English’s Impossible Sentences

Grammatical headaches, lexical gaps — they’re what make English so much fun

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(Cris DiNoto / Unsplash)

It’s its!

English has a set of independent possessive pronouns that allow us to avoid repetition when claiming or debating ownership of an object: mine, yours, his, hers, ours, and theirs. Notice, however, that there isn’t one for the inanimate third-person singular. You might suggest its, based on the morphology of the others, and according to the writers of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, you’d be right. But when have you ever heard its used this way in real-life conversations?

He does must

A quirk of the English language that many learners struggle with is the auxiliary do. Outside of questions and negative statements, auxiliary do has no semantic purpose but to intensify the affirmative meaning of its sentence. Like independent possessive pronouns, it’s useful for disagreements:

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Some (!) examples of modal and quasi-modal verbs in English

An integrous and chalant fellow

Most nouns in English describing qualities or flaws can be expressed as adjectives (passion, passionate; sarcasm, sarcastic). But how do you describe someone who shows themselves to have remarkable integrity? According to The Oxford English Dictionary, this noun meaning “soundness of moral principle” has been assigned a fair few adjectival equivalents over the centuries, including integrous, integrious, and integre, but for one reason or another, none have survived into present-day English. The most recent cited by the dictionary is integritive, used by Robert Burns in his Commonplace Book in 1784 and apparently forgotten about immediately afterwards. Unless we make a conscious effort to revive one (or more!) of these forms, it seems that we will “just have to content [ourselves] with describing someone as ‘a person of great integrity’”, as Nathan Bierma writes for The Chicago Tribune. “It’s wordy, but it’s the only option that other English speakers will recognize.” Wordiness is one thing, but we sometimes have to make special accommodations for integrity when we want to use it in certain expressions. For example, we can say “That was nice of you”, “That was thoughtful of you”, and so forth, but not:

I write about words and run about screaming. Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literature. clarech.carrd.co

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