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Showing posts with label meaning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label meaning. Show all posts

Thursday, 28 December 2017

What Is English Grammar? More Importantly, What Isn't English Grammar?

The Split Infinitive:  “To really error is human.”

One of my senior colleagues was taken aback when I, a tenured professor of English and Comparative Literature, volunteered to teach a course on Applied Grammar.  Teaching grammar was not at the top of the prestige ladder.  “Are you sure you are ready to start teaching about split infinitives?” he asked me.  I thought he was pulling my leg, but I wasn’t sure, so I photocopied a page from Steve Pinker’s The Language Instinct and slid it under his door.  He never responded.


[. . .] ‘don’t split infinitives,’ ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’ can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads. Of course, forcing modern speakers of English to not split an infinitive because it isn’t done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas. (The Language Instinct 374)




I would like to emphatically reiterate what Pinker is pointing out.  (Did you notice that I just split the infinitive and ended the sentence with a preposition?) The notion that there is something wrong with  putting a word between the “to” and “reiterate” (as I have done) or ending a sentence with a preposition comes from the ludicrous but long-lasting notion that the English language should follow the rules of Latin grammar. (In Latin you cannot split the infinitive because the infinitive is one word, nor can you end a Latin sentence with a preposition.)

According to Bill Bryson, in The Mother Tongue:  English and How It Got that Way, the source of the notion that we shouldn't end an English sentence with a preposition "was one Robert Lowth, an eighteenth-century clergyman and amateur grammarian whose A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762, enjoyed a long and distressingly influential life both in his native England and abroad." As Bryson points out, Lowth was never adamant about this "rule," but thought it preferable in "solemn and elevated" writing. In later years, literal-minded academics would insist, on the grounds the Latin root of the word "preposition" was "place before," that a preposition must be placed before something.






Definitions of grammar:  theirs, yours and mine

Surfing the internet for definitions of grammar, I was surprised to discover that there are even more definitions than I had anticipated, and most of them are even less helpful than I suspected. I think it would be useful to talk about grammar according to what most people think the word means.  Experts and pseudo-experts talking about grammar almost invariably include areas of language under the category of “grammar” which make grammar a lot more complicated and difficult to grasp.  A helpful starting point (at least for you and me) would be to eliminate much of what gets included with but really isn’t English grammar.


What isn’t English grammar

If you have ever studied English grammar, chances are you used a textbook with a title like “Grammar and Usage” or “Grammar and Composition.”  What you may not have stopped to realize is that “usage” isn’t “grammar”; “composition” isn’t “grammar.”  You may have seen “grammar” defined as “a study of the language.”  “Linguistics” is “the study of language,” though “grammar” might turn out to be the product of that study.  Perhaps the hardest distinction to make is between “semantics” and “grammar”; that is, between meaning and the rules for putting words together.  If a student writes “A dozen is twenty-one” or “The Earth is the largest body in the Universe,” these statements are wrong and may not even be what the student meant to say, but they are not ungrammatical.  There are no errors in grammar in these sentences.





Grammar in the everyday world

When people usually ask about English grammar it is because they want to know “is this right?” or more pointedly “is this a mistake?”  The kind of grammar they are asking about is more precisely known as “prescriptive grammar”; that is, the language as people are supposed to speak and write it. "Prescriptive grammar," how people should use English, is typically contrasted with “descriptive grammar,” how people actually do use English.  Prescriptive grammar has developed a bad reputation and gone out of fashion because, among other things, it has been held responsible for absurdities like the split-infinitive and no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence rules. However, if we want to talk about grammar in the sense that most people have in mind when they use the word, then we need to focus on prescriptive grammar.



