gwalla (gwalla) wrote,

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Grammar revisited

Okay, following up on that last post. It was mainly an exercise in characterizing people's dialects. I was less interested in finding out which people considered "proper English" according to a standard than what people felt natural by ear.

None of the samples given are considered deviant in all dialects. However, there were a couple of trick questions: #8 and #9 are generally considered well-formed in any dialect.

This whole thing was prompted by reading through R. L. Trask's Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics, particularly the entries on the percent sign (used to mark strings that are considered well-formed by some speakers but not others; #2 through #5 were taken from this entry) and well-formed, and by a post fadethecat made a little while back surveying people on how many levels of center-embedding they could tolerate before sentences became too difficult to parse (technically, English grammar permits arbitrary levels of center-embedding, but in practice after a few levels it becomes confusing).

A rundown:
#1 is use of an intensive reflexive (like "he himself") without the presence of the non-reflexive. "Is it you?" → "Is it you yourself?" → "Is it yourself?". I got from an Irish-themed postcard an ex-coworker had pinned up in her cubicle. According to moltare it is Scots slang. Maybe it's acceptable in both Irish and Scots dialects of English, or maybe the postcard was mistaken.

#2 According to Trask, it is "consistently adjudged well-formed by speakers from certain areas of England, but not by other speakers". Mol narrows it down to the north of England.

#3 According to Trask, "well-formed only for speakers from certain parts of the northeastern United States".

#4 Trask unhelpfully says "well-formed only for speakers of certain non-standard dialects." Thanks, Trask. It's not in my dialect, but I have heard it. My problem with it isn't the presence of "ain't" (which, after all, is actually an older negative form of "is" than the standard "isn't"), but that it is being used to mean "have not", not "is not".

#5  Trask says this is "variously adjudged well-formed or ill-formed by speakers in a seemingly unpredictable manner." That is, it varies by idiolect, not just dialect.

#6 comes from the entry on parallel construction, as an example of a possibly ill-formed non-parallel construