Sunday, March 02, 2014

Grammar Notes 1

Some time ago, the denizens of a news group sidetracked themselves into a discussion about grammar. Here’s part of the exchange, between "Richard" and myself, slightly edited for clarity.

"Richard" posted this example of a bad sentence:

“Me and him went to see the dog wag it's tail.”
How many errors in that sentence?

I replied:


"Richard" also offered this as the corrected sentence:

“He and I went to see the dog wag its tail.”

I continued:

But there are no grammar errors whatsoever. (And that's a complete utterance, albeit not a complete sentence.)

a) Its/it's is a spelling error, not a grammar error. Just read the sentence out loud, and you'll hear why that's so. (1)

b) "Me and him" is a usage error. Not acceptable in "standard" usage, is all. "Standard usage", like any other, is in constant flux. That's why an earlier observation is spot on: "for Sue and me" is beginning to sound down-market. (2)

Want to see real grammar errors? Look at (and speak) this:

c) "He and I see a dog its tail wag went to."

Only one phrase in c) is in its correct position, and two phrases are in correct sequence. Also, all phrases are correctly formed, so (oddly enough) most native speakers of English can and will figure out what the speaker intended to say. (3)

Here's the same string of words ordered by two non-grammar rules:

d) "A I he to and dog its see wag tail went"

At this point, there's no grammar there, so it would be somewhat pointless to talk about it having errors of grammar.

     (1) The focus on the written language that shows up in a newsgroup is understandable, but it leads to subtle and not so subtle errors. Writing is of course not merely a record of speech, because it has inherently fewer codable features than speech. But speech is primary, and forgetting that can cause even very clever people to make serious mistakes. For example, Noam Chomsky's positing a "surface and deep structure" to account for ambiguities is pointless. In speech there is no ambiguity in the examples he gives, because intonation, which shapes the syntax of a sentence, disambiguates what in the written language is not (and cannot) be indicated.
      The primacy of speech is the reason that so-called “computer languages” are not languages: they are written codes, with strict rules, which are necessary precisely because these "languages" are actually codes. We use actual words and conventional math symbols to make it easier for humans to decode. One could just as well replace the terms and symbols with colour terms. Or coloured shapes.

(2) Another example: For me, pronouncing "herb" as erb is a solecism. But in US  usage it's correct, and herb would be judged down-market. Unfortunately, Canadians are adopting US usage. Sigh.

(3) When we hear fractured utterances, we automatically correct them as we interpret them. Most of what we speak and hear is fractured, more or less badly. Speech formed of complete and correctly formed sentences sounds odd. When my wife first heard a colleague at the University, she said, "He sounds like a book."

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