REAL WORLD LINGUISTICS 101
by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
So far in this course we've focused primarily on phonology the sound
system of language. In this lesson we're going to shift briefly to syntax,
the part of language traditionally called "grammar." Before we do that,
however, I have an urgent query to deal with.
Several people have sent me messages saying something like this: "Chomsky
says languages don't have any rules, so why do you keep talking about
them?" The source for their queries was Noam Chomsky's latest book, New
Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. On page 7 of which he says
theoretical questions suggest that we should...
challenge the traditional assumption, carried over to early
generative grammar, that a language is a complex system of rules, each
specific to particular languages and particular grammatical constructions:
rules for forming relative clauses in Hindi, verb phrases in Swahili,
passives in Japanese, and so on.
Out of context, this quotation would lead you to believe that learning
about "rules" is a waste of your time. Let's consider it in context
instead. Chomsky has proposed that there is a core of grammar which is part
of the mental equipment of every human infant, composed of principles and
parameters. He claims that what makes human languages different is the
different ways they set the switches for those principles and parameters:
Every Terran language has Switch X, but in some languages Switch X is set
for "On" while in others it's set for "Off." He says that if we had the
necessary information about all those settings we could look at a given
arrangement of switches and know immediately that it was English or Chinese
or whatever which would perhaps make grammar rules irrelevant. However,
we don't have that information. Not yet. Until we do, rules continue to
be what we have to work with.
[You can read more about this in the Chomsky book, or in the "Language and
the Brain" chapter of a book of mine called The Language Imperative. My
book is easier to read; Chomsky's book is much more scholarly and
technical, but not impossibly so; I strongly recommend it.]
It's impossible to understand how linguists go about analyzing and
describing languages unless you understand the concept of language rules.
It may be possible to do linguistics without rules; I don't know about
that, and am not prepared to argue with Noam Chomsky in public. However,
I'm sure it's not possible to learn linguistics without rules.
Moving right along....
To investigate some phenomenon in a language, you'll remember, you gather
data examples of the phenomenon look for patterns in the data,
propose hypotheses to account for the patterns, test the hypotheses, and
repeat until you've gone as far as you can go. We've been looking at
phenomena from the English sound system; now I'd like you to look at a set
of data from English syntax. Items with an asterisk [*] at the beginning
aren't acceptable to native speakers of English.
1a. Every morning, I go feed the dragon.
1b. Every morning, we go feed the dragon.
1c. Every morning, they go feed the dragon.
1d. Every morning, Tracy and Haj go feed the dragon.
1e. *Every morning, he goes feed the dragon.
1f. *Every morning, she goes feed the dragon.
1g. *Every morning, it goes feed the dragon.
1h. *Every morning, Tracy goes feed the dragon.
If you look at these data carefully, the solution looks obvious. "Go feed"
is okay with first person singular and plural ("I" and "we"), with second
person singular and plural ("you"), and with third person plural ("they,"
"Tracy and Haj"). "Go feed" is not okay when the subject is third person
singular ("he," "she," "it," "Tracy"). This would lead us to propose the
hypothesis that English has a rule like the following:
Rule 1. The sequence "go + VERB" is not allowed with a third
person singular subject.
Now we need to test the hypothesis. We could check to see if the same thing
happens in all "go + VERB" sequences, not just "go" followed by the verb
"feed." We'd find that it does, which gets us no farther; we need to try
checking something else. For example, what happens if we use "go + VERB" in
questions? Look at the next set of data, please.
2a. When do I/you/we/they/Tracy and Haj go feed the dragon?
2b. When does he/she/it/Tracy go feed the dragon?
And look at these data.....
3a. Can I/you/we/they/Tracy and Haj go feed the dragon?
3b. Can he/she/it/Tracy go feed the dragon?
Notice that 2b and 3b have third person singular subjects, but they're
acceptable. Does that mean we should rewrite Rule 1 by adding "except in
questions" at the end? Maybe. That would be a refinement of our hypothesis.
But before we decide to do that, there are other kinds of data we haven't
looked at. For example, what happens when you use "go + VERB" with the past
tense? As in examples like these....
