Studies of grammar in prose

Shares for Shares

9 February 2012

Knowing the number and type of arguments that a verb can take is a key part of knowing a language. A familiar case from ordinary grammar is verbs that take both a direct and indirect object, e.g., ‘Adam gives an apple to Eve’. Many verbs require you to memorise specific configurations, e.g., ‘Adam provides Eve with an apple’.

Additional arguments add layers of complexity, e.g., ‘Eve buys an apple from Adam for $1′, or ‘Adam swaps an apple for an orange with Eve’.


Sometimes, however, the complexity can become quite daunting. One recent example I came across was in the merger proposal between Glencore and Xstrata, which had a provision to the effect that ‘for every share that an Xstrata shareholder held, Glencore would issue the holder with 2.8 shares’.


This adds two layers of complexity: (1) the notion of a ratio in issuing shares and (2) the fact that one argument in the ratio is ‘the number of shares that a shareholder owns’.

The following are a few of the ways the English-language press expressed the Glencore-Xstrata proposal:

* Investors will receive 2.8 Glencore International shares for every Xstrata share owned.

* …with Glencore offering 2.8 of its shares for each one in Xstrata.

* Glencore will issue 2.8 new shares for each Xstrata share.

* Xstrata investors are to receive 2.8 Glencore shares for every share they own.

* The proposed share-based deal will offer Xstrata shareholders 2.8 new shares in Glencore.

Not all are equally clear in spelling out the arguments involved, but in general they adopt the form:

Glencore will issue/offer 2.8 shares for each/every Xstrata share (that shareholders own).


Shareholders will receive 2.8 shares for each/every Xstrata share (that they own).

In figuring out how to put this kind of expression into languages like Chinese and Japanese, the problem is one of finding an appropriate verb, as well as finding the most appropriate way of expressing the arguments.

Fortunately, I did not have to tax my brain about this matter for long as Chinese and Japanese press reports of the offer were soon forthcoming.

ChineseThe way it was expressed in Chinese was surprisingly elegant. Some samples:

Jiānéngkě jiāng yǐ měi 2.8-gǔ huàn 1-gǔ de xíngshì, shōugòu Xstrata yúxià gǔquán.
‘Glencore will purchase the remaining shares in Xstrata in the form of 2.8 shares exchange [for] one share’
yǐ měi-gǔ Xstrata kě huàn-qǔ 2.8-gǔ Jiānéngkě jìsuàn.
‘calculated as each Xstrata share can exchange [for] 2.8 Glencore shares’
(Glencore公布,) 以每2.8股新Glencore股份,換取1股Xstrata股份。
(Glencore gōngbù,) yǐ měi 2.8-gǔ xīn Glencore gǔfen, huàn-qǔ 1-gǔ Xstrata gǔfen.
‘(Glencore announced,) each 2.8 new Glencore shares exchange [for] 1 Xstrata share’
Jiānéngkě jiāng tóngyi měi 2.8-gǔ huàn-qǔ Xstrata gōngsi 1-gǔ.
‘Glencore will agree each 2.8 shares exchange [for] 1 share in Xstrata company’
huàn gǔ bǐlǜ wéi měi 2.8-gǔ Jiānéngkě kě huàn 1-gǔ Xstrata.
‘The exchange share ratio is every 2.8 shares in Glencore can exchange [for] 1 share of Xstrata’

Interestingly, the transaction is linguistically treated as a swap – 1 Xstrata share will be exchanged for 2.8 Glencore shares. The sentence can be expressed at its simplest as: 每2.8股换1股 měi 2.8-gǔ huàn 1-gǔ ‘each 2.8 shares exchange 1 share’. The verb used is huàn ‘to exchange’ or 换取 huàn-qǔ ‘to exchange for’ or ‘get in return’.

