Loves, nails, and screws: A basic guide to spousal grammar

by Emrys Westacott

ImagesEvery book about English grammar that I know of is seriously incomplete. None of them seem to recognize the fact that elements of standard English are modified in subtle and often confusing ways when sentences are part of an exchange between married couples. In the hope of prompting the experts to rectify this situation, I offer here a few brief notes on the basic elements of spousal grammar.

In regular grammar, sentences have moods (e.g. indicative, subjunctive, etc.) expressed through verb forms, syntax, or intonation. In spousal grammar these moods also convey attitudes (love, hate, frustration, despair, etc.) of one spouse toward the other. Correct identification of the underlying attitude is key to understanding any intra-spousal utterance. The most important grammatical attitude-pointers are the following:

spousal imperative A fundamental unit of marital discourse. Traditional usage reflected power asymmetries ("Woman, fetch me my cudgel!") but increasing gender equality explains the current frequency of reactive imperative exchanges in a spousal context ("Get me a beer!" "Get it yourself!")

spousal nominative Occupies a grey area between the imperative and the suggestive. E.g. "OK, I'll fold the laundry, and you clean the toilet"–essentially short for, "I nominate you to clean the toilet."

spousal accusative Often the default mode of discourse between couples. Indeed, some studies suggest that up to 45% of utterances between spouses take the accusative form. Like grammatical objects, it can be either direct ("Well, you're the idiot who left the fucking window open!" or indirect ("Well, I'm not the one who left the fucking window open!")

spousal dative E.g. "Hey, let's go out to dinner." Much used in Stage One. Frequency tends to decline sharply once kids appear, but is often revived by empty nesters.

extra-marital dative A common misconception is that this form is used between a spouse and his or her extra-marital date. Not so. The extra-marital dative is used exclusively between spouses, and only upon first discovery of an extra-marital date. Used exclusively by the injured party, it is similar to the accusative but contains no reference to any specific misdeed (e.g. "You slimeball!" "You slut!"). Defensive utterances by the wrongdoer are almost always in the excusative. (But see also spousal vituperative.]

spousal excusative There are, as one would expect, two forms of the excusative. When reflexive, the speaker is understood to be excusing him or herself; in all other cases, the speaker is assumed to be pardoning an erring spouse. Which of these it is must often be inferred purely from context, since the actual words used may be identical. Thus: "Well, we all make mistakes." "Yeah, and some more than others!" Here the quasi-accusative response clearly indicates that the first utterance is reflexive. But: "Well, we all make mistakes." ‘Piss off, you condescending bastard!" In this case, the response being in the vituperative tells us that the offer of a pardon has been extended, and resented.

spousal interrogative On the surface, a question, but typically something else–usually a disguised reminder, command, or warning. Thus, "Have you put the trash out?" clearly means, "You need to put the trash out." "Are you going to phone the plumber?" means "Phone the plumber! Today!" "Are you really going to wear those pants?" etc.

spousal suggestive Gentler than the imperative, this is used mainly in Stage One. Indeed, a reliable indicator that the transition to Stage Two has begun is a shift in the default mood of utterances from the suggestive "(I wouldn't wear that shirt") to the imperative ("Don't wear that shirt!").

spousal possessive Sentences in the possessive mood are easily identified by the introductory expressions "That's my………." (affirmative mode) or "That's not your………" (contravertive mode). Frequency of usage typically spikes in the period immediately prior to a divorce.

spousal vituperative Also much used in the period leading up to a separation or divorce. Regularly confused with the accusative, but the difference lies (a) in its intensity, and (b) in its containing no mention of any specific error or wrongdoing. Thus: Accusative: "I saw you making eyes at her, you lech!" Vituperative: "You're just a fucking lech!") The extra-marital dative (see above) is, in fact, a particular, narrowly circumscribed case of the vituperative.

spousal vindictive Related to the vituperative, but the vindictive is never a mere insult, and is always an act of revenge. It comes in two forms, popularly known as the cleaver ("I'm not blaming you–any other total fucking moron would have done the same.") and the stiletto ("I can see now why your parents always preferred your sister.")

spousal manipulative Unique among sentential moods in that when used successfully it goes unnoticed, at least by the manipulee. Telltale markers include gratuitous terms of endearment, ("honey," "loverboy") or unexpected burst of flattery, ("hey, you're looking really great tonight!").

spousal comparative Used only to compare one's spouse to other spouses. Typically replaces the spousal superlative ("You're the best!") after Stage One. Although there is no strict grammatical requirement for the comparison to reflect negatively on the speaker's spouse, studies show this to be the norm ("Why can't you be more like….." or "So-and-so would never….." etc.).

spousal perfect In regular grammar the terms "perfect" and "imperfect" refer to tenses, but in spousal grammar they refer to the underlying assessment of the spouse that governs all the other grammatical attitudes. The spousal perfect is closely associated with Stage One ("I just love the way you……… eat your peas one at a time/ hold your mouth open when you're interested in something/ sing when you're on the toilet," etc.). Usage invariably drops off sharply after the first year.

spousal imperfect Steps in to take over where the spousal perfect leaves off. Evident in many of the attitudes mentioned above, as well as in complaints ("It really bugs me the way you……."), rhetorical questions ("Why must you always…….?" and expressions of weary resignation ("Don't bother, you'll just screw it up.")

spousal first person plural I save this item for last because it is the part of spousal grammar that causes the most confusion among non-native speakers and people who have never been married. The little word "we" can carry a surprising variety of meanings and implications, and care must be taken in its interpretation. Of course, sometimes it can be used in the regular way as a pronoun referring to the marital unit. But consider these cases:

– "We need to fix that broken gutter." Here "we" means "you." The sentence is an implicit imperative related to an unpleasant task that the speaker wants no part of.

– "We need to spend less on luxuries." This is basically in the accusative, which tells us that here, too, "we" means "you." Full meaning: "We're broke, and it's not my fault. I'm not the problem. You're the problem. You need to be less extravagant."

– "Hmm, we took a wrong turning back there," says the driver who has been confidently claiming to know where he's going. Here "we" means "not only I." It serves the important function of spreading blame.

– "We decided that we needed to lose weight." Here, it is quite possible that the first "we" is a disguised "I" while the second "we" really signifies "he" or "she". This gives you some idea of just how difficult the correct interpretation of the spousal "we" can be.

– "We don't like Cormac McCarthy; we think he's too dark." Some scholars classify utterances of this sort as instances of the spousal conformative. The "we" in this case is more than just a pronominal subject; it is also doing additional work to reassure both speaker and spouse, and to warn any interlocutor, that this marital unit stands united.