Tag Archives: grammar

Simple English. Maybe not.

Quite a few times when I passed those ever-so-boring-never-changing notes on our kitchen walls (student flat), I wondered about the following:

“…and switch the cooker off”. Why not: “…and switch off the cooker”? At least in this case, the latter one sounds better to me (and this even though the German (my mother tongue) equivalent is a verb that needs to be split (“… und schalte den Herd aus“)).

Switch off, hand sth over, grow up, run away, put sth into… are examples of so called “phrasal verbs” (PV) – combinations of verbs and prepositions/adverbs/prepositions and adverbs. Transitive PV can be either separable (also “splittable”) or not, while intransitive PV are inseparable.

Transitive PV containing adverbs are called “particle verbs” (PaV). If the object is a simple noun it can go on either side of the adverb, so both, “to switch the cooker off” and “to switch off the cooker” are acceptable. Long NP on the other hand tend to come after the adverb, so if the NP in our example was “the dirty, smelly cooker” you’d rather not split the verb and say “to switch off the dirty cooker in the kitchen” (instead of “to switch the dirty cooker in the kitchen off”).
According to the entry in “Simple English” (I didn’t know such a “language” existed until now. haha.) on wikipedia, if you do not know if a phrasal verb is separable or inseparable ALWAYS use a noun or noun phrase and do not try to separate the verb. (Maybe this could lead to the language change of simply not separating any verbs? We’ll (not) see in many years.)
I started a (fb) poll asking people what they would rather say… so far 3-2 for “to switch off the cooker” (I will keep you updated). (Even though there’s no right or wrong here, it’s still interesting to see whether there might be some tendency (not to split the verb? Maybe Edinburgh University’s Student Accommodation should revisit their signs… 😉 )).

Apart from those a little more “flexible” transitive PaV, there are also inseparable ones (e.g. “to break up”, “to come apart”…) and such that require a split (“to take sth apart”, “to let sth through”…).
A rule governing all transitive PaV is that if the object is a pronoun, the verb has to be separated so that pronoun precedes the adverb.

If you want to know more about phrasal verb patterns (there are, for example, also prepositional verbs (verbs containing a preposition that is always followed by the object, e.g. “look after sth”)) I suggest having a look at Wikipedia (maybe not the “Simple English” entry. After all, grammar is simple anyway. Isn’t it!) 😉 (oh and I can’t believe that they have this entry in only 9 languages (which don’t even include German, French, Spanish… (but “simple English”… right.))! Multilinguistis, that has to be changed! 🙂 )

Link: Simple English Wikipedia

Quote: “German is underlying a verb-final language, but statistically this isn’t the case”

Because Richard encouraged us to BLOG, I’m not posting the following as a comment but as an actual post (my first one). So let me start with; German grammar is really not that bad. It’s actually rather nice in terms of word order because the case morphology allows more word order possibilities than, say English (which lost a great deal of it). But let’s focus on the verb position that Richard was questioning.

In simple sentences, the word order is SVO, just as in English. For example “Ich trinke Wasser” ‘I drink water’. So the conjugated (finite) verb is in the second position (not necessarily second word: “Die zwei bösen Männer klauen Geld” ‘the two bad men steal money’ – all translations are literally).

When you’re dealing with a compound verb, the first part of the verb phrase is in the second position and the second part (either past participle, separable prefix or infinitive) is in the final position. For example: “Ich werde morgen singen” ‘I will tomorrow sing’.

For emphasis, the sentence can start with something other than a subject (“topicalization”), which then comes straight after the verb. No matter what begins the sentence, the verb is always in the second position. For example: “Wasser trinke ich” – ‘water I drink’, “Geld klauen die zwei bösen Männer” – ‘money steal the two bad men’, “Morgen werde ich singen” – ‘Tomorrow will I sing’).

The only cases where the verb doesn’t follow this “second-position-rule” and the word order changes to SOV are in dependent or subordinate clauses. For example: “Das ist Richard, der viel im Internet schreibt.”  ‘This is Richard, who much in the Internet writes’, “Ich tanze, weil ich Tanzen mag” ‘I dance, because I dancing like’.

To cut a long story short:
The classification of German is a little tricky because the verb often consists of two parts that are found at different positions in the sentence (second and last respectively). In subordinate clauses, the subject and verb have a fix position and the parts of the verb cannot be separated (say it was a separable verb such as “anfangen”; in a main clause it would be separated, as in “Ich fange an” – ‘I start’, but in a subordinate clause it wouldn’t, as in “Ich will, dass wir anfangen” – ‘I want that we start’). So frequently the word order of the subordinate clause is taken to be the basic word order, classifying German as an SOV-language.

I hope that this wasn’t confusing but clarifying and that we’re all now agreeing on GG (assuming this stands for German Grammar) being jawsome 🙂