Errors in grammar

With descriptive grammar, since its intention is simply to describe usage, the concept of an error hardly exists.  To point out a mistake is to invoke prescriptive grammar. If we keep to this precise and strict definition of grammar, what grammar is becomes much clearer.  In fact, there are only four different types of errors in grammar:

  1. Errors of word order (syntax)
  2. Errors of word type (adjectives versus adverbs for example)
  3. Errors of agreement (eg, yesterday requires the past tense of the verb)
  4. Errors of word form (morphology, actually a sub-category of “agreement” and  "type”)
There are many other ways that we can make mistakes in English—spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, vague pronoun reference, faulty parallelism, redundancies, dangling modifiers and so on—but they are not, strictly speaking, errors in grammar.  And speaking strictly is exactly what I am trying to do here. If you want to reverse the direction and speak of English grammar in the affirmative: it is the rules for putting words in the right order, using the correct word type in each position, and ensuring that the parts are in agreement or concordance with each other.


Grammar versus discourse

Grammar is a collection of those rules that apply within a complete sentence.  How the sentences and parts of sentences are connected together is called “discourse.” The rules of discourse are generally more difficult to specify, but they are what you are being taught if you are studying writing or composition or rhetoric.


Spoken versus written English

It is an exaggeration to claim that grammar does not apply to spoken English but, in fact, moving outside of complete sentences it becomes increasingly difficult to apply the rules of syntax, word type and agreement.  People do not speak English in complete sentences.  A lot of spoken language is just grunts and nods. 

Steve Pinker observes:
The Watergate tapes are the most famous and extensive transcripts of real-life speech ever published.  When they were released, Americans were shocked. [ . . . .] one thing that surprised everyone was what ordinary conversation looks like when it is written down verbatim.  Conversation out of context is virtually opaque. [. . . .] even when transcribed perfectly, conversation is hard to interpret.  People often speak in fragments, interrupting themselves in midsentence to reformulate the thought or change the subject. (The Language Instinct 224)

People remain generally unaware of the degree to which written and spoken English are different kinds of discourse. The rules of grammar still apply but only in about the same degree as the rules of the NHL (National Hockey League) apply to street hockey or the rules of golf apply to most of the guys I play with.

The Latin origins for the parts of speech in English grammar.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Deconstruction and “Ways of Talking”

Derrida denied deconstruction was of any importance

As I’ve mentioned previously, the last time I saw Jacques Derrida, who is credited with coining the term “deconstruction,” being interviewed he was quite adamant that “deconstruction” was not a concept of any importance, not even a theory, not even a word that he used anymore. ( See "Critical Thinking Skills" and "Family Values")  Nonetheless, the word has taken on a life of its own and, while it may have gone out of fashion, it is still with us and showing no signs of disappearing from the language.  (See footnotes.)

Postmodernist deconstructionist smuggery

If you have ever tried to confront a postmodernist deconstructionist by pointing out that his work was contradictory, illogical, duplicitous, nonsensical and hypocritical, you would likely find him responding with glee, “Exactly!”—as if he were personally responsible for your recent intellectual epiphany.  Given the deconstructionist stance that language is guaranteed to fail and is ultimately meaningless, you might wonder why Derrida seemed so happy with the tens of books (meaningless books, obviously) he had published.  Why write at all?  If you asked your postmodernist deconstructionist friend that question, the conversation would inevitably lead to a tangential monologue about a recent grant application winning hundreds of thousands of dollars, an upcoming publication in a prestigious journal, a conference in Hawaii, and high expectations of promotion.

"Ways of talking" in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself

So how can we confront deconstruction?  How can we address the malaise of postmodernist deconstructionist smuggery?  Recently I found an answer in an unusual source, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by a physicist named Sean Carroll.  The answer lies in an expression that Carroll uses quite frequently:  “ways of talking.”  However, before we get there we need to have a better grasp of what deconstruction is/was.



