different if Rome is replaced with Cleveland or Lollapalooza or the bakery. If it’s that last option, could she pick up some scones?5 In contrast, so-called prepositions can often be substituted in a way that postnominals cannot.

  1. Bernard is getting on the bus.
  2. Bernard is getting in the bus.

Both [i] and [ii] carry the same meaning. The words on and in could be replaced with inside or into or even atop, depending on how badly the local transit budget is overstretched.

There is little to no information content in the so-called preposition. Much like the French article le or la, the meaning of a sentence can be understood even if the wrong one is chosen.6 We therefore propose renaming prepositions as “prepostnominal particles”, or particles for short.7

Postnominal phrases vs. NPs

The key difference between noun phrases and postnominal phrases is that the former are generally complements of a verb, while the latter are generally adjuncts.8 As explained in Ch. 2, verbs are the mad kings of the sentence world, which is why they have obligatory subjects and treat other NPs as objects. Verbs have a mind of their own in how to do things, and woe betide the subject that disagrees! The verb licenses complements and is very opinionated on which of the otherwise nearly interchangeable prepostnominal particles are permitted to follow.9

Headless postnominal phrases

If the verb is in a bad mood, it can scream “Off with its head!” at the nearest postnominal phrase. In this case, it is up to the prepostnominal particle to do its best to pick up the pieces and try to make something of the shattered remnants of the sentence.

  1. Are you coming with us?
  2. %
    Are you coming with?

The % symbol in sentence [ii] indicates that native speakers are divided as to the grammatical acceptability of this construction. We hypothesize that speakers from broken families may be more accepting of this broken sentence, possibly because they can more easily cope with the verb’s rage fits. Anyway, let’s check in on Bernard.

  1. Bernard got off the bus at Eighth Street.
  2. Bernard got off at Eighth Street.

Sentence [ii] is polysemous, but if we ignore the sense that explains why no one ever sits next to him, the meaning is identical to sentence [i]. Sentence [ii] illustrates that headless postnominal phrases can occur even if the verb is happy. In this particular case, the bus has already blown past Ninth Street, so it can’t be there in sentence [ii] to be the head of the postnominal phrase. Additionally, the bus was the subject of the sentence previous to this (yes, this) one, which makes it an NP, and we’ve already established that postnominal phrases are different from noun phrases.

A common question is whether with in sentence [3ii] and off in sentence [4ii] are adverbs. It’s clear that they are trying to be. We can hardly blame them; who would want to live their life as a lowly particle when they could join the star-studded class of adverbs like gracefully, beautifully, and nauseatingly? English is very class conscious, so it doesn’t let words jump categories without a fight, but it occasionally happens, because language.

Postnominal phrases without a particle

Some combinations of postnominals and verbs do not require a particle.

  1. I’m going to the store.
  2. I’m going home.

Although the verb go is prone to unstable outbursts,10 it can also function as a perfectly normal verb, as in example [i] above, in which the particle to appears between the verb and the postnominal phrase. The store I’m going to is pretty nice, and sometimes they have scones, so there’s no reason for anyone to be unhappy. In [ii], home is comfy, and the bakery section at the grocery store had a two-for-one sale, so I also picked up some tasty muffins for this afternoon. Everyone’s in such a good mood that home doesn’t need a particle to protect it from contact with go.

Multiplicity of prepostnominal particles

  1. The cat came home.
  2. The cat came from upstairs.
  3. The cat came out of the bedroom.
  4. The cat came out from under the bed.
  5. Come on out from under the bed, Kitty!

Sometimes more than one particle is required to mediate the interaction between the verb and the postnominal phrase. Examples [i–v] above show the prepostnominal slot being occupied by zero, one, two, three, or four particles. The cat has really sharp claws, so we can hardly blame the postnominals for wanting to keep a respectful distance. In any case, prepostnominal particles clearly obey Bose–Einstein statistics.

Trichotomous distinctions in prepostnominal particles

  1. Brianna lives above the Robertsons.
  2. Brianna lives below the Robertsons.
  3. Brianna lives with the Robertsons.

Prepostnominal particles often occur as triplets with positive, negative, or zero value along some axis. In the example above, the implied reference axis is the vertical line passing through the Robertsons’ apartment, and sentences [i–iii] exemplify the |ψz=+1⟩, | ψz=-1⟩, and | ψz=0⟩ projections onto this axis.

Once again, nearly all the meaning is contained in the postnominal phrase the Robertsons, which provides the key information that if we’re going to be visiting Brianna to drop off our Christmas gift anyway, we might as well drop off the Robertsons’ gifts in the same trip. The prepostnominal particle only adds a small amount of information, specifically regarding who will be upset if one of those gifts is tap shoes.11

  1. Kitty McWhiskers ran up the stairs.
  2. Kitty McWhiskers ran down the stairs.
  3. Kitty McWhiskers is sleeping on the stairs.

Setting aside the obvious questions,12 sentences [i–iii] again illustrate the use of prepostnominal particles indicating positive, negative, and zero values in the vertical direction. Since prepostnominal particles obey Bose–Einstein statistics and can exist in three different states, we conclude that prepostnominal particles are spin-1 bosons.13

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1 Which, ironically, she calls “grammar school”.

2 Yes, punctuation counts. See Ch. 24, “Punctuation: Not just decorative bling”.

3 This is different than the test used by proctologists.*

* Some grammars helpfully point out that the difference between a proctologist and a syntactician is whether the posterior appears in the inessive or elative case.

4 Actually 105%, since you know to keep your distance because the speaker is sick.

5 We hear that Lollapalooza has some good scones too.

6 So that woman at the Louvre shouldn’t have been so haughty when we couldn’t remember that musée takes le.

7 Since this can be abbreviated to subsets of the string “PPNP”, it is backward compatible with your previous analyses of prepositional phrases. You’re welcome.

8 Like the professors who wrote this grammar.

9 We can’t stress enough that the role of everything else in the sentence is to make the verb happy. We lost three good men writing the verb chapter. On the bright side, that means more royalties for those of us who survived.

10 As shown in Chapter 2, it can blow away the subject when used with certain reflexive verbs or with a destination where one’s arrival is generally postponed until the afterlife.

11 Answer: everyone.

12 What kind of a family name is McWhiskers? If you had that as a last name, why would you name your daughter Kitty? Is she narcoleptic? Do they need help carrying her to sleep somewhere safer? Wait, isn’t their cat’s name Jennifer? What is wrong with these people?

13 We trust that this surprising result will help linguists manage their physics envy.

The Linguist Parallel Parking ChallengePjerpe N. D’Kular & Oldja Loppy
SpecGram Vol CLXXXIV, No 1 Contents