Language, Grammar and Linguistic Theory
This Post attempts to describe some of the basic grammatical characteristics of the English language in a way accessible to most students of English. For this reason we start at the beginning and take as little as possible for granted. Definitions are given for grammatical concepts when they are first used and there is a glossary at the back of the post to remind the reader of these as he or she works through it. At the end of each
chapter there are an extensive set of exercises which the student is encouraged to consider and work through either in class or alone. For those students working alone, we have also provided model answers for the exercises. These are for the student to check their understanding of the material supported by the exercises and to offer observations that the student may have missed.
The uninitiated student might be surprised to find that there are many ways to describe language, not all compatible with each other. In this post we make use of a particular system of grammatical description based mainly on Government and Binding theory, though it is not our aim to teach this theory and we will very rarely refer to it directly. We use the theory to offer a description of English, rather than using English to demonstrate the theory. We will spend a short amount of time at the beginning of the post to state our reasons for choosing this theory, as opposed to any other, to base our descriptions.
Whatever else language might be (e.g. a method of communicating, something to aid thought, a form of entertainment or of aesthetic appreciation) it is first and foremost a system that enables people who speak it to produce and understand linguistic expressions. The nature of this system is what linguistics aims to discover. But where do we look for this system? It is a common sense point of view that language exists in people’s heads. After all, we talk of knowing and learning languages. This also happens to be the belief of the kind of linguistics that this book aims to introduce: in a nutshell, the linguistic system that enables us to ‘speak’ and ‘understand’ a language is a body of knowledge which all speakers of a particular language have come to acquire.
If this is true, then our means for investigating language are fairly limited – we cannot, for instance, subject it to direct investigation, as delving around in someone’s brain is not only an ethical minefield, but unlikely to tell us very much given our current level of understanding of how the mind is instantiated in the brain. We are left, therefore, with only indirect ways of investigating language. Usually this works in the following way: we study what the linguistic system produces (grammatical sentences which have certain meanings) and we try to guess what it is that must be going on in the speaker’s head to enable them to do this. As you can imagine, this is not always easy and there is a lot of room for differences of opinion. Some of us might tell you that that is exactly what makes linguistics interesting.
So, presumably, what we have in our heads is a (finite) set of rules which tell us how to recognise the infinite number of expressions that constitute the language that we speak. We might refer to this set of rules as a grammar, though there are somenlinguists who would like to separate the actual set of rules existing inside a speaker’s head from the linguist’s guess of what these rules are. To these linguists a grammar is a linguistic hypothesis (to use a more impressive term than ‘guess’) and what is inside the speaker’s head IS language, i.e. the object of study for linguistics. We can
distinguish two notions of language from this perspective: the language which is internal to the mind, call it I-language, which consists of a finite system and is what linguists try to model with grammars; and the language which is external to the speaker, E-language, which is the infinite set of expressions defined by the I-language that linguists take data from when formulating their grammars. We can envisage this as the following:
So, a linguist goes out among st language speakers and listens to what they produce and perhaps tests what they can understand and formulates a grammar based on these observations.
It is the way of the universe that no truths are given before we start our investigations of it. But until we have some way of separating what is relevant to our investigations from what is irrelevant there is no way to proceed: do we need to test the acidity of soil before investigating language? It seems highly unlikely that we should, but if we know nothing from the outset, how can we decide? It is necessary therefore, before we even begin our investigations, to make some assumptions about what we are going to study. Usually, these assumptions are based on common sense, like those I have been making so far. But it is important to realise that they are untested assumptions which may prove to be wrong once our investigations get under way. These assumptions, plus anything we add to them as we start finding out about the world, we call a theory.
Linguistic theories are no different from any other theory in this respect. All linguists base themselves on one theory or another. One group of linguists, known as generativists, claim that in order to do things properly we need to make our theoriesnexplicit. This can be seen as a reaction to a more traditional approach to linguistics which typically claims to operate atheoretically, but, in fact, makes many implicit assumptions about language which are themselves never open to investigation or challenge. Generative linguists point out that progress is unlikely to be made like this, as if these assumptions turn out to be wrong we will never find out, as they are never questioned. In order to find out if our assumptions are correct, they need to be constantly questioned and the only way to do this is to make them explicit.
