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

Belben, Philip (Energy Wholesale) Philip.Belben at eon-uk.com
Wed Apr 6 08:49:36 EDT 2005

Colin, replying to Dorian, gets right to the heart of his contentious
statement earlier:

> > 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
> language.

Yes, BUT the phrases it generates are still part of the language, in
that they are spoken and understood by speakers who are using the

>>> 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
> early.  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 see two problems here.  One is that I am not bi-dialectal, or whatever
the phrase is.  I speak only one dialect, and it has phrases and
structures in it that I have learned by a variety of processes over the
course of all thirty-eight years of my life.  I do have formal and
informal forms (I hope to reply to Robyn's comments about my use of
nominative and accusative cases soon) but to me it's all one dialect.
So to say that some of it is "English" and some isn't is to me rather

The other problem with Colin's view is that the language generated by
prescriptive grammar _is_ used.  People do, in some circumstances, speak
that way.  They are English-speakers, and they are understood by other
English-speakers when they do.  A child exposed to this would pick up
these modes of speech, as someone (Robyn?) pointed out.  So the
assertion that these are necessarily not learnt naturally but only
taught is not well founded; and even if it were, the assertion that the
taught forms are not part of English would still be a very strange one.

> 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.

(Sorry, no time to tidy up what my mail software has done to this text)

Some good points there, but from "there are many people who don't
internalise the supposedly correct rule", to deduce "nobody does, and
the rule is therefore not a real one" is not sound logic, in my view.

(For a case where I believe I know the rule, but to which I cannot apply
it, see my forthcoming reply to Robyn again)

In haste,


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