Monday 3 March 2014

Grammar is not the same as the grammatical terms used to describe grammar!

I have a couple of grammar booklets in front of me - the kind that is being photocopied for use in schools as a means to teach grammar in schools.

“No Nonsense English 7-8 years” published by Nelson Thornes (2005)


“Achieve Level 6 English Revision” published by Rising Stars (2013)

Such booklets instantly throw up a problem to do with terminology not least of which is the word ‘grammar’ itself. The word 'grammar' is used to do two things which are not always the same:

1. All language is grammatical, if we understand that language is language because it involves meaningful units (mostly 'words') which are bunched together in ways that enable speakers/writers and listeners/readers to 'make meaning'. This sticking together - no matter how it is described - is 'grammar', though some prefer the word 'syntax'. All these sentences I have written here are words stuck together. They are not randomly placed in a line. If they were randomly arranged, you wouldn’t be able to make much meaning from them.

2. There are many different ways to describe this 'sticking together', many systems, many books - going back many centuries. These are 'grammars' and people will refer to them as if they are telling you 'the’ grammar of the language. But a terminology or classification system is not the same as the thing itself. This becomes very apparent when two classification systems don't tally, (see my previous blog where I discuss 'my', 'your', 'his' etc), where for centuries people called these ‘possessive pronouns’. Then other grammarians said they should be called ‘possessive determiners’ because not all those ‘pronouns’ really do stand for another ‘noun’ as the word ‘pronoun’ seems to suggest. Though ‘his’ , say, might be clearly representing someone mentioned a moment earlier as with a sentence like: ‘David gave me his book’, some of the other ‘pronouns’ may well represent a person (or people) but not a ‘noun’. So I can write, ‘I had my breakfast this morning’ and ‘my’ is not standing for another ‘noun’. It’s doing work to indicate that the person (not the noun of me) is doing something!

By the way, if you want to know why the old grammarians called them ‘possessive pronouns’ it’s because they were describing something that has nothing to do with how sentences are constructed and everything to do with how words seem to be made. So, if you take those words, ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’ etc, and if you put them into a classification system that looks at them as a ‘family’ of words, they get linked to ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ ‘they’ and ‘mine’, ‘yours’, ‘hers’ ‘his’, ‘theirs’ and ‘its’ and even with ‘this’, ‘that’ and ‘these’. This serves some kind of purpose for eg those who want to make this into a family, those who want students to have something to recite etc, but it might not fit the bill for what actually goes on when you are using the words in real language-using situations.

That’s why and how the ‘determiner’ classification came up because, it’s claimed, ‘my’ ‘your’ etc are analogous to other ‘determiners’ like ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’ ‘some’...

3. Some people get very attached to this or that classification system and will demand that you (or me) accept that this or that word or expression 'IS' the term from their classification system. There are moments when this might make sense - particularly in very simple sentences. We are inclined to say, that in the sentence 'The cat sat on the mat' that 'cat' IS a noun. And all seems clear.

When I posted up my thoughts about 'possessive determiners' vs 'possessive pronouns' someone replied by saying, no, they ARE 'possessive adjectives'! Why might he have said that? In some languages, you don’t differentiate between ‘his’ and ‘her’ in terms of the owner of the thing (as in ‘his hat’ or ‘her hat’). Instead you indicate the ‘gender’ of the object. In French, when you say ‘son chapeau’, you are not making any reference to whether the owner of the hat is a male or a female. It’s the hat that is ‘masculine’. Perhaps, that’s why the person who said that they ARE ‘possessive adjectives’ was so adamant about it. So, three separate terms for the same words: my, our, your, his, her, its, their and people prepared to say what they ‘ARE’.

So, something grammatical or ‘syntactical’ is going on when we say ‘my hat’ ie we are linking ‘my’ to ‘hat’ but how we describe that ‘something’ is open to debate.

The truth of the matter, classifying language is difficult because:

Language is a form of human behaviour or, more accurately, several forms of human behaviour. It’s a set of actions and processes that we do for each other, to each other, for ourselves - and so on. Because we are very different (personally, culturally, emotionally, politically) and because we serve many very different functions during each and every day, then there is no reason to expect that these human behaviours (language-usages) should be consistent and regular. (When I say ‘different’, I mean that we do things that are ‘different’ because we serve different functions and roles in society (‘class’ etc) , but also because we do ‘different’ things as a given individual in any given day, month, year or as a lifetime progresses. Why would we be consistent or regular all across these different forms of behaviour?

Each and every classification system will turn out to have problems.
These might be because: 

1. in actual usage, real human beings do not do what the classification system says that they should do. This is sometimes called ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’, sometimes called ‘dialect’ or ‘informal’, sometimes it is because the usage is eg in poetry, drama, advertising, signs, instructions or even on the cover of booklets to do with grammar! So, in ‘No Nonsense English’, it explains: “All sentences begin with a capital letter and always end with a form of punctuation: a full stop, an exclamation mark or question mark.”

(This is bizarre. Plenty of sentences in poetry, advertising and titling do not follow this rule. The old grammatical rule for what is a sentence is that it must include a ‘finite’ verb - that’s a verb that changes according to time (eg present and past) and changes according to whether the ‘subject’ is ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘it’, ‘they’, a noun or a ‘nominal group’ or a ‘noun clause’, in their singular or plural forms.

