RWA5: What Is Grammar?

RWA5:  What Is Grammar?  
College Writing
Professor Rodgers

1/ Please describe your understanding of the term grammar and the basis for that definition, e.g., I’ve been told that I have bad grammar by teachers because I cannot spell well, etc.

2/ Look up the definition of grammar in a dictionary. Write down the definition. Please also include the title of the dictionary from which you took the definition and the page number on which the definition was found. For example: Definition of the term grammar. The Oxford American College Dictionary (2002), p. 707.

3/ Please read the Sandy Chung and Jeff Pullman essay “Grammar,” the Edward Finegan essay “What Is ‘Correct’ Language?” and the Brock Haussaman essay “Public Grammar and Private Grammar: The Social Orientation of Grammar. “  After reading the essays, please do the following:

a/ explain in one sentence what the overall purpose of each essay is

b/ briefly  explain in one or more paragraphs what you learned from each essay, what the essays had in common, and which essay you found most informative

c/ make a list of questions that you have regarding these essays or for these authors regarding the topic of grammar


RWA5.5: Language and the World
Professor Rodgers
City Tech
College Writing

For this assignment, I’d like you to do three things:

1/ In the course of editing and proofreading your essay, you will most likely encounter some questions about words, sentences, and paragraphs, as well as about errors in writing. While we have not yet discussed specific writing errors, I’d like you to consider two things:

a/ Please locate a phrase or sentence on a sign or poster that you believe may or may not be grammatically correct, or that you have questions about from an editing or proofreading perspective. Is it correct according to the rules of prescriptivist grammar? Is it correct according to the rules of descriptivist grammar? What questions do you have about the grammar of the phrase or sentence that you chose?

b/ Choose one to three sentences in your own writing that you have questions about. Write down the sentence or sentences. What questions do you have about it/them?


  • Group Assignment 5What Is Grammar?
      • 1/ In one to three sentences, describe your understanding of the term grammar and the basis for that definition, e.g., I've been told that I have bad grammar by teachers because I cannot spell well, etc.

      2/ Look up the definition of grammar in a dictionary.  Write down the definition.  Please also include the title of the dictionary from which you took the definition and the page number on which the definition was found.  For example:  Definition of the term grammar.  The Oxford American College Dictionary (2002), p. 707.

      • 3/ Your response to Question 1 is your own connotative definition of grammar.  Your response to Question 2 is a denotative definition of grammar.  Now, please read the essay by Sandy Chung and Jeff Pullman entitled "Grammar."  In three to five sentences, please reflect on and describe what you have learned as a result of this exercise by comparing and contrasting your connotative definition of grammar, the denotative definition of grammar, and Chung and Pullman's discussion of grammar.
      • 4/ Post your responses to Questions 1-3 as a reply to Professor Rodgers' blog post "GA5: What Is Grammar?"


    What Is Grammar?

    Professor Rodgers



    1/ Please describe your understanding of the term grammar and the basis for that definition, e.g., I've been told that I have bad grammar by teachers because I cannot spell well, etc.

     

    2/ Look up the definition of grammar in a dictionary.  Write down the definition.  Please also include the title of the dictionary from which you took the definition and the page number on which the definition was found.  For example:  Definition of the term grammar.  The Oxford American College Dictionary (2002), p. 707.


    2.5/ Please read the following articles from Professor Rodgers’ Open Access English Handbook: “What Is a Sentence?”, “What Is a Sentence According to SWE Guidelines?”, and “Understanding Sentences in SWE.”  After reading these, do you have any questions?  If so, please note them.  Also, please make sure that you know and have some understanding of the Parts of Speech in Standard Written English.  Just to review what those are,  please list them here:


    3/ Below, you will find three essays, one by Sandy Chung and Jeff Pullman entitled "Grammar," one by Edward Finegan entitled "What Is 'Correct' English?", and one by Beatrice Santorini and Anthony Kroch entitled “Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammar.”  After reading the three essays, please do the following: 

    a/ explain in one sentence what the overall purpose of each essay is

    b/ explain in one or more paragraphs what you learned from each essay

    c/ make a list of questions that you have regarding these essays or for these authors regarding the topic of grammar






    Grammar

    Sandy Chung and Geoff Pullum

     

    What Is Grammar?

    People often think of grammar as a matter of arbitrary pronouncements (defining 'good' and 'bad' language), usually negative ones like There is no such word as ain't or Never end a sentence with a preposition. Linguists are not very interested in this sort of bossiness (sometimes called prescriptivism). For linguists, grammar is simply the collection of principles defining how to put together a sentence.

