English grammar

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by skaught, May 8, 2010.

  1. S.A.M. uniquely dreadful Valued Senior Member

    Read. A lot. Nothing improves grammar like reading.
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  3. stateofmind seeker of lies Valued Senior Member

    Those sentences only deviate very slightly from grammar-school grammar. They are perfectly in line with all of the necessary and important components of english grammar that make english comprehensible. If you read my posts carefully you would see that I said this.

    The "grammatically incorrect" sentences you provided would be like the difference between a game of basketball and a game of basketball where the players are all wearing hats... if anyone watched the two games they would recognize the game still as basketball...
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  5. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    Wrong: you specifically stated -
    Or do you wish to redefine what "rules of grammar" means?

    Still wrong: those sentences do not follow the rules of English grammar. They are ungrammatical. But still comprehensible.

    And you still have to provide evidence for the claim that
    since huge numbers of people speak ungrammatically (without being aware that they do so).
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  7. stateofmind seeker of lies Valued Senior Member

    I feel like a mama bird that has to partially digest everything and then regurgitate it into the baby's mouth.
  8. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    Well you wouldn't if you gave up making nonsensical claims.
  9. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    If you never learn the grammar of any language, the formal written grammar if possible, you will miss an important part of your education and intellectual development.

    Nailing the grammar forces you to think carefully, communicate reliably with those not sharing your street lingo. It also increases your ability to use the language in a variety of settings, and say things you couldn't say otherwise.

    That does not mean you have to memorize, for life, a bunch of rules and exceptions. It means you have to read and write carefully under the guidance of an expert, and formally analyze what you have read and written.

    People used to get this in their teenage years from Latin, Greek, and Mathematics. Getting it from English grammar is an easy way, and very useful.
  10. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    You're talking about something that happened long ago.

    For most of its existence, English was not considered an important language. Until the Roman Empire collapsed, Britannia was populated by a Celtic people who spoke Brythonic, a Celtic language related to Welsh, of which we have very little evidence so we can't reconstruct it. Then the Angles, Saxons and Jutes sailed over to seize the abandoned Roman province, and they developed a patois that was a mixture of their Germanic languages; we now call it Anglo-Saxon, but until recently it was more often known as "Old English."

    Civilization in "Angle-Land" was backsliding at this point since, by Roman standards, the occupiers from Germania were barbarians. There was no central government and each region developed its own dialect of Anglisc. The concept of a formal, standard grammar was inapplicable.

    By the beginning of the second millennium CE, the Anglo-Saxon people were starting to get organized and Beowulf had been written in Anglo-Saxon... just in time for the Normans to invade and make French the language of government and commerce. Thousands of French words were assimilated and many of the grammatical complexities of Anglo-Saxon were lost, and the language became Middle English; Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. But there was still no standard language, since English had no official status; if you traveled fifty miles you'd find people speaking a noticeably different dialect, with different words and different pronunciation.

    Finally, by the 14th century, the French rulers assimilated into their conquered people and adopted English. (This is not as unusual a situation as you might expect: the Mongols conquered China and then became Chinese. The Achaemenid Empire adopted Aramaic, the language of a minor tribe within their realm, which remained the everyday language of Mesopotamia for two thousand years after the Aramaeans vanished from history.) So finally, English was the official language of a country with a strong central government. Eventually London was established as the capital city, and the London dialect of Early Modern English exerted influence on all the regional and local dialects. Standardization slowly began to set in.

    Then a major technological change occurred: the printing press. The vast increase in the availability of written material gave people a reason to learn to read and write, so formal education began to trickle down to the common folk. A written language exerts a powerful influence on a country, so the standardization of English continued. By the turn of the 18th century, something like half the people in England were minimally literate, and America was not far behind.

    With all these people learning to write, they needed to learn how to write correctly. Now that I've given you the context of the evolution of the English language, you can understand why the whole idea of "rules of grammar" was--literally--foreign. The only language that had been studied formally by any significant number of people was Latin. There were plenty of books available for learning to write Latin, so the educators of the time simply took one of them and translated it into English, and began teaching from it.

