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

Dorian E. Gray israfel at eircom.net
Wed Apr 6 14:39:51 EDT 2005


Colin replied to me...

>> 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.

Well, that is of course your prerogative.  Since I believe (though I am 
willing to be corrected if anyone can cite chapter and verse to the 
contrary) that for the most part, prescriptive grammar evolves from 
descriptive grammar, I shall continue to regard prescriptive grammar as part 
of language (though I agree that it could be said to have an etiquette 
function also).

>> 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

Hm.  The word order subject-verb-object, perhaps?  A small child might say 
"me go bed now" instead of "I am going (or 'would like to go') to bed now", 
but whatever it may have done to the individual items, it has still 
conformed to the subject-verb-object word order for a simple sentence. 
(Yes, other word orders can be used, but subject-verb-object is the 
commonest, most comprehensible, and most used.)

Or use of the proper pronoun for the case:  many people confuse "I" and "me" 
in certain situations (e.g. "between you and I"), but few people mix up "he" 
and "him" or "she" and "her" or "they" and "them".  I suspect the I/me 
confusion arises because of the similarity in sound between "me" and 
"he/she"; at any rate, in general terms of the rules governing pronouns, I 
believe the I/me confusion is an aberration.

> 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.

The prescriptive grammar of any language is based on what you call the 
"prestige variety" of that language - Hochdeutsch for German, Castiliano 
(IIRC) for Spanish, Standard English for English, etc.  Other dialects don't 
often seem to get prescriptive grammars (i.e. Rulebooks).  English has what 
I think is one of the few exceptions; Standard British English has slightly 
different rules from Standard American English, for instance, and in both 
cases, these rules are codified.  (Standard Irish English, however, has the 
same prescriptive grammar as Standard British English.)  Therefore, when we 
talk about prescriptive grammar, we more or less *have* to be talking about 
the "prestige dialect" of the language in question.

> 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).

I rather think the Rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition 
counts here too (list-linguists, am I right or talking through my hat?). 
But neither of these Rules is still commonly promulgated.

>> 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.

I would be more inclined to say that English did not have a prescriptive 
grammar until about 250 years ago, because up until then it didn't need one. 
Since it acquired the need for one and set one out, said prescriptive 
grammar has (slowly) been changing.  The fact that most of the change has 
only happened in the last 50 years or so reflects the fact that up until 
then, communications (in their various forms) were relatively slow.

> 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.

Unless said people are in charge of producing "official grammar books", they 
can believe what they like and will have no effect on the Rule.  Personally, 
I loathe the use of "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped".  But I am in a 
minority, and so the professional grammarians who formulate the prescriptive 
grammar from the majority usages allow that particular use.

> 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.

You appear to be defining either "English" or "language" (or possibly both) 
in a different way from me.

> 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.

Very true.  But they learn it from what they hear around them.  If a child 
hears people around it saying "It is I" and thus picks up the phrase, how 
does that phrase become not part of English?  Or are you arguing that only 
the language formats that a child works out for itself ("bited" instead of 
"bit") are part of English?

> '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.

No-one taught me grammar as a child.  I absorbed it from my environment 
(both my parents speak Standard Irish English) and from books.  I often 
still have to go and dig out "The Oxford Guide to English Grammar" if I need 
to explain a rule, because I was never taught most of the rules.  Therefore, 
I would assert that while many people may be taught grammar, it is perfectly 
possible to learn it - or most of it - without being taught.

Dorian. 

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