Showing posts with label syntax. Show all posts
Showing posts with label syntax. 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, 17 November 2015

“Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear!” Really?

It's a mirror!?

“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”  Just to be absolutely clear for the Alice-in-Wonderlanders, there are no objects in your mirror. Duhh, it’s a mirror!

Gamers know

Video-gamers familiar with the expression “All your base are belong to us” will immediately recognize “Objects in mirror . . .” as a Japanese translation into English.  This particular example should alert us to the easy, random and illogical fashion in which the English language gets transformed.  

Correct syntax

I can’t perceive any advantage in the erroneous “objects in mirror” claim over the correct if telegraphic English of “Objects are closer than they appear in mirror.”  Yet, we would have to assume that any youngster riding shotgun and looking at an automobile’s side mirror will grow up thinking “objects in mirror” is correct English and, in contrast, the appropriate syntax sounds a little strange.

Cut your teacher some slack!

This is a plea to all students to cut your English teachers a little slack.  If you have found real-life examples that contradict what your teachers have told you, it’s not because your teachers don’t know their business.  The way language is used doesn’t always make sense and, over time, language usage becomes the language period. Whatever rule or definition you have learned, there's a pretty good chance that eventually someone who has unwitting power over English language usage (advertiser, spin doctor, celebrity, rapper, computer guru, etc.) will break the rule or contradict the definition turning the mistake into the latest version of correct English.  

Mistakes and oversights

I am still irked when I hear the vainglorious announcement of a politician being named to head an “oversight committee.”  Doesn’t anyone remember the definition of an “oversight”?  It is “the failure to notice or do something.”  It is synonymous with “a mistake.”  Congratulations Mr. Big Britches, you have just been put in charge of the “mistakes committee.”

Less and fewer

I’m pretty sure, these days, that most TV commentators couldn’t construct a complete sentence using the word “fewer” if their lives depended on it. The distinction between “fewer” and “less” is the same as between “many” and “much,” “”few” and “little,” “number of” and “amount of.”  In other words, the distinction runs throughout the English language.  If it continues to disappear, “The amount of panhandlers has decreased because less people have much coins in their pockets” will eventually become correct English.  Unless, of course, this sentence already sounds okay to you.

Language gets simpler over time.  Does it?

The theoretical argument in linguistics is that the language gets simpler over time.  English used to have “you” and “thou” (like the “vous” and “tu” in French), but now we only use "you." English has a distinction between “there is” and “there are” (French has only “il y a” for both), but “There’s 50 people waiting outside” has become a fairly common form of English usage.  You might have heard the slogan for Labatt 50 beer:  “There’s 50 good reasons to have a 50.” The distinction in English between "there is" and "there are" is on the verge of extinction, if it hasn't already disappeared.

Learning and pattern recognition

You might think that English not having any solid rules will make it easier to learn; in fact, exactly the opposite is the case.  All learning is a matter of pattern recognition.  If the patterns of the language are constantly being broken and reconfigured, the language becomes that much more difficult, if not impossible, to master.

Language learning and the double standard

You might think that if English is a language whose rules are constantly being broken, the second-language learner can relax, knowing that just about anything goes.  Welcome to the double standard!  The typical native speaker of English assumes that whatever feels right is right. If a native speaker detects that you are a second-language learner, there is an immediate assumption that s/he knows more than you do.  The truth is that if you learned some of your English in a classroom, you know more about English grammar than the average native speaker.


Unfortunately, your knowledge of English grammar will probably cause you to make mistakes.  The most typical mistake that language learners make is to over-apply the rules that they have learned.  (Add "ed" to form the past tense, therefore the past of "eat" must be "eated" right?)  Native speakers are constantly breaking the rules and it's alright because they are . . . native speakers. Agreed, life isn't fair.

However, if you have ever been made to feel foolish, inadequate, even stupid because you made a mistake in English; take heart, the language itself is pretty stupid.

Tina Turner heard it through the grapevine.

Former student just posted this on Facebook.  Thanks Max.  Thought this would be a good spot to add it:

Do Right and Left Mean Anything Anymore?

Meanings of Words change The meanings of words change over time.  Charting those changes of meaning has been the goal of the Oxford English ...