Wednesday 15 August 2012

Simple, compound,complex problems: grammar

Linguistics is a fascinating and wonderful subject. However, linguists themselves rarely boast that their craft/art/science has cracked all or even most of the problems that the linguists set for themselves. I had a very pleasant and interesting correspondence with Richard Hudson over the fact that Roy Hodgson signed off from the European Football championship with the phrase '...but it wasn't to be.'

I'm going to assume that almost everyone reading that will know what he meant - even from that tiny extract. He was of course talking about the fact that he thought England were going to win but...'it wasn't to be.' What did he mean? That it was written in the stars? That it was fate? Destiny? Or what?

Let's leave that to one said for a moment and ask, what's going on grammatically? From the point of view of tense, the sentences does one of those marvellous things of talking in strange ways about time. Hodgson is talking in the present about something which happened in the past (losing the game) but referring to something or other not happening in the future - one of the meanings of 'to be', ie 'going to happen'...So, to translate, we might say it means 'but it wasn't going to happen.' - which is another football phrase.

But when Richard got to work deciding on the functions of the words and/or phrases in what Hodgson said, it got pretty complicated. In the end - I hope I don't do him an injustice here - he said that he would have to admit that it was what linguists have to say is a stand-alone, an expression or idiom, which preserves strange, compressed or archaic forms all of their own. After all we say, things like 'More haste, less speed' without getting too worried about putting in a verb. We say 'Come what may'...Mm? Come what may what? What may happen, perhaps? But we don't say it.

So, cop out or not, linguists have a category for the stand-alone where some of the usual patterns, conventions of language don't apply.

But linguists are also busy categorising languages. Again, most people here will be familiar with 'parts of speech' and then at least some of the functional stuff about 'subject' and 'object' and the like.

But there are also longstanding classifications of sentences.

Brief word about sentences. They're not as immediately obvious as schools make out. Sticking with the written language, spend a bit of time looking at advertisements, poetry and plays and virtually any rule that you might want to come up with concerning sentences will be broken by these genres of writing. If we're honest, the home of the sentence as a consistent, fairly regular, rule-bound way of writing is in continuous prose - newspapers, reports, a large part of most novels, accounts, formal letters.

So, within that 'home' or writing, are there different kinds of sentences? According to the body of wisdom that is linguistics, yes.And anyone teaching English in schools today, inherits or receives this wisdom from linguistics and tries to teach it to pupils in schools. That's the idea.

So, the wisdom goes like this: there are simple, compound and complex-sentences. There are also compound-complex sentences which combine at least one element of compound and one element of complex.

In short, it says, that a simple sentence is one which contains one main verb.Above us on the page I've written, the very first sentence is a 'simple'. No matter how many adjectives I have stuffed into it, not matter the fact that I've used the word 'and' to link those two adjectives, it's 'simple' because it has no additional clauses ie groups of words which have verbs in them.

Now to compound and complex. The principle invoked here is that when you create sentences with several main verbs you create clauses that are have different relations with each other. The argument is that sometimes these are 'dependent' and sometimes not.

Here's an obvious example of a sentence where the two halves don't depend on each other for meaning. You can take one away and it's 'stand-alone'.

I ran to the bus stop and I felt good.

Nice symmetrical sentence made up of two clauses, linked or held together by 'and'. This is a 'compound sentence'.

But a 'complex' sentence is one where one depends on the other. Let's take an 'if' sentence.

'If you talk to me in that tone of voice, you're not going anywhere.'

Clearly these two halves depend on each other. The 'you're not going on anywhere' has conditions attached. if fact if 'you' stop talking in that tone of voice, maybe you will go somewhere!

So, anyone teaching this sort of thing, can feel pretty confident that this all stands together, makes sense, and can be explained (as it must) to year 6 children.

But how about a sentence with 'but' in it?

The grammarians tell us that 'but' is a 'co-ordinating conjunction' and the sentences it appears in are 'compound'.

Let's try it:

'I wanted soup, but they only had olives.'

'He would have gone out, but he didn't.'

Now tell me I'm just being irritating, or missing the point; tell me that centuries of wisdom lie behind designating this in the same category as the 'and' sentence, and not in the same category as the 'if' sentence, but it doesn't feel as clearcut to me.

Why am I saying 'but' in these sentences? In order to create contrast, to highlight roads not taken, either through circumstance, misfortune or personal decision. Now for me that is a kind of dependence, if not of the same order as an 'if' clause, or a 'because' or 'when' clause say.

I'll say more, I think that problems like this - which of course may only be a problem in my head - are why children or indeed all of us find grammar difficult. So what do we do? We shift gears and go mechanical. We look up a chart and learn the chart.

Here it is:

Compound sentences have the following conjunctions:

for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so

Complex sentences have the following conjunctions:

 because, since, after, although, or when (or a relative pronoun such as:) that, who, or which. 

Hands up, I'm baffled again. One version of the bible reads:

“I cannot do what you ask,  for I was born to be a king.”

Doesn't this have exactly the same meaning as 'because'? Can't the two be swapped with the choice only to be made on account of sound, or whether it sounds a bit more olde worlde to say 'for'? Why would the two sentences switch category on account of swapping 'for' for 'because'?

Ok,  you're now sick of me throwing these spanners in the works. These things are hard enough to learn anyway, without me coming along and making it seem illogical. So, as I say, what do we do? We learn these things as charts or tables so that when we go into the exam or test, we can 'get it right'.

I did that for my O-level English language exam in 1962. I had learned all my grammar charts and tables and, in those days, we labelled the dependent clauses as 'clauses of time' or 'clauses of condition' and the like and each clause had its own conjunction. Our teacher, Mrs Turnbull would walk round the class (we were 15 and 16) and point at one of us and say, 'If!' and you would have to say, 'adverbial clause of condition!'

So, we had it all sorted. Got into the exam room, and the dependent clause began with 'no matter what...' We hadn't been given 'no matter what...' as a conjunction of anything. We didn't know what to write. Was it an adverbial clause of 'concession' or an 'adverbial clause of condition' or was it something else altogether that Mrs Turnbull hadn't taught us????

This expresses my frustration with all this. I'm in favour of the attempt to categorize language. I don't think that it is as cut and dried and as clear as actual usage is. Because we treat it as if it is beyond debate, it often leaves us baffled and bemused. We learn it as rote learning which doesn't answer our questions and confusions  - some of which may be valid. This makes it less useful as a piece of knowledge in the short or long term  - as it doesn't tally with our view of reality. And it may be that we go into the test and some clever-dick of an examiner has decided this year to catch us all out anyway and come up with something that he or she knows is going to be a problem for those of us who've done exactly what we've been told to so, which learn the chart.

That said, let me try this on you. Sometimes we say or write sentences which are linked but have no conjunction!

You go in the pool, I'm off.

That's what we actually say. Now this makes linguists do something rather peculiar. They say that what's going on here is that we're using an expression behind which lie some other words eg

If you go in the pool, I'm off

In other words it is really, really, really a complex sentence because there's an 'if' hanging around somewhere in the ether near it or behind it.

I don't buy that at all. The whole sentence is piece of very common usage. Because of the way we say it, because of the context in which we say it, this is an example of simple sentence which is in reality a complex one.

Grammar isn't easy. There is no reason why it should be easy. It doesn't help anyone to pretend it is. There is no evidence that teaching young children this sort of thing, makes them better readers or writers. I'm all in favour of introducing children to categories and functions only so long as it's done with an open-ended, enquiring, problem-solving way, leaving open the possibility that several answers might be necessary.