    This led to some lessons so preposterous that it's hard to believe that the students were able to stop laughing. They were taught that English nouns are declined by case, just like Latin nouns, and they had to memorize the paradigm:
    • nominative: the boy
    • genitive: of the boy
    • dative: to the boy
    • accusative: the boy
    • vocative: O boy!
    This is, of course, where the old myth comes from that you must not split an infinitive. This is pure Latin! In Latin you can't split an infinitive because it's all one word. "To love" = amare. Ditto for ending a sentence with a preposition. You can't do it in Latin, so they taught that you can't do it in English either.

    But this nonsense hasn't been taught for a hundred years. My mother started elementary school in 1916 and she was taught the rules of English grammar, not Latin. Well okay, she was told never to end a sentence with a preposition; some myths are hard to kill.

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    While pronunciation and vocabulary can vary wildly from one dialect to another, English grammar tends to be pretty standard. You have to drill down almost to the level of the individual word to start noticing differences between British and American grammar, such as their "I'll have to wait until your suggestion is approved by department before we can move forward," whereas we say "approved by the department."
    That's not a grammatical error. It's not a construction you often hear in casual conversation, to be sure, but it is quite properly used for rhetorical emphasis: "I may have a beard and a bong, but a hippie I am not."
    These "errors" are the sounds of a language evolving. Elizabeth I would send Elizabeth II back to school to learn proper English.
    I'm not sure I agree with that, but perhaps the point is that they're not difficult to understand, nor to compose correctly. You have a preposition and then you have an object. That's about all there is to it. Prepositional phrases are constructed in exactly the same way in most (all?) Indo-European languages, so it's something that most foreign students don't have to put much effort into learning.
    Such as your ability to freely end that sentence with a preposition, instead of expanding it to ". . . . behind them, into which I don't feel like digging." But at least that sentence can be resequenced to obey the old Latin rule. How about the sentence, "I don't want to be thought of as just your friend." There's no way to put that "of" in front of its object, because the object of the (putative) prepositional phrase is also the subject of the sentence!
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  11. Doreen Valued Senior Member

    You have an interesting way of interpreting 'without'. To you without only seems to mean 'not absolutely perfect'. To me 'without' - without any other cues - means 'in the absence of'.

    English in the absence of grammar would generally be incomprehensible. Very short sentences might be clear. But then the odds are much better they are somewhat grammatical.

    A sentence in the absence of grammar is a sentence where the word order is random for the listener/reader.

    A sentence with some grammatical errors is often, even usually, comprehensible.

    (Nyah, nyah.)
    Last edited: May 10, 2010
  12. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    Agreed: but read the second part of that sentence (which is what I was actually quoting).
    I replied to the first part of that in post #7:
    I dispute that (native) English speakers know grammar (unless they have been specifically taught it). They will, however use whatever they have picked up whether it is correct or not. I.e. the fact that English is your native language does not confer a knowledge of correct grammar.
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I think you're not distinguishing clearly between:
    • 1. "Knowing grammar" intuitively: Being able to combine words, properly inflected, in the right sequence to express one's thoughts, in conventional ways so as to be understood with minimal ambiguity; and
    • 2. "Knowing grammar" formally: Knowing terms like preposition, subjunctive, indirect object, tricolon; identifying grammatical errors taxonomically and analytically; being able to explain grammar academically to a child or a student.
    Everyone who can speak a language effectively "knows grammar" in the first sense. If they did not, they simply would not be speaking it effectively; it would be pidgin or sheer trial and error, with lots of errors--no matter how large their vocabulary.

    But in both senses, there is a scale of "knowing."
    • 1. Some people have not developed a good intuition for grammar, perhaps because they learned the rules of a substandard dialect and haven't had much practice with the standard language, or perhaps because they grew up in an immigrant community where English (or the language in question) was not spoken often or well, or perhaps because they haven't had a lot of social experience in which to practice. And many people make grammatical mistakes that don't disastrously impair the comprehension of their sentences, either because they really didn't learn the rules correctly, or because they get confused and can't navigate their way through a long sentence.
    • 2. Many people with merely a basic education have some formal knowledge of grammar and can identify a subject and verb, but others cannot. Whereas some of us are more analytically oriented and used to diagram sentences for fun.
    I repeat: you have to "know grammar" in sense #1 to be able to speak the language at all. Grammar, vocabulary, syntax, phonetics: these are all requirements for speaking.
  14. Doreen Valued Senior Member

    I disagree. 1) They pick up a lot of what fussy grammar teachers themselves would call correct English grammar, because they are understandible to people who are used to this. IOW it is very rare for people not to infuse their sentences with quite a bit of what is referred to as correct grammar. 2) According to the 'correct grammar' rules they will make errors, and often regularly. But there is no objective English Grammar. There are merely a variety of rules followed by different groups in different subcultures.

    So a) Everyone who speaks English and can be understood regularly by other native speakers knows, however tacitly, English grammar.
    b) Many of what are considered their errors are actually rules that are followed by certain people in certain contexts - or all the time. Even just focussing on 'correct grammar' and what you probably mean by it, then do, in fact, know a good chunk of this. Even in this subcategory of English Grammar, they pick up some, generally quite a bit. Their sentences are not random. They tend to put subjects before verbs, 's' to make things plural, adjectives before nouns, objects after verbs, etc. They are not using Chinese Grammar, for example. It's not a digital issue, even with 'correct grammar'.

    Though I would like to stress that 'correct grammar' is simply a set of rules that some portion of the population decided should be the official grammar. But language is not an objective thing. There is nothing more correct about avoiding double negatives or allowing them - as some portions of African American speech seems to include more. Neither is 'more correct.'

    They are speaking English and effectively - in these contexts. So their grammar is correct in that context.

    It may be useful for them to learn what fussy college professors call 'correct English grammar', but the latter are confusing their opinions with some Platonic truth.

    I think this was part of what stateofmind was saying. That 'correct grammar' is not necessarily correct or more correct. That people are using, in the street, an effective grammar (and vocabulary/semantics).
    Last edited: May 13, 2010
  15. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Aside from the inaccurate description of college professors and their objections to double negatives, that's so as far as it goes.

    But it's worth considering what the contexts are in which double negatives are employed as almost identical in meaning to single ones, the extra syllables a redundancy, and in what contexts both negatives are fully and separately intended and not redundant - there is no special validity in any English idiom, right? Which is useful for what, and can you use it at need, is the question.

    To illustrate: with the loss of the intended double negative, not only would the interpretation of formal and legal documents become suddenly at risk, while extra syllables sprouted in the middle of everywhere Standard Written English is the normal language, but the ability to intend a double negation in any context would disappear. Hard to see the gain in that, in written English. The intended double negation may not be critical in English, but one would miss it were it impossible, no?
  16. soullust Registered Senior Member

  17. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    You mean Standard American (or Standard British) English. The more formal the milieu--e.g. legal documents and scientific papers have the highest formality and comic strips perhaps the lowest--the more the written language is a slavish transcription of the spoken language. The only grey area is punctuation, and even that is more of an issue in legal language than scientific.

    I've noticed that the punctuation in comic strips has moved much closer to standard. Back in the 1950s sentences in dialog balloons either all ended in exclamation points! or had no punctuation at all
    The most common instance that comes to mind is the dialog:

    "I'm too far behind in my work and I'm already late getting home. I'm not going to bother submitting my time report tonight."

    "It's the last Friday of the month. You can't not submit your time report tonight, or you won't get paid."
  18. jay102 Registered Member

    Oh my god. English grammar is so difficult!
  19. stratos Banned Banned

    “A gifted person ought to be able to learn English (barring spelling and pronunciation) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.” (Mark Twain)

    It’s not the grammar which makes English tricky compared with some other languages, it’s the spelling and pronunciation.

    Just be glad we don’t have two or three genders for the word “the”. A table is feminine in French? A young girl is neuter in German? And we don’t stick verbs at the end of the sentence. We don’t know when we’re well off.
  20. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    Not? I must do some further studying. Or more reading. But first my plants need watering.
  21. stratos Banned Banned

    You are using 'studying', 'reading' and 'watering' as a noun here (a thing, and an object in the sentence), not as a verb. Nice try, my friend! Pedant's picnic, this.
  22. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    Reading is a noun?
    As in, "reading is something I must do more of".
    Is it raining?
    Will we go shopping?
  23. stratos Banned Banned

    Dywyddyr, your last message is not wholly consistent with your first as you're shifting the ground with the sentence "Is it raining?". My reply to your previous message #37 stands. If you can put 'the' or 'some' before a word it is obviously being used as a noun. I was, originally, referring to the German practice of saying, for example, "We can to the shops go" - where 'go' is most definitely used in the sense of a verb.

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