Verbal hugs don’t lie

Written by Martina Wiltschko (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona)

When we talk to each other, we interact in ways that go beyond telling each other about ourselves and the world around us. We let our interlocutors know what we think and how we feel; we can share our attitudes towards each other and the things we talk about. We do this by using language dedicated to interaction and which does not contribute to the content of what we say. The mood of a conversation changes dramatically when the language of content (you made it) is enriched with interactional language (oh wow), bold-face in (1-2).

(1) Ann: Oh wow, you made it, eh?

Beth: I know, right?

(2) Charlie: Damn. I’m sick.

Dorian: Oh no! Get better, okay?

Without interactional language the conversation sounds almost curt or even rude. It’s like you don’t really care. In spoken language, this may be alleviated by other means such as intonation, gestures, and facial expressions and in texting via emojis. But in the absence of such clues, when Beth responds to Ann’s observation that she made it with a simple I know it takes away the congratulatory attitude of the preceding utterance. Beth may almost come across as complaining that Ann said something she already knows, so why bother? And there is no indication as to whether Beth is in fact excited about the fact that she made it. Similarly, in the second example, if Dorian responds with a simple get better, there is a sense in which he might as well say: So what? All you have to do is get better. No empathy. No connection.

By adding interactional language, the interlocutors learn something about how the other feels: oh wow conveys Ann’s surprise and excitement, oh no conveys Dorian’s concern for Charlie. By adding the sentence-final particles eh, right, and okay, the interlocutors build a connection: they indicate that they care what the other thinks and feels rather than simply telling them what to think and do or how to feel. They indicate that the speaker wants a response. Thus, interactional language has two interrelated function: it helps us to synchronize our minds in that it allows interlocutors to get a glimpse of what is going on in their interlocutor’s mind. And it helps us to facilitate the flow of the interaction. Being encouraged to respond makes it easier to keep the conversation going and thus to further connect with the interlocutor. The connection we are able to establish via interactional language may even be an emotional substitute for a physical hug. (In the situations in (1-2), hugs would be appropriate.)  Especially when physical hugging is not a possibility.

Some self-help websites have lately advocated for giving “verbal hugs”. You find statements like “a verbal hug is a sincere acknowledgment, said to make the person feel warm, loved, and honored. For example, instead of greeting someone with the trite “How are you?” try “It’s so good to see you,” or, if it’s true, “You’re looking great.”

Now the thing about the language of content is that it can be used to lie (hence the above cited post emphasizes to say it only if it is true). But interactional language is not about truth or falsehood: one cannot lie by saying oh wow. One could, of course fake it, but that would be like faking a smile or… a hug. While humans do not seem to be inherently equipped with lie-detection abilities, they are very good at detecting fake smiles and fake hugs. And, I would add, that we are also good at detecting fake verbal hugs that are delivered via interactional language. It’s much harder to fake interactional language than it is to lie with the language of content because the rules that regulate its use are much more difficult to make conscious. (Just ask someone what “eh?” means). And hence interactional language, arguably, allows for an unobstructed window into your interlocutor’s mind and their emotions.

Cover image: Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

The Grammar of Interactional Language by Martina Wiltschko is out now.




Adventures in English Syntax – an author’s perspective

Book cover of Adventures in English SyntaxBlog written by Robert Freidin, and was originally posted on The Cambridge Core blog

The seed for this book was planted almost 60 years ago when my 10th grade English teacher, taught us the elements of English sentence structure: prepositional phrases and relative clauses; finite vs. infinitival and gerundive clauses; compound vs. complex sentences (and thus the difference between coordination and subordination). For me, this was a revelation – leading to a 50-year career in linguistics as a syntactician. My high school understanding of English sentence structure allowed me to engage with my own writing at a fundamental level where I could view my sentences as syntactic structures that connected to other syntactic structures, and thus to different sentences for expressing the same thoughts – providing a basis for comparison/evaluation. From the 10th grade on, I had an intellectual tool for crafting inevitably imperfect first drafts into prose that presented my thoughts clearly. The process of writing became a way to clarify my thinking on the topic I was writing about – what Francis Bacon had in mind when he wrote in “Of Studies” (1625) that “writing [makes] an exact man”. Externalizing thoughts in black and white is perhaps the best way to discover what is unclear, illogical, or based on questionable assumptions – if you are paying attention. And as a result, writing is never surprise-free. It ceases to be a chore, and becomes instead fun and interesting – if you enjoy exploring your thoughts and how best to express them.

