Grammar Lesson of the Day: Genitive of Time
What part of speech is the first word of the following sentence?
Mornings I walk over to the church for early Mass, then I have breakfast at The Gentleman Farmer.
Almost everybody would say, “Noun!” And you could make a case for it. You could say, “It’s short for in-the-morning, and ‘morning’ is a noun.” Well, ‘morning’ is a noun, but ‘mornings’ here isn’t. It answers the question, “When?” It modifies the verb “walk.” It is an adverb.
So what’s an adverb doing with a plural on it? Don’t take that tone of voice with me, dear reader. That ain’t a plural, that s. It’s a genitive: the case for denoting possession or characteristic. It means “of a morning,” which is also a possible opening for that sentence:
Of a morning I walk over to the church.
It means that it is characteristic of my morning, it belongs to the morning, that I walk over to the church. If I were German, I’d say it this way:
Morgens gehe ich zur Kirche.
“Well,” you say, “there it is again! There’s the plural!” Ah, but Germans don’t use the s to make plurals, unless the word has been borrowed from modern English. The s is a genitive, like our ’s.
Do we have other genitives of time? Sure: days, nights, evenings, afternoons, nowadays.
When I say that my students have never been taught English grammar, I don’t exactly mean that they’ve never been taught genitives of time. I do mean that they’ve never been taught grammar as a coherent and fascinating whole, even supposing that they don’t get around, in the early years, to such subtleties as this one. So, when they see an -s on the end of a word, they are apt to think straightaway that it is a plural noun, not because most such things are plural nouns, but because grammar for them is a set of arbitrary terms and prescriptions. A thing with an -s on it is a plural, so they suppose; so the verb “thinks” is plural, and the noun “acrobatics” is plural, and the name “Fats” is plural, and the adverbial “nights” is plural, when none of them is plural.
One of the slogans of the modern teacher is that we do not teach students what to think, but how to think. Whenever you hear that, dear reader, reach for your wallet and your child. The most corrupt courses in grammar schools, high schools, and colleges are those without a solid foundational what to be learned (the geography of Europe, the poetry of the Renaissance), to which the teacher must humbly submit himself. Without that what, the teacher can range at his pleasure, whereupon teaching a student how to think can grow indistinguishable from teaching him not how to think as Shakespeare or Donne thinks, but as I think.
But if we really wanted to help young students to sort out their thoughts and place them in order, we would instill in them a love for the order of language itself, that is, grammar. Yes, reader, a love for grammar – and what is so strange about that? I take for granted that teachers whose eyes do not light up when they find odd shortcuts in arithmetic should not be teaching arithmetic, and teachers whose hearts do not skip a beat when they learn of a new tense should not be teaching grammar. And if they do love these fine things, they should feel no shame at all in showing students that they might well love them too.