REAL WORLD LINGUISTICS 101
by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
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
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
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
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
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#
...no 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
8b. #is obvious that concern for the comfort of the beginning
student is not a major concern of many authors of linguistics
8c. "It's obvious that concern for the comfort of the beginning
student is not a major concern of many authors of linguistics
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 OCLS@madisoncounty.net.
Suzette Haden Elgin
Copyright © 2001 by Suzette Haden Elgin