A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Grammatical Mission Creep
Some years ago when I was teaching English as a foreign language, the need arose for students to get a grip on newspaper headlines: it became obvious that the headline of a story did not make the story's content obvious to them in a way that it would to a native speaker. One of the main reasons for this was the shorthand that native speakers absorb about headlinese, in which auxiliary verbs are eliminated from sentences, leaving only part of the verb phrase. So headlines like these,
- Florida shooter George Zimmermann headed back to jail
- Five bodies found burned in Arizona desert
- Samsung Galaxy S III Smartphone Heading to 5 US Carriers
for a native speaker may translate to
- Florida shooter George Zimmermann is headed back to jail
- Five bodies were found burned in the Arizona desert
- Samsung Galaxy S III Smartphone is Heading to 5 US Carriers
But for an English learner, all three headlines are problematic. Headline 1 reads like a regular declarative sentence with an active, finite verb. Headline 2 gives confusion as to what the verb is since two forms that could be verbs, 'found burned,' appear consecutively. Headline 3 may seems to be lacking a verb, since only an -ing form is present, and it might give the impression that “Samsung Galaxy S III Smartphone Heading” is a single, rather scary noun phrase with heading as the noun, preceded by several nouns used attributively.
If we had been teaching English to foreigners in a different era this problem would not have arisen because verb elimination in headlines developed gradually starting in the 19th century, when headlines became more dynamic with subjects and predicates. Before this, a typical newspaper headline was often a short and not very descriptive noun phrase. It's an example of how language changes incrementally over time in ways that are not obvious to one or two generations of speakers, but become obvious over a span of decades or centuries. In this particular case, the change is aided by the versatility of participles in English: their chief line of work is on the business end of verb phrases, but in addition, they often work well as adjectives and nouns, and so native speakers do not find it difficult to attribute them correctly in the absence of gluey auxiliary verbs.
Just as language usage changes, the ways that we interpret what it is doing also change. New theories and approaches emerge that explain grammar and syntax, and the language reference books that describe these features of language also change. If you think of language on a timeline, morphing through thousands of permutations and gathering new vocabulary and usages as it is passed from one generation to the next, language reference books — dictionaries, grammars, and lesson books — are snapshots of the beast at various points as it goes forward. And the focus of these reference works is usually pointed slightly towards the past.
A word that illustrates this phenomenon interestingly is the participle considering. Contemporary English dictionaries call it a preposition. Why? Because it behaves like a preposition: it accepts as an object a noun phrase or a pronoun in the objective case. But it isn't always a preposition when it heads a phrase; sometimes it's still a participle. Look at these two sentences:
a. Considering the time, Freud's ideas were very advanced.
b. Considering the time, I left immediately so that I wouldn't be late.
Most linguists would label considering a preposition in the first sentence because it has a different (and implied) subject than the main clause of the sentence has. But in the second sentence, the subject of considering is “I”, also the subject of the main clause, so considering the time in sentence b. is a participial and not a prepositional phrase.
The 'prepositional' usage of considering is old in English — more than 600 years old — but until the mid-20th century, dictionaries did not label considering a preposition, probably because traditional ideas about grammar preventedthem from placing a word form that is obviously a participle into a small word class that contains mainly short function words: to, for, about, with, and the like. Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary doesn't even lemmatize considering, even though he has many citations in which the word is used in a preposition-like way. But in Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary, it's clear that the great lexicographer was thinking about the problem of considering because he has a lengthy entry about it. (His abbreviation 'ppr' means 'present participle.')
CONSIDERING, ppr. Fixing the mind on; meditating on; pondering; viewing with care and attention; deliberating on.
Note. We have a peculiar use of this word, which may be a corruption for considered, or which may be a deviation from analogy by an insensible change in the structure of the phrase. It is not possible for us to act otherwise, considering the weakness of our nature. As a participle, this word must here refer to us, or the sentence cannot be resolved by any rule of English syntax. It should be correct to say, It is not possible for us to act otherwise, the weakness of our nature being considered; or We, considering the weakness of our nature, cannot act otherwise. But the latter phrase is better grammar, than it is sense. We use other participles in like manner; as, Allowing for tare, the weight could not be more than a hundred pounds. These and similar phrases are anomalous. But considering is no more a kind of conjunction, in such phrases, than it is a noun.
The OED doesn't go so far as to say that considering is a preposition; it merely notes that it is construed as one, and has this to say about it:
The participle would be expected originally to be in concord with the subject of a sentence, as in 'considering his youth, we were surprised at his attainments'; but clear examples of this are not numerous, and as the construction with the past participle considered was probably earlier, it is possible that this arose from it by simple substitution of the active for the passive, without reference to any particular subject.
Thorny matters like this often come to a head in the classroom, whether it is an English literature, composition, or grammar class, for native speakers or for English learners. Any teacher who has been there knows that students often clamor for grammar — they want to know the rule, the magic formula that they imagine will enable them to generate all the correct sentences and recognize the wrong ones. So it's hard to convey that language authorities really just make up the rules as language moves along. New usages develop; at some point, some of them become widespread enough that it is a losing battle to declare them incorrect; and sooner or later it becomes sensible to tweak or reformulate a rule accounting for the change in a way that doesn't throw out everything that was decided before.