Deconstruction begins with "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences"

Whenever I taught deconstruction (no, I didn’t only teach the stuff I admired), I would focus on the definition that Derrida provided when he was being cross-examined after his seminal conference paper “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at Johns Hopkins University in 1966.  (Excuse all of my ellipses which follow but I find they are necessary if you want to pick out what Derrida is saying from the obfuscating verbiage.  I’ll put the full quote in a footnote, so you’ll know I’m not fudging.) Derrida said, “[. . . .] déconstruction [. . . . .] is simply a question  of being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use [ . . .  .].”* 

Deconstruction is a very old, and not very complicated, idea

“Being alert to the historical sedimentation of language” is good advice.  In fact, “being alert to the historical sedimentation of language” is exactly what generations of lexicographers and scholars have done over centuries in creating The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) since the project was first begun by Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1746.  If you peruse the OED, you will notice that the meanings of words change over time, until every word in the language seems to have, on average, five or six different meanings. If you imagine a sentence in English with ten words and each of those words has five potentially different meanings, and the meaning of the sentence can be affected by connotation, figures of speech, interpretations, intertextuality, tone of voice and punctuation, you can begin to appreciate postmodernist deconstructionist claims that the language fails, that its meanings are “indeterminate,” “deferred,” even “infinite”—and therefore meaningless.

Deconstructionist ways of talking about language create meaninglessness

How do these claims work?  How is it possible that this deconstructionist idea that language fails to communicate seems so logical and convincing, even though I remain absolutely confident that when I read or hear ten words of a sentence in English I understand the meaning, even if it contains some ambiguity or irony.  The explanation I now see is that there are different “ways of talking” about language.

"Ways of talking" is a profound concept

Carroll’s description of that “innocuous sounding but secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole” helps us to understand how deconstructionist claims about the meaninglessness of language can be convincing even as we hold onto the strong conviction that we do manage to understand the meaning of language on a daily basis.  

The "way of talking" can determine meaning or meaninglessness

The easiest and most obvious way to reflect upon different “ways of talking” is to consider that the average human being is comprised of seven billion billion billion atoms (7 followed by 27 zeros).  Consider the claim that “I don’t understand Mary because she is comprised of billions of billions of billions of atoms and they are constantly changing.”  It’s pretty hard to argue with the science and the logic of this claim but, at the same time, it seems obvious that this is not an appropriate or meaningful way of talking about Mary or any human being for that matter.  

As Carroll explains,"There is one way of talking about the universe that describes it as elementary particles or quantum states [ . . . .] There is also another way of talking about it, where we zoom out a bit and introduce categories like ‘people’ and ‘choices’.”

Mary may, with scientific certainty, be an octodecillion of atoms and be 99% oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, but talking about her this way will certainly make her appear impossible to understand and, in fact, meaningless.  In truth, I can sometimes understand Mary and may sometimes misunderstand her, but overall I know that she is comprehensible and meaningful.

Deconstructionists' "way of talking" about language makes it meaningless

Similarly, postmodernist deconstructionists’ way of talking about language reduces it to marks on the page or collections of morphemes and phonemes.  This way of talking precludes understanding and meaning.  To get understanding and meaning you have to use these words in the way of talking in which people--who aren't just clumps of molecules--usually use them.



Footnotes

*”Here or there I have used the word déconstruction, which has nothing to do with destruction.  That is to say, it is simply a question of (and this is a necessity of criticism in the classical sense of the word) being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use—and that is not destructive”  (Derrida in Contemporary Literary Criticism 497).

http://www.dictionary.com/browse/deconstruction

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/deconstruction

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deconstruction

http://www.dictionary.com/browse/deconstruct

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Does Knowledge Require Truth?

The absolute truth

I spent a career telling university students that if they encountered someone who claimed to know “The Truth,” they should run in the opposite direction because what would follow was bound to be religious dogma or a schizophrenic rant based on an encounter with God—the kind of truth that could not be checked or verified or even questioned. The notion of absolute truth disappeared after Nietzsche announced that “God is dead” in 1882 and Einstein followed up with a “theory of relativity” in 1905.  Marx’s claim that “religion was the opiate of the people” made it plain, at least for we egg heads who occupied the universities, that the Twentieth Century was going to have to get by without “The Truth.”

