Where Grammar Meets Logic

Here is an example of a grammatical construction I have seen a number of times recently in professional writing. It’s unusual, but apparently not as uncommon as I had thought. Try to identify the subject and its verb in this sentence: He coming home from work so late worries me. What is it, we wonder, that actually worries me, he or the fact that he comes home from work so late? To answer that, we have to go to the border between grammar and logic.

Grammar gone awry can complicate an otherwise simple idea quickly, and that’s what has happened here. Revising a sentence is a matter of getting again to the real thought we wanted to communicate. If a sentence doesn’t work—if our ear alerts us to an ambiguity or if someone actually points out a confusion, it’s often that the thought is blurred or buried, and the tools of analysis can bring what we’re saying to light and life again. In revising, the first step is always to determine the number of clauses the sentence under examination has. Every clause is a thought, the joining together of a subject with a verb, but just what constitutes a verb can be a tricky question to answer sometimes. Too quick a look at our example might conclude that coming is a verb, because it expresses an action. But the suffix –ing makes this word not a verb, but a verbal, a word that is built in part from a verb, but acts as a noun or adjective or adverb. There are three verbals in English grammar: participle, infinitive, and gerund.

The verbal coming in our sentence looks at first to be a participle, an adjective constructed from a verb, because it is modifying the pronoun he. That is important to recognize because verbals, for all their verbal appearance, do not count when we’re looking for the verb of a sentence. To look for a verb means to look for a finite verb, a verb that has both subject and tense; only a finite verb can build a clause. And in our example, we find only one such finite verb, worries. That means, then, that the subject of worries must be he, and that the participle coming begins a phrase, coming home from work so late, which in its entirety modifies as an adjective that same subject he. That is a defensible explanation of the grammar, but not a defense that makes sufficient logical sense.

If he is the subject pronoun, then he is what worries me. But the writer would surely say that he doesn’t worry me all the time, only when coming home from work so late, which is no doubt why the writer qualified the pronoun with a participial phrase: participles are adjectives, and adjectives describe a noun or pronoun in some way relevant to the context at hand. But adjectives are not greater (in a sentence, at least) than the noun or pronoun they modify (because the quality of something is not greater to our perception than the thing it qualifies), and so we are forced to conclude that the sentence ultimately points to he as what is worrying me, all the time. That’s quite someone and quite a relationship.

But that’s probably not quite logically right. What actually worries me is what the subject he is doing sometimes, not what he is when coming home from work so late. We should, in other words, read the same verbal coming not as a participle, but as a gerund, a noun constructed from a verb. That would mean that the action of coming home so late is what really worries me, not the pronoun he in and of himself. And if that’s the better logical argument, then he must be changed to his to show to whom that action of coming home late belongs. Thus our revision: His coming home from work so late worries me.

We’ve revised the grammar, then, to accord better with the logic of the circumstances. The two disciplines, grammar and logic, cannot really be separated, and it’s pointless to wonder which is preeminent. They are, rather, complementary, and they begin their work together when we as both writers and readers ask precise and sometimes troublesome questions.


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