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

Colin Fine colin at kindness.demon.co.uk
Tue Apr 5 19:05:54 EDT 2005

Dorian E. Gray wrote:

> 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.  

Yes. I regard prescriptive grammar as part of etiquette, not part of 

> 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.  

On the whole, no. That is exactly my point. If it were what people 
actually tend to *do* with their language, it would not need to be taught.
To be more precise, there are at least three different kinds of rule 
found in prescriptive grammars:
1. Restatement of a rule which is actually there in the natural grammar. 
Not very common this one, for the reason given above, but I've no doubt 
there are examples
2. A rule which is descriptive of one variety or dialect, but 
prescriptive in other varieties. A familiar example is the rule against 
'double negatives' (eg "I didn''t see nobody'"). Most prestige varieties 
of English have such a rule, but many other varieties do not.
There is also the case where the rule is descriptive of an older form of 
the language, but I'm not sure if this case can be reliably 
distinguished from the preceding, so I've lumped them together. I have 
examples like 'whom' in mind here.
3. A rule which has never been descriptive, but was invented from whole 
cloth, for example the rule against splitting infinitives. (I am not 
claiming that those who promulgated them necessarily intended to invent 
them: often they were trying to find some order where it did not really 
exist at the level they knew to look; or they believed that they were 
describing a 'better' English because it was more like Laten).

> As language changes through use, the Rules in the books (slowly) change.

Not really, or not in the way this suggests. Almost all of the 
prescriptive rules of English were invented within the last 250 years, 
and there was not a great deal of change in them until the last 50 or so.

> 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.
You are right that most of the style books in some way accept split 
infinitives, though not with open arms. But there are still plenty of 
people around who have been brought up to believe that they are the work 
of the devil (or, more to the point, of the illiterate) and have almost 
a conditioned reaction to them: as far as those people are concerned, it 
is still 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.
No, this is the crux of my point. I am making the (admittedely 
provocative) claim that 'It is I' is NOT part of English, in the sense 
that it is not (pace Philip Belben) part of the language that *any* 
English speaking child acquires as his or her native language.
I am not denying that it is a part of English as that term is normally 
understood, or that some children may be taught to use the form quite 
But that word 'taught' is crucial. Children in the normal course of 
things are not taught their language. They learn it - and there is a lot 
of evidence that it makes very little difference whether or not those 
around them attempt to teach them, correct their mistakes, or talk to 
them at all.
'Good' grammar, on the other hand, like reading and writing, is largely 
taught. Some children may have the capacity and motivation to begin 
acquiring these skills for themselves: but they are utterly different 
skills from learning (natural) language, because they are in a big sense 
arbitrary in a way that (natural) language is not.

I am claiming that in 'It is I' is not part of any natural variety of 
English because there is no rule that will produce it, that is 
deduceable from the evidence available to an English-speaking child.
(Actually I have to admit a caveat here - children may learn this 
particular sentence as a chunk - an idiom, if you will - and thereby not 
have to analyse it or apply a rule).
I won't go into the detailed arguments unless somebody really wants me 
to (and I'd have to look up the Emonds article "Grammatically Deviant 
Prestige Constructions" to do so), but what he says in summary is that 
there are not enough examples of case morphology in English (the only 
words which exhibit it are 'I', 'he', 'she', 'we', 'they' and marginally 
'who' and 'thou') for the learning child to construct case and agreement 
rules in the way a German or Russian speaker does; so as children we 
construct a simpler set of rules (something along the line of "use 'I', 
'we' etc immediately preceding the verb and 'me', 'us' otherwise' - it's 
not quite as simple as that, but it's something along those lines).
One of his arguments for this is the number of cases where we get it 
'wrong'. I'm not talking about the many people who ignore the rule in 
normal speech and say "It's me", but about the people who 'hypercorrect' 
and say "between you and I", for example. According to the prescriptive 
rule this is wrong because 'between' should be followed by an 
accusative. Emonds would argue that what has happened is that people 
have been taught that their inner rule is wrong ("I mustn't say 'John 
and me went'"), have not internalised the intended rule, (because it 
depends on a category which does not exist in their language), and have 
deduced another rule ("when talking about me and someone else, always 
say 'I', not 'me').
He also mentions many cases when even those of us who think we know the 
rule are not sure what to say, though I can't bring one to mind. Again, 
he is suggesting that we either do not fully understand the rule, or 
have not fully internalised it.


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