Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How to Stump a Grammar Queen

“Let’s you and I pray about it.”

My brother Hugh called me a few days ago with a conundrum. His son Cameron had to diagram the sentence above for his homeschool homework. It was his first diagramming experience and they, Cam and his parents, were stumped. I’ve produced a writing course and have been dubbed “Grammar Queen” of the family. Not a smart move on my part, as it turns out. I was stumped, too. Even Grammar Queens find sentence surgery difficult at times.

I posted the sentence on my Facebook page and received enthusiastic responses from high school teachers, college English professors, homeschooling moms, avid readers and grammar geeks. Now, more than 24-hours after posting the sentence, I’m still a little uncertain. Let me share some of my research with you and we’ll see if we reach the same conclusions. If not, we’ll remain friends, I hope. What’s a split infinitive or two among friends, right? Remember, by the way, to differentiate between formal and informal writing. The speech I write for “Grammar Geeks Society of America” annual awards dinner will be far more precisely written and delivered than a “Grammarians Just Wanna Have Fun” pep talk at a bon-fire rally. You bring the marshmallows.

Now, on to the major hair-splitting purposes of this blog post. (Try diagramming that non-sentence; no, don’t.) How beautifully fluid the English language is! We can say what amounts to nonsense and, still, to the practiced ear, it’s completely, (or nearly so), understandable. Down to business.

First, we must do a little research to learn, or in some cases, refresh our memories concerning parts of speech. Within the innocent looking little sentence we’ve been assigned, “Let’s you and I pray about it,” lurk many hidden speech-labeling pitfalls, not the simplest of which to discern is the simple word “let.”

Let” simply would not let me label it as either a helping verb nor a linking verb . As it turns out, however, it’s sort of a first cousin. I will explain.

As you know, English verbs can be placed in three major separate boxes: Transitive verbs, which have the strength to pass action on to a receiver, “The boy threw the ball.”; intransitive verbs, which do not transfer the action performed but merely describe it, “The ball disappeared under the bleachers.”; and linking verbs whose job is to connect subject and predicate, creating syntactical flow, “The ballgame is (appears to be, seems to be, etc.) over.”

However, intransitive verbs need not sit in their passivity and pout. They may be propelled into action through the use of what we call causative verbs. Now we’re making progress towards our dissecting and labeling goal! Here’s a list of the most common verbs used as causative verbs. There are only three true causative verbs, have, let and make. These three causative verbs all require a base verb. The other verbs in our list, and those like them, require an infinitive verb. (For more on the topic of infinitive verbs, see the link further down in this post from Tanya Trusler).

Here’s a list of verbs often used as causative verbs which I’ve compiled from various sources :

ask, allow, cause, command, compel, convince, encourage, employ, entice, force, get, have, hire, induce, insist, let, make, motivate, permit, persuade, require, suggest, and urge.

“In sentences that use a causative verb, the subject doesn’t perform the action of the operative verb but causes someone or something else to do it. And … causative verbs do very well in enabling intransitive verbs to surmount their handicap of being unable to act on an object.”

Now we’re half way to our goal in determining the main verb. Since “let” is a causative verb, i.e., a cousin of the helping verbs that enables the action of the operative intransitive verb, we must conclude that the operative verb in our sentence is the intransitive verb “pray.” This verb falls into the category “intransitive” because of its designation as such in the definition provided in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “Pray: (second set of definitions) 1.) To make a request in a humble manner, 2.) to address God…with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanks, as in the sentence: “Let us pray.” ” [My note: “Aha!!”]

Thus, we must conclude that “pray” is the main or operative intransitive verb in our sentence, needing “let,” the causative verb, to promote or enable the action. A further investigation (I feel my Sherlock modality kicking in) of causative verbs provides us with this helpful insight from Tanya Trusler at this site . Ms. Trusler says: “English has three true causative verbs: have, let, and make. This grammar target has a special pattern that often trips students up because it requires a base verb where normally an infinitive verb would go. Once students memorize the pattern and see some examples, they should be able to recall it quite easily. However, it’s also important to point out the other verbs with a similar meaning that are not, in fact, causative verbs. Verbs such as get, force, allow, and cause take an infinitive verb, not a base verb.” It follows that causative verbs may not take an infinitive verb, not even an “understood infinitive” verb such as “to pray.”