4a. *I/you/we/they/Tracy and Haj went feed the dragon
4b. *He/she/it/Tracy went feed the dragon yesterday.
4c. Did I/you/we/they/Tracy and Haj go feed the dragon
4d. Did he/she/it/Tracy go feed the dragon yesterday?
Clearly, Rule 1 can't be right. We could just add more stuff to it, of
course. We could try rewriting it to say, "The sequence 'go + VERB' is not
allowed with a third person singular subject except in questions, and is
not allowed at all in the past tense except in questions." However,
science likes economy. The fancier and more complicated a rule gets, the
less likely it is to be valid. Linguists know from centuries of experience
that a rule like our rewritten one is beginning to have a suspicious smell;
they would want to look at many other sets of "go + VERB" examples before
If we were in a classroom, I'd be standing at the blackboard and you would
be coming up with those examples so that I could write them on the board
for examination. We'd try "go + VERB" with future tense ("We/he will go
feed the dragon shortly"), we'd try it with commands ("Go feed the dragon
this minute!")....and eventually one of you would suggest trying this:
5a. *Now I'm going feed the dragon.
5b. *Now we're/you're/they're going feed the dragon.
5c. *Now Tracy and Haj are going feed the dragon.
5d. *Now he's/she's/it's/Tracy's going feed the dragon.
5e. *Now he is/she is/it is/Tracy is going feed the
All right? We could tinker with that a little, and we'd find that the same
thing happens with "was/were going" and "will be/would be/should be/could
be/must be going," and so on. And we'd find that if we construct similar
examples in question form like "*Is he going feed the dragon now?" --
they'd all be unacceptable. Now our rule would have to be rewritten like
Rule 1, Revised: The sequence "go + VERB" is not allowed with
a third person singular subject, (except in questions), and is not allowed
with past tense (except in questions), and is not allowed at all with
["Aspect" has to do with whether the act or state specified by
the verb is finished or not. When you say "I'm feeding the dragon," you
haven't finished doing that yet; that's called progressive aspect.
Politely ignore people who tell you that "progressive" is a tense,
At this point, the smell of our rule is hopelessly fishy. You would suspect
that the more data we looked at, the more different kinds of "go + VERB"
patterns we looked at, the more "exceptions" we'd have to add to our
hypothetical rule and you'd be right. You'll remember that linguists
consider even one exception to be evidence of failure. Either linguistics
is not a science, or we're missing something.
If you want to work out the solution now for yourself, don't read any
farther; you can come back and check your solution against mine later.
This space intentionally left blank.
Suppose we look at all the data we've already examined, with an open mind,
instead of digging this same dry well deeper and deeper. We want to know
what all the unacceptable sentences have in common that makes them
different from all the acceptable ones. Eventually, it will occur to us
that in all the unacceptable sentences but none of the acceptable
ones "go" has an ending. A suffix. Sometimes it's "-es" as in "*Haj
goes feed the dragon every morning"; sometimes it's "-ing," as in "*I'm
going feed the dragon right away." Sometimes it's "-ed," as in "*Yesterday
we went feed the dragon"; the way we spell "go+ed" in English is "went,"
and the two things are equivalent. This tells us that all those factors
we've been considering were red herrings, and that we need to propose an
entirely new hypothesis for the English "go + VERB" construction, like
Rule 2: No ending may be added to "go" in a "go + VERB"
There! We'd still have to test this rule, and I encourage you to do so;
it's still a hypothesis. However, we can say that it handles all of the
data we've looked at so far, without the string of exceptions that we had
to tack on to make Rule 1 work. It could be written in a different way,
yes. It could even be wrong, although that would surprise me. But it's
unquestionably a far better hypothesis.
There. As always, I'd welcome your comments, suggestions, criticisms,
questions, and other input, with a note if you prefer to stay anonymous.
e-mail me directly at OCLS@madisoncounty.net. Final note: To see
vast quantities of interesting and useful material about linguistics and
languages plus an Ask-A-Linguist page where you can e-mail questions and
have them answered by a panel of linguists, go to The Linguist List.
Suzette Haden Elgin
Copyright © 2001 by Suzette Haden Elgin