Paul Johnson

When copulating, beware falling into Deep Structures

When copulating, beware falling into Deep Structures

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I don’t give a damn for grammar, or syntax either. Having learned to ‘parse’ as a small boy, and done ten years of Latin and eight of Greek, I take it all for granted. But I love semantic and grammatical niggles and rejoice in the way some people get red in the face with rage at the lapses of others. Thus Earl Granville, when foreign secretary, telegraphed to Sir Stafford Northcote in Washington that the substance of the treaty between Britain and America (eventually signed 8 May 1871) was all right but that ‘in the wording of the Treaty Her Majesty’s Government would under no circumstances endure the insertion of an adverb between the preposition “to” and the verb’. The Earl was something of a stylist. Two years later he was out riding with Bishop Wilberforce, the famous ‘Soapy Sam’, when the bishop was flung from his horse on to his head and died instantly. The Earl recorded that his death was ‘essentially prelatical’. ‘He must have turned a complete somersault. His feet were in the direction in which we were going, his arms straight by his side — the position was absolutely monumental.’ Imagine Jack Straw writing like that!

But some highly placed people are as violently in favour of splitting infinitives as Granville was against. George Bernard Shaw threatened to cancel his subscription to the Daily Chronicle because its style editor had attacked ‘second-rate newspapers’ for permitting such ‘abominations’ as ‘to boldly say’ and ‘to suddenly go’. Denouncing the man as a pedant, an ignoramus, an idiot, a self-advertising duffer, Shaw urged the paper to ‘put this fatuous man out’ and ‘replace him with an intelligent Newfoundland dog’. Experts like Lounsbury, Fowler and Grove supported Shaw and pointed out that Donne, for instance, went in for split infinitives on a large scale and that Macaulay deliberately, in revising an article, put one in. Coleridge, George Eliot and Browning were also splitters. Yet it is still regarded as a literary crime today.

But if everyone has views on split infinitives, double negatives and apostrophes, other points in dispute need bringing out in the open. Why do we say ‘lady drivers’ and ‘women drivers’? A don from St Andrews University School of English (and why the missing apostrophe?), writing in the Times Literary Supplement, says that ‘lady drivers’ is correct since ‘women drivers’ is ‘a semantic redundancy’: a double plural is unnecessary. He says that ‘younger speakers’, being ‘less conditioned against linguistic deviancy’, show a tendency to expand the error by forming plurals like ‘teethbrushes’ and ‘feetprints’. The explanation, he says, ‘is that all the examples under discussion are copulative compounds; that is, neither element seems more important than the other (the referent is both female and a driver, with neither subordinated to the other)’. He adds — and I like this touch — ‘Recent research has suggested that copulative compounds might not operate in the same binary, hierarchical, “headed” way as most other English compounds and are, perhaps, more syntactically ambiguous.’

I tend to see such points in the concrete, rather than the abstract. Thus, in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, the beautiful but vicious Pamela Flitton (later Lady Widmerpool) first emerges as an adult as a member of the War Office car pool. Was she one of the ‘lady drivers’ or the ‘women drivers’? She was certainly copulative, but not in any compound, binary, hierarchical way — ‘headed’ possibly. Actually, the sexual sense of copulative is not the most important. To copulate is primarily ‘to fasten together, link or couple’. Copulation denoted a union. Horace Walpole, writing to his friend Sir William Hamilton in Naples, described a new musical instrument he had heard as ‘a copulation of a harpsichord and a violin’. (Could that have put ideas into the musical Emma’s head?) It is true that, in Shakespeare’s day, engaged couples were known as copulatives. Thus Touchstone remarks towards the end of As You Like It, when the cast is being paired off, ‘I press in here, Sir, amongst the rest of the country copulatives, to swear and to forswear; according as marriage binds and blood breaks ...’ The word comes from copula, Latin. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Westbury — a man notorious for his ‘cold, hard, sharp stiletto-like insolence’ — sitting in June 1864, asked, ‘Supposing this promise to be given in England in writing: “When we go back to Edinburgh I will marry you,” and, on the faith of this, copula follows in Scotland?’

The usual sense of copula and its derivatives, however, was (and is) grammatical, Murray’s English Grammar (1824) noting, ‘Conjunctions are principally divided into two sorts, the copulative and disjunctive.’ Pamela Flitton, of course, might have been described as both. There was certainly something destructively disjunctive about her, even if her main effect was copulative. Grammarians further distinguish between copulative compounds, such as lady drivers, and determinative ones. There is, also, among the copulative ones, a distinct sub-group, beloved of Hindu linguistic scholars, known as ‘repetitive compounds’, with identical members. Thus we get ‘bye-bye’, ‘goody-goody’, ‘choo-choo’ (referring to trains) and ‘dum-dum’ (bullets). Just as Molière’s bourgeois gentilhomme was surprised when told he was talking prose, I imagine a teenager called Tracy (or Sharon) would be taken aback if told that, when calling out ‘bye-bye’, she was using a copulative compound, sub-group repetitive. Interestingly the commonest copulative is ‘and’. Hence, Daniel Defoe’s admonition in his English Tradesman, a handbook for shopkeepers: ‘I can by no means approve of studied abbreviations, and leaving out the needful copulatives of speech in trading letters.’ But the thing is by no means so obvious as Defoe thought. As Chris Jones, the St Andrews don, points out, ‘Plural marking in copulative compounds is still normally right-headed, but it may be that the less hierarchical syntax of a copulative compound, coupled with the fact that “woman” and “man” are mutation plurals (caused by i-mutation in the early Anglo-Saxon period), has caused some doubt in the minds of English speakers as to how they should form these compounds in the plural, giving us our women drivers.’ All clear?

I suspect (as I often do in arcane matters of English) that it is all due to Chomsky’s ‘deep structures’. This is made clear by another letter in the TLS. Emma Tristram, writing from Stable Cottage near Arundel, says she dealt with the problem by ‘putting it into Google’. There were 89,700 in favour of ‘woman drivers’ and 17,400 for ‘lady drivers’ but only 3,910 for ‘women drivers’. On the other hand, if the compound is changed from ‘drivers’ to ‘artists’, only 944 opt for ‘lady’ and more than half a million for ‘women’. I have certainly noticed that there are fewer lady artists around than in my youth, when they formed a numerous and reproductive (I do not say copulative) breed. I wish Chomsky would bend his powerful mind to these matters. The trouble is, nowadays, he has emerged from his deep structures to issue diktats on politics and foreign affairs. He is not so much interested in such copulative compounds as Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, more in the hierarchical syntax of George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’, a case (as grammarians say) of a righ t-headed determinatum. Whether Saddam Hussein’s regime was an ablative absolute is irrelevant.