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Are you a rebellious grammar student?

  Tags: Linguistics | Grammar
 Language Learning Forum : Philological Room Post Reply
19 messages over 3 pages: 1 2 3  Next >>

Super Polyglot
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 Message 1 of 19
24 March 2013 at 1:45am | IP Logged 
I have just written a long rant in my log about my qualms about the distinction between infinitivo pessoal and the futuro do subjuntivo in Portuguese, which to me seems to have joined into a new intermediary form, which covers territory taken from both the finite verbal forms and from the standard infinite infinitive. And thereby it puts a question mark at not only between a too strict separation between infinite and finite verbal forms, but also for instance between prepositions and conjunctions.

I have earlier refused to accept the traditional claim that imperfective verbs in Russian don't have a synthetic future and perfectives don't have a present. The situation is actually that the synthetic futures and the present have exactly the same endings -it's a purely semantic consideration that has led the grammarians to give them distinct names and identities. But given the basic semantics of imperfective versus perfective verbs these semantic differences were to be expected (and also the tactic to use an analytic form to fill out the 'hole' where something with a futuric meaning should have been with an imperfective).

I also remember that I drew a question about adverbials at my final exam in French at the university in Århus in 1981, and I proceeded to declare the whole category meaningless because its supposed members belonged into different structural groups. Luckily my teacher and my censor could see that I had a point..

And I remember a thread where I with no aberdabei proved that the rules given in my grammars concerning the possessive 'a-' particle in Romanian were wrong - modern Romanian simply doesn't function as I was told it did.

And then I came to wonder why other members here seem to be content with their grammars. Am I the only one who can't see a grammar without thinking about better ways to structure the data - even before I really master the language in question? There must be members who have questioned the sacrosanct principles and claims in their grammars. But maybe this irreverent attitude is more common among parttime linguists than it is among people who consider themselves just to be practical learners. Maybe the rebellious learners don't use grammars much, or they reserve their grammatical treatises to scholarly magazines or other homepages. Ah dunno..

What are your opinions about this, and where are all the rebellious souls? You certainly aren't aren't afraid to disagree in methodical questions so how come that most of you seem to trust your grammars?

PS: link corrected

Edited by Iversen on 01 May 2013 at 1:12pm

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 Message 2 of 19
24 March 2013 at 2:51am | IP Logged 
I wouldn't exactly say I'm 'rebellious' but I do take grammar books with a pinch of salt (to some extent). When I get more serious about a language, I rarely limit myself to just one grammar book - I usually use more of them at the same time, possibly with different target audiences, written in different languages and presenting some differences in the linguistic paradigm. If something seems doubios or wrong, I look for information in other books, but I also routinely compare information about one issue in many sources, and I quite often make my own tables, lists of rules etc.

For instance, last week I studied for a grammar test (plural forms of Swedish nouns). Instead of relying on one or two sources we used in the course (which would be enough for the test but not for my individual understanding of grammar and linguistic pleasure), I compared these sources with 7 other grammar books (which is not exactly a normal thing to do, I guess ;)) and wrote down a number of rules and exceptions (no book included them all), putting them into an order that seemed logical to me and helped to memorize what had to be memorized.

Edited by Julie on 24 March 2013 at 2:53am

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Super Polyglot
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 Message 3 of 19
24 March 2013 at 2:55pm | IP Logged 
I only ever use grammar as a tool to speak correctly. If it's a rule that helps me on
this path, it's good. If not, it's not of interest to me. I have several grammars
(though usually only one per language) but it doesn't matter to me - it's a reference
when I'm in doubt, I use it much like a dictionary. And I generally prefer not to rely
on too many tools outside of my brain when working because in real life you don't
usually get the chance to look something up while you are speaking, say, Russian.
Grammars function specifically as an aid when I am trying to improve the written
language, in which grammar is more important than in the oral variation (where you can
use a bunch of tricks to modify some things).

If I am writing a dissertation thesis, I will use a grammar. If I am writing important
documents, I will use a grammar. If I am talking to my friends, no.

And being critical is a part of everything but the important thing is to check it
against actual usage. And if that differs then you have to ask why. And if a majority
of people talks such then you have to wonder if the grammarian that wrote the book
wasn't overly prescriptivist.

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 Message 4 of 19
24 March 2013 at 3:17pm | IP Logged 
My favorite grammar book, by a very wide margin, is the The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. It's an 1800 page doorstop, it uses slightly non-standard terminology for some grammatical constructions, and it's pretty expensive.

