Monday, 2 May 2016

How SPaG/GPS makes a difficult description even harder

At the core of standard 'structural' and so-called 'functional' descriptions of English (along with other languages) is this little trilogy: subject, verb, object.
(I say 'so-called functional' because it's the function within the system not what I call 'social function' is as part of human behaviour.)

It's so ingrained in someone like me who studied French, German, Latin, English Language and Anglo-Saxon, it's nearly impossible to get behind it as a description. To question it feels like questioning 'air' or 'gravity'.

First what is it?

In the sentence: 'I write rubbish' -
the 'subject' is 'I'
the 'verb' is 'write'
the object is 'rubbish'.

Warning 1: not all sentences or 'utterances' follow this exact pattern but let's leave that to one side.

Warning 2 - clearly the words 'subject' and 'object' are not the usual uses of those words. A 'subject' can be someone ruled over by a monarch. An 'object' can mean not much more than a 'thing'.  Here, in this blog,  these are specialised 'grammar' terms.

The idea behind the 'subject-verb-object' description is that it is supposed to describe how the parts of a sentence 'function': for example, in many circumstances the 'subject' acts on an object - does something to it, or changes it. (nb not in all circumstances!) - the 'acting on' bit is the 'verb' bit.

One first snag with the terminology though stems from a bit of inconsistency.

Subjects and objects have to be 'nouns' or 'pronouns' or  'noun phrases' or 'noun clauses' or indeed what used to be called by some 'nominal groups'.

So, one 'function' of these nouns etc is that they are 'subjects', another function they have here is that they are 'objects' .

Now on this level of classification, what are 'verbs'? Er...'verbs'! In other words, their 'class' name is the same as their function name. The function of a verb is to verb.

In other words, the naming of the categories is faulty. There ought to be another word for the function of 'verbs' that fits the 'subject'-'object' naming system, one that expresses the process that verbs do...something to do with a subject working; or acting on or relating to the object - when there is an object - which isn't always!

Now, when you've been immersed in describing language(s) according to this system, spotting these functions is not massively difficult. When you're both very young and new to it, there are all kinds of things about it that pose problems, particularly when examiners in SPaG tests put traps in front of children.

For example, verbs in English often have several parts: 'am leaving',  'have painted'.

Because English is very flexible, we can then take the second bit of those phrases and use them to do another job - according to the 'function' way of describing the language:

'Leaving home is difficult.'
'A newly painted room smells nice'.

We can 'shift' part of the verb to do another job.

We do this without thinking about it, if we are familiar with English. Once we start using terminology to name bits of sentence and stick these terms into questions which have to be answered under pressure, it's actually quite easy to get these 'wrong'. They are ideal for examiners using them to lay traps for children.  They act as what are called 'plausible distractors' in multiple choice questions where the child is asked to spot the 'verb'. Saying 'leaving' or 'painted' in the sentences above  are 'verbs' would be 'wrong' even though 'leaving' and 'painted' are both derived from a verb and are, in their own ways, doing verb-ish things in verb-ish ways! What's more 'Leaving home' is described these days (not in my days!) as a clause precisely because it contains part of a verb! It's a 'noun clause'.

What's happening here is that the 'rules' about structure that have to be spotted in the GPS tests have to be used only in relation to the function that comes within the 'subject-verb-object' system and not in relation to the basic naming of parts of speech system. (ie verb, noun, adjective etc). But, as I've pointed out, the word 'verb' is the word used in both systems.

Do children get this 'wrong'? Do children get it 'wrong', particularly when perverse test-junky examiners put these distractors in test questions? Yes.

But, take a step back from all this naming stuff and remind ourselves of what language is for and why humans have invented ways of talking in terms of things and processes, subjects acting on objects, people doing stuff etc. This is what I mean by 'social function'.

The truth of the matter is that because of the flexibility of English, we don't need to reserve our need to talk about things, objects and people to 'nouns', and we don't need to reserve our need to talk about processes to 'verbs'. This isn't awkward, or a snag or a difficulty. It's something clever and delightful about the way we can express ourselves and communicate with others. As it happens, Shakespeare for one loved doing it.

If we could free ourselves from the pressure of right/wrong answers and have time and space to investigate how we can use language, we would get to this really interesting stuff.