REAL WORLD LINGUISTICS 101
by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
It Depends on What the Meaning of "Rule" Is....
I want to begin this lesson with two quotations. The first, by Peter
Norquest, is from a 6/16/01 review of April McMahon's book, Change, Chance
and Optimality, on Linguist List; Optimality
Theory (OT) is one of the currently fashionable theoretical models in
linguistics. Norquest writes:
"OT stands in sharp contrast with rule-based theories due to
the fact that it does away with rules altogether and relies solely on a
single formal object, that of constraints."
The second quotation comes from "Optimality: From Neural Networks to
Universal Grammar," by Alan Prince and Paul Smolensky, pp. 1604-1610,
Science for 3/14/97, on page 1604:
"In an English sentence like it rains, a constraint requiring
all words to contribute to meaning (unlike the elment it in this usage),
conflicts with a structural constraint requiring all sentences to have
subjects; and the latter controls the outcome."
Our Real World Linguistics rule says that when the deep structure of an
English sentence has no subject nominal in it you have to insert a
meaningless "it" to fill that gap. OT says that English has a constraint
barring all sentences that have no subject nominal. This grammatical fact
about English can be written as either a constraint or a rule. When you
write it as a rule you don't have to include that constraint; when you
write it as a constraint you don't have to include that rule. To say "When
you send a child out into the rain, put a raincoat on the child" is a rule;
to say "No child is allowed out in the rain without a raincoat" is a
constraint; the effect on the child in the real world is identical.
It's certainly possible to take the position that a rule actively does
something, while a constraint passively sees to it that something isn't
done. The constraint approach is considered more elegant. But I see no Real
World justification for claiming that either rules or constraints don't
exist, especially in an introductory course, and I plan to go on using both
The Grammatical Processes of Terran, Continued:
We've now looked at some English insertion rules and deletion rules; in
this lesson we're going to consider some substitution rules. Linguists
indicate that two or more items refer to the same entity (that is, that
they are coreferential) by putting a tiny subscript "i" at the end of
each one. Since I can't do that conveniently in this format, I'm going to
use a different notation: Two or more items that are coreferential will
both be in boldface type in my examples. For instance....
1a. #when the captain announced our destination, the Venusian
delegate was shaving the Venusian delegate#
1b."When the captain announced our destination, the Venusian
delegate was shaving himself."
This is the reflexive substitution rule in action; it notices that both
instances of "the Venusian delegate" in example 1a are in boldface type,
which means that they refer to the same individual; it notices that one
Venusian delegate is the subject and the other Venusian delegate is the
Object of "was shaving"; and it therefore substitutes "himself" for the
second one, giving us 1b. If the two hadn't been in boldface type, that
would have meant that there were two Venusian delegates, one of whom was
shaving the other one, and the rule wouldn't apply.
2a. #when the officers announced our destination, the
Venusian delegates were shaving the officers#
2b. "When the officers announced our destination, the Venusian
delegates were shaving them."
This is the plain vanilla pronominalization rule we all learned (sort of)
in grade school. [You'll probably remember a grammar incantation along the
lines of "a pronoun is a word that replaces the noun which is its
antecedent and agrees with it in both number and gender."] The rule notices
that there are two instances of "the officers" and that they refer to the
same persons; it substitutes the pronoun "them" for the second one. (You
could propose that an ET language always substitutes a pronoun for the
first of a coreferential pair instead of the second, and that might say
something about the brain of the ET speakers of that language -- but it
would still be only a substitution rule.)
I Can't Find The Small Blue Squishy It!
That grammar incantation back there ("a pronoun is a word" etc.), as it's
all too often taught to kids, doesn't work. Suppose we start with example
3a. #I've been looking for the small blue squishy creature,
but I can't find the small blue squishy creature#
Apply the grammar incantation, using a pronoun to replace "the noun that is
its antecedent," and you'll get the following sentence, which speakers of
English will reject as unacceptable (indicated by the asterisk at the
beginning of the sentence):
3b. *"I've been looking for the small blue squishy creature,
but I can't find the small blue squishy it."
It would be nice if all youngsters were taught that pronouns replace the
whole noun phrase -- that is, the noun plus all the items that go with
it -- instead of just the noun. If they were, the rule would work and the
result would be this:
3c. "I've been looking for the small blue squishy creature, but
I can't find it."
[Note: We need a note here about terms, to avoid confusion.
that I use both "noun phrase" and "nominal." A noun phrase of English can
include various modifying items -- for example, "a" or "the" or "this,"
adjectives like "blue" and "squishy," whole embedded sentences such as "who
is known to have seen a dragon" in "the woman who is known to have seen a
dragon." A nominal is a noun phrase plus its case marker. I'd rather not
worry you with all that right now, but I know that if I don't mention it
I'll get grumpy e-mails. Feel free to let your mental grammar -- which
always knows which items belong together as one grammatical chunk -- take
care of it.]
Theoretically, substitution rules can only be used when the two or more
items involved are exactly the same item, but Terrans (at least,
English-speaking Terrans) are flexible about these things; often, they'll
accept what's called "fuzzy" coreference. For example:
4a. #after the firelizard's tail was cut off, the
firelizard's tail grew back#
4b. "After the firelizard's tail was cut off, it grew
That's fuzzy. Suppose it's true that you can cut off a firelizard's tail
and know that the firelizard will grow another one; the new tail is not the
same tail that you cut off. But the Terran mind says, "Heck, that's close
enough," and applies the rule, and nobody refuses to accept sentences like
4b on standardized tests. Stretch the fuzz just a little farther, however,
and you'll lose points. For example:
5. "Norm is an orphan, and he misses both of them."
Speakers of English are fully capable of understanding that sentence. They
understand that "them" is being substituted for "his parents"; in a
conversation, they'd let the whole thing go by. But they won't accept the
sentence on a test.
Enough for now; next time, we'll do movement rules.
I've said that the Terran brain -- even when it's the brain of a science
fiction writer -- can't come up with any grammatical processes other than
these four that we're considering at the moment: deletion, insertion,
substitution, movement. I've suggested that anyone who can come up with
additional grammatical processes has to be an ET. A number of you have
responded with "Oh, yeah? Just give me a little time!" That's wonderful;
I'm looking forward to getting your proposals for a fifth grammatical
process... and a sixth.... and a seventh. Please do send them; we'll
As always, I'd welcome your comments, suggestions, criticisms, questions,
and other input, with a note telling me if you prefer to stay anonymous;
e-mail me directly at OCLS@madisoncounty.net. I'd also be grateful if you
would spread the word that the course exists, so that this discussion we're
having can include more people; please tell your friends and your
listmates. Thank you for your help.
Suzette Haden Elgin
Copyright © 2001 by Suzette Haden Elgin