But I absolutely adore this book, because it was designed for rebellious grammar students (or more to the point, rebellious linguists in academia). The analyses are very careful. The authors anticipate many common objections. And best of all, the conclusions are backed up with actual evidence.

For example, I was recently contemplating the mandative subjunctive in English. This is used for imperatives in reported speech:

i. Be ready on time!
ii. I demanded that he be ready on time.

Looking at these examples, I asked myself, "Is this really a subjuctive? Or is this just a special form of the imperative in reported speech?" Wonderfully enough, the book actually goes on to address this question. First, they raise the issue of negative imperatives. Let me paraphrase their examples:

iii. Don't be so silly!
iv. *I demanded that he don't be so silly. ("*" means "not a valid English sentence")
v. I demanded that he not be so silly.

In other words, (iv) shows that we can't do any sort of simple substitution of imperative clauses into reported speech. (v) shows that, however, we can use a negated subjunctive. And the argument goes on for another half page in the book.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is the sort of book that rewards rebellion on the part of the reader. Even if you bring your own theories to the text, you'll be offered counter-examples and data points that you might not be able to explain without improving your theory.

And after reading CGEL, any other reference grammar I've ever seen is a massive letdown.

Edited by emk on 24 March 2013 at 3:19pm

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Super Polyglot
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 Message 5 of 19
24 March 2013 at 10:58pm | IP Logged 
I have not used the Cambridge grammar, but it sounds like I might like it. A learner may see the contours of a system, but fail to notice some good arguments against his splendid new idea, and then you really need a grammar which contains the relevant counter arguments. The backside of this is of course that you then get an 1800 colossus which isn't easy to handle while you are sitting in an armchair with a book and some paper on a tray.

Outside full grammars the argumentative structure is mostly found in detail studies and specialized dissertations, and I saw a lot of those in the libraries at the university while I still was a student, but you don't find them in public libraries.

When I wrote message no. 1 above I was actually interested in knowing whether the other members here had that urge to find better descriptions which any true linguist should have, or whether they just used them as they found them because they only saw themselves as language learners. Tarvos has in another thread characterized himself as an engineer with a purely utilitarian attitude to his tools, whereas I feel more like a part time scientist who happens also to be a collector of languages. And then I asked myself whether this inquisitive attitude really was as rare as it seemed.

Edited by Iversen on 24 March 2013 at 11:16pm

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 Message 6 of 19
25 March 2013 at 11:00am | IP Logged 
In many ways my linguistic knowledge is not at a level where I am comfortable declaring the authors of grammars that I am reading wrong. In many case they are simplifying things to make it easier for the learner with no linguistic background (which is annoying to me, but I understand the reasoning).

That being said, when I'm discussing grammar with someone I tend to be very blunt when I believe something is being explained improperly or simplified in a harmful way. In particular I am very hesitant to accept grammar taught by someone who is used to teaching native speakers (for example, it is very common for people to teach that English has 5 vowels, which is outright wrong unless they are specifically talking about the alphabet). Similar things exist in German, where I've been told that in cases besides the nominative, the articles are no longer articles and instead become some other type of word. The way native speakers learn about their own language is usually (in my limited experience) a very bad way to learn as a non-native (and probably a bad way to learn as a native as well).

Edit: I just read your post asking about the attitude specifically, whether others are inquisitive or easily accepting, and I have to say that I agree with you. I always ask why when the opportunity arises. I was recently told when asking a grammar question to just trust that it will eventually make sense, and while the comment was meant well (as in, don't expect to learn a language overnight), I thought about it and decided that I really disagreed. I don't think trust is a positive thing when learning a language - I think a deep understanding requires you to question everything and never stop digging.

Edited by Keilan on 25 March 2013 at 11:03am

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 Message 7 of 19
25 March 2013 at 5:59pm | IP Logged 
I have always thought, like Iversen, about how to call what and how to explain grammar
and phonology.
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 Message 8 of 19
25 March 2013 at 6:59pm | IP Logged 
I rarely use grammar books, but I have similar problems with many Spanish-Portuguese
dictionaries. Many of them are simply "cognate dictionaries": When you want to know how
to say a given Spanish word in Portuguese, some dictionaries give you a Portuguese
cognate word that has the same meaning, but is almost never used by lusophones. That's
why I prefer English-Portuguese or Monolingual dictionaries.

BTW, the link to your log doesn't seem to work, Iversen. Here is the correct link:
Iversen's log

Edited by nicozerpa on 25 March 2013 at 7:02pm

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