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5.11: Grammaticality

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    Grammaticality, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    The last thing to talk about with respect to syntax or structure is grammaticality. This is to be a fascinating area, I find, because it really underlies this element of language that no one piece stands alone. We have already talked about how morphology and syntax will blend, and we have talked about how morphology and phonology blend. Grammaticality is how syntax and semantics blend, and that's an important aspect with respect to linguistics, especially given what Noam Chomsky has said in the past.

    Let me explain. When Noam Chomsky first came up with what we now call to formative syntax or generative theory, there's a few names for it. When he first came up with that, his initial goal was to show that syntax and semantics are completely different things. In doing that, he established what grammaticality is. Grammaticality focuses on only the syntax and not the semantics. Grammaticality is how we know a sentence to work with respect to structure. Going back to that construction metaphor, if something is grammatical, then the beams are straight and true, everything is plumb, and the structure will stand. It doesn't tell you anything about the colors being used or the shape of the little spout that's coming off of some random wall. It is only talking about the internal structure: the studs, the roof, you get the point.

    Chomsky’s example sentence was this: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Now, when I say that sentence, you probably have a massive question mark on your face, and rightly so, because that sentence does not make sense. But it is a grammatical sentence, and that was Chomsky's point: that grammaticality is different than meaning. Meaning is a different aspect; certainly, there's nothing about that statement that makes sense semantically.

    · If something is colorless it can't be green, that's just an oxymoron.

    · Ideas can't have color anyway; they're abstract, they're not concrete.

    · Ideas also cannot sleep; it's just impossible.

    · Even if they could, they cannot sleep furiously, because it is impossible to sleep furiously. Furiously would imply emotion, where sleep is usually devoid of it.

    So, it does not make sense semantically. But it does grammatically. It follows the phrase structure rules perfectly. Not only that, this is what helps to explain, in some ways, why we can get various combinations but they don't make sense. They make sense structurally, but they don't necessarily make sense semantically.

    All of you have had experience learning a second language in some way, shape or form. One of the frustrating pieces of learning a new language is learning how the structure and the meaning combine. When we start to learn grammaticality, it starts to make some sense. But until we're fluent, we will always produce sentences that maybe resemble a little bit of our colorless green ideas asleep furiously, in that they make sense structurally, you just wouldn't put those concepts together.

    So then, what makes a sentence ungrammatical? It means that you have not followed the phrase structure rules. We always mark that in syntax with an asterisk. So, for example, those same words, the same lexicon, if I mess up the order and say Furious sleep ideas green colorless. That isn't ungrammatical sentence. How do we know? It breaks a whole bunch of phrase structure rules.

    · The first one is that it has the verb phrase before the subject noun phrase; that's not going to work in English.

    · There is an adverb out of place, although we have talked before about where that could happen so that one maybe is a little questionable, but certainly.

    · It has the adjective after the noun not before it, which in English is not possible.

    Grammaticality helps us in a number of ways, specifically with respect to understanding how the brain processes language. We're going to come back to that towards the end of the course. Suffice it to say that it helps us to understand the subconscious knowledge of a native speaker. You can add to that somebody who becomes a near-native speaker, somebody who has learned a language with such fluency that they may not say everything 100% perfectly, but they're very close. It tells us that this structure is part universal grammar and part acquisition. As children or adults, when we learn a language, we are creating these phrase structure rules, as it were. This is not a conscious thought; this is subconscious. We start kind of puzzling things together. But there has to be some sort of blueprint, if you were, to kind of explain what's going on.

    With that, we will leave the world of syntax, and the next chapter enter the world of semantics, pragmatics, meaning.

    6.1: Syntactic knowledge and grammaticality judgements

    What kind of knowledge do we have about the syntax of language? Let’s start by considering the sentence in (1):

    (1)   All grypnos are tichek.

