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Chapter 1: Introduction

1          Examples of Linguistic Knowledge

                        1.1      Consonants and vowels

                        1.2      Structure, auxiliaries and movement

2          How do we know so much?

3          Examples of Social or Non-Linguistic Knowledge

4          Conclusion


Keys to the Exercises

Further Reading


All of us know a lot about language. Most of the time, however, we are not conscious of this knowledge. When we actually study language, we attempt to find out what we know and how we acquire this linguistic knowledge. In this chapter, a number of instances will be given of what speakers of English intuitively know about the grammar of English, both about its sounds and its structure. The remainder of the book focusses on syntax, i.e. the categories and structures to account for our intuitive knowledge. The chapter also discusses social, i.e. non-linguistic, rules. These are often called prescriptive rules and some of these are dealt with as `special topics' in this book.

1            Examples of Linguistic Knowledge

1.1            Consonants and vowels

If you are a native speaker of English without special needs, you know when to use the article a and when to use an. All of us know how to do this correctly though we might not be able to formulate the rule, which says that the article a occurs before a word that starts with a consonant, as in (1), and an before a word that starts with a vowel, as in (2). If a child is given a nonsense word, as in (3), the child knows what form of the article to use:

1.         a nice person, a treasure

2.         an object, an artist

3.         ovrite, cham

The rule for a(n) does not need to be taught explicitly in schools. It is only mentioned in connection with words that start with h or u. Since teachers are mainly worried about writing, they need to explain that what looks like a vowel in (4) is not in speech and that the a/an rule is based on speech. So, the form we choose depends on how the word is pronounced. In (4) and (6), the u and h are not pronounced as vowels but in (5) and (7), they are:

4.         a union, a university

5.         an uncle

6.         a house, a hospital

7.         an hour

The same rule predicts the pronunciation of the in (8). Pronounce the words in (8) and see if you can state the rule for the use of the:

8.         The man, the table, the object, the hospital...

Examples (1) to (8) show the workings of a phonological (or sound) rule. The assumption is that we possess knowledge of consonants and vowels without having been taught the distinction. In fact, knowledge such as this enables us to learn the sound system of the language.

            Apart from the structure of the sound system, also called phonology, a grammar will have to say something about the structure of words, or morphology. Native speakers are quite creative building words such as kleptocracy, cyberspace, antidisestablishmentarianisms, and even if you have never seen them before, knowing English means that you will know what these words mean based on their parts. This book will not be concerned with sound (phonology) or with the structure of words (morphology); it addresses how sentences are structured, usually called syntax. In the next subsection, some examples are given of the syntactic knowledge native speakers possess.

1.2            Structure, auxiliaries, and movement

Each speaker of English has knowledge about the structure of a sentence. This is obvious from cases of ambiguity where sentences have more than one meaning. This often makes them funny. For instance, the headline in (9) is ambiguous in that `cello case' can mean `court case related to a cello, or someone called Cello', or `a case to protect a cello':

9.         Drunk Gets Ten Months In Cello Case.

In (9), the word `case' is ambiguous (lexical ambiguity). The headlines in (10) to (12) are funny exactly because drops, left, waffles, strikes and idle can be ambiguous:

10.       Eye drops off shelf.

11.       British left waffles on Falkland Islands.

12.       Teacher strikes idle kids.

There are also sentences where the structure is ambiguous, e.g. (13) and the Hi & Lois Cartoon below it:

13.       Speaker A: I just saw someone carrying a monkey and an elephant go into the circus.

            Speaker B: Wow, that someone must be pretty strong.

Cartoon: Structural Ambiguity

The aim of this book is to understand the structure of English sentences; ambiguity is a major part of that, and in chapter 3, more will be said about it.

            Knowing about the structure is relevant in many cases, e.g. to ask a certain type of question, a verb is moved to the front of the sentence, as from (14) to (15):

14.       The man is tall.

15.       Is the man tall?

This rule is quite complex since we can't simply front any verb as (17) and (18), both derived from (16), show. In (17), the first verb of the sentence is fronted and this results in an ungrammatical sentence (indicated by the *); in (18), the second verb is and this is grammatical:

16.       The man who is in the garden is tall.

17.       *Is the man who in the garden is tall?

18.       Is the man who is in the garden tall?

These sentences show that speakers take the structure of a sentence into account when formulating questions (see also chapter 3). We intuitively know that the man who is in the garden is a single unit and that the second verb is the one we need to move in order to make the question. This is not all, however. We also need to know that not all verbs move to form questions, as (19) shows. Only certain verbs, namely auxiliaries (see chapter 6) and the verb to be, as in (15) and (18), are fronted:

19.       *Arrived the bus on time?

