The other day I was writing a very long post about what I do here at school, but I gave up halfway as I realized I was boring myself. This is not a good sign.

I’m sitting here watching my code run. It runs, and eventually I stop it and I check what it’s doing. I then shake my head sadly and change a few lines of code and try again. Very exciting! I have some thoughts on Haskell, the programming language in which I’m working, that I’ll share at a later time.

Today, however, I’m going to write about grammar. I am an engineer by degree and so you mite expect me too right like this. I’m not particularly thrilled by language, but some parts of it interest me. This post may or may not interest you. Read on and find out!

In English there is a colloquialism: going to see a man about a horse. The subject of the trip can be adjusted (“going to see a man about a dog”, for example) and sometimes the noun too (“going to see a dog about a man” is sometimes used). The act denotes a private errand; the phrase is used to brush off a question regarding the same.

A: Sorry, I must leave now.
B: Where are you going?
A: I have to see a man about a horse.

It’s suggested that originally the phrase was used literally – as in, gambling on horse or dog races. Nowadays it is rare to have to see anyone about a horse and so unless you live on a farm you can be fairly certain that the speaker is avoiding discussing their personal business with you.

It’s a gentle euphamism, however – it doesn’t imply any impropriety in the asking. If you’re looking for something that rebukes the asker, I’d suggest none of your beeswax!

On to the grammar question. Now that we understand the phrase itself, let’s put it to use. Suppose we wanted to construct a noun clause that referred to the general act of seeing men about horses. Which of the following two options is correct?

  1. Men, horses, and the seeing thereabouts, thereof
  2. Men, horses, and the seeing thereof, thereabouts

If it’s unclear, thereabouts refers to the horses, who are the subject of the meeting. Thereof refers to the men, who will be met.

We could rearrange the clause as the seeing of men about horses. “Seeing” is a gerund, followed by two prepositional phrases: “of men” and “about horses”. While less accessible, we could exchange the two prepositional phrases: the seeing about horses of men.

In each of these we can split the last prepositional phrase, leading to the following:

  1. Horses, and the seeing of men thereabouts
  2. Men, and the seeing about horses thereof

But if we wished to split the remaining preposition, what do we do? In #1, should “men” be put after or before “horses”, and should “thereof” be placed before or after “thereabouts”? In #2 it is the same dilemma.

So what do you think? Which do we use?

  1. Men, horses, and the seeing thereabouts, thereof
  2. Men, horses, and the seeing thereof, thereabouts

I know very little about English grammar and I don’t have the answer. It could be that neither clause is grammatically sensible. After all, the listener needs to be able to determine that we do not mean that we are going to see a horse about a man.

I may pose the question to a professor in the field, if I find one wandering the streets looking for confusing clauses to dissect. Otherwise I’ll continue using whichever pops into my head first and encourage you to do the same.

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