Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Grammar: everywhere--and nowhere

Grammar is dry and soporific; it’s also hip and deep. It is overlooked; and it is found everywhere. Actual grammar gets little publicity; false sightings are rampant.

A recent false sighting: the supposed (hip and deep) “grammar” of emoticons. Then there’s the supposed grammar of prairie dogs, and that of ornamentation.

The fact that something occurs in a sequence does not make it a grammar—particularly if that sequence is fixed:

Actual grammar is structure; it’s a set of iterative rules for grouping and ordering elements. E.g.:
A sentence consists of optional modifiers plus noun phrase plus verb phrase 
A verb phrase consists of a verb plus optional noun phrases plus optional prepositional phrases plus optional modifiers 
A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition plus a noun phrase 
A noun phrase consists of an article plus optional adjective phrases plus a noun plus optional modifiers 
An adjective phrase consists of an optional adverb plus an adjective 
And so on…
Thus even a relatively simple sentence derives from multiple rules and has structure:
[The quick brown fox] jumped [over [the lazy [prairie dog]]].
Grammars aren't limited to human languages; consider math, e.g., simple algebra:
An expression consists of a list of simple or complex terms connected by plus and/or minus symbols 
A simple term consists of a single number or variable 
A complex term can consist of simple terms connected by times and or division symbols, or parenthesized expressions connected by times and division symbols.
A small set of unstructured symbol sequences, or unstructured sequences of animal calls, is only a grammar in the most degenerate sense—however hip an deep it sounds to call it grammar.

Then there’s the dry, soporific version of “grammar”: what is actually punctuation, spelling, or both. Classic examples are its vs. it’s; your vs. you’re; there vs. their vs. they’re.

Real grammar is hipper and deeper than all of these.


FedUpMom said...

Your parse looks inconsistent to me. If you've got

[the lazy [prairie dog]]

don't you need

[the quick brown [fox]]


Katharine Beals said...

The difference is that the former is a compound noun. For clarity, I'm not bracketing individual lexical items.