Beginning with a capital letter and ending with a full stop is a printer’s convention that applies with any certainty to writing sentences in formal, continuous prose. However, even here, the convention of capital letter-full stop may be used for phrases or clauses that do NOT include a finite verb. Most famously, as on the first page of Charles Dickens’s novel ‘Bleak House’ where we read ‘Fog everywhere.’ Meanwhile, on the front cover of ‘Achieve Level 6’, there is a construction which contains a ‘finite’ verb and which has no full stop! ‘Achieve Level 6 English Revision Key Stage 2 Includes grammar, punctuation and spelling’ with no full stop after ‘spelling’. In other words, there is some kind of hidden ‘rule’ here - never referred to, which says something along the lines that in advertising and book covers (for example), full stops aren’t needed.

Why not? Because graphic designers and printers don’t want to use them. So much for ‘rules’ being some kind of specially knowledgable bit of wisdom that we have to learn. In truth, they are conventions or agreed forms of human behaviour. In this case, it’s the behaviour of graphic designers producing what they hope are nice covers.)

2. It might be that the classification systems used to work when the language had one form but because language is always changing (ie we change it), the systems don’t work any more. An obvious example would be to say that the ‘singular’ of ‘you’ is ‘thou’. Yes, it was. It very rarely is anymore.

3. It might be that the classification systems came from a means of classifying another language eg Latin, and don’t work very well for English. The most famous of these is the ‘split infinitive’ ‘rule’. In Latin, the word that is the name of the verb and is used in certain constructions is one word like ‘amare’ which we translate usually with two words ‘to love’. In English we can use that construction (‘to’ + [the name of the verb - sometimes, not always, called ‘the infinitive’] in a variety of ways meaning eg ‘in order to go’ as with, say, ‘I did it to annoy him’. It can also be used to suggest something in the future: ‘I’m waiting for it to happen.’ It can be used as a ‘noun phrase’: ‘To love is a matter of thinking about another person.’ And there are times when it is the form of the verb most commonly (‘regularly’, ‘correctly’) used: ‘He needs to work.’ The split infinitive ‘rule’ says that you should not put an adverb between the ‘to’ and the ‘infinitive’ (if that’s what it is - some grammarians don’t think it is!), some say that this is a bit of Latin grammar being applied to an English construction. Why shouldn’t we put words between ‘to’ and the ‘infinitive’ if we want to? After all ‘to’ is not, they say, ‘the infinitive’. It’s a preposition’. So nothing to ‘split’! 

4. It might be that the classification system works when we want it to do one kind of job eg learning a language as a ‘foreign’ language, but not work so well if the speaker is a ‘native’ speaker. A case in point here, is the reciting of verbs. One of the strange things that you find when you meet people learning English is that they often have to recite our ‘strong’ verbs. First of all, very few native English speakers ever know that we are walking around using what non-English people call ‘weak’ and ‘strong verbs’. Then, very few native English speakers find themselves in a situation where we recite ‘strong’ ones. What is being recited are 

the first person singular present of the verb eg ‘sing’, followed by the first person singular simple past (or ‘old grammar’ - the ‘imperfect’), ie ‘sang’, followed by the ‘past participle’ i.e. the form of the verb that comes after ‘have’ or ‘has’ ie ‘sung’. So French school students will recite, ‘sing, sang, sung; bring, brought, brought, buy, bought, bought...’. How much use it is for them, when faced with real-life conversations or writing, is not known. 

5. It might be that a classification system works for adults but not for children. Again, that should not be surprising because it’s clear that certain kinds of abstraction are very hard for young children to get hold of or to handle. After all, we don’t teach young children how to do calculus, we don’t teach very young children how to do quadratic equations. So, I notice that most of these grammar books fudge the question of how to describe the way in English we create words and phrases like ‘playground’ ‘football pitch’, ‘corkscrew’, or ‘great rate personal loan’. The fact is that we are quite happy to say or write complicated sequences of words, some of which are ‘nouns’ some are ‘adjectives’, some are ‘participles’ like eg ‘skipping’ as in ‘skipping rope’ or ‘skipping-rope’ which are, perhaps, doing time as nouns in a ‘compound phrase’ and so on. A ‘great rate personal loan’ involves treating ‘great’ as an adjective that refers to ‘rate’ not ‘loan’, but ‘personal’ is an adjective that refers to ‘loan’. But there is a way of thinking of ‘great rate’ as an adjectival phrase that includes a noun ‘rate’. Or perhaps it’s a ‘noun phrase’ which includes an adjective, as part of an overall compound noun phrase ‘great rate personal loan’!

Again, it’s clear that there’s some ‘grammar’ or ‘syntax’ going on, but how we describe that ‘grammar’ is complicated, difficult and generally thought to be too difficult (or boring) for young children...and indeed possibly not very interesting for many non-specialists too. What’s interesting though is that most native English speakers have very little trouble stringing together adjectives, nouns and participles to create such noun phrases. We can grab phrases like ‘up and at them’ and treat them as if they are one word as with, ‘Oh he’s not a very up-and-attem sort of a bloke’. We don’t need to know a classification system in order to produce the construction.