Is the word themself a word? In fact, not in current standard English, though given how pronouns work and don’t work at times in the language, one can understand why writers may be tempted to call it into service. A student recently found himself using this new word, and his inadvertency gives us the opportunity to review what are called intensive pronouns.

Here’s the sentence in question (I’ve included the next sentence to fill out the context): No one, not even the person themself, could ever take that dignity away. It is independent of the various attributes that mark what we would call a good person. The writer is making a general statement about people, all people, by using the singular pronoun no one. This pronoun stands as the subject of the verb could take, and the phrase not even the person themself, has been placed in commas next to the subject (and so between the subject and verb) in order to say something more about no one. Additional phrases like this are called appositional elements, or appositives, and when they are marked off by commas, as here, they are often meant to emphasize what they follow.

That emphasis, of course, serves the writer well in this instance, because even though logically the pronoun no one excludes everyone, it’s odd at first to realize that if no one can take dignity away from someone, that means too that no one can take dignity away from no one himself or herself. To emphasize that no one means no one at all, the writer rightly included an appositional phrase, but in doing so, he wrote himself right into a grammatical quagmire: the subject pronoun no one is singular, and so the appositive referring to that singular pronoun should be singular as well: himself or herself. Wanting to avoid that overly precise clarification (I presume), the writer creatively turned away from the standardly existing pronoun themselves to a quasi-singular pronoun of recent creation: them- as a plural to refer to all people, and -self as a singular to reflect the singular construction of the subject pronoun no one.

That’s creative, but not standard. Now I don’t think this example reaches to the level of the current debate about gender-neutral pronouns, because the question here is simply a matter of grammatical form: if the subject pronoun no one is singular, then the word which modifies it should be singular: himself or herself. And if either of those words is, in fact, too gender specific, then we have still the indefinite—and singular—pronoun oneself. Our revision, then, might look like this: No one, not even oneself, could ever take that dignity away. Or this: No one, not even oneself from oneself, could ever take that dignity away.

But what is the grammatical function of himself, herself, oneself, or even themselves? These words, along with a number of other forms, make up what are called intensive pronouns. They are constructed by adding the suffix -self or -selves to certain forms (singular and plural respectively) of the existing subject pronouns in order to emphasize another word to which they refer. In the sentence I did it myself, for example, myself is the intensive pronoun emphasizing the subject I; and this same grammatical construction could itself (another intensive pronoun) be designed differently (and a bit more formally) by placing the intensive pronoun immediately next to the word it modifies: I myself did it. However we might rhetorically shape the sentence, though, the use of the intensive pronoun is the same: to intensify, or emphasize, another word in the same clause.

And that was the intent of themself in our original example. There just wasn’t any reason to work so hard when oneself was sitting right there on one’s shelf.


The Three Concerns

What is the difference, do you think, between these two sentences: I am going to study for an exam tonight and I am going to be studying for an exam tonight. The two statements mean roughly the same thing, but close reading and careful thinking rarely settle with rough answers. The two sentences are not identical, so why?

Studying how a language works, even one’s own, is never a simple affair, and that is why it can be very helpful to organize our questions under the three traditional headings of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Any statement we speak or write involves at once all three of these motives, and knowing what kind of question we are asking can simplify our investigation. If, when we ask about the difference between the two sentences in our example, we mean the grammatical difference, then we can proceed to analyze what phrases and clauses we find and explain the function of each. If, though, we want to know whether the bare meaning differs, that is a logical question. And if we are concerned to understand the effect the style of each would have on the listener or reader, then we are involved in a rhetorical pursuit.

To say as I did, then, that the two statements are roughly equivalent means that logically they are asserting the same thought: I will study for an exam tonight. But the first sentence says to study and the second, to be studying. If the two statements are logically the same, why this grammatical difference? First let’s understand how the grammar differs, and then let’s ask to what effect.

Each sentence is grammatically simple, which means each has only one independent clause: I am going. This subject-predicate combination is an idiomatic construction in English (and similarly so in other languages) in which the present tense and progressive aspect of the verb go is used to indicate an action very soon to occur in the future. Dependent on this main clause is then an infinitive phrase, to study in the first sentence, and to be in the second. These infinitives make up a regular part of this peculiar future construction; it’s what happens after the infinitives that changes how the same thought is received.

In the first sentence, a prepositional phrase follows the infinitive to study, and we should classify that prepositional phrase as an adverb because it has something to do with the infinitive, a verbal structure. To say that I am going to study for an exam is to explain the reason for my studying. Elements that answer the question why? or to what purpose? are by definition adverbs, and so this first sentence intends to say what it means in as bare-bones a fashion as possible, it seems. The second version, by contrast, retains this same prepositional phrase but has associated it with the participle studying, not the infinitive to study. That one change changes the effect in an interesting and subtle way.