            In another kind of question, it is relevant to know what function the questioned word plays in the sentence. Thus, in (20) to (22), who is the object (see chapter 4) of the verb meet. Without ever having been taught, we know that (22) is ungrammatical. With some trouble, we can figure out what (22) means. There is a story that Jane met someone and you believe this story. The speaker in (22) is asking who that someone is. Sentence (22) is ungrammatical because who moves `too far'. It is possible, but not necessary here, to make precise what `too far' means. The examples merely serve to show that speakers are aware of structure without explicit instruction and that who moves to the initial position:

20.       Who did Jane meet?

21.       Who did you believe that Jane met?

22.       *Who did you believe the story that Jane met?

            Thus, native speakers of English know that (a) sentences have a structure, e.g. (16), (b) movement occurs in questions, e.g. (16) and (20), and (c) verbs are divided into (at least) two kinds: verbs that move in questions (or auxiliary verbs) and verbs that don't move (or lexical verbs, as in (19)). More information on these three points will be given in chapters 3, 11, and 6 respectively. The other chapters deal with additional kinds of grammatical knowledge. Chapter 2 is about what we know regarding categories; chapter 4 is about functions such as subject and object; chapter 5 about adverbials; chapter 9 about the structure of a phrase; and chapters 7, 8 and 10 about the structure of more complex sentences.

2          How do we know so much? Beginning of chapter

In section 1, I discussed examples of what we know about language without being explicitly taught. How do we come by this knowledge? One theory that accounts for this is Noam Chomsky's. He argues that we are all born with a language faculty that when "stimulated by appropriate and continuing experience, . . . creates a grammar that creates sentences with formal and semantic properties" (1975: 36). Thus, our innate language faculty (or Universal Grammar) enables us to create a set of rules, or grammar, by being exposed to (generally rather chaotic) language around us. The set of rules that we acquire enables us to produce sentences we have never heard before. These sentences can also be infinitely long (if we had the time and energy). Language acquisition, in this framework, is not imitation but an interplay between Univrsal Grammar (UG) and exposure to a particular language. This need for exposure to a particular language explains why, even though we all start out with the same UG, we acquire slightly different grammars. For instance, if you are exposed to a certain variety of Missouri or Canadian English, you might use (23); if exposed to a particular variety of British English, you might use (24); or, if exposed to a kind of American English, (25) and (26):

23.       I want for to go.

24.       You know as he left.

25.       She don't learn you nothing.

26.       Was you ever bit by a bee?

Thus, "[l]earning is primarily a matter of filling in detail within a structure that is innate" (Chomsky 1975: 39). "A physical organ, say the heart, may vary from one person to the next in size or strength, but its basic structure and its function within human physiology are common to the species. Analogously, two individuals in the same speech community may acquire grammars that differ somewhat in scale and subtlety. . . . [T]he products of the language faculty vary depending on triggering experience, ranging over the class of possible human languages (in principle). These variations in structure are limited, no doubt sharply, by UG" (p. 38).

            Hence, even though Universal Grammar provides us with categories such as nouns and verbs that enable us to build our own grammars, the language we hear around us will determine the particular grammar we build up. A person from the 14th century who growing up has heard multiple negation, as in (27), would have a grammar that allows multiple negation. The same holds for a person from the 15th century who has heard (28). The Modern English equivalent, given in the single quotation marks, shows that we now need `any' instead of another negative:

27.       Chaucer, The Romaunt of the Rose, l. 560-1

            Men neded not in no cuntre

            A fairer body for to seke.

            `People did not need to seek a fairer person in any country'.

28.       The Paston Letters, letter 45 (1452), p. 71

            for if he had he ne nedid not to haue sent no spyes.

            `because if he had, he would not have needed to send any spies'.

Linguists typically say that one grammar is just as `good' as any other. People may judge one variety as `bad' and another as `good', but for most people studying language, (23) through (26) are just interesting, not `incorrect'. This holds for language change as well: the change from (27) and (28) to Modern English is not seen as either `progress' or `decay', but in more neutral terms.

            Society also has rules, which I call social or `non-linguistic', and which we need to take into account to be able to function. These are occasionally at odds with the (non-prescriptive) grammars speakers have in their heads. This is addressed in the next section.