Here’s more help from Ms. Trusler:

The verbs have, let, and make follow this irregular pattern when they have the meaning of causing someone to do something. …

Note that it’s important to give examples with both singular and plural objects as well as different tenses so that students truly understand that a base verb is required, not just a present verb. I find the biggest mistakes textbooks make is that they only give examples in the present tense. I’ve often had students tell me that they didn’t “get it” until they saw an example in the past tense.


Here’s a little more good information from Ms. Trusler:

We know, too, that “make,” “get,” “have,” and “let” can also make objects do the action of intransitive verbs: “She made the dog jump.” “She got the dog to jump.” “She had the dog jump.” “She let the dog jump.” In these three sentences, it’s clear that the “dog” is the object of the verbs “made,” “got,” and “had,” “she” is the agent causing the action, and the action of the intransitive “jump” is what this agent causes the object to perform.

The verbs “make,” “get,” “have,” and “let” belong to a class of verbs called causatives. In sentences that use a causative verb, the subject doesn’t perform the action of the operative verb but causes someone or something else to do it. And as we have seen above, causative verbs do very well in enabling intransitive verbs to surmount their handicap of being unable to act on an object.

We mustn’t think, though, that causative verbs are meant only for intransitive verbs. They work as well with transitive ones: “The mother made her child take the medicine.” “The movie director had the leading lady wear a wig.” The big difference is that transitive verbs—working with causative verbs or not—always need an object somewhere in the sentence for the latter to make sense. Drop the objects “medicine” and “wig” from the two sentences given earlier, for instance, and both sentences will collapse.”

Are you with me so far?

Before we start diagramming, it would be helpful to determine the subject of our sentence, “Let’s you and I pray about it.”

Here are my thoughts and conclusions. I’d be happy to hear yours. (Well, maybe not actually happy, but I’ll try to receive yours in a spirit of true friendship and camaraderie. Well, maybe I won’t go that far. Actually, I’ll be rather peeved with you if you strongly disagree since I’ve spent so much time on this hair-splitting venture. Rather like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, isn’t it? I could have re-arranged all the closets in my house by now. Please, feel free to come over and help me do that. It would be a lot more rewarding in the eternal scheme of things).

Although at first glance, or even second glance, I assumed the understood “you” to be the subject of the sentence, I have come to the rather shaky conclusion (which will not be backed up by research and is, therefore, just as much a subject of your whim or deeper knowledge as it is mine), that the subject of our overly-scrutinized sentence is the compound, misplaced words “You and I.” The word “us,” which is the second word in the contraction, “let’s,” provides us with an appositive for the main subject, “You and I.” Or vice-versa. Perhaps, since it’s written first, the plural pronoun, “us,” should be hailed as the subject with a compound appositive, “you and I,” but this is problematic since "we," not"us," would have to be the subject. Here’s how my final diagrammed sentence would look.

Since I don’t have a program on my poor little Toshiba laptop that allows drawing my example, I’ll draw it and add the photograph.

Here are my basic grammatical conclusions (subject to change at the drop of a convincingly dogmatic argument):

Subject: You and I

Appositive: Us (put in parentheses beside the subject)

Predicate: let pray (let is the causative verb with pray as the intransitive base verb)

Prepositional phrase acting as direct object: about it (it is the direct object with about as the connecting preposition)

Because I couldn’t find any examples of my conclusions concerning the subject, I may stand alone here. But I think my conclusions are plausible, given the colloquial construction of the sentence. Try to recognize idiomatic, colloquial or simply conversational sentences and realize that diagramming them is next to impossible without changing the construction.

 Well, it’s been an education for me. Thanks for following along. I don’t expect many of you have; so to you, the true grammar-lovers of the world, my hat is off. Keep diagramming. And, should you ever have a concern that I should know about, be it grammar, recipes or world conquest,

“Let’s you and I pray about it!”





“Let’s you and I pray about it.”