Participles are adjectives built from verbs, which means they serve to describe some active, or dynamic, quality of a noun or pronoun. In the second example, the main clause I am going to be means that the subject pronoun I will exist in a certain way in the near future, and the participle that follows indicates exactly how: one who will be studying. The speaker or writer has chosen here to draw out the action of studying in order to characterize the subject for some reason. Such a choice is a rhetorical, or stylistic, concern, and without a context, we can only surmise the purpose. Perhaps it was to contrast the action of studying with another action someone else was proposing, to go out for dinner, for example.

When we are concerned to arrange our grammar and logic like this to bring about a certain effect on a listener or reader, we are orchestrating the three arts of language, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, in the way those instruments were meant to sound together. To do that, and to understand why, is the full experience.


Comma Yes? Comma No?

No topic in the craft of English composition raises more questions than the comma. The difficulty lies in the fact that there are so many reasons we may need, or not need, to place a comma somewhere in a sentence: sometimes the comma will help us be clear about what we’re saying, and sometimes it will shape the manner, or style, of our thoughts. These two objectives, logical and rhetorical, are found in the structure of our sentences, and that is why the surest way to understand when and where and why to place a comma is to understand sentence construction.

Let’s look at this simple-seeming sentence: I made a reservation Tuesday, and we left Wednesday. Would you have included a comma? Many of us will turn first to our ear to observe whether we paused after the word Tuesday; if so, we might remember being taught some such rule as put a comma where you breathe, and that, we believe, will answer the question. In fact, though, our ear is too sophisticated a faculty to employ first in answering questions of punctuation; it has its place (as we’ll see in a moment) in matters of style, but where it’s a matter of logic, of sorting out for the reader what we’re talking about, we need to use our eyes, not our ears.

That means, then, that we have to first look closely at, not listen to, the grammatical structure of a sentence. Our example above is one sentence, yes, but it is made up of two independent clauses, which means it has two combinations of a subject and a verb: I made and we left. These two clauses are joined by and, a coordinating conjunction, and with those observations, we have the information we need to decide whether or not to place a comma. For at the very top of the list of comma rules in any grammar book is this: use a comma to separate independent clauses when they are joined by a coordinating conjunction and their subjects are different.

Now we might balk and groan at the mention of independent clauses and coordinating conjunctions, but every art has its elements, difficult sounding at first but really very straightforward once we take the time to look. An independent clause is just that, independent; it needs no other part of the sentence to say what it is saying. I made a reservation Tuesday means what it says; it is complete in and of itself in a way that because I made a reservation Tuesday is not. This because-clause cannot stand on its own; it depends on another idea yet to be mentioned in its sentence, and that is why such dependent clauses are termed subordinate. All clauses are either independent or subordinate. And as for conjunctions, words that join clauses, we have only two large classes as well: coordinating and subordinating. English grammar has boxes of each, but a good handful are enough at first to know: and, but, or, therefore are common coordinating conjunctions, and when, because, if, after, although are subordinating. Begin a clause with a subordinating conjunction, and you’ve just made it a subordinate clause.

Why all this? Because those few elements make the rules work, and knowing the rules gives us, ironically, both independence and confidence. So now, if we happen to revise the original sentence to I made a reservation and I left Wednesday, we have reason to know that a comma is no longer necessary between the two clauses because each clause has the same subject, I. And if we revise the sentence one more time to read I made a reservation, and was finally able to leave early Wednesday afternoon—well, now we’re in new territory, where indeed our ear will be of service. We still have two clauses, but the second has omitted the subject, a stylistic device called ellipsis. And in matters of style, we rightly turn to our ear to discern subtleties our logical eye might miss or even obliterate. In this second revision, that comma after reservation is necessary, even though the subjects are the same, because of the length of the second clause: we need to group its ideas together for the reader, and the comma represents a mental pause that will do just that.

But how do we learn the rules of style? For that there is only one pleasurable way: read and read and read—and listen.


Participles, Weeds, and Light

Is there a grammatical mistake in this sentence: Too much partying, his parents believed, was the cause of Sam’s poor performance at school, leading to him putting his academic record at risk. In fact, there is only one outright grammatical complaint to be made, though that might not be enough to trim the sentence nicely. Listen closely, and you’ll sense that the balance is off. How can we see that in the design of the sentence and what can we do?

First, the mistake. The last section of the sentence, the phrase leading to him putting his academic record at risk, has two words ending with the suffix –ing. The first of these, leading, is a present participle (more on that in a moment), and the second, putting, is a gerund. A participle is an adjective, but a gerund is a noun, both built from verbs in order to carry a sense of action or movement, but both with quite different missions: the adjective is to describe something and the noun to name something. What, then, is the gerund putting naming? The act whereby an academic record is at risk. And is this action attributed to someone? The writer says that Sam is the person taking the risk. And right there, traditional grammar steps in to say him putting should therefore be his putting, because the action of putting belongs to someone, to Sam, and that possession should be indicated with the possessive case of the pronoun: leading to his putting his academic record at risk.