Today, regrettably, the elements of English sentence structure (syntax) are no longer taught in either the high school English curriculum or college writing programs, and haven’t been for decades. One goal of this book is to make a start at changing the situation by providing anyone who wants to improve both their writing and their experience of writing (especially high school and college students) with an essential tool. This book demonstrates how an understanding of sentence structure can also be used to evaluate various prescriptions about “good style” (e.g. avoid the passive voice and never end a sentence with a preposition) as well as to achieve a deeper appreciation of the linguistic artistry in great literature.

Another goal of this book is to construct a broad and detailed portrait of English in terms of its basic syntax from the perspective of modern linguistics—specifically generative grammar of the past six plus decades. Each chapter focuses on a specific example, building a progression from the simple to the complex. Together these chapters build a foundation for further exploration of English syntax.

In these ways, this book serves as a demonstration of the utility of the generative enterprise in linguistics for all users of English. In writing it, my hope has been that the understanding of English syntax it provides will equip you for your own adventures with the sentences you write and read.

“Analysing English Sentences” – A. Radford

By Susan E. Holt

My love affair (and it really is love) with linguistics began back as a nine year old watching “My Fair Lady” for the first time.  After the initial romance, it was time to make a serious commitment and that came in the form of saying “I do” to a university place at Durham studying English Language and Linguistics.  This marriage was solemnized in the presence of a holy book: “Analysing English Sentences” by Andrew Radford.

So my venture into the book began in the first week of university.  The heaviest of all  the books on our booklist, myself and my new linguistics friends quickly (and correctly) figured it must be important.  During first year syntax, the red book was omnipresent in our tutorials and on our study desks: all those tree diagrams and what is more, we were beginning to understand them!  So many did we have to draw that we came up with the idea of manufacturing tree diagram stencils.  This idea was a bit of a non-starter as every subsequent chapter seemed to add more layers and labels. That’s why this book works: it guides you through at an effective pace.  Anyhow, destined to complete our first year of university rather than enter a design and manufacturing career, we came to be really appreciative of Radford’s explanations.  

At my university, we quickly came to understand that at the heart of every course was Noam Chomsky.  What is more, our Professor, his PhD tutor was Noam Chomsky himself; ergo, we were just one step from the big guy himself!  We were curious as to why no Chomsky books were on our reading list for our linguistics course.  And so one day we marched to our university library in search of Chomsky’s work after all, we were studying him and thus it made perfect sense to us.  So full of first year thirst for betterment, enlightenment and knowledge, we approached the linguistics shelf in the library and to our initial delight we were presented with gleaming spines reading “Chomsky”.  Finally, we could read Chomsky’s work.  So we took one of his books from the shelf and opened it.  We opened the cover and began reading.  Yikes.  We ever so quickly realised our eminent tutors, Doctors and Professor had in fact been shielding us from what we were striving towards, they were packaging up Chomsky’s ideas into piecemeal chunks and knew that seeing the work in the original would have scared us silly – as indeed it had done in that university library that day.

And so it was with renewed love and affection that we turned back to our beloved Radford book “Analysing Sentences”.  Radford’s book was to be our map through the forest of syntactic trees. Overlooking the green lawn, every tutorial was filled with the trees of Radford’s exercises.  Whilst they seemed tricky back then, it was all part of the learning process and actually we all found them fun.

Radford’s textbook didn’t just serve us well in our first year, many of us were still using it through our finals.  Whilst we may have moved on to learning about government and binding theory and the minimalist approach, our first love of the big red book would never wane.  So much so was our love of the book that as undergrads we did in fact send an email of thanks for his helpful book. Now, sending an email at that time was in itself very exciting as email and the internet was just starting, however what was even more thrilling was an email reply from Andrew Radford!  Radford responded so kindly, informatively and not a tree in sight (tricky in an email back in those days I guess).  What a boon to our quest for scholarly enlightenment: forget being one step from Chomsky, we had just received an email from the author of the book which made all linguistics learning possible.

And so my love of linguistics was enhanced by this book and whilst I may not read the book every night, I can never think of syntax without a smile of gratitude for Radford’s book and all of his trees.


