Sunday, April 24, 2011

Can you think grammatically?


© 2003 by Charles-James N. Bailey


     One has only to glance at writers of school grammars or popular grammars and many style manuals to see that the authors do not know how to describe, let alone analyse and explain the grammar of educated English.  One has only to look at what contributors to grammar lists and forums to see that the participants have no idea of what a system is--that they are unable to rise above the concept of a grammar as a list of rules and archaic terms that come from who knows where.

     In the course of writing an article titled "Is grammar systematic and amenable to explanatory scientific analysis," I ask about thirty questions based on real experience to show that in the world of non-linguists, professionial grammarians and amateur grammarians don't have a clue, by and large, as to how to approach the question and answer it realistically and (the real issue) systematically.  Many lack system mentalities and cannot rise about a list--certainly, so far as one can discern--to the concept of a coherent system in which diverse items hang together and are amenable to a few explanatory theories.  Before offering a sampling of the questions I pose, a few relevant and indeed salient considerations need to be brought into our cross-hairs.

     Terminology is an obstacle in many grammars.  This is not because terminology is hard or something that should pose problems for an individual pretending to have an aptitude for grammar—that would amount to a contradiction.  (It is, incidentally, much easier to learn a new term, especially if it is apt, than to renovate an old term with a new sense, a sense that is perhaps recreant to the sense of the old term.  What is so flagrantly contradictory is that so many would-be grammarians seem unable either to look up a traditional term in the dictionary or to learn a new term.  Since grammar deals with words, aspiring grammarians who cannot deal with basic terms are like a dog that has had its tail amputated--or more pertinent, one born without a tail--trying to wag its tail.  Many that one encounters have a static outlook that cannot envision a re-structuring--the frequent occurrence in grammar of a former category's developing (i.e. simplifying or else growing more complex) into a new structure, or perhaps simply being replaced by another structure for reasons that in principle are predictable.   There are those who  take the position that two constructs having a common origin must be the same, however different they may have now become.  That is like arguing that, since birds and dinosaurs have a common origin, they are still to be regarded as the same.  A third obstacle is simply a combination of ignorance with an inability to think things out.  Many throw around the term subjunctive with no vestige of what a subjunctive has been or can be thought of as.  (It's not a modal verb plus its complementary infinitive; it's not throwing back the time to make an expression counterfactual or [if futuritive] non-expectative; it's not changing a word order, like the

difference between "It may happen" and "May it happen!"  The static list-oriented mind cannot see what is at issue likewise lacks the ability to understand its own failings. Grammatical forums and lists on the internet are rife with such nonsense . . . and worse.


      A sample of the questions I ask in the article already referred to includes:


  1. Why do persons who would never say "Me [or: "Myself"] did it for she" nevertheless find it natural to say "Tracey and me/myself" did it for he and she"?  (I have similar examples of reversals in marked environments [see the Appendix] heard on the BBC in the mouths of the Queen and a prime minister of Great Britain.)  No few speakers find to him and her unnatural and allege that this construct is not a grammatical expression.  There is a scientific answer.

2. Why do we say "They've always done it at noon" but never "They have done it at noon."  What are the different time blocks of  "Since it got made" and "Since it has been made"?     There is a scientific answer to each question.

3. Why do we guess that "it's gonna be repaid on time" but promise that "it will be repaid on time"?  Why do we also guess that "it won't be repaid on time" and ask whether "it'll be repaid on time" but promise that "it's gonna be repaid on time" and ask,  "Did they promise that it's gonna be paid on time?"

4. Why do we say "It's not that big of a deal" and "Was it that good of a deal" but not, except under contrastive emphasis, "It was that goodOF a deal." 

5. Why do many people say less instead of fewer when they say "less groceries," although no one has any alternative to less in "less sugar," "less ugly," and "less often"?    There is a scientific answer.

6. Why do speakers get proved and proven backwards when they have no problem with rotted and rotten?     There is a scientific answer.   

7.  How can one characterize speaks in the sentence, "She speaks Spanish but she's speaking English"—where speaks obviously does not represent an occurrence in present time?  Cf. "Ace is normally an obedient child, despite his present misbehavior."  Note the examples, "The president speaks tomorrow night" and "Hamlets speaks with Ophelia in the preceding scene."  The proof that speaks is no present" in these examples is self-evident for a mind that can think logically.  Indeed, a clue to what is replacing the defunct subjunctive is discernible in "He's practising his talk in order that what he says tomorrow speaks to the needs of his audience" and in "We're making sure that what we say tomorrow speaks to their needs."

8. How would you EXPLAIN (a) why there is no did before not and (b) why there is no -ed or no -s at the end of remain in "It was necessary that it not remain there any longer."   What are the five contexts in which this usage occurs?    There is a scientific answer.

9. How does one explain the common usage of "If it hadda happened yesterday"—which has formal parallels in French and some kinds of German.  There is a scientific answer.
  10. How is the difference between an infinitive expression like "her wish to die" and "his desire of dying" to be explained?  The proper explanation will explain why foreigners say "possiblity to escape" where we say "possibility of escaping."

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