What is an adjective anyway?

I was watching Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? on which we were asked to count the adjectives in the sentence “Spencer takes good care of his hairy dog.” I’ll hold the answer they gave until later.

Obviously “hairy” is an adjective describing “dog”. Also, it’s pretty clear that “good” describes “care”. I expect most of you are saying that that’s all the adjectives in the sentence. However, consider the word “his”. It tells us which dog Spencer is taking care of. That is one of the definitions of an adjective. I know many of you are shouting at me that “his” is a pronoun. This I am not contesting. But since when is a particular word limited to one function? Anyway, there is at least one source (see dictionary.com) which lists “his” as an adjective. Now, by the same logic, one might consider “the” and “a” as adjectives even though they are generally considered to be articles and so the argument could be made that “his” is really an article. On the flip side, one could argue that articles are really adjectives.

On the show, they said the answer is two. I contend the answer is three since “his” is serving as an adjective in the sentence. And yes, I would accept the contention that the articles are also adjectival in nature if that is a necessary consequence of that assertion.

Perhaps I’ll be back with more musing about grammar in the future. Meanwhile, let me end with, “Flames away!”

Stupid Grammar Rules

I was pondering English grammar today. Actually, I quite regularly ponder English grammar. I’m strange that way I guess. But what came to my mind today was not a rant on how nobody gets it right or how complex it is. I ended up pondering why some of the rules many of us have been taught exist.

Possibly the most common rule that all of us have been chastized for breaking is that silly one about ending a sentence with a preposition. Why is it wrong to end a sentence with a preposition? I remember reading somewhere that this was a rule that was arbitrarily invented because someone felt that English should follow Latin rules. Oh yes, here is the document I was reading. Basically, English is not Latin or any other language and so conventions from another language need not apply to English. Either way, the preceeding link is a very good discussion of prepositions at the end of sentences.

My personal favourite “rule” of grammar is that we should never split infinitives. Why? An infinitive in English is two words. It’s perfectly natural to insert something between those words! In fact, in many cases, going out of the way to avoid splitting an infinitive simply makes the statement so convoluted that it requires a post-doctoral education to unravel it. That is hardly an effective way to communicate. In reality, there is no particular hard rule about splitting the infinitive; indeed, it seems that the rule about never splitting an infinitive may be rooted in the same fetish that yielded the above rule about prepositions: that English should behave like Latin. Again, I point out that English is not Latin nor is it any other language but English. It does truly seem to be a matter of preference whether one avoids splitting infinitives where possible or simply makes no effort to avoid doing so. Personally, I see nothing wrong with splitting infinitives and will certainly never insist that someone reword something to avoid it. See this page for a good discussion of split infinitives.

Doubtless there are other stupid rules of grammar but the two noted above are the ones that get under my skin the most. Neither one is rooted in actual English tradition but in some fetish to make English behave like Latin (as far as I can tell anyway). Why can’t we simply let English be English?