    One sometimes hears people say that such-and-such a language 'has no grammar', but that is not true of any language. Every language has restrictions on how words must be arranged to construct a sentence. Such restrictions are principles of syntax. Every language has about as much syntax as any other language. For example, all languages have principles for constructing sentences that ask questions needing a yes or no answer, e.g. Can you hear me?, questions inviting some other kind of answer,e.g. What did you see?, sentences that express commands, e.g. Eat your potatoes!, and sentences that make assertions, e.g. Whales eat plankton.

    Word Order

    The syntactic principles of a language may insist on some order of words or may allow several options. For instance, English sentences normally must have words in the order Subject-Verb-Object. In Whales eat plankton, 'whales' is the subject, 'eat' is the verb, and 'plankton' is the object. Japanese sentences allow the words to occur in several possible orders, but the normal arrangement (when no special emphasis is intended) is Subject-Object-Verb. Irish sentences standardly have words in the order Verb-Subject-Object. Even when a language allows several orders of phrases in the sentence, the choice among them is systematically regulated. For example, there might be a requirement that the first phrase refer to the thing you're talking about, or that whatever the first phrase is, the second must be the main clause verb.

    Not only does every language have syntax, but similar syntactic principles are found over and over again in languages. Word order is strikingly similar in English, Swahili, and Thai (which are utterly unrelated); sentences in Irish are remarkably parallel to those in Maori, Maasai, and ancient Egyptian (also unrelated); and so on.

    Word Structure

    However, there is another aspect of grammar in which languages differ more radically, namely in morphology, the principles governing the structure of words. Languages do not all employ morphology to a similar extent. In fact they differ dramatically in the extent to which they allow words to be built out of other words or smaller elements. The English word undeniability is a complex noun formed from the adjective 'undeniable', which is formed from the adjective 'deniable', which is formed from the verb 'deny'. Some languages (like German, Nootka, and Eskimo) permit much more complex word-building than English; others (like Chinese, Ewe, and Vietnamese) permit considerably less.

    Languages also differ greatly in the extent to which words vary their shape according to their function in the sentence. In English you have to choose different pronouns ('they' versus 'them') for Subject and Object (though there is no choice to be made with nouns, as in Whales eat plankton). In Latin, the shapes of both pronouns and nouns vary when they are used as subjects or objects; but in Chinese, no words vary in shape like this.

    Although we have identified some differences between syntax and morphology, to some extent it is a matter for ongoing research to decide what counts as morphology and what counts as syntax. The answer can change as discoveries are made and theories improved. For instance, most people—in fact, most grammarians—probably say that 'wouldn't' is two words: 'would' followed by an informal pronunciation of 'not'. But if we treat 'wouldn't' as one word, then we can explain why it is treated as one word in the yes/no question Wouldn't it hurt? Notice that we don't say Would not it hurt? for Would it not hurt?, or Would have he cared? for Would he have cared? In each case, the “bad” versions have two words before the subject. The syntactic principle for English yes/no questions is that the auxiliary verb occurs before the subject.

    If this is correct, by the way, then 'ain't' certainly is a word in English, and we know what kind: It's an auxiliary verb (the evidence: We hear questions like Ain't that right?). English teachers disapprove of 'ain't' (naturally enough, since it is found almost entirely in casual conversation, never in formal written English, which is what English teachers are mostly concerned to teach). But linguists are generally not interested in issuing pronouncements about what should be permitted or what should be called what. Their aim is simply to find out what language (including spoken language) is like and how it functions.


    What is 'Correct' Language?
     Edward Finegan 


    Should road signs read ‘Drive Slow’ or ‘Drive Slowly’? Which is grammatically correct: They don’t have none or They don’t have any? Given ‘books’ as the plural of ‘book’ and ‘they’ as the plural for ‘she’ and ‘he,’, what's wrong with ‘y’all’ and ‘yous’ as plurals for ‘you’? Are ‘between you and I’ and ‘between you and me’ both right, and who decides what's right and wrong in language, anyway? And who put ‘ain’t’ in the dictionary? Is English going to the dogs, and is that what the fuss is all about?

    Languages often have alternative expressions for the same thing (‘car’ and ‘auto’), and a given word can carry different senses (‘river bank’ vs. ‘savings bank’) or function as different parts of speech (‘to steal’--verb; ‘a steal’--noun). Because languages naturally adapt to their situations of use and also reflect the social identities of their speakers, linguistic variation is inevitable and natural. But given diverse forms, meanings, and uses, dictionary makers and grammarians must choose what to include in their works--whose language to represent and for use in which kinds of situations? In some nations, language academies have been established to settle such matters, as with the French Academy, formed nearly four hundred years ago, but to date English speakers have repudiated suggestions of a regulating body for their language. Instead, entrepreneurs like Noah Webster have earned their living by writing dictionaries and grammars, usually with a mix of description and prescription. Increasingly, though, scholarly grammars and dictionaries are exclusively descriptive.

    Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Grammar

    Descriptivists ask, “What is English? “ …prescriptivists ask, “What should English be like?

    Descriptive grammarians ask the question, “What is English (or another language) like--what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?” By contrast, prescriptive grammarians ask “What should English be like--what forms should people use and what functions should they serve?” Prescriptivists follow the tradition of the classical grammars of Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, which aimed to preserve earlier forms of those languages so that readers in subsequent generations could understand sacred texts and historical documents. Modern grammarians aim to describe rather than prescribe linguistic forms and their uses. Dictionary makers also strive for descriptive accuracy in reporting which words are in use and which senses they carry.

     In order to write accurate descriptions, grammarians must identify which expressions are actually in use. Investigating ‘slow’ and ‘slowly,’ they would find that both forms function as adverbs, and they might uncover situational or social-group correlates for them. By contrast, prescriptive grammarians would argue that ‘go slowly’ is the only correct grammatical form on the grounds that it is useful to distinguish the forms of adverbs and adjectives, and 'slow' is the only adjective form (a slow train), so ‘slowly’ should serve as the sole adverb form.

    Descriptivists would point out that English has made no distinction between the adjective and adverb forms of ‘fast’ for over five hundred years, but prescriptivists are not concerned about that. As to “They don't have none’ or ‘any,’’ descriptivists would observe both forms in common use, thereby demonstrating their grammaticality. Descriptivists might also note that different social groups favor one expression or the other in conversation, while only the latter appears in published writing. Prescriptivists have argued that such “double negatives” violate logic, where two negatives make a positive; thus, according to this logic, “They don't have none” should mean “They do have some” (which, descriptivists note, it clearly does not mean). On logical grounds, then, prescriptivists would condemn “They don’t have none,” while descriptivists would emphasize the conventional character of ways in which meaning is expressed.

    About ‘ain’t,’ if lexicographers find it in use in the varieties of English they aim to represent, they give it a dictionary entry and describe its use. Prescriptivists who judge ‘Ain’t’ wrong or inelegant might exclude it altogether or give it an entry with a prohibition. Likewise, ‘y’all’ is frequently heard in the American South and ‘yous’ among working-class northeastern urban residents of the United States, as well as elsewhere in the English-speaking world. In those communities, a distinct word for plural you has proven useful. (Most prescriptivists would condemn ‘yous’ because it is an innovation, disregarding the argument that distinct singular and plural forms are desirable.) As to ‘between you and me’ and ‘between you and I,’, descriptivists would note that both are used by educated speakers, though the latter seldom appears in edited writing. Prescriptivists would argue that, despite educated usage, pronouns should have objective forms after prepositions (“Give it to me/us/them”); thus, only “between you and me” is correct.

    Who’s Right?

    So what is right and wrong in language, and who decides? Some observers claim that the real issue about linguistic right and wrong is one of deciding who wields power and who doesn't. Viewing language as a form of cultural capital, they note that stigmatized forms are typically those used by social groups other than the educated middle classes--professional people, including those in law, medicine, and publishing. Linguists generally would argue that the language of educated middle-class speakers is not better (or worse) than the language of other social groups, any more than Spanish, say, is better or worse than French, Navaho better or worse than Comanche, or Japanese better or worse than Chinese. They would acknowledge that some standardization of form is useful for the variety of a language used, especially in print. They would also insist, however, that expressions appearing in dictionaries and grammars are not the only grammatical forms and may not be suitable for use in all circumstances. They are merely the ones designated for use in circumstances of wider communication.

     

    Is English falling apart?

    Is English falling apart, then, as some prescriptivists claimed in their efforts to help mend it? Well, the descriptivists’ answer is that English is indeed changing, as it must, but that such change is not debilitating. In fact, English is now changing in exactly the same ways that have contributed to making it the rich, flexible, and adaptable language so popular throughout the world today. Living languages must change, must adapt, must grow. Shakespeare could not have understood Chaucer without study, nor Chaucer the Beowulf poet. Whether change is good or bad is not the question, descriptivists say, for change is inevitable. The only languages no longer in flux are those no longer in use. The job of grammarians is to describe language as it exists in real use. This includes describing the positive and negative values attached to different ways of speaking.

    Reprinted courtesy: Dr. Edward Finegan

    Correct  American Index

    Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

    • Andersson, Lars G., and Peter Trudgill. 1990. Bad language. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell

    • Baron, Dennis. 1994. Guide to home language repair. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

    • Cameron, Deborah. 1995. Verbal hygiene. London and New York: Routledge.

