by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
(linguistics; UCSD)



We've been looking at the four grammatical processes of Terran languages; we've considered deletion rules, insertion rules, and substitution rules. In this brief lesson we'll wind up our overview by considering movement rules, the last of the four.

I need to clarify one item before we begin, however. A number of you have written to ask me why, when I talk about the "direct object" I write it as "Object," but when I talk about subjects I just write "subject." I do that because "Object" is an actual case category, a role that nominals play in sentences with respect to predicates. Although Object is a fuzzy case category, it's one of the set, and there are reliable ways to identify it. On the other hand, "subject" is not a case category. "Subject" is what's left in a sentence after you remove the predicate, but it has no case role of its own. There are several different case categories that can be used as subjects of sentences, and I'll give you one example of each here for clarity's sake.( If clarity isn't achieved, please let me know and I'll try again.)

1. ACTOR. The nominal that does whatever gets done in the sentence, as in "The Klingons frowned fiercely," and "The Klingons crushed the beer cans," where "the Klingons" fill the Actor role.
2. EXPERIENCER. The nominal that experiences whatever is experienced in the sentence, as in "The Terrans were horrified," where "the Terrans" fill the Experiencer role.
3. IDENTIFIER. The nominal that identifies the nominal linked to it by some form of "be," as in "Tracy is a linguist," where "a linguist" identifies Tracy for us.
4. LOCATION. The nominal that tells us where in spacetime another nominal can be found. In "Captain Kirk is on the bridge," "on the bridge" fills the Location role, in space. In "The convention is in May," "in May" fills the Location role, in time.

The Grammatical Processes of Terran, Continued: Movement Rules

Movement rules are of two kinds. There are obligatory rules, which have to apply whether you like it or not, and there are optional (also called "stylistic") movement rules. Let's look at some examples of each.

Optional Movement Rules

1a. #we flew from Mars to Jupiter on Thursday#
1b. "On Thursday we flew from Mars to Jupiter."
2a. #we missed the art auction because we were exhausted#
2b. "Because we were exhausted, we missed the art auction."
3a. #I like lobster but I can't stand crab#
3b. "Lobster I like, but I can't stand crab."
3c. "Lobster I like, but crab I can't stand."

In all of these examples, the decision to move some nominal to a position other than its most basic position is a matter of style. To say that that makes the decision optional is a lot like saying that an event is random, however; the decision is almost optional, but it often happens for good and valid reasons. A writer will tell you that in the context of a certain paragraph, "On Thursday we flew from Mars to Jupiter" sounds better, and will be correct in that judgment. However, if the writer did not apply the movement rule, the result -- "We flew from Mars to Jupiter on Thursday" -- wouldn't be ungrammatical or unacceptable. In that sense, the rule is optional.

People will get into arguments about whether an item moved optionally has to have a comma after it or not. Some people (and some standard tests) will insist that it has to be "On Thursday, we flew from Mars to Jupiter"; other people will claim that there should be no comma after "On Thursday"; still others will say that it's okay either way. In my own native dialect, Ozark English, both "On Thursday we flew" and "On Thursday, we flew" are acceptable, but they don't mean exactly the same thing. The one with a comma is part of a story being told, and the one without a comma is not. I have no idea what speakers of so-called "Standard" English use as their rule for comma usage in such cases. The only pattern I've ever been able to observe is the one called "Because that's the way we do it here, that's why."

Obligatory Movement Rules

4a. #Q we will survive this science fiction convention#
4b. "Will we survive this science fiction convention?"
5a. #Q linguistics can be learned by any interested person#
5b. "Can linguistics be learned by any interested person?"

That "Q" in the examples stands for the speech act we call "Question"; it stands for, "I ask you..." If the Q weren't there, as in.....

6a. #we will survive this science fiction convention# movement rule would apply, and the result would be example 6b:

6b. "We will survive this science fiction convention."

The rule for making an English yes/no question says you have to take the first auxiliary in the sentence ("will, can, may, might, must, do, should," etc.) and move it into a position immediately to the left of the surface subject; thus, "#Q we will#" becomes "Will we?"

It's true that there's an alternative way to ask these questions, using a particular tune instead of moving things, as in 7a and 7b.

7a. "We will survive this science fiction convention???"
7b. "Linguistics can be learned by any interested person???"

Those questions wouldn't be ungrammatical, strictly speaking. However, anybody who tried to use only yes/no questions of that kind would immediately be recognized as not a native or fluent speaker of English. Often this kind of question, whether grammatical or not, is totally unacceptable. For instance...

Hesitant suitor: "I may kiss you?"
Willing maiden: "Yes. Oh, yes!"
Hesitant suitor: "I may put my arm around you?"
Willing maiden: "Of course!"
Hesitant suitor: "I may stroke your hair?"
Formerly-willing maiden: "Are you deliberately being ridiculous or does it come naturally?"

The factors that make "I may stroke your hair?" unacceptable in the example dialogue are called "pragmatic," and they are where the theoretical rubber meets the practical road. Writing pragmatics rules or constraints is horrendously difficult; we won't try it here. A person who knows and understands the pragmatics of a language knows how to use the language in a way that keeps everything moving smoothly; that is, he or she knows how it's acceptable to behave in the culture that uses the language. As all of you will be aware, there are people who reach a great age without ever having mastered much of the pragmatics of Mainstream American English.

Now, let's look at one last example; this one involves two rules.

8a. #that concern for the comfort of the beginning student is not a major concern of many authors of linguistics courses is obvious#
8b. #is obvious that concern for the comfort of the beginning student is not a major concern of many authors of linguistics courses#
8c. "It's obvious that concern for the comfort of the beginning student is not a major concern of many authors of linguistics courses."

You see what happened? The speaker decided to move "that concern for the comfort...etc." to the end of the sentence. That re-ordering left the surface subject position empty, and an insertion rule filled the empty position with "it," as always.

The insertion of "it" was obligatory; sentences like "is obvious" are ungrammatical in English. But the decision to move "that concern for the comfort...." was optional, right?

Theoretically, yes; pragmatically, no. Your working memory (also called short term memory), which is the part of your memory you use to remember a telephone number long enough to dial it, has a limited capacity. George Miller long ago explained to us that it can only hang on to seven -- plus or minus two -- items at once. "That concern for the comfort of the beginning student is not a major concern of most authors of linguistics courses," the subject of this sentence, is twenty words long, so far beyond the working memory's limit that hanging on to it until you get to the predicate ("is obvious") is difficult. The predicate is the first thing the brain looks for when trying to understand an English sentence; when you move those twenty words after "It's obvious that...," the end result is much easier to process. In that sense, the movement rule is only almost optional. One of the primary constraints of English pragmatics is "Always coddle your reader or listener's working memory."

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

— Suzette Haden Elgin

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