159. Exotic Grammar Structures 2


Some grammar structures are rarely found in English language coursebooks


Grammar descriptions for learners of English do not include every structure in the language. Some structures may be left out because they have not been clearly identified or understood by grammarians. Many others are absent because they are quite rare in English: coursebooks tend not to have enough space for everything, and they give priority to the most common structures in the belief that knowing those will maximise learners’ success in future communication.

However, structures that are not commonly found in language-learning coursebooks can still be useful to know, especially for English users with a more advanced competence, who are the target audience of this blog. It is in this belief that the present post is offered. Six structures are described below. Readers seeking more are referred to the Guinlist post 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1.



1. “As” + Lone Auxiliary Verb

Auxiliary verbs usually combine with another verb to help show a meaning like tense or negativity. They include BE, HAVE, DO and the “modals” (will, can, should etc.). If an auxiliary verb is used by itself, it is normally understood to be repeating an earlier combination of itself and one or more partner verbs. After the conjunction as, it will be in the same sentence as these earlier verbs, like this:

(a) The Rocky Mountains have been formed recently, as have The Himalayas.

The second mention of have here is an abbreviation of have been formed recently. This way of using as shows a similarity. Thus, the message of (a) is that The Rocky Mountains and The Himalayas have similarly recent origins. A further implication is that the point after as is not expected to be known already by the reader. In other words, as have resembles and so have, but not like (see 149. Saying How Things are Similar).

If the verb before this use of as is a single word, the auxiliary after as will be either BE or DO: BE repeats itself, DO repeats any other verb, like this:

(b) Motor vehicles emit harmful gases, as does coal.


2. “BE + all very well”

This strange expression (we would normally expect very good after BE, not very well) is typically a preface to a criticism, like this:

(c) Parking charges are all very well, but they will not reduce traffic.

We understand here that the writer sees some good in what is called all very well, but not enough to overcome a major disadvantage, which is going to be described next after an introductory but or equivalent (yet, however etc.).

This structure is very similar to the combination of may and but that is examined in detail in the Guinlist post 51. Making Concessions with “May”. Compare the following example with (c):

(d) Cycling may promote good health, but it can be dangerous.

Again, there is recognition of benefit in what the writer is about to condemn. The difference is perhaps grammatical: that may (and its synonyms) goes with statements of benefit (subject + verb), while all very well accompanies nouns or their equivalents. Sentence (d) could begin Cycling is all very well … , but only by dropping the words may promote good health.

In (c), the object of criticism starts the sentence. Often, however, a starting it is will be preferred, like this:

(e) It is all very well to charge for parking, but this will not reduce traffic.

This structure makes it possible for a verb (to charge for …) to be the object of criticism instead of a noun. Its normal way of becoming more noun-like will be by having the to (infinitive) form, but sometimes it will have -ing instead. Guidelines on choosing one rather than the other are in the Guinlist post 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb.


3. Add-On Adjectives

Adjectives normally need a partner noun (see 6. Adjectives with No Noun 1). Their position relative to this noun is mostly either just before it or some way after with a link verb like BE in between. In special cases, they can also go immediately after (see 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun).

In a more exotic use, adjectives can be placed after their noun in a separate phrase at the end of a sentence, rather as participles can (see 101. Add-On Participles). Consider these:

(f) The virus spreads easily, deadly to all who contract it.

(g) Consumers make careful choices, always keen to save money.

Here, the adjectives deadly and always keen come a long way after their partner nouns virus and consumers, the subjects of the sentences. For an adjective to do this at the end of a sentence, it must meet three conditions: [1] be the first word(s) after the comma, [2] have some following words that make its meaning more precise (i.e. it must be “postmodified” – see 15. Half-Read Sentences), and [3] express something that is particularly true during the main event in the sentence – the virus in (f) is understood as being deadly while it spreads easily.


4. Subject Complements without a Verb

Subject complements are mostly nouns or adjectives that identify or describe the subject of an intervening link verb like BE (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). An absent link verb tends to be seen in sentences like the following (complements in capitals):

(h) These bacteria spread easily, their effects … INVISIBLE.

(i) Curried food is popular in Britain, its attraction … partly DUE TO the mystique of its ingredients.

(j) Napoleon became Emperor, his dreams … A REALITY.

In each case here the complement and the noun it is linked with are added on to the end of a possible complete sentence. The first two of the complements are adjectives, the third a noun. Due to (which features in 72. Causal Prepositions) seems to be a particularly common adjective complement in such situations.

It is possible to add BE in the indicated spaces, either with -ing at the end or and earlier on in order to link it grammatically with the main verb in the sentence (see 30. When to Write a Full Stop).

Like add-on adjectives, a verbless complement can only be used if it expresses something co-occurring with the main event in the sentence. The noun before it, moreover, seems to need a possessive word like their or its.


5. “as ADJ a(n) NOUN as …”

This structure may be illustrated as follows:

(j) Electricity has as HIGH a VELOCITY as light.

The value of as … as … constructions can be read about within this blog in 149. Saying How Things are Similar. They typically contain an adjective or adverb after the first as. When there is an adjective, such as high above, the sentence also has to contain a partner noun (velocity). In (j), this noun is positioned inside the as … as phrase, but it can also be positioned outside, like this:

(k) Electricity has a VELOCITY (that is) as HIGH as light’s.

English language coursebooks rarely seem to mention the possibility shown by (j). Perhaps this is because it is not possible in some contexts, such as when the noun is the subject rather than object or complement of the verb, like this:

(l) *As HIGH a VELOCITY as light’s is possessed by electricity.

A further requirement for placing a noun inside as … as is that it must usually be countable with a or an. Uncountable nouns, like transport in the following, generally have to come in front:

(m) The town provides transport as cheap as any.

However, this constraint can be overcome by combining the uncountable noun with a suitable countable one + of, e.g. as cheap a form (or system) of transport as … . For a list of common countable partners of uncountable nouns, see 180. Nouns that Count the Uncountable.


6. “if it was/were not for”

This expression helps to show an obstacle preventing something from happening or being done, like this:

(n) If it were not for the climate, more people would live in Greenland.

We understand here that the climate of Greenland prevents more people from living there. This is the same meaning that would be expressed by starting with but for (see 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1, #1).

Two notable aspects of (n) are the possibility of were after the singular subject it, and the need for would before live. The reason for the first is that it is not the plural form of BE in the ordinary past simple tense, but instead a singular of a rare use called the “subjunctive”, which occurs only in very specific grammar structures like the one being considered here. Subjunctive verbs in English do not have separate singular and plural forms (for other examples, see 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1, #6, and 118. Problems with Conditional “If”, #6). The reason for would is that the meaning is “unreal” present, a consequence prevented from occurring in the present.

In (n), the climate (of Greenland) is a present-time obstacle. Past-time obstacles – no longer existing today – can also be referred to: you just replace were not with had not been. Prevented past-time consequences need would have, prevented current ones keep would:

(o) If it had not been for a meteor impact, the dinosaurs would have survived (would be living today).


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