    • Finegan, Edward. 1980. Attitudes toward language usage. New York: Teachers College Press.

    • Milroy, James, and Lesley Milroy. 1991. Authority in language. London and New York: Routledge. 2nd edn.


    Edward Finegan is professor of linguistics and law at the University of Southern California. He is author of Language: Its Structure and Use, 4th ed. (Thomson Wadsworth, 2004) and Attitudes toward English Usage (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1980) and co-editor (with John R. Rickford) of Language in the USA (Cambridge University Press, 2004). He has written extensively on register and style variation in English and contributed chapters on grammar and usage in Britain and America to the Cambridge History of the English Language. His interests range across usage, attitudes toward language, and style variation; he also serves as an expert consultant in forensic linguistics.


    Prescriptive versus descriptive grammar

    Beatrice Santorini and Anthony Kroch

    http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/syntax-textbook/00/ch1.html

    In the everyday sense, “grammar” refers to a collection of rules concerning what counts as socially acceptable and unacceptable language use. Some of these rules, like the ones in (1), make reference to particular words and apply to both spoken and written language.

    (1)

    a.

    Don't use ain't.


    b.


    Don't use seen as the past tense of see (as in I seen him at the party last night).


    c.


    Don't use contractions.

    But mainly, the rules in question concern the proper composition of sentences in written language. You may recall being taught rules at school like those in (2).

    (2)

    a.


    Don't start a sentence with a conjunction.


    b.


    Don't use sentence fragments.


    c.


    Don't end a sentence with a linking verb.


    d.


    Don't use dangling participles.


    e.


    Don't end a sentence with a preposition.


    f.


    Don't use an object pronoun for a subject pronoun in a conjoined subject.


    g.


    Don't use a plural pronoun to refer back to a singular noun like everyone, no-one, someone, and the like.


    h.


    Don't split infinitives.


    i.


    Use whom, not who, as the object of a verb or preposition.

    Someone who composes sentences in accordance with rules like those in (2) is said to have good grammar, whereas someone said to have bad grammar doesn't apply the rules when they ought to be applied1and so produces sentences like (3).

    (3)

    a.

    Over there is the guy who I went to the party with.

    violates (2e), (2i)


    b.


    Bill and me went to the store.

    violates (2f)

    From the amount of attention that people devote to rules like those in (1) and (2), it is easy to get the impression that they are the only linguistic rules there are. But it is also easy to see that that can't be so. The reason is that even people who don't follow the rules in (1) and (2) don't produce rampantly variable, confusing word salad. For instance, even people who invariably produce sentences like (3) do not produce the likes of (4).

    (4)

    a.

    Over there is guy the who I went to party the with.


    b.


    Over there is the who I went to the party with guy.


    c.


    Bill and me the store to went.

    The sentences in (3) may be instances of bad grammar in the everyday sense, but they are still English sentences. By contrast, we don't need to rely on school rules to tell us that the examples in (4) are not English sentences - even though they contain exactly the same English words as the sentences in (3).

    Since native speakers of English do not produce a variable mishmash of words of the sort in (4), there must be another type of rules according to which sentences are composed. We can determine what some of them are by taking a closer look at the sequences in (4). Why exactly is it that they are word salad? In (4a), the article the is in the wrong order with respect to the nouns that it belongs with, guy and party. In (4b), the relative clause (who I went to the party with) is in the wrong order with respect to the noun that it modifies (guy). In (4c), the preposition to is in the wrong order with respect to its object (the store). In other words, the sentences in (4) do not follow the rules in (5).

    (5)

    a.

    Articles precede the nouns that they belong with.


    b.


    Relative clauses follow the noun that they modify.


    c.


    Prepositions precede their objects.

    (There's a further rule that's not followed in (4), which you are asked to formulate in the Exercise 1.1.)

    Rules like those in (5) have a different intention than those in (2). The rules in (2) are prescriptive; those in (5) are descriptive. Rules of prescriptive grammar have the same status as rules of etiquette (like table manners or dress codes) or the laws of society, which divide the spectrum of possible human behavior into socially acceptable or legal behavior, on the one hand, and socially unacceptable or illegal behavior, on the other. Rules of prescriptive grammar make statements about how people ought to use language. In contrast, rules of descriptive grammar have the status of scientific observations, and they are intended as insightful generalizations about the way that speakers use language in fact, rather than about the way that they ought to use it. Descriptive rules are more general and more fundamental than prescriptive rules in the sense that all sentences of a language are formed in accordance with them, not just a more or less arbitrary subset of shibboleth sentences. A useful way to think about the descriptive rules of a language (to which we return in more detail below) is that they produce, or generate, all the sentences of a language. The prescriptive rules can then be thought of as filtering out some (relatively minute) portion of the entire output of the descriptive rules as socially unacceptable.

