Sometimes English Could Use the Dative

Lots of Indo-European languages use inflectional endings on words to indicate how the words are used in the sentence. About all we have left of inflected nouns in English is the possessive case.

Now, when we have a direct object and an indirect object, you can usually tell which is which without an inflectional ending. So If I say,

Give the woman the ball.

We rely on word order to know that woman (indirect object, dative) is getting the ball (direct object, accusative). That’s easy when you have nice short sentences. Suppose the ball isn’t in the sentence:

Give the woman.

Sounds like something from a wedding ceremony. Now let’s add a man into the picture:

Give the woman the man.

A little harder. Who’s getting whom? Put a “to” in there:

Give the woman to the man—or—give to the woman the man.

We use a “to” to indicate the indirect object. An inflection would be something like -em for dative (indirect object) and -en for accusative (direct object). Then we could put the words in either order and our meaning would still be clear.

Give the womanen the manem.

Now we can see that he’s getting her! No need for “to.”

All this is a bit trivial with these nice short sentences. But what about a long sentence? Here’s one, from the book Listening In by Susan Landau, page 107:

When a user instructs her iPhone to update, the iPhone sends an Apple authorization server—directly or via iTunes—the device’s unique ID, hashes of the software the phone is requesting, and a random number.

Where did the iPhone get the server to be able to send it? Oh wait—the server is the indirect object; the ID and so on are being sent to the server. Not obvious until you wade through the sentence.

A dative inflectional ending on “server” would have been handy.

A Good-Natured Dig at Small Town Writing

Sioux City is one of my favorite places; it’s where I lived when I worked for Gateway 2000. But a recent article written there betrayed a solecism that a writer from (ahem) the big city would have known not to make. Here’s the passage:

An anxious group of football players and their parents took up a full room at The Wheelhouse Bar & Grill – one of Sioux City’s newest sports bars – Wednesday night.

The athletes were there to celebrate their future as members of the Morningside College program, which became official as soon as the players signed letters of intent.

No, it’s not that high school athletes becoming college athletes sign up a bar is inappropriate. Places like that tend more to be community centers than in big cities. (Besides, I’m here to comment on what the writer wrote, not what the kids did.)

It’s the use of “anxious” when the writer meant “eager.” I even wrote about this at least once before. I guess the Sioux City writers don’t read The Writing Rag, eh?

Well, that’s okay. I still greatly enjoyed the time I lived there.


An Example of Early Compounding

English has a tendency to change hyphenated compounds into single compound words over time. For example, “today” used to be “to-day,” and “pickup truck” used to be “pick-up truck.” This process takes a generation or so to happen. As people become more and more familiar with a phrase, they tend to leave out the hyphen. (We call this sort of thing linguistic change. Linguistic change is a common source of grumbling among grammar curmudgeons.)

Today I read an article by a reporter who covers politics. He used a compound word that I would have hyphenated. IMO the spelling is on the early side:

The decadesold informal understanding between the government and the press — that the government would only go through the motions on leak investigations — was dead.

I’m not saying he’s wrong, just early. We don’t use “decades-old” very often.

You saw it here first second!

PS—I ran into another premature compound (for the moment, we’ll ignore the false subject and “upon” where they should use “on.”):

There is a critical need to establish organizationwide data security policies and controls based upon DSG.

A Little Letterplay

Gotta show you the comic first—I didn’t notice the joke in this Argyle Sweater until I read the caption at the bottom.

Now you know why I wrote “letterplay” instead of “wordplay.” A palindrome is a situation where something has the same order of letters both backwards and forward. Punctuation and spaces don’t count.

And here’s the academics: “palin” (πάλιν) is Greek for “back” (in the sense of “again”) and “drome” (well, dromos (δρόμος), is Greek for “race,” which implies running.

So there you have it—a lesson in Classical Greek based on a comic.

In or Within?

Do you know when to use “in” and when to use “within”?

The difference can be subtle. I’ll give you the answer right away:

Use “in” if you are writing about a container.
Use “within” if you’re writing about a limit.

I should point out that “within” is more formal than “in,” too, and I generally advocate plain writing.

The limit can be any boundary, not necessarily physical. For example you might say “Get your room clean within the hour!”

The container doesn’t have to be physical, either. Here’s a quote from page 72 in an interesting book I’m reading, Listening In, by Susan Landau. (I’ll set aside mentioning that “located in” is redundant. “Located” isn’t necessary.):

Zero-day vulnerabilities are most prized when they work against widely deployed systems─and Stuxnet’s were all located in the Windows operating system, which made these particularly valuable.

As they deconstructed it, they began publishing their findings in blog posts.

Okay, here’s a comic with “in.” Try reading this and the sentences above with “within” and you’ll see why “within” doesn’t quite work.

Here’s an example of using “within” when “in” is better. Say it both ways:

These include the Schrödinger Basin, a relatively youthful crater within the larger South Pole–Aitken Basin, which is thought to be the moon’s oldest impact crater.

So here’s the rule: if you can use “in,” do so. Use “within” only when “in” sounds wrong. Most of the time “in” sounds right.


The language is always changing. We call it linguistic change. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek article about 28 new vocabulary items that apply to our current connected culture. Most likely these won’t all enter the lexicon, but it’s a fun read. Maybe thought-provoking, too. Here are two samples:

And here’s the link, from a site called Information is Beautiful:

A Little Phonics, Lesson Two

First the comic illustration:

I like Adam @ Home partly because hes a writer who works from a home office, like me, some of the time. This strip is part of an arc that got me wondering about some of our non-phonetic words in English, in this case, “of.” Why do we voice that f as if it were a v?

It turns out we sometimes don’t! The unvoiced pronunciation, when it happens, is usually right before an unvoiced consonant. Say “of course.” We don’t think about it, but that “f” can come out unvoiced. When we say the word “of” to name it (called the citation form) we always voice the f. We say / əv /. So all we ever think about is the voiced pronunciation. (See the previous post for an explanation of that upside-down e.)

What’s going on than? We say the v because it’s less work to say the voiced v in front of a voiced letter! For example, say “of every.” Now say “of course.” Not quite the same, are they? Hmm.

A Little Phonics Lesson

Scott Meyer’s Basic Instructions is usually funny, but this strip also has a touch of actual phonics. Or maybe I should say “phonetics.” The word of interest is in the second panel; it’s “schwa.”

The schwa looks like an upside-down lowercase e. That’s ə. You won’t find it in your ASCII chart, though. You have to use html or something else to make it, such as find it on a web page someplace, and do a copy and paste. The decimal html schwa is “&#601” and if you prefer hexadecimal, it’s “&#x0259” but enough of this technical stuff.

Just recognize that that upside-down e us pronounced “uh,” like the right-side up “e” in “the.”