English is Not Latin, People!

Yet some of our fussiest grammatical rules were woodenly borrowed from that language.

Every language has an internal logic of its own. Ideally, rules for formal writing should be in harmony with this internal logic. These rules can be stricter than the rules for casual speech or dialects – every language needs a way to mark formal from informal speech – but they should not actually violate the internal logic of the language.

Let me give you an example of a sentence that is grammatically incorrect but sounds like natural English:

Me and Liam are going to play Minecraft for 12 hours.”

Technically ungrammatical, but still a natural English sentence. Not only can you easily tell what it means, but it sounds like it was uttered by a native speaker, albeit a native speaker who is not trying to sound educated.

Contrast that with this:

Recently I go Vancouver.”

This sentence was spoken by a non-native English speaker, and you can immediately tell because it gives that jarring sense that it violates the language’s internal logic.

Here’s another pair:

“There is a vast right-wing conspiracy trying to destroy my husband and I.”

vs.

Again the same it felt.

The vast right-wing conspiracy sentence commits a grammatical error (an overcorrection), but it’s still a natural English sentence. The second one has perfect subject-verb agreement, but it is jarring and not natural.

The following are three ways that Latin grammar has been imported to English when it probably should not have been.

Noun Case

In Latin, case on nouns is super important. It’s how you can tell who is doing what to whom. So if someone is the subject of the sentence, you would never call them “me.” And you would never call them “I” if they are the direct object.

In Latin, every single noun has an ending that matches its number (singular or plural), grammatical gender, and one of five cases. This ending tells you exactly what is going on. So, if you like, you can scramble the word order in the sentence for effect. Cool trick, and it follows the internal logic of Latin.

English mostly doesn’t have case. (Just on our pronouns.) Instead, we indicate part of speech (subject noun, direct object, etc.) with word order. In fact, this word order rule is so strong that you can even put the wrong case on a pronoun (as in the examples above), and it still sounds natural. The word order rule overrides the case rule. This shows that English as a language doesn’t really care about case.

It also shows how important word order is in every English sentence. “Again the same it felt” sounds weird only because it violates English word order.

Splitting Infinitives

This one is such a simple misunderstanding that it earns a forehead slap.

Latin infinitives can’t be split because they are just one word. “To dance” in Latin is saltare. You cannot say salta-tarde-re (“to slowly dance”) because it violates the internal logic of the language and it wouldn’t even sound like coherent words to a Latin speaker.

Other other hand, English infinitives are two words. This allows us to split them and put an adverb in there, for effect. This is a move that English allows, just as Latin allows scrambled word order.

After all, what could be a more natural-sounding English phrase than,

To boldly go where no man has gone before”?

When you split an infinitive, you are not violating the internal logic of English. You are employing an English superpower that Latin does not have.

On this blog, when I post I try to put adverbs before or after the infinitive so that I sound more educated. Educated people’s ears have been trained that not splitting an infinitive sounds more elegant. But this is a marker of formal versus informal speech, not of native versus non-native grammar.

Ending Sentences with Prepositions

German has this feature called separable verbs. A separable verb has a preposition as a part of it, and when you speak, you are required to move the preposition to the end of the sentence. That is what these verbs do. If the preposition is not put at the end, it will not sound like a natural German sentence.

For example (courtesy of my German-scholar father):

Paul kommt morgen an. “Paul arrives tomorrow.” (From ankommen, to arrive.)

Paul reiste gestern ab. “Paul left yesterday.” (From abreisen, to depart.)

Ruf ihn an! “Call him up!” (From anrufen.)

Du ringst ein Beispiel von mir ab. “You are squeezing an example out of me.” (From abringen.)

Very funny, Dad!

Notice in the last example that you can and should put all kinds of things between the parts of the separable verb, including direct object and any prepositions you happen to need. This used to cause me trouble when I studied German. I’d be tracking a sentence but couldn’t find out until the end what the actual verb was.

Now, English is a Germanic language and it has this feature too. Examples:

“I am going to see this journey to Mordor through.”

“You guys have ten seconds to to start cleaning all this Silly String up.”

“And that one fateful tweet brought her entire career down.”

In English, the only thing you can put between the parts of the verb is the direct object. Some verbs allow you to put it there or after the preposition:

“And that one fateful tweet brought down her entire career.”

“Start cleaning up the Silly String.”

Some English phrasal verbs don’t allow you to put anything between the verb part and the preposition part:

“I like to hang out with Lord of the Rings fans.”

I like to hang Lord of the Rings fans out with.

I like to hang out Lord of the Rings fans with.”

But even with these, the preposition(s) is/are part of the verb. Which means that where the verb goes, they go, even if that is all the way to the end of the sentence:

“Lord of the Rings fans are not the only people I like to hang out with.” (Yes. Natural English sentence.)

“Lord of the Rings fans are not the only people out with whom I like to hang.” (No! No! No! This sounds like a person who is so concerned with sounding educated that they’ve wandered off the broad highway of the internal logic of English and proceeded to get themselves all tangled up in the bushes of grammatical work-arounds, producing a sentence that will be as appealing and intelligible to the the hearer as a bad case of poison ivy.)

If you must use these work-arounds in your writing in order to show off your erudition, or even just to earn the respect of your readers, I understand, although I would humbly suggest you avoid trying to formalize phrases like hang out with. But if you train yourself to speak like this, and especially if you look down on people who don’t, you will not only come off sounding snobby, you will also cut yourself off from a good bit of English’s natural range of expression.

7 thoughts on “English is Not Latin, People!

  1. ahester1

    Really interesting! I’ve been studying Greek and it also has noun case and verb conjugation, which give it word order flexibility. For me, the most surprising facts have been that you have to use a definite article in front of even proper names and that male names will change endings depending if they’re in the nominative or accusative. So Peter would be either “O Petros” (nom. Literally, the Peter) or “Ton Petro” (acc. Also literally, the Peter).
    The whole “So-and-So and me” vs “So-and-so and I” in English still confuses me sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I studied ancient Greek for a few years and as I remember, the verbs are even harder to learn than Latin. The verb “to be” particularly. Yes, it is cute that names use definite articles. I remember “Ho Xerxes.” I also like that the Greeks called everyone “hoi barbaroi” … even the Persians. 🙂

      Yes, “I” vs “me” in English compound subjects/D.O.s is messed up. I mean, it’s really not that hard to figure out which to use, but as a native speaker you’re not supposed to be thinking about what to use. But people have heard that “X and me” as a subject is wrong, so then they use “X and I” everywhere, even where it’s not required … gah. Your English is probably more grammatical in this respect than that of a native speaker.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beth Carpenter

    This is fascinating! It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Cheers, when Diane tells Sam, “There are some things up with which I will not put!”

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s