Syntax

11 Oct 2006

They Really Should Know Better

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Over at Language Log, Geoff Pullum writes about how the BBC doesn't know what a passive construction is.

That problem is hardly limited to journalists. English teachers frequently have the same problem. In this issue of Purdue OWL News [mistakenly dated 2007], an e-journal that answers writing questions, one of the OWL Tutors analyzes "is using" as a passive construction.

In the follow-up issue for the next week, the OWL news editor published a correction, but his explanation still leaves a lot to be desired.

24 Sep 2006

Determiner vs. Determinative

Submitted by Karl Hagen
I suspect that most people would find arguments over grammatical terminology to be one of the more soporific topics for discussion. Even if you're interested in learning something about grammar, you probably don't really care about all the variations in terminology. Do we call it a main clause or an independent clause? Who cares? Most of the variations are actually inspired by theoretical concerns. The choice of a particular label can be significant to the extent that the label tells you something about the grammatical theory behind the label. For example, old-fashioned grammar books call a wide range of words (and phrases) "adjectives" when they appear in front of a noun, despite the fact that they have few formal resemblances to ordinary adjectives. In this scheme the, leather, and John's become equivalent to old when they appear before a word like wallet. This choice of terminology makes no distinction between form and function, and it encourages us to believe that these words actually change their parts of speech. More up-to-date grammar books do not lump all these words together into the same category because they distinguish form and function.
Syntax concerns the way that words are arranged into larger units. That is, words are the basic units—the building blocks—of syntactic analysis. The largest unit that syntactic analysis usually considers is the sentence. For this reason, syntax is often equated with the study of sentence structure, even though the things we analyze may not always be complete sentences. Language, of course, rarely consists merely of isolated sentences. We string sentences together into larger units—paragraphs, essays, books. When we spend a great deal of time focused on sentence-level analysis, as we will in the following chapters, it's easy to lose sight of the larger purposes of syntactic study. So before we plunge into the forest, it's worth considering why we should spend so much effort on the task.
If we are going to do more than simply accept the traditional parts of speech uncritically, we need to establish some sort of theory of word categories, a set of principles that will let us decide where the traditional categories work and where they need revision. Armed with this procedure, we will find that traditional grammars describe some categories that have no real existence in Present-day English. They also conflate other categories which are actually distinct.

Our basic procedure will be to look for elements that are grammatically distinct in English. In other words, we must find structural reasons to distinguish one item from another. For example, we can justify distinguishing verbs from nouns based on the relationships they enter into:

7 May 2006

How much can a bare bear bear?

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Linguists often like to explore sentences that are grammatically well formed but hard for people to parse. Apart from provoking simple curiosity, they also suggest things about how the mind processes language. So, for example, there are "garden path" sentences such as "The horse raced past the barn fell." There are also sentences composed from homophones. Stephen Pinker (in The Language Instinct) provides one from Buffalo (the city), buffalo (the animal), and buffalo (to deceive or intimidate):

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Which means "Bison from Buffalo (that other) bison from Buffalo intimidate (themselves) intimidate (other) bison from Buffalo."

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