Also interesting is the fact that the arguments are not fully expressed in direct association with the verb. Neither ‘shareholder’ nor ‘Glencore’ are fully spelled out as arguments of  huàn or 换取 huàn-qǔ. These are derived from the wider context and from the identification of the shares as ‘Glencore shares’ or ‘Xstrata shares’. Nor does Chinese need to use a passive in this construction, unlike English, which requires ‘2.8 shares are exchanged for 1 share’.

The very conciseness of the Chinese does, however, lead to some vagueness, as can be seen from the fact that one example reverses the order of the swap without any apparent change in meaning.

A couple of the Chinese reports use   constructions. Using  , which is a written, almost Classical structure, serves to isolate the ‘each 2.8 shares exchange 1 share’ construction, as in the example 以每2.8股换1股的形式 yǐ měi 2.8-gǔ huàn 1-gǔ de xíngshì ‘in the form of exchanging 2.8 shares for each 1’. By separating this piece of information out into a separate phrase, the argument structure can be simplified.

JapaneseLooking at how this same situation was treated in Japanese press reports returns us to a linguistic world somewhat closer to English:

Ekusutorāta 1-kabu ni taishi, Gurenkoa wa shin-kabu 2.8-kabu o wari-ateru.
‘For one Xstrata share, Glencoure will assign 2.8 new shares’

Ekustorata-sha no kabu-nushi ni wa dōsha no 1-kabu ni taishi, Gurenkoa-sha ga hakkō suru shin-kabu 2.8-kabu ga wari-ateraru.
‘To Xstrata shareholders, for one share in that company 2.8 new shares issued by Glencore will be assigned’ (note use of passive here)

Gurenkoa ga hakkō suru shin-kabu 2.8-kabu o Ekustorāta no 1-kabu ni wari-ateru kabushiki kōkan o jisshi suru.
‘will implement a share exchange that assigns to each Xstrata share 2.8 new shares that Glencore issues’

Ekustorāta no kabu-nushi ni taishi, hoyū-kabu 1-kabu atari Gurenkoa kabu 2.8-kabu no hiritsu de wari-ateru koto de gōi shita.
‘agreed to assign to the shareholders of Xstrata in the ratio of 2.8 Glencore shares for each held Glencore share’

Ekustorāta no mi-hoyū-kabu 1-kabu ni taishi shin-kabu 2.8-kabu o shi-harau.
‘For one share of Xstrata not yet held, 2.8 new shares will be paid’

Apart from the last example from a foreign news service, the Japanese speaks in a very orderly way of assigning or allotting 2.8 Glencore shares for each Xstrata share. The core sentence structure is: 1株に対し(グレンコアは)2.8株を割り当てる 1-kabu ni taishi (Gurenkoa wa) 2.8-kabu o wari-ateru ‘for one share (Glencore) will allot 2.8 shares’.

A prominent feature of Japanese prose is the tendency to substitute wordier expressions for simple postpositions (clitics). Most of the Japanese sentences above use に対し ni taishi ‘for’ in order to express the ratio ‘2.8 shares for 1 share’, although one report does use the simpler  ni ‘to/for’. The tendency to use wordier expressions is carried to its logical extreme in the fourth example (not actually from a newspaper report), which uses the correct formal Japanese way of expressing ratios of this sort — 当たり atari, which means ‘for each’. The sentence thus runs: エクストラータの株主に対し、保有株1株当たりグレンコア株2.8株の比率で割り当てる Ekustorāta no kabu-nushi ni taishi, hoyū-kabu 1-kabu atari Gurenkoa kabu 2.8-kabu no hiritsu de wari-ateru ‘to the shareholders of Xstrata, for each held share will assign Glencore shares in the ratio of 2.8 Glencore shares’. This also uses the expression の比率で no hiritsu de ‘in the ratio of’ instead of a mere  o (object particle). ‘Shares held’ is spelt out as 保有株 hoyū-kabu.

What this exercise shows is that the expression of transactions like the proposed Glencore-Xstrata merger-of-equals goes well beyond simply knowing the arguments that a verb can take. It requires knowledge of modes of written expression on quite a different level from that of the ‘Adam gave Eve an apple’ variety.