Find out more about the new second edition of Analysing English Sentences by Andrew Radford

Andrew Radford Analysing English Sentences

The Study of Language by George Yule | 5th Edition

The Study of Language has proven itself to be the student and instructor choice for first courses in language and linguistics because of its accessible approach to, what is often, a complicated subject. In every edition, readers have praised the book for being easy to follow, simple to understand, and fun to read, with its quirky anecdotes and examples of languages from around the world. Now in its fifth edition, it is further strengthened by the addition of new student ‘tasks’ (guiding readers to connect theory to real-world scenarios), including examples from even more foreign languages, and updating the text to reflect the most current linguistic theory. We will also be offering an enriched learning experience with our new enhanced eBook (publishing in Autumn), which will include pop-up glossary terms, embedded audio and interactive questioning. All of these features make this the most student-friendly edition of the textbook yet.


The Study of Language

Paragraph above by Valerie Appleby, Development Editor, Cambridge University Press

A note on the Concept of Gender in French

written by Ronald Batchelor

To the English-speaking beginner, the notion of masculine and feminine gender for French nouns comes as a surprise. Perhaps it should not be so. For in most European languages of Indo-European origin, and this includes Arabic, Pashto, Hindi, among many others, but excludes Basque, Finnish, Hungarian or Turkish, gender distinction forms an integral part of grammatical discourse. But let’s play the devil’s advocate.  For such a beginner, the concept of gender assigned to inanimate objects appears extraordinary, lacking all logic and convincing definition. So much for the logic of “Ce qui n’est pas logique n’est pas français.” It seems to make more sense that gender should find no place when applied to inanimate objects, as in English. One may quote she for a ship, but this is the limit.

However, the idea of gender in French is a presence to be reckoned with. One of the neo-Latin languages, French inherits the concept of M. and F. gender, just like Spanish, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese. One may understand M. and F. nouns in the context of humans (male and female) and some animals (again male and female). But that a table in French should be F. (=la table), like the Italian tavola (la), (but M. tavolo (il)is also common in  Italian!), and mesa (la) in Spanish, whilecouteau (le) in French, coltello (il) in Italian and cuchillo (el) in Spanish are M. defies rational explanation. Indeed, linguists agree that no rules may be established to justify this arbitrary application of gender to nouns, save for those pointing to persons and some animals. And even here, gender seems to go a bit transvestite. That a male should be F. as in French victime, Spanish víctima, or Italian vittima, or a female should be M. as in French membre, Spanish miembro or Italian membro merely dims our understanding even more.

                        Moreover, in many European languages, from Greek and Latin, through to Czech, German, Polish and Russian and the Scandinavian languages, for example, one has to confront a further gender applied to nouns: neuter. In Romance languages, fortunately this is not the case, although in Spanish, there exists the vigorous use of adjectives with a neuter value (=lo). The imagination is stretched beyond all reasonable bounds in Old Church Russian where a fourth gender occurs with a mixture of plural M. and F., the equivalent of they. However, for our purposes, we may safely concentrate on French M. and F. nouns which have repercussions throughout the French sentence since they require agreement of adjectives and past participles. Oddest of anomalies, here we come.

The gender of numerous French nouns has never been stable over the centuries, which explains serious hesitation felt, at one time or another, by practically all French speakers. The same comment applies to other Romance languages. This variability is partly due to the diverse origins of words, changes based on analogy with other words in the same language, and the constant requirements of adapting to new circumstances, as with the accession of females to what was once an exclusive male precinct. Three simple examples of the variability of genders over the centuries is the French M. noun le miel which is also M. in Italian (il miele) but F. in Spanish (la miel); fleur is F. in French and Spanish (la flor) but M. in Italian (il fiore); opérais M. in French but ópera is F. in Spanish, and opera is also F. in Italian. Little wonder that perplexity reigns here since opus/operis is neuter in Latin. In short, the study of gender is a testing minefield, requiring meticulous attention. Indeed, our Cambridge Reference Grammar of French devotes thirty-six pages to the subject in the light of current French usage.

