The life of a language columnist can be a lonely one.
Picture a head of unwashed hair and a pair of mismatched graying socks protruding from behind a stack of reference books and you'll have a rough snapshot. No one wants to talk to you, lest you rap their knuckles for not using “whom” in casual conversation. And heaven knows no one wants to look at (or smell) you.
But in the last few months I've learned a trick to get people to communicate with me. It's been right under my nose all the time. All I have to do is use one of two words in this column: Obama or Romney.
In recent weeks, I've had the opportunity to write about both candidates. Nothing political, mind you. Heaven forbid. I kept it purely linguistic, writing a few months ago about some Romney camp misspellings and, more recently, about a flap over the period in Obama's “Forward.” campaign slogan.
Bam: instant human contact. Not since I last made a typo of my own has my email inbox seen so much action. Turns out that people are much more interested in talking about language if it comes out of one of these two guys.
The Romney column didn't bring out many supporters. I guess there's not much you can say when your pick for president misspells America. The emails about that column were mostly nudge-nudge, wink-wink cheers for how I slyly stuck it to him without overtly sticking it to him (I did no such thing).
The Obama column, on the other hand, brought out a lot of people's passion for the one-word sentence — passion they probably didn't know they were harboring until others criticized his campaign slogan.
A bit of background: In the Obama column, I pointed out that “Forward.” is not a complete sentence, not even as an imperative, that is, a command. This is the reason why some people call that period an outright error. I disagreed. A word or phrase need not be a complete sentence in order to rightly end with a period. Sentence fragments and their use are supported by virtually all writing and grammar experts.
But the emails that followed made clear that I had failed to explain what, exactly, a sentence is.
“I fail to see why ‘Forward' may not be an imperative sentence,” wrote Jim in Glendale, one of a number of readers who made the point by citing examples like the following. “Forward, march!” “'Forward, the Light Brigade!'“ “Forward! Forward the lily banners go!” “Onward and upward” and just “Onward.”
Let's look at the simplest of these: “Onward.” It's fine to put a punctuation mark after this word. The thought is clear and complete. But that doesn't make it a complete sentence: For something to qualify as a complete sentence, it needs at least one clause. A clause is made up of a subject and a verb. Neither can be left implied, with one exception: Imperative verbs always contain an implied subject: “you.”
So, if it's a command, a verb alone can be a complete sentence. “Eat!” “March!” “Dance!”
Compare these to: “Slowly!” “Beautiful!” “Cake!” “Outside!” These are not complete sentences. They're fragments because they don't contain the requisite verb.
“Forward,” according to Webster's New World College Dictionary, is not an intransitive verb. It's usually an adverb. In “Forward, march,” either a word is being left implied “(Turn) forward” or “forward” is modifying the imperative verb “march.” Either way, “forward” is functioning adverbially.
An adverb alone doesn't meet the criteria for a complete sentence. So “Forward.” doesn't qualify. Yet the Obama slogan is not an error. As I said, in the land of the free some call “Amercia,” such fragments are fine.
I eagerly await your reply.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.