The tree of knowledge

The problem I faced as a professor was that my job was to be the serpent in the garden, encouraging young people to take a bite out of the apple from the tree of knowledge (no, not that kind of Biblical, carnal knowledge, just ordinary knowing things).  How could I claim to be passing on knowledge without at the same time claiming that what I was teaching was true?  Luckily, for me, I taught literature which had already been described as “The lies which tell the truth.”  This paradox allowed me to evade the issue of “The Truth” and even “the truth,” but the question still dogged me.


The correspondence theory of truth

Every five-year-old knows the difference between the truth and a lie, but once you’ve got a university degree under your belt, chances are you’re not so sure anymore.  The five-year-old knows that if Mom asks “did you eat the cookie?” and you’ve still got crumbs falling from your lips, the truth is “yes, I did” and the lie is everything else . . . Martians, the imaginary friend, the dog and plain old “nope.”  This is known as the correspondence theory of truth, and it is the default theory, which means if you have never thought of this question before this is what you think.  A statement is true if it corresponds to “reality.”  Did I mention that right after Nietzsche killed God, Einstein killed reality? 


Relativity, skepticism and the absence of truth

The reason the correspondence theory of truth doesn’t really work is that for the last hundred years or so, since Einstein said “E=Mc2,” and physicists admitted they really don’t know what “matter” is, we’ve all been pretty uncertain about what is and isn’t reality.   Actually, for as long as human beings have been able to record their thoughts on the question, we have been uncertain about the nature of reality.  The Greek philosopher Pyrrho took his skepticism and disbelief in reality so far that, we are told, his disciples had to go before him moving objects out of his way so that he wouldn’t walk into them. Nowadays our disbelief in reality isn’t so much of the walking-into-walls variety, but our certainty that we are uncertain has become widespread.  The problem is that this uncertainty gets translated into a vague belief that there is no truth or the idea that truth really doesn’t matter anymore.  Truth, in the postmodern era, is the baby that has gotten thrown out with the bathwater.


Coherent truth

However, in the absence of absolute, God’s honest truth, and corresponds-to-reality truth, what is left to us is an imperfect form of truth known as “coherent truth.”  Something is true because it is coherent in relation to something else that is true because it is coherent in relation to something else that is true and so on.  Truth prevails as long as there is no break in the chain, no spot where something believed true upon which other truths depend is proven false, then the chain of truth must be reconstructed.  More frequently, as we follow the trail of coherent truths we arrive at a moment where we have to shrug and admit that we just don’t know.  This moment and gesture (the shrug) are known in rhetoric as “an aporia.” 


Truth only applies when there is meaning

Why would I accept such a seemingly weak form of truth?  In the first place, there is a limited category of things which we can call true or false.  Wandering in the forest, you would never stop before a tree and declare “this tree is true!”  Entering a room you would never find yourself saying “this chair is true.”  We only apply the question of truth to things which have a meaning.  Only when there is a meaning can we say that something is true or false.  It is impossible to say that something is incoherent yet true.  


Heuristic truth

In fact, there is a form of truth, that some people would consider an even weaker form of truth, which I accept.  I accept it as the only kind of truth that is available to us. It is called “heuristic truth.”  “Heuristic” is a tricky, and even dangerous, word.  It derives from the Greek for “find” or “discover.”  Heuristic truth is the kind of truth we discover through trial and error, though dialogue, though logic, through deductive and inductive reasoning, from experience and evidence and examples, because, in the simplest of terms, it makes sense; it is coherent.
If you google the word “heuristic” you will find definitions like “temporary” or “a short cut” to the truth.  Maybe, but human life and the history of our species are temporary relative to the time frame of our universe.  “Short cuts” are all we have time for.


Heuristic pedagogy

Heuristics is also a form of pedagogy.  It is how we learn, not just in the classroom but in life.  We keep adding new information, and adjusting what we believe to be true.  The only test available to us is that we keep trying to put it all together and if the result is coherent, it is the truth so far.



The Acropolis: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato and Aristotle

This is a picture of me standing on the Acropolis,  a few weeks ago, looking down on the theatre where the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were first presented.  Here in Athens, this is where truth was first invented by Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.





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