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Grammatically Speaking, December 2008

Hello Richard,

I have a question for you that a student asked me, which I can't answer: Why is the word I always capitalized?

Steven Bookman

New York, NY  USA

That's a great question, Steven. The long and short of it is that no one knows for sure why that pronoun is capitalized. We do know that it went from miniscule i to majuscule Isometime during the Middle English period between the 14th and 15th centuries.

One commonly held explanation has to do with aesthetics more than anything else. The scribes of that period were very much into the "look" of the printed word, and seeing that little lonely i just all by itself, not even capped with the dot we now use, just wasn't appealing to them. In addition, they wanted to make sure it was recognized as an important word, not just a letter floating there on the line, so by capitalizing it, they gave it more importance and made it clear that it was the first-person singular pronoun. That's the most commonly held theory, Steven.

By the way, another example of this arbitrary way of deciding how to write or spell words during the Middle English period has to do with the combination ck. Originally many words containing a short vowel + consonant (e.g., pik [pIk]) had the consonant doubled to maintain the short vowel when a suffix beginning with another vowel was added on (pikked[pIkt], picking [pIkIŋ]). If only one consonant were written, the vowel sound would change from short to long, and the word would be pronounced inaccurately: pik [pIk], piked[paIkt], piking [paIkIŋ]. So using the double consonant to maintain the short vowel was important. The problem those scribes had, however, was that they just didn't like the appearance of that double k to maintain the short vowel, so somebody started writing ck instead, and it was agreed that this combination was more aesthetically pleasing. That's why words are spelled with the ck to actually anticipate maintaining the short vowel when those suffixes are added on (pick, picked, picking).

Thanks for a great question, Steven.

Dear Mr. Firsten:

Is it correct to say a 15 hours' drive? A student of mine wrote that, and although I didn’t think it was correct, I really wasn’t sure how to explain it. I told my student he should writea 15-hour drive, but I didn't know why. Please help me. Thanks in advance.

Arslan Hikmet

Izmir, Turkey

Dear Mr. Hikmet:

Your correction is right on the money. The reason it’s right is that we don’t use the -s genitive with singular countable nouns like drive. We do use it with singular uncountable nouns. For example, we can say I've had five years' experience. / He was given two weeks' notice. / This career requires only six months' training. As you can see, the –s genitive works fine with uncountable nouns like experience, notice, and training.

When we need to use a singular countable noun, we normally use the hyphenated form: a three-hour flight / an eight-month leave / a two-year stint.

The one exception to this is when we use the word time: They'll be back in four months' time. / In just six months' time you won't even miss it.

Thank you for a very interesting question, Mr. Hikmet. It’s a point of grammar that I think many people may be confused about.

Dear Richard,

Sometimes the most common phrases or sentences become the most difficult to explain to students. When this happens, I get very frustrated! I have two questions and hope you'll answer both for me.

Here's the first one that has frustrated me so much. Take a simple sentence like I'm finished. What's going on grammatically in that sentence? I can't figure it out for the life of me. I can explain a sentence like I finished or I have finished with no trouble. In those cases we’re simply dealing with the verb finish, the first one in the simple past and the second in the present perfect. No problem. But I'm finished? What is that??

My other question deals with what difference does or doesn't exist between saying I heard him singing and I heard his singing. Do they mean the same thing?


Charlotte, North Carolina  USA

Dear Frustrated,

Don't pull the hair out of your head—not just yet! You’re certainly right in observing that sometimes the simplest things can become the toughest to explain.

As to your first question, English has a form called the statal passive. It's a pseudo-passive construction for intransitive verbs, usually verbs of movement or completion. In the statal passive, the past participle is active, not passive in meaning. Your sentence, I'm finished, is a perfect example of this form. Other examples are You'll have to come back tomorrow. Mr. Fontaine is gone for the day. / The traffic is stopped because the drawbridge is up.

I should point out, however, that it’s very common to use the present perfect instead of this statal passive form: Mr. Fontaine has gone for the day. / The traffic has stoppedbecause the drawbridge is up.

Now, as to your second question, there is indeed a difference between saying I heard him singing and I heard his singing.

In the first sentence, we're dealing with a present participle (singing). The sentence really means "I heard him as he was singing." The focus is on the person, and the speaker is telling us what that person was doing at the time. The present participle is used for an action in progress.

In the second sentence, we're dealing with a gerund (also singing), which is used when the focus is on the action rather than the person, and we have a completed action.

Keep in mind, though, that we can't always use the gerund as a direct object complement with every verb. For example, we can say I saw him smiling (present participle for action in progress), but we can't say *I saw his smiling (gerund).

At least you now know where the differences lie when both forms are possible. I hope this ends your frustration, Frustrated. Thanks for such insightful questions.

Here's the Brain Teaser from my September 2008 column: Is it necessary to repeat the in the following sentence? The rice and the beans are ready. Let's eat! If it is necessary, why? If it's not necessary, why not?

The first correct response was sent in by Ismael Tohari from Jizan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

My hunch is this: If the rice and beans is one dish, I think we should use one the, i.e., The rice and beans is ready. If they are separate dishes, then I think we have to use two the's and say The rice and the beans are ready.

I hope I did well!

You certainly did, Ismael! That's the perfect answer.

And now for a new Brain Teaser. What’s the difference between these two sentences?

Secretary to boss: Mr. Hanks? Mr. DeMille is on line 2.

Secretary to boss: Mr. Hanks? A Mr. DeMille is on line 2.

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