English’s Impossible Sentences
Grammatical headaches, lexical gaps — they’re what make English so much fun
Pretend for a moment that social taboos, political correctness, and copyright laws were no object, and answer me this: is there anything you can’t say in English? Are there ideas too lofty for our language to handle? It’s frequently said (though also frequently contested) that English has the largest vocabulary known to man. As Bill Bryson writes in Mother Tongue:
Altogether, about 200,000 English words are in common use, more than in German (184,000) and far more than in French (a mere 100,000). The richness of the English vocabulary, and the wealth of available synonyms, means that English speakers can often draw shades of distinction unavailable to non-English speakers.
Statements like this edge ever so slightly towards Anglophone exceptionalism, but perhaps therein lies a kernel of truth. After all, English has legions of caretakers ensuring its stocks are regularly replenished — The Oxford English Dictionary is updated four times yearly, and Urban Dictionary is flooded with thousands of new entries every day, almost all of which are in English. It’s also by far the most common language found in international academic journals, meaning that it’s often the first to christen new concepts in science, technology, and other fields.
Yet we’ve heard of so-called “untranslatable” words, phenomena like hygge and schadenfreude that have been swiped from their source languages to make up for blindspots in our lexicon. There are also pragmatic features found in other languages that English speakers can only dream of. French and German each have two versions of the word yes, one for agreeing, the other for contradicting, while Anglophones are left to flail about helplessly when confronted with negative questions. “I don’t look very good in this photo, do I?” “No — I mean yes!” (How do we solve this problem? “Nes”? “Yo”?) As it turns out, there are other nuances of meaning that English, for one reason or another, lacks the equipment to capture. Here’s just a sample.
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?
— Is this your hat or the snowman’s? I think it’s yours.
— No, it’s its!
The grammarians suggest that this gap in our word bank might exist because of a general reluctance in English to place emphasis on the word it. A more obvious reason is that we don’t often find ourselves arguing over whether or not something belongs to an inanimate object or an animal too “low-status” (like an insect) to be considered a he or she. Still, you might hear it used in a statement like:
History has its lessons and fiction has its.
To me it reads like a sentential cliffhanger, but I’ll leave it up to you to determine whether or not it’s acceptable.
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:
— I don’t think Larry likes me very much.
— He does like you. He’s just grumpy today.
Auxiliary do can be put in front of just about any verb — any verb, that is, except those in the “modal” class. Modal verbs, which include must, may, and can, are exceptional in a number of ways. They can’t, for example, be expressed in infinitives (as in “I’d love to can play the piano”), and they are not conjugated in the present tense like normal verbs (we say “He goes”, “He says”, but not “He musts”, unless you’re poetically trying to say that he smells like a basement). Similarly, modal verbs can’t appear after the auxiliary do, as in:
— He mustn’t be allowed anywhere near the front of the train.
— Actually, he does must. He’s the driver.
Thankfully, there are workarounds, as most modal verbs have synonymous phrases that get along just fine with the auxiliary do. The above example could be swapped out for “Actually, he does have to.” Can has to be able to, and may has to be allowed to. These also come in handy when speaking in the future tense, as modal verbs can’t appear alongside will, either. This gives us some rather long-winded phrases compared to their translations in other languages, though — “I will be able to”, for instance, can be expressed as a single word in Italian: “potrò.”
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:
— That was of great integrity of you.
“You showed great integrity” is a satisfactory alternative; it just takes an extra second to think about, a mild inconvenience for the less patient among us. On the subject of troublesome adjectives, what’s the opposite of nonchalant? Eager, emotional, just not chalant. This is one of those rare cases where the negated version of an adjective was borrowed into English without an unmarked counterpart. Nonchalant comes from the French verb nonchaloir, meaning to disregard, a derivative of chaloir, to be important. Chaloir didn’t give way to an adjective, and to this day the word chalant has not made an appearance in either language. Chaland, on the other hand, does exist in French, but refers to a barge, which is not quite what we’re looking for.
Native speakers know these rules instinctively (spare a thought for those brave souls learning English as a foreign language), though we may be surprised when we see them on paper. Our surprise is symptomatic of the reason for their very existence. Humans prove themselves to be exceptionally resourceful when it comes to language — if miscommunications persist, we’ll find a way to fix them. For the moment, it seems that none of the “impossible sentences” mentioned above are common enough for us to do anything about them, so they continue to be linguistic anomalies. The lack of contradictory yes, I still maintain, is a far more pressing matter, or don’t you agree?