3          Examples of Social or Non-Linguistic Knowledge We know not to make jokes, for instance, when filling out tax forms or speaking with airport security people. We also know not to use words and expression such as all you guys, awesome, I didn't get help from nobody in formal situations such as applying for a job, or giving a presentation as in the cartoon below. We learn when and how to be polite and impolite; formal and informal. The rules for this differ from culture to culture and when we learn a new language, we also need to learn the politeness rules and rules for greetings, requests, etc:

When you are in informal situations (watching TV with a roommate), nobody will object to `prescriptively proscribed' expressions, as in (29). In formal situations (testifying in court), you might use (30) instead:

29.       I didn't mean nothin' by it.

30.       I didn't intend to imply anything with that remark.

The differences between (29) and (30) are on many levels: vocabulary choice, e.g. intend rather than mean, phonology, e.g. nothin, and syntax, namely the double negative in (29). People use the distinction between formal and informal for `effect' as well, as in (31):

31.       You should be better prepared the next time you come to class. Ain't no way I'm gonna take this.

            This book is not about the fight between descriptivism (`what people really say') and prescriptivism (`what some people think people ought to say'). As all writing or speech, it makes a number of stylistic choices, e.g. use of contraction, use of `I', the frequent use of passives, and avoidance of very long sentences. This, however, is irrelevant to the main point which is to provide the vocabulary and analytical skills to examine descriptive as well as prescriptive rules. The field that examines the status of prescriptive rules; regional forms as in (23) to (26); and formal and informal language, as in (31) to (30), is called sociolinguistics. Some of the prescriptive rules are analysed in the special topics sessions at the end of every chapter. The topics covered are adverbs used as adjectives and vice versa, multiple negation, as in (29), case marking (e.g. It is me, between you and me), split infinitives (to boldly go where ...), the use of of rather than have (I should of done that), subject-verb agreement, the preposition like used as a complementizer (like I said ...), dangling modifiers, and the `correct' use of commas.

4          Conclusion

This first chapter has given instances of rules we know without having been taught these rules, and offers an explanation about why we know this much (Universal Grammar `helps' us). Other chapters in the book provide the categories and structures that we must be using to account for this intuitive knowledge. The chapter also provides instances of social or non-linguistic rules. These are often called prescriptive rules and some of these are dealt with as `special topics' at the end of each of the chapters. The key terms in this chapter are: syntax; linguistic as opposed to social or non-linguistic knowledge; descriptivism and prescriptivism; formal as opposed to informal language; innate faculty; and Universal Grammar.


Beginning of chapter

Exercises/class discussion

A.        Can you think of something you would say in an informal situation but not in a formal one?

B.         Discuss in class why prescriptively `correct' constructions are often used in formal situations.

C.        Can you give an instance of innate linguistic knowledge?

D.        Do you think the following sentences are prescriptively correct or not. Why/why not?

32.       It looks good.

33.       Me and my friend went out.

34.       Hopefully, hunger will be eliminated.

35.       There's cookies for everyone.

E.         You may have heard of best-selling `language mavens' such as William Safire or Edwin Newman. Safire is a political commentator who also writes a weekly column in the Sunday New York Times. Titles of his books include Good Advice, I Stand Corrected: More on Language, and Language Maven Strikes Again. Newman, a former NBC correspondent, writes books entitled A Civil Tongue and Strictly Speaking. These lead reviewers to say "Read Newman! Save English before it is fatally slain" (from the backcover).


            Discuss where you think these gurus or mavens get their authority. What might they base their authority on?

G.        Explain the ambiguity in (36) and (37):

36.       light house keeper.

37.       old dogs and cats.

Keys to some of the Exercises

C.        Consonants and vowels: all languages have them and we use them in building our linguistic rules.

D.        - (32) is ok since good is an adjective giving more information about the pronoun it (see chapter 2 and special topic)

            - (33) is not since the subject should get nominative case (see chapter 4 and special topic)

            - (34) is not since hopefully is not supposed to be used as a sentence adverb (see chapter 5 and special topic of chapter 2)

            - (35) is not since the verb is singular (is) and the subject is plural (cookies). This violates subject-verb agreement (see chapter 4).

Further Reading (optional)

For more information on sociolinguistics, see e.g. Wardhaugh (1992); for more on prescriptivism, see e.g. Finnegan (1980); Quinn (1980); Crystal (1987, chapter 1). Fowler (1926, and also http://www.bartleby.com/116/index.html) contains many prescriptive rules, and so does Strunk (see http://www.bartleby.com/141/index.html). A site that has special uses: http://pebbles.eps.mcgill.ca/jargon/jargon.html. Additional information on Universal Grammar and innate ideas can be found e.g. in Chomsky (1975; 1995). For more on language change, see Aitchison (1985), and on the use of `right words', see Wells (1973); Baugh & Cable (1993, chapters 8 and 9). If you'd like to know more on Linguistics in general, see Crystal (1987), O'Grady et al. (1987), or click here.

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