Friday, March 5, 2010

My friends, their house

In a former life, I was a linguist.

And every once in a while I still like to play with grammar puzzles.

Not everybody’s cup of tea, to be sure. I almost always have to play by myself.

But look at it this way. You won't win a Nobel Prize, but then people who wrap themselves up in language puzzles, (free cell, sudoku puzzles, memorizing the kings of England...) tend not to bother much with conspiracy theories, either.

Here’s a grammar puzzle I just came across.

A friend e-mailed me an invitation to dinner on a Friday night. I wrote back that I couldn’t come because I like spending Friday nights at my friends Dov and Cathy’s house.

Note the apostrophe after Cathy and not after friends, even though it's in apposition to Dov and Cathy, and not after Dov, even though it's his house too.

But that's small potatoes curious compared to what happens when you leave out the appositive phrase and just use "friends".

Here’s how I started the e-mail:

"On Friday nights we always go to dinner at friends' house."

Immediately upon writing “at friends’ house” I felt a terrible pang of indefinite article deprivation. The brain sent out a sharp signal to the fingers to edit.

I know the obvious solution. When in doubt, circumlocute. Say "On Friday nights we always go to dinner at the house of friends."

But that sounds too close to saying I'm going to dinner at the House of Usher. Besides, I hate being told I have to be a bore, grammatically.

So I went looking for answers.

Remember when you first learned there was a definite article, the, in English and an indefinite article, a/an?

And that the was unchangeable and worked for both singular and plural nouns?

And that some was the "optional plural" of a/an, as in "a breast" (singular) and "breasts" or "some breasts" (plural)?

And that the some in the noun phrase "some breasts" needed to have the stress on the noun, because if you put it on the adjective "some" it meant "some as opposed to others" and not "some, not just one"?

And that English has two ways to form the possessive, the Saxon way and the Latin (a misnomer for the French) way? (and that the grammatical term for "possessive" is "genitive":
Saxon genitive: the bee's knees (singular)/the bees' knees (plural)
as opposed to:
the Latin/French genitive: the knees of the bee (singular)/the knees of the bees (plural)

OK, so here's my question.

What is it with this friggin English language that you can't say things you want to?

I know you could put the optional indefinite plural article some in front of "friends" and fix the problem.

"On Friday nights we always go to dinner at some friends' house."

That's kind of a solution, yes, but that makes it sound as if the friends are nobody in particular. That's not the case. I would not pick nobody in particular over the guy whose invitation I'm turning down. They are special friends. And I don't want to say I'm going to dinner at some special friends house instead of accepting your invitation because you're not special.

I don't like the options, in other words. And that word some doesn't seem to have balls.

So what this means, apparently, is that I have to learn a new (to me) three-part rule:

1) Some is the plural of "a."
2) Some is optional. It alternates with Ø (no article at all).

e.g., "breasts" = "some breasts"

And here's the hard part.

3) It is not always optional.

"We always go to dinner at some friends' house."
≠ ?"We always go to dinner at friends' house."

Another way to say the same thing would be this:

It would appear we have a rule which runs:

You can alternate the Latin and Saxon possessive in the singular, but in the plural you must use only the Latin possessive if the possessor is plural.

e.g., the house of a friend = a friend's house
the house of friends = [there's no other way to say it]

That’s some dumb-ass rule, and plays havoc with the rule of economy for rules. (Cover the maximum number of cases in the minimum number of words.)

I know the cardinal rule in grammar. Never ask why. Only observe what.

(But I'd really like to know why. Is there something religious going on here?)

Note that this is a problem peculiar to English, and to a degree, its cousin, German. I suspect it’s universal to the speech of all us children of Goths and Vikings, but I’m not that well informed, so let me move on.

1. In Japanese, there is no singular/plural distinction, so you don’t run into this problem:

"I'm going to dinner at yujin no uchi.” (yujin = friend or friends; no = ‘s; uchi = house)

2. In French you say chez un ami singular or chez amis/chez des amis (i.e., same "some" distinction, but this time truly optional) (I'm sure that certain portions of il popolo francofonico will tell me there are actually hair-raising distinctions and nothing in life is optional, but that would be going off on a tangent.)

3. In German you say "Wir gehen zu Freunden" when there are lots of Freunds and "zu einem Freund" when there's only one. "Einig-" is the German equivalent of "some" and you can say both "zu Freunden" and "zu einigen Freunden", but the "zu" (like the chez in French) covers the notion of house, and that means this example doesn't illustrate the parallel and we need to check this out with a different noun. Let’s do it with “car”.

“I'm driving a friend's car.” = Ich fahre den Wagen eines Freundes. Or von einem Freund, if you are wearing jeans instead of evening wear. Or eines Freundes Wagen, if you want to sound like you started grammar school in 1839.

“I'm driving the car of some friends.” = Ich fahre den Wagen von (optional: einigen) Freunden (Note the use of the non-Saxon genitive even in Ur-Saxon, suggesting that even the Saxons had self-doubts), and Ich fahre den Wagen einiger Freunden is interchangeable with Ich fahre den Wagen von einigen Freunden (same jeans/evening wear distinction) (i.e., “some”) but not *Ich fahre den Wagen Freunden. (i.e., the null indefinite article in a Saxon genitive).

There are all these dialect variations of the Dative possessive, of course, such as Meinem Freund, sein Wagen (my friend his car) and Meinen Freunden, ihr Wagen (my friends their car), and the interesting fact that that's now the only way to say the possessive in Afrikaans, but let's get back to the point of the curious and hard-to-explain grammar rule in English for when to use the plural, sometimes optional, indefinite article.

Why can’t I say:

I’m going to dinner at friends’ house.

I know the answer is you just can't and look at you with the why questions all of a sudden.

But am I missing something obvious?

Do fill me in, if you’ve read this far and have any ideas.

Love and smooches,



Unknown said...

It's a house. It belongs to (some) friends. So it's a friends' house. (The "a" belongs to the house, not the friends.)

Alan McCornick said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Julian. Two problems. One is the disconnect between the logic of a linguistic form that makes sense, and actual usage (don't you think that, given the choice between "a friends' house" and "the house of some friends" virtually everybody will choose the latter? - i.e., logical as it may be, it simply doesn't feel right? And two, would you really say that "a problem that German people have" is "a Germans' problem"?

Anonymous said...