Grammatical Oddities That You Probably Never Heard About in School

Self-Talk, Whimperatives, Garden-Path Sentences -- and That's Not All

Chimpanzee Professor at the Chalkboard
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As every good English teacher knows, there's hardly a single principle of grammar that's not accompanied by a list of variations, qualifications, and exceptions. We may not mention them all in class (at least not until some wiseguy brings them up), yet it's often the case that the exceptions are more interesting than the rules.

The grammatical principles and structures considered "oddities" probably don't appear in your writing handbook, but here (from our Glossary of Grammatical & Rhetorical Terms) are several that are worth considering all the same.

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The Whimperative

The standard way of expressing a request or command in English is to begin a sentence with the base form of a verb: Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia! (The implied subject you is said to be "understood.") But when we're feeling exceptionally polite, we may choose to convey an order by asking a question.

The term whimperative refers to the conversational convention of casting an imperative statement in question form: Would you please bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia? This "stealth imperative," as Steven Pinker calls it, allows us to communicate a request without sounding too bossy.

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The Group Genitive

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The usual way of forming the possessive in English is to add an apostrophe plus -s to a singular noun (my neighbor's parakeet). But interestingly, the word ending in 's isn't always the rightful owner of the word that follows it.

With certain expressions (such as the guy next door's parakeet), the clitic -s is added not to the noun it relates to (guy) but to the word that ends the phrase (door). Such a construction is called the group genitive. Thus it's possible (though I wouldn't say advisable) to write, "That was the woman I met in Nashville's project." (Translation: "That was the project of the woman I met in Nashville.")

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Notional Agreement

The Battle of the Beanfield took place a few miles from Stonehenge on June 1, 1985. (David Nunik/Getty Images)

We all know that a verb should agree in number with its subject: Many people were arrested at the Battle of the Beanfield. Now and then, however, sense trumps syntax.

The principle of notional agreement (also called synesis) allows meaning rather than grammar to determine the form of a verb: A number of people were arrested at the Battle of the Beanfield. Though technically the subject (number) is singular, in truth that number was greater than one (537 to be precise), and so the verb is appropriate --and logically -- plural. The principle also applies on occasion to pronoun agreement, as Jane Austen demonstrated in her novel "Northanger Abbey": But everybody has their failing, you know, and everybody has a right to do what they like with their own money.

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Garden-Path Sentence

(Raquel Lonas/Getty Images)

Because word order in English is fairly rigid (as compared to Russian or German, for instance), we can often anticipate where a sentence is headed after reading or hearing just a few words. But notice what happens when you read this short sentence:

The man who whistled tunes pianos.

In all likelihood, you were tripped up by the word tunes, first approaching it as a noun (the object of the verb whistled) and only afterward recognizing its true function as the main verb in the sentence. This tricky structure is called a garden-path sentence because it leads a reader down a syntactic path that seems right but turns out to be wrong.

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Semantic Satiation

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There are countless rhetorical terms for different kinds of repetition, all of which serve to enhance the meanings of key words or phrases. But consider the effect that's created when a word is repeated not just a few times (by way of anaphora, diacope, or the like) but again and again and again without interruption:

I fell to repeating the word Jersey over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into.
(James Thurber, "My Life and Hard Times", 1933)

The "disturbing mental state" described by Thurber is called semantic satiation: a psychological term for the temporary loss of meaning (or, more formally, the divorce of a signifier from the thing it signifies) that results from saying or reading a word repeatedly without pause.

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LeBron James (Aaron Davidson/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

In speech and writing, most of us rely on first-person pronouns to refer to ourselves. That, after all, is what they were made for. (Note that I came to be capitalized, as John Algeo points out, "not through any egotism, but only because lower-case i standing alone was likely to be overlooked.") Yet certain public figures insist on referring to themselves in the third person by their proper names. Here, for instance, is how pro basketball player LeBron James justified his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat in 2010:

I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy.

This habit of referring to oneself in the third person is called illeism. And someone who regularly practices illeism is known (among other things) as an illeist.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Grammatical Oddities That You Probably Never Heard About in School." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Grammatical Oddities That You Probably Never Heard About in School. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Grammatical Oddities That You Probably Never Heard About in School." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).