word order (was Re: Random DWJ discovery of the day)

Dorian E. Gray israfel at eircom.net
Tue Apr 5 15:29:36 EDT 2005

Colin said...

> 'Big brown house' is preferred to 'brown big house' because that's the
> way English is (all varieties of English, as far as I know). Crucially,
> this is NOT because somebody decided so, or put it in a grammar, or
> consciously taught it: all native English speakers obey it (though most
> don't consciously know it).

I think we need to make a disctinction here between "prescriptive" and 
"descriptive" grammar.  Prescriptive grammar is what you get taught to do, 
what is in the books...the Rules.  But prescriptive grammar is based on 
descriptive grammar - that is, what people actually tend to *do* with their 
language.  As language changes through use, the Rules in the books (slowly) 
change.  Once it was a Rule (prescriptive) to not split infinitives. 
Eventually the grammar books caught up with the fact that English is not 
Latin; there is no particular reason to forbid split infinitives; sometimes 
splitting the infinitive can make a sentence's meaning clearer; and, 
crucially, people using English do split infinitives when they feel the need 
to.  Hence, "thou shalt not split an infinitive" is no longer a Rule.
> However a case can be made that expressions such as "It is I" and "He
> and I went there" are not part of English, but part of an artificial
> language invented by people (and conversely that 'to boldly go' is part
> of English).

Uh...with the who what now?  "It is I" and "He and I went there" may not be 
particularly common usage, but they are both perfectly grammatically 
(prescriptive grammar) correct English.  They are both sentences composed of 
English words put together in a comprehensible manner (and so descriptively 
grammatically correct).  If they are not part of English, what are they part 
of?  I'm completely confused by this assertion.


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