With that grammatical correction, though, we step into a prickly patch of weeds, because now we have the same word, his, twice in proximity—always something to watch for. Weeds, though, even grammatical weeds, are just plants in the wrong place, as the gardeners say, and so we may be able to take this wordy, weedy phrase as a way to redesign the larger site. We said earlier that leading is a participle, an adjective stressing some action. What is leading Sam to put his academic record at risk (at least according to his parents) is all his partying, so the participle leading is modifying partying, another gerund. And if that is the logic of the sentence, then why not just say it: leading him to put his academic record at risk. With that change, we have unwritten one of the two occurrences of the possessive pronoun his.

But let’s not put down the hoe just yet. In that revision we find the prepositional phrase at risk. Every prepositional phrase must have an object, and the two together form a phrase. We cannot write English without prepositional phrases, but we can write better English with fewer of them, so when we revise a sentence, we should question whether the object of a particular prepositional phrase can be converted into a transitive verb in order to sharpen the conception we are presenting. And, in fact, we can do just that in our revision: leading him to risk his academic record.

These two changes have concentrated on the final participial phrase of the sentence, but we could also consider changing that entire phrase into a clause: Too much partying, his parents believed, was the cause of Sam’s poor performance at school; this, they were persuaded, led him to risk his academic record. Note that in order to keep the sentence balanced, another parenthetical clause, they were persuaded, needed to be added to the second half. The verb persuaded is a synonym for believed, but it advances the parents’ belief by including the idea of conviction. The parents didn’t just believe, they believed fully that Sam’s partying was the cause of his problems. A change in the design of a sentence, then, can be an opportunity to say more than we might have suspected we thought at first.

The sooner we uproot the idea that good writers don’t have to revise, the sooner we’ll find the confidence and energy to just begin. Ideas will grow in profusion, and from all that growing forth we’ll learn what to keep and what to trim to thin a patch for the light.


Hoping for a Future Past

The simplest of questions sometimes are the trickiest to answer. A friend asked me this past week to explain why we use the past participle to refer to a future circumstance, as we do, for example, in the sentence I hope you get accepted. The question gives us the chance to review what’s involved in a construction we use all the time.

Let’s begin by sorting out one common misunderstanding: a participle is not a verb. A participle is an adjective built from a verb in order to name a quality that is the result of some action. That’s why we sense, and rightly so, something going on when we read a participle like the word accepted in our example, but it is also why we are tempted to conclude incorrectly that a participle is a verb. When we refer to a verb, we most often mean what is more accurately called a finite verb, that word or phrase which denotes the actual phase of time (past, present, or future) when the subject is acting.

Every finite verb must have a subject, and every time we combine the two, we produce a clause. That means that in the sentence I hope you get accepted, we have two clauses, I hope, representing the independent, or main, thought, and you get accepted, the thought dependent upon that hope, what it is the subject I actually hopes. In the second clause, the finite verb is get, and we often use that verb, instead of the verb be, to construct the passive voice when we want to emphasize in a more casual tone the action of a circumstance over the state of the circumstance itself. This difference between action and state is obvious when we closely compare I hope you get accepted with I hope you are accepted. The first puts the light on the action of someone’s accepting you; the second turns it on the situation that has resulted from that action. Grammar calls this the difference between an actional and statal passive.

But let’s turn our attention again to the participle accepted in order to see how the sense of time works in this sentence. The verb of the first clause, hope, is in the present tense, and we can call this actual time because it means to refer to an actual day on the calendar or hour of the clock. At the present time (the time of speaking the sentence), the subject I hopes for something, and what she is hoping for is a future action, that you will get accepted (let’s assume by a school or program of some sort). To hope for something inherently carries with it a sense of future time, because we don’t hope about what happened but only about what is to come. What the subject hopes for is the getting or the becoming of something, namely, the getting accepted, and so the you get accepted of the original sentence is really an elliptical, or very economic, way of saying you will get accepted, where will denotes the future tense.

But why, then, do we find the past participle accepted? Because participial time is relative, not actual. A past participle means to point to an action or state in existence before another action, whenever that other action might have occurred. Here, the action to which the past participle accepted relates is the future will get, and so we are to understand that what the subject I is hoping for is a situation in which she finds that you have already been accepted, or more exactly, will have already been accepted. The past participle accepted denotes a time prior to the future of get (or will get): she doesn’t want to find you getting accepted, but having gotten accepted, and for that to be the case, the accepting will have to have occurred sometime earlier.

More could be said, but the last word here should probably be to remind ourselves that an investigation of grammar can quickly get complicated because language tries in its rough way to represent the awe-inspiring and subtle complexity that lies behind our most common experiences and simple-appearing sentences. So much the better, I say, for us all.