Because of this, it is my opinion that the generative perspective is the one that is most likely to provide the best framework for a description of language. We will therefore adopt this perspective and so certain aspects of the theory will form part of the content of the book, but only in so far as they help to achieve the main goal of explaining why English is as it is. In true generative style, I will take the rest of this chapter to try to make explicit some of the basic assumptions that we will be making in the rest of the book.
Grammatical units • 2
The grammatical units of English are these: word, phrase, clause and sentence.
Word classes • 3
The main word classes are these: verb, noun, adjective, adverb, preposition, determiner, pronoun and conjunction.
Phrases • 4
There are these kinds of phrase: verb phrase, noun phrase, adjective phrase, adverb phrase and prepositional phrase.
Sentence elements • 5
The sentence elements are these: subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial.
English compared with other languages • 6
English words do nor have a lot of different endings for number and gender. Word order is very important in English. The verb phrase can have a complex structure. There are many idioms with prepositions.
Phrases and clauses
We use phrases to build a clause. Here is an example.
Subject Verb Complement
(noun phrase) (verb phrase) (noun phrase)
Our flight time will be approximately forty-five minutes.
Here the noun phrase our flight time is the subject of the clause. A clause has a subject and a verb. There can be other phrases, too. In this next example we use a prepositional phrase as an adverbial.
A sentence can be a single clause.
On behalf of British Island Airways, Captain Massey and his crew welcome you on board the Start Herald flight to Southampton. A written sentence begins with a capital letter (On) and ends with a mark such as a full stop. We can also combine two or more clauses in one sentence. For example, we can use and to link the clauses.
Our flight time will be approximately forty-five minutes, and we shall be climbing to an altitude of eight thousand feet and cruising at a speed of two hundred and fifty miles an hour.
There are different classes of word, sometimes called ‘parts of speech’. The word come is a verb, letter is a noun and great is an adjective.
Some words belong to more than one word class. For example, test can be a noun or a verb.
He passed the test. (noun)
He had to test the machine. (verb)
There are eight main word classes in English.
Verb: climb, eat, welcome, be
Noun: aircraft, country, lady, hour
Adjective: good, British, cold, quick
Adverb: quickly, always, approximately
Preposition: to, of, at, on
Determiner: the, his, some, forty-five
Pronoun: we, you, them, myself
Conjunction: and, but, so
1 Verb phrase: come, had thought, was left, will be climbing A verb phrase has an ordinary verb (come, thought, left, climbing) and may also
have an auxiliary (had, was, will).
2 Noun phrase: a good flight, his crew, we A noun phrase has a noun (flight), which usually has a determiner (a) and/or adjective (good) in front of it. A noun phrase can also be a pronoun (we).
3 Adjective phrase: pleasant, very late An adjective phrase has an adjective, sometimes with an adverb of degree (very).
4 Adverb phrase: quickly, almost certainly An adverb phrase has an adverb, sometimes with an adverb of degree (almost).
5 Prepositional phrase: after lunch, on the aircraft
A prepositional phrase is a preposition + noun phrase.
Each phrase plays a part in the clause or sentence. Here are some examples.
Subject Verb Adverbial
The flight is leaving shortly.
Subject Verb Complement
The weather is very good.
My father was a pilot.
Subject Verb Object
I was reading a newspaper.
Two stewards served lunch.
Subject Verb Object Adverbial
The aircraft left London at three o’clock.
We must book the tickets next week.
English compared with other languages
Unlike words in some other languages, English words do not have a lot of different endings. Nouns take s in the plural (miles), but they do not have endings to show whether they are subject or object.
Verbs take a few endings such as ed for the past (started), but they do not take endings for person, except in the third person singular of the present tense (it starts).
A verb phrase can have a complex structure. There can be auxiliary verbs as well as the ordinary verb.
I climbed up the ladder.
I was climbing the mountain.
We shall be climbing to an altitude of eight thousand feet.
The use of tenses and auxiliary verbs can be difficult for speakers of other languages.
The use of prepositions in English can be a problem.
We flew here on Friday. We left at two o’clock.
Both prepositions and adverbs combine with verbs in an idiomatic way.
They were waiting for the flight. The plane took off.
There are many expressions involving prepositions that you need to learn as items of vocabulary.