On occasion, we get emails from students questioning the English in our website. Often, we have some very interesting debates about "correct English grammar" and so we've decided to compile this list of common areas to help people understand why we choose certain forms over others.
It's a fascinating topic!
Descriptive versus Prescriptive grammar
The question of descriptive versus prescriptive grammar came about when one of our users questioned our use of the modifier "only" in this statement:
"He only ate sweets" to indicate that only sweets were eaten by the boy. Shouldn't we say "He ate only sweets"?
A case of the "misplaced modifier", perhaps? Some grammarians insist (or prescribe) that modifiers should be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase they modify, as this person stated. This is prescriptive grammar: it prescribes (tells you) how you should write or speak.
Descriptive grammar, that is, the rules that describe how language is actually used rather than how it "should" be used, can differ greatly. It’s not always clear which of these is best, and we consider each case individually. Generally, we favour prescriptive grammar where it removes genuine ambiguity in a sentence, especially in written form, where you cannot be there to explain the context more fully.
However, on the topic of "sweet eating", if someone were to say "He only ate sweets", it's difficult to imagine a context in which "only" was being applied to the activity. Here in the UK, in contemporary English, no one would ever use the syntax "He ate only sweets" to express that someone had eaten sweets but no other food (except perhaps in a period drama). We would say "He only ate sweets" to express this. In addition, in spoken English, word stress plays an important part in understanding meaning. "Sweets" would be stressed here rather than "ate", unless we were applying "only" to the activity. This is not possible in French (well it is, but you’d sound even more like a foreign speaker!) because of French’s groupes rythmiques - there are no stressed and unstressed syllables like in English. So in French, the position of modifiers is much more important.
Descriptive grammar around the position of modifiers in English observes that whenever modifiers do not generate ambiguity, they tend to be used as early as possible in the sentence. The reason this is important is that when people speak French, they will begin by thinking in the form in English that comes naturally to mind (i.e. descriptive grammar) and convert it to French, and so this is the best for us to test to ensure we train people to go from English to French correctly.
We generally use hints if there is ambiguity in order to provide additional context, rather than contort the English to a syntax that doesn’t match how people speak; however, in this instance we don’t feel there is ambiguity.
British versus US English
There are times when Kwiziq users question our use of English that are due to the differences between British and American English. The use of a singular or plural verb after a collective noun is one of those - in the US, a singular verb is more usual (see below). Other interesting difference between these two English variants, and others, will be posted here.
Collective Nouns with Singular or Plural Verbs
A user questioned our use of "The family are totally unbearable" in the question text when we were clearly looking for La famille est totalement insupportable in French, which must have the verb in the singular. There is a lot of discussion "out there" about the use of singular or plural verbs with collective nouns in English. Taking a closer look at this, we realized that although for the native English speakers on our linguistic team, the English in our question is correct, we could also say "The family is totally unbearable." The use of a singular or plural verb with collective nouns in English often depends on the context. There are no hard and fast rules, only trends, and the verb you choose often depends on whether you consider the collective noun to represent a group of individuals or a single unit, or whether you're British or American. The British English trend is to use the plural verb, particular when you are referring to a group of individuals, as in this case. The American English trend is to use a singular verb. There is the same dilemma with collective nouns like team, couple, board, etc.
Compare "Tom's family are farmers" and "Tom's family is wealthy". I prefer the plural verb in the first statement, as I'm referring to a bunch of individuals that make up Tom's family. In the second, I'm talking about one family unit, as a whole, so the singular works. However, this flexibility does not exist in French; la famille is singular and must take a singular verb in French. Here, we're testing whether the user knows how strict French grammar is.
Use of Nominative and Accusative Pronouns
Which of the following statements is correct? "You have as many books as I" or "You have as many books as me"? This is another one of those questions that relates to descriptive or prescriptive grammar. "I" can be used as the pronoun here, but both the accusative pronouns (me/him/her/them) and nominative pronouns (I/he/she/they) can be found in this syntactic position in standard English. The accusative "me" is now the more accepted form in English; in fact, it’s twice as prevalent in the spoken form and appears to have overtaken the nominative around the late 1980s.
This is one of those tricky areas of English grammar that can cause rather heated debates as there is a clash between descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammarians tend to insist here that the comparative "as … as" is a conjunction, and that the pronoun is shortened form of another conjugated verb, e.g., "You have as … as I have" and therefore "I" should be used. Descriptive grammarians observe that, since "me" is actually twice as used in both written and spoken English, the sentence must be analysed differently, and that "as … as" is therefore in fact a prepositional phrase in this sentence, meaning that the pronoun is the object of the preposition - which explains why it is "me" and not "I". In fact, the forms are usually considering to be formal (I/nominative), and the other informal (me/accusative). The formal usage was more common until the late 1980s. Since then, however, the accusative has very rapidly eclipsed the nominative, even in professionally published works.
This data on the use of nominative/accusative in comparisons comes from research conducted by US linguistics expert David Friedman using Google Book Corpus search, which searches more than 200 billion published words of data in both the American and British English datasets, as well as the One Million Books and Fiction datasets. His data shows the informal accusative has been in use for several hundred years even in printed works, but took over as the preferred form around the late 1980s. So it isn’t just a difference in spoken and written English.
That's an important point, though: we will often prefer spoken forms in English (so long as there is a strong justification that they are actually grammatically correct) because we are teaching French, not English. We want students to practise going from English (which they will say to themselves in their head) to French, so it’s more useful than using, say, a more formal written English sentence.
Language evolves constantly, but there is always an underlying grammar to explain the role of words in the sentence.