My Dad once told me that a man could work himself to death with a pickaxe. I don’t know if he knew the John Henry ballad; probably he knew it, but I do know he had swung a pickaxe. But his claim was one of fact, not value. It wasn’t necessarily a bad way to die, on the swinging end of a hammer. But he may have been using the pickaxe as a metaphor. A man kills himself whatever he does, and if not, as Woody Guthrie sang, “Some [men] will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen,” so there’s little hope of escaping either end of the pickaxe. My Dad knew his tools, but he didn’t know an existential wrench from an existential clause (there was no dummy pronoun grabbing hold of that handle), and so he never mentioned a man could work himself to death studying grammar.
John Henry didn’t swing a pickaxe, but a sledge hammer. Same idea. But what kills him isn’t the hammer, but the race pitting the hand-tool hammer to beat the new technology of the steam hammer. It’s not the tool, but the fight that gets you, and the race is always against technology – which you created to make things easier, thinking the tool would be irrelevant. In any case, while we probably won’t be hearing the Ballad of John Computer, or the Ballad of John Grammar, anytime soon, we’re here to tell you that the study of grammar will take its toll.
Consider the semantically singular they, for example. It’s OK, stay with him. You both can and may use a they following everyone. And don’t worry about for whom the bell tolls; whoever it tolled for, they’ve heard it by now, which brings us to that non-personal head that’s really only a problem for a comma king. Moreover, did you know that “the danger from adjunct non-finite clauses with missing subjects that are not syntactically determined is often exaggerated” (p. 209)? We will miss that dang dangling modifier.
We’re in no race to quickly finish Pullum’s Grammar – a good thing, too, because we’re cutting through it with a pickaxe (for as the back cover tells us, this is a “groundbreaking textbook”), and we don’t want our grammar hammer to be the end of us too soon, Lawd – Lawd. “Let the hammer do the work,” my Dad advised whenever he saw me overswinging and looking dizzy. While I try today to apply that advice to grammar, if you’ve not had enough grammar fun this morning, try this.