                        The common expression “discuter sur le sexe des anges” (“to indulge in Byzantine quibbling”) says it all. Such a discussion points to an interminable and seemingly fruitless wrangling over the sex, and therefore gender, of angels, although sex and gender are not the same thing. Whether angels can be exclusively male or female, and whether their gender in French is M. or F. are unresolved issues. Of course, only the gender of ange concerns us here. Consensus of opinion suggests that ange is only M, witness the entry in the admirable Canadian MULTI Dictionnaire of de Villers which states unequivocally that “ange est toujours masculin” (our underlining). This opinion finds support in the Belgians Hanse and Blampain’sexcellent Nouveau dictionnaire des difficultés du français moderne. Yet, this trenchant assertion flies in the face of evidence adduced by Grevisse’s Le bon usage which quotes such prestigious authors as Vigny, Flaubert, Nerval, Zola and Saint-Exupéry, who also assign a F. gender to it. The simple fact is that French, as with other Romance languages, finds itself unavoidably caught up in gender issues that remain adamantly blurred by virtue of the relationship of the nature of gender and the constantly shifting sands of nouns. To conclude the matter of ange, nearly all contemporary French speakers view it as M. For further confusion on the sex of possible supernatural beings, démon/démone is merely another illustration of this labyrinth, although the F. form is little used these days. This said, Chateaubriand uses the F. form in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe (near the beginning of chapter 12, book 3).

(Adapted from the Cambridge A Reference Grammar of French)


Find out more about Dr. Ron Batchelor here

Never end a sentence with a preposition! That is something up with which I will not put!

Written by Thomas Hoffmann

From a typological point of view, preposition placement in English is an extremely interesting area of variation: most languages either require a preposition to be dragged along to the start of a clause by a displaced complement (as in the German relative clause das Haus, [in dem]i ich _i lebe vs. *das Haus, [dem]i ich [in _i] lebe) or they obligatorily leave the preposition in its clause-internal position (as in Swedish: huset [som]i jag bor [i _i] ‘the house that I live in’ vs. * huset [i som]i jag bor _i; adopted from Dekeyser 1990: 103). English, on the other hand, allows the preposition in clause-initial position (1a; a phenomenon known as ‘pied-piping’) as well as clause-internally (1b, where it is said to be ‘stranded’ or ‘orphaned’ without its complement):

 (1)     a.  preposition pied piping:
the house [in which]i I lived _i

          b.  preposition stranding:
the house [which]i I lived [in _i]

 As with virtually all cases of syntactic variation, the choice between preposition stranding and pied-piping is of course not a random one. While (1a) is considered more formal, (1b) is seen as the more informal choice. Yet, this is only part of the story. Besides several other linguistic constraints (including clause type, the syntactic function of the prepositional phrase, the type of displaced complement and processing effects; for a first overview cf. e.g. Pullum and Huddleston 2002: 627), the variation has also been affected by prescriptivism: Never end a sentence with a preposition! is one of those few (misguided) stylistic rules that a lot of people still seem to recall from their grammar lessons (though, funnily enough, as I show in my book Preposition Placement in English: A Usage-based Approach neither modern usage-guides nor the Early-Modern prescriptivists are as categorical in their discussion of preposition stranding). As illustrated by (2), this categorical avoidance of preposition stranding can lead to very awkward results:

 (2)     This is something up with which I will not put
(attributed to Sir Winston Churchill; cf. Pullum and Huddleston 2002: 629)

 The above sentence is a much-quoted joke attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, who is supposed to have commented on a particularly stilted evasion of preposition stranding with the words “This is something up with which I will not put” (cf. Pullum and Huddleston 2002a: 629). The sentence is intentionally ungrammatical since not only the preposition with has been pied piped to the front of the clause, but also the particle up. Interestingly, though the sentence is clearly ungrammatical, the quote is well-known by many speakers of English and, from a usage-based perspective, can thus be seen as something like a fixed, idiomatic phrase.

Interestingly, a Google search[1] on British internet sites revealed that the quote is not just a frozen idiom anymore (emphasis, i.e. bold font, italics and brackets, TH):

(3)      a.  Inconsistency is
[the sort of infelicity] up with which [we] will not put.

             b.   In Nottingham this is
[a situation] up with which [we] will not put! eccentd.php?filename=00000088.txt

          c.  I am sure that, if there is a great deal of disruption in Victoria street, the formidable Lady Porter will be banging on somebody’s door in order to let the Minister know that that is
[the sort of thing] up with which [she] will not put. pa/cm198990/cmhansrd/1990-05-22/Debate-10.html

          d.  But, faced with a choice between Ruweished and the “chaos” and “insecurity” of Iraq, the Palestinians have finally found
[a refugee camp] up with which [they] will not put.…/news/2003/06/01/wsteyn01.xml&sSheet=/news/2003/06/01/ixnewstop.html

          e.  I hope that the Minister will tell the Chancellor that this is
something up with which [she] will not put

          f.   Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have to agree with the right reverend Prelate. This is a scourge involving
[the exploitation of children] up with which [we] [should] not put. pa/ld199596/ldhansrd/vo951207/text/51207-01.htm

          g.  one should have the honesty to say simply that some things are
[metaphysical nonsense] up with which [one] will not put.