    You might not know what a grypno is, or what it means to be tichek (because these are made-up words!), but you can tell that this sentence is still the right kind of “shape” for English. In other words, (1) is consistent with the way English speakers put words together into sentences.

    Compare this with the sentence in (2):

    (2)   *Grypnos tichek all are.

    Unlike (1), (2) isn’t the right shape for a sentence in English. Even if you did know what a grypno was, or what it meant to be tichek, this still wouldn’t be the way to put those words together into a sentence in English.

    Something we can be pretty confident about is that you’ve never heard or read either of these sentences before encountering them in this chapter. In fact, most of the sentences you encounter in this textbook are likely to be ones you haven’t heard or read in exactly that order before. So that means that your internal grammar of English must be able to generalize to new cases—this is the generativity of language, something introduced back in Chapter 1.2.

    As someone who uses language—in the case of (1) and (2), as someone who speaks and reads English—you can identify sentences that do or do not fit the patterns required by your internal grammar. In syntax we describe sentences that do match those patterns as grammatical for a given language user, and sentences that do not match required patterns as ungrammatical.

    Grammaticality judgements in syntax

    In syntax when we say something is ungrammatical we don’t mean that it’s “bad grammar” in the sense that it doesn’t follow the type of grammatical rules you might have learned in school. Instead, we call things ungrammatical when they are inconsistent with the grammatical system of language user.

    The evaluation of a sentence by a language user is called a grammaticality judgement. Grammaticality judgements as a tool for investigating the linguistic system of an individual language user—there is no way to get a grammaticality judgement for “English” as a whole, for example, only grammaticality judgements from individual English speakers. Sometimes you will see a sentence described as grammatical or ungrammatical “in English” or another language; technically this is a shorthand for saying that users of the language generally agree about whether it is grammatical or not. In many cases different users of a language disagree about the status of a particular example, and this tells us something about syntactic variation in that language!

    We are often most interested in examples that are ungrammatical, because they tell us about the limits on building sentences in a language. The convention in linguistics is to mark ungrammatical examples with an asterisk (*) at the beginning of the sentence, sometimes called a star (slightly easier to say). Whenever you see that symbol in front of an example in this chapter, it indicates that the example is ungrammatical in the linguistic sense.

    Sometimes we want to indicate that a sentences is weird because of its meaning, rather than its syntax. In these cases we use a hashtag symbol (#) instead of a star.

    For example, consider an example like (3):

    (3)   #The book pedalled the bicycle harmoniously.

    This sentence is the right shape for English, it just doesn’t make any sense. So we would say that it’s grammatical but semantically odd, and that’s what the hashtag symbol indicates.

    Most of the sentences we will consider in this chapter are ones that many English speakers (but not all) share similar judgements about. If you disagree with any of the judgements reported here, you can take the opportunity to think about what that tells you about your own grammar, and whether the difference could be explained using the tools we develop here, or if it shows that we would need to revise our theory of syntax in other ways!

    The goals of syntactic theory

    Our goal in syntax is to develop a theory that does two things:

    1. predicts which sentences are grammatical and which ones are ungrammatical, and
    2. explains observed properties of grammatical sentences.

    But we also want to build a theory that can be used to explain not just properties of English, but properties of all human languages. In much of this chapter we’ll focus on the syntax of varieties of English, because that’s a language that’s common to everyone who reads this textbook, but we will often have opportunities to see how other languages show us the scope of variation for syntax in human languages.

    What kind of theory do we need to make these kinds of predictions? If languages were finite we could simply list all the good sentences and be done. But any language user can generate sentences that no one has ever encountered before, and other people can understand those sentences, so what we “know” when we know the syntax of a language must be more than just a list of grammatical sentences. In the next section of this chapter, we’ll see that what we know about syntax can’t be just about the order of words, it has to be something about their grouping (constituency) as well.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    If you are following the alternative path through this chapter that interleaves core concepts with tree structures, you should continue with 6.2 Word order.

    5.11: Grammaticality is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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