    In syntax, as in modern linguistics more generally, we adopt a resolutely descriptive perspective concerning language. In particular, when linguists say that a sentence is grammatical, we don't mean that it is correct from a prescriptive point of view, but rather that it conforms to descriptive rules like those in (5). In order to indicate that a sequence of words or morphemes is ungrammatical in this descriptive sense, we prefix it with an asterisk. Grammatical sentences are usually not specially marked, but sometimes we prefix them with 'ok' for clarity. These conventions are illustrated in (6) and (7).

    (6)

    a.

    *

    Over there is guy the who I went to party the with.

    (= (4a))


    b.

    *

    Over there is the who I went to the party with guy.

    (= (4b))

    (7)

    a.

    ok

    Over there is the guy who I went to the party with.

    (= (3a))


    b.

    ok

    Over there is the guy with whom I went to the party.


    Prescriptive grammar is based on the idea that there is a single right way to do things. When there is more than one way of saying something, prescriptive grammar is generally concerned with declaring one (and only one) of the variants to be correct. The favored variant is usually justified as being better (whether more logical, more euphonious, or more desirable on some other grounds) than the deprecated variant. In the same situation of linguistic variability, descriptive grammar is content simply to document the variants - without passing judgment on them.

    For instance, consider the variable subject-verb agreement pattern in (8).

    (8)

    a.

    There

    's

    some boxes left on the porch.


    b.


    There

    are

    some boxes left on the porch.

    In (8a), the singular verb is (contracted to 's) agrees in number with the preverbal expletive subject there (in red), whereas in (8b), the plural verb are agrees with the postverbal logical subject some boxes (in blue). The color of the verb indicates which of the two subjects it agrees with.

    The prescriptive and descriptive rules concerning this pattern are given in (9). The differences between the two rules are emphasized by underlining.

    (9)


    In a sentence containing both the singular expletive subject there and a plural logical subject ...


    a.

    Prescriptive rule:

    ... the verb should agree in number with the logical subject.


    b.

    Descriptive rule:

    ... the verb can agree in number with either the expletive subject or the logical subject.

    To take another example, let's consider the prescriptive rule that says, "Don't end a sentence with a preposition."2 A prescriptivist might argue that keeping the preposition (in italics) together with its object (in boldface), as in (10a), makes sentences easier to understand than does separating the two, as in (10b).

    (10)

    a.


    With which friend did you go to the party?


    b.


    Which friend did you go to the party with?

    But by that reasoning, (11a), where the verb and its object are adjacent, ought to be preferable to (11b), where they are not. In fact, however, (11a) is completely ungrammatical in English.

    (11)

    a.

    *

    Adopt which cat did your friend?


    b.

    ok

    Which cat did your friend adopt?

    It is important to understand that there is no conceptual or semantic reason that prepositions can be separated from their objects in English, but that verbs can't. From a descriptive perspective, the grammaticality contrast between (10a) and (11a) is simply a matter of fact, irreducible to more basic considerations (at least given our present state of knowledge). (12) highlights the difference between the relevant prescriptive and descriptive rule.

    (12)


    When the object of a preposition appears in a position other than its ordinary one (as in a question), ...


    a.

    Prescriptive rule:

    ... it should be preceded by the preposition.


    b.

    Descriptive rule:

    ... it can either be preceded by the preposition, or it may stand alone, with the preposition remaining in its ordinary position.

    The contrasting attitude of prescriptive and descriptive grammar towards linguistic variation has a quasi-paradoxical consequence: namely, that prescriptive rules are never descriptive rules. The reason for this has to do with the way that social systems (not just language) work. If everyone in a community consistently behaves in a way that is socially acceptable in some respect, then there is no need for explicit prescriptive rules to ensure the behavior in question. It is only when behavior that is perceived as socially unacceptable becomes common that prescriptive rules come to be formulated to keep the unacceptable behavior in check. For example, if every customer entering a store invariably wears both a shirt and shoes, there is no need for the store owner to put up a sign that says "No shirt, no shoes, no service." Conversely, it is precisely at illegal dump sites that we observe "No dumping" signs. In an analogous way, in the domain of language use, rules of prescriptive grammar are only ever formulated in situations where linguistic variation is common. But being prescriptive, they cannot treat all of the occurring variants as equally acceptable - with the result that they can't ever be descriptive.


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