          h.  This is
[the sort of wishy-washy thinking] up with which [purists] will not put.

          i.   to the preservation of the English language, and for drawing your readers’ attention to
[our shoddy apostrophe], up with which [he] will not put. 2001/11/17/298048.html

As (3) shows, people are starting to appropriate the quote in various ways by replacing fixed elements by schematic slots that can be filled by various syntactic elements. The most variable slot of the sentence is the antecedent position, with only (3e) having something as in the original quote. In addition to that, the subject position is also filled differently (we in (3a,b,f), she in (3c,e), he in (3i), they (3d), one (3g), and purists (3h)). Furthermore, (in 3f) the modal should is used instead of will. In contrast to this, the elements up with which … not put remain constant.

Obviously, I am not claiming that particle pied piping as in the Churchill quote is becoming grammatical in English. Examples such as (3) are very limited in frequency and are also only used by a particular (educated) stratum of society ((3c,e,f), e.g., are from the official Hansards of the British Parliament). What the examples show, however, is how a fully substantive idiom such as this quote can be progressively schematized by speakers. Usage-based Construction Grammar (cf. Bybee 2006; Goldberg 2006) offers a straightforward account of phenomena such as these. Taking form-meaning pairings as the basic building blocks of grammar, such approaches highlight the fact that the repeated use of the quote (together with general cognitive principles such as analogy and pattern recognition) can lead to the emergence of abstract patterns. In the case of (3), the emergent construction can e.g. informally be represented as follows:

 (4)           Form:        [Nantecedent] [[up with which] [NPsubj] Vmodal [not] [put]]RC
Meaning:   ‘NPsubj strongly opposes Nantecedent

 As (4) shows, the more schematic construction now has a meaning in which the subject of the relative clause strongly voices his or her disagreement with whatever is mentioned in the antecedent noun. On top of that, the construction in (4) obviously also has a prototypical discourse function, since it is mainly used to mock someone else’s opinion or behaviour.

Usage-based Construction Grammar approaches are thus well-equipped to capture even the most peripheral of linguistic phenomena such as (4). However, as I show in Preposition Placement in English: A Usage-based Approach they are also capable of giving descriptively and explanatorily adequate grammatical analyses of all core phenomena associated with preposition placement in English. Using corpus and introspection data from L1 British English as well as L2 Kenyan English as corroborating evidence, I show that both varieties are subject to the same processing constraints and actually share a great number of constructions. In addition to that, however, the corpus as well as the experimental data indicate that all these constructions are less entrenched and less productive in the second language variety.

Yet, while I myself am pretty convinced by what Usage-based Construction Grammar has to offer, I am aware that many researchers from other frameworks might not be that interested in the particular analysis I provide (which by the way is a combination of Usage-based Construction Grammar and Constructional Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar).

In order to make the empirical results accessible to researchers from other frameworks, the Construction Grammar analysis is deferred to the last chapter and the preceding discussion of all empirical data is presented in a terminology as theory-neutral as possible. Hopefully, therefore, Preposition Placement in English: A Usage-based Approach is a book up with you will want to put.


Preposition Placement in EnglishThomas Hoffman’s new book, Preposition Placement in English, is available now from Cambridge University Press. Click here to find out more.



Bybee, Joan. 2006. From usage to grammar: The mind’s response to repetition. Language 82: 711-33.

Dekeyser, Xavier. 1990. Preposition stranding and relative complementizer deletion: Implicational tendencies in English and other Germanic languages. In: Sylvia Adamson, Vivian Low, Nigel Vincent and Susan Wright. Papers from the 5th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: Benjamins, 87-109.

Goldberg, Adele E. 2006. Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalisation in Language. Oxford University Press.

Pullum, Geoffrey K. and Rodney Huddleston. 2002. Prepositions and prepositional phrases. In: Pullum, Geoffrey K. and Rodney Huddleston, eds. 2002. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 597-661.

[1]        The search was conducted by looking for the string “up with which * put|puts|putting” on British “.uk” Internet sites on March 27th 2005.