What Is Grammar? - A Critique
    By Patrick Lockerby | March 3rd 2009 10:00 AM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Retired engineer, 60+ years young. Computer builder and programmer. Linguist specialising in language acquisition and computational linguistics....

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    Grammar is supposedly a holistic account of how meaning is expressed by using words in categories and in sequences. It is supposed to be a meld of syntax and semantics. Unfortunately, most writers on grammar focus on the syntax to the exclusion of the semantics. For me, that is like focusing on a carrier wave to the exclusion of the superimposed signal.

    Spoken language is meaning conveyed by the modulation of a sound signal. It is not the modulation, but the meaning that is master.

    'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

    'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

    'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

    Through the Looking-Glass - Lewis Carroll

    The study of grammar.

    The study of grammar, as that term is currently used, originated with the Indians, Persians and Greeks. They were primarily attempting to describe how language is used - descriptive grammar. Grammar was adopted in England's grammar schools as a pedagocical discipline - prescriptive grammar - at a time when Latin was still the language of the educated classes. It is interesting to note that Latin ceased to be a living language at about the time when its grammar was fossilised by academics. When other academics started to take an interest in the English language, during the 16th century, they took the categories and syntax of Latin grammar and attempted to force English into this mould. Had they succeeded, English might now be a dead language.

    About four hundred years later, in the 1950's when I attended grammar school, much time was devoted to the teaching of "English" grammar. It was only in later years that I discovered the simple fact that I was being taught 'correct' English on the basis that English ought to conform to Latin grammar. I now use the derogatory term 'grammateecha' for people who insist on the 'correctness' of 'to whom do you wish to speak', the stilted phrase 'it is I', the forced location of 'to' next to a verb, etc.

    The complications of grammar.

    Computational linguists find that however many 'rules of grammar' they model, there will always be found an example of language which doesn't quite fit these rules. It appears that the number of rules of grammar will always equal N + 1, where N is the number of rules so far enumerated. This arises from the fact of language evolution and the fact that by the average language user the social norms of national language use adhered rigidly to are not.

    Academic grammarians today insist that their grammars are not prescriptive. Yet pedagogic materials continue to show examples of ‘incorrect’ useage, whilst the academic literature frequently refers to ‘ill-formed’ constructs. 'Incorrect' and 'ill-formed' are terms which are at the same time prescriptive, derogatory and unscientific.

    Descriptive grammarians supposedly formulate word, phrase and syntax categories in terms of collocations. Collocations are defined as words which are frequently found together in language constructs. What does not fall into the categories is defined as either ill-formed, slang, idiomatic or mere collocation. Collocations are then defined as words which are merely frequently found together. This gives rise to a reductio ad absurdum best expressed in the form of an argumentum ad circularem:

    The rules of grammar:

    Some collocations demonstrate the operation of rules of grammar.

    Some collocations do not demonstrate the operation of rules of grammar.

    Some constructs are well-formed: they follow the rules of grammar.

    Some constructs are ill-formed: they do not follow the rules of grammar.

    Any 'grammar' is simply a description of the most common patterns in language use. It can never be a sufficient and necessary description of a living language, or a dead one as used by ordinary people who left no record of their everyday speech. It is a common mistake to assume that, just because observers have failed to observe particular constructs in the field, it follows that the constructions are in some way 'wrong'.

    For me, 'grammar' is somewhat like the Ptolemaic theory of planetary orbits - far too complex. Take two simple examples of noun-verb constructs using nonsense words: 'Jablot phranps.' 'Kribmods pharge.' Without any need to appeal to subject-predicate, active-passive, conjugation, tense, person or mood, we instantly know the following about these new words:

    Jablot is a substance or phenomenon capable of phranping.

    Kribmods are countable and are capable of pharging.

    New meaning, new knowledge in the example is conveyed solely by the 'jumping S of English, as it moves between two words. In similar vein, other simple patterns convey implicit information. Lewis Carroll knew that.

    Truth-values and language

    In the literature of philosophy and linguistics, the notion of a truth value for every sentence is attacked with constructs such as 'The name of the current king of the USA is John.' Self-evidently, this 'grammatically impeccable' sentence is not true. It is only 'untrue' if the focus is on the whole idea expressed by the whole sentence. However, it is possible to show that this example sentence is simply a package of implied truth values. For example, kings exist, the USA exists, John is a name, etc.

    We can determine a sentence to be in some sense explicitly false only because we can determine all of its implicit ideas to be in some sense true or false. Computers cannot yet analyse language in this fashion. This is a task for the computational pragmatist.


     Unfortunately, most writers on grammar focus on the syntax to the exclusion of the semantics. For me, that is like focusing on a carrier wave to the exclusion of the superimposed signal.
    Yes, that cleared it up for all of the english teachers!  

    Of course, we are writing in the one language that is the perfect example of what you mean when you write...
    For me, 'grammar' is somewhat like the Ptolemaic theory of planetary orbits
    ... which cleared it up for all the english teachers who didn't get your first analogy; namely that we have a few rules but a lot of exceptions.     Can computers even really get grammar?  Perhaps, though meaning and intent are the hard ones.   I could live in France for 20 years and still not speak 'nuance.'

    Welcome to the site.
    Many thanks for the welcome, and your comments! I don't speak French, but I know exactly what you mean by not being able to speak 'nuance'. As to words, rules and exceptions, before Fodor and Pinker, there was: 'and if one finally believes, one would have a rule got, the firm ground would offer, on which one rest can in the midst of the general unrest and rage of the ten kinds of word, leafs one again and reads: "The pupil considers carefully the following exceptions. " One lets the eye over it away slide and discovers that there are more exceptions of the rule than examples for her given.' Mark Twain, The terrible German language, my transliteration from the original speech given in German.
    I am learning Mandarin these days. Our teacher told us that the Chinese had already placed the words in the right places for certain phrases AND that the order of the words were irrelevant as long as you can 'understand' the message. So it is both acceptable to be totally grammatically messy in China, but in a way that is already listed. :-)

    I doubt this is all true, but based on my knowledge of several other foreign languages it might be something to it.

    Learning a new language, by the way, is pretty much like trying to make sense out of

    'Jablot phranps.' 'Kribmods pharge.

    as you so eloquently put it. :-)

    Great article!
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Great article? Help, where's that blushing-smiley icon? Seriously, though, many thanks for your kind comments! I did a 6 months crash course in Mandarin way back in the '70s. There are incredibly many parallels with English. Compare English 'A herd of goats' with 'Many stick pencil.' Hey! Who needs plurals anyway? In English, we don't usually analyse helicopter as helico + pter , helix + wing. Nor do the Chinese usually analyse a compound character. Also, Chinese is so riddled with cues that an average reader of the Chinese equivalent of our British Grauniad can spot all the typos! Like the English, when the Chinese spot a typo, they 'just know' what the writer intended. Now, if we can get our computers to 'just know' ... :)
    dear Lockerby what could it be
    English snobbery

    Did you know that they made the typewriter harder than it needed to be?

    Did you know that they made the typewriter harder than it needed to be?

    If you think it's hard to type with a qwerty keyboard you should try kanji.  ;-)
    Truth-value assignment is not a syntactical feature of language, but a semantic one.