Monday, January 23, 2017

Some Terms

Prototypical v. Peripheral: In grammar as in life, our categories leak. When, for instance, we are sorting fiction into boxes labeled fantasy and boxes labeled science fiction, we will find some examples that clearly go in one box or the other – Lord of the Rings, The Left Hand of Darkness – but others will fall in a grey area: Anne McCaffery’s Pern novels, for instance.


So it is in grammar. We have prototypical examples of categories, words which fit easily and squarely into the box. Dog is a noun, eat is a verb, red is an adjective, and so on. Prototypical examples follow all/most of the rules for the form. Peripheral examples are those that are fuzzier. They may only follow one or two rules, and for that reason they will give us the most trouble.

For instance, while nature is a noun, it’s not a prototypical noun. Most nouns can be made plural (dogs), and they take articles (a dog, the dog). But nature can’t do these things. It can do other things that nouns do, though – it can act as a subject or object, for instance, (I like nature) or take a possessive (Nature’s charms are many).

Prescriptive v. Descriptive: There have traditionally been two main kinds of grammar. Prescriptive grammar holds that there is a correct grammar – usually just one correct grammar, one right way to speak and write – and attempts to mandate that correct grammar. This has been, for much of our pedagogical history since about 1650, the sort of grammar we teach. However, since the grammarians of 1650 were basing their knowledge of grammar on Latin grammar, and on their notions of logic, and not on linguistics, they built many errors into their English grammars, some of which we have adopted, and some of which we have rejected.
Descriptive grammar observes the language as it is used, and tries to understand that usage. What do most people who use the language agree is acceptable standard usage, in other words? How do those people use the language? This is what descriptive grammarians study.

For instance, prescriptive grammarians told us that we could not use double negatives in English. Their argument was derived from logic. Two negatives, they argued, made a positive, so using two negatives was just not reasonable.

This is a rule we’ve adopted. Other languages use double (and triple!) negatives quite readily, as a form of emphasis, as did writers and speakers of English before 1650 – as do many speakers of non-standard English even today.

Prescriptive grammarians are also responsible for us using the plural verb were with the singular you, so that when we say “You were at school yesterday, weren’t you?” even when we’re only talking to one person – which, when you think about it, makes no sense at all.

Why did the grammarians of 1650 invent this rule? Again, it was quite reasonable, from their point of view. You was a plural pronoun. (The singular form of the pronoun was thee/thou.) Therefore it was always incorrect to use a singular verb form with it, no matter how many people you were speak to.

While we’re at it, it’s also the grammarians of the 17th century who taught us that it was incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition. Why? Well, look at that word: pre-position. Obviously, a preposition ought to come before the word it is attached to. I mean, before the word to which it is attached.

That’s one rule most of us have decided to begin ignoring, along with their rule about never splitting infinitives. But double negatives and saying you was when we’re talking about one person – don’t expect those to become standard any time soon. Those are powerful and handy shibboleths. We’re going to hang onto those.

(What’s a shibboleth? That’s a signal, a marker, that lets one group of people decide whether another person belongs to their group or not. If someone says you was, or I seen, or I ain’t never doing that, well, we know right away not to hire that person here at Yale Law. Not all shibboleths are linguistic, but many are.)


Form v. Function: Words have both a form and a function. Take the word dog. In form, it is noun (almost always). In function, it can serve as a subject, or an object, or as an indirect object, or in a few other ways.

Occasionally a word’s form and its function are at odds. Take the word run, for instance. In form, that’s a verb. Yet look at this sentence: I went for a run. In that sentence, the word run, though it still has the form of a verb, is functioning as an object – as a noun.


Morpheme: This is the term for the smallest meaningful unit of language. It can be a complete word; but it’s not always a complete word. So take the word smallest, for instance. That word contains two morphemes – {small} and {est}.

We’ve been using morphemes, and our understanding of morphemes, since we were toddlers. Morphemes indicate to us the grammatical or semantic relationship of the words we use to one another. Thus, in the word smallest, the morpheme {est} tells us that {small} is the most small – it’s the superlative form of the comparative.

Free morphemes are those that can stand alone. So, for instance, in the word smallest, {small} is a free morpheme, since it could stand on its own as an independent word. Bound morphemes, such as –est, don’t stand alone. (This is a very simple explanation of a much more complex subject.)

Derivational v. inflectional morphemes: Derivational morphemes combine with another morpheme to create a new word – {drive} + {er} to make driver, for instance, or {happy} + {ness} to make happiness. These are semantic changes: new words with new meanings are created.

Inflectional morphemes combine with other morphemes to create new grammatical relationships. So, for instance, we combine {dog} plus {‘s} to get dog’s. The meaning of the word hasn’t changed – but now we expect the dog to possess something. The dog has a grammatical relationship to something in his sentence. Similarly, we combine {walk} plus {ed} to get walked – the verb is still the same, but now it has a difference tense. Grammatically, we’ve moved it into the past.

Noun Plural Inflection: The morpheme added to a word to make it plural is known as the noun plural inflection. This is usually {s}, but in some cases it can be other morphemes {en} in children or oxen, {um} in data, datum. And some plurals have a Zero Allomorph, which means they shape their plurals by adding nothing at all – as the plural of sheep is sheep, for instance.

Verb inflections: Some verbs inflect by adding a morpheme, as with walk, walks, walked. But others – like I am, you are, she is – change forms entirely. English has only four remaining verb inflections: one for number (third person present); one for tense (past tense) and two for aspect (perfect and progressive). ß This will be discussed in more detail later.

Infinitive: The uninflected form of the verb. To be, to run, to sail, to eat.


Semantics: The study of meaning. When we discuss semantics in this class, we’ll mean the meaning of the words in the sentence, as opposed to their grammar.

4 comments:

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    2. "…we expect the dog to possess something."
      —Dr De La Gar

      My imputation?
      How that expectation
      Suffered refutation
      In the perverse role-reversed situation
      Of a dog with a distemperate disposition.
      Its meaning? Preceding demons!
      A case of canine poly-possession
      By an internal infernal legion's procession.

      We enlisted an exorcist veterinarian,
      But because he was
      An expensive exhibitionist octogenarian,
      Our attitude evolved
      From pensive,
      To committed contrarian.

      Information about our equivocation
      Reached a riverside convocation
      Of Dr Darien and the riparian Rotarians.
      "By Baphomet's head
      And my honor," he said,
      "Their Rover's a goner—we'll bury him, dead."
      This history grew hairy, then—
      Nearly too hirsute for pen.
      Yet, one dark night
      Some will find
      Themselves astride
      That same insane road again.
      For their souls' sake
      I will partake to explicate
      How God and fate both lie, in wait
      To trick and entrap them.
      So, let the sordid tale begin…

      Delete
  2. That's wonderful. And very punny!

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