The grammatical squirarchy

31st January 2003 at 00:00
English grammar is rather like the stereotype of English society: every word knows its place.

The verb is the local squire, coming and going more or less as he pleases.

If he wants, he can act on his own, but when he does, he gives orders:

"Hurry!"

But he's the boss, and if he needs assistance, he gets it.

He has two lieutenants, both nouns. The first lieutenant, who nearly always walks in front of him, is the subject - a very important chap. So important, in fact, that the squire chooses his clothes to contrast with him - if the subject wears an S, the verb doesn't, and if the subject doesn't, the verb does: French wines taste good.

French wine tastes good.

(Actually, it's a bit more subtle than that - the verb and the subject have a complicated relationship.)

The second lieutenant is the object, who nearly always follows the verb.

The object usually isn't needed (Fred played) but it depends on the day's business. If precision is needed, he takes the object along to help (Fred played football).

The two lieutenants are both members of the verb's private household, and are probably more fussy about their position than any of his other staff.

You nearly always see them in the same little procession: subject - verb - object (SVO). Remember SVO - that's the heart of the English clause.

The private staff has one other important member, whose job is to complete any job that the squire and object can't quite manage between them. That's why he's called the complement. In fact this is a job that's done by volunteers from the village, and it's often carried out by an adjective: Wine tastes good; Wine makes people happy.

You'll notice that when the complement and the object are both needed, the object nearly always comes first. On those occasions, the procession is subject - verb - object - complement (SVOC).

Then there are all the trades-people from the town, who can be brought in as and when needed - people like adverbs (I sleep soundly) and prepositions (I sleep in the bath). These workers belong to the union of adverbials, whose symbol is a big "A". They usually tag along outside the basic SVOC procession, either before or after it, so it's really ASVOCA.

However, the verb follows a curious ancient custom (which nobody really understands), which allows adverbs to slip in between him and his subject: I always sleep soundly; Jim obviously means business. Let's call adverbs just "a". That gives an even better formula: ASaVOCA. And that, in a nutshell, is the structure of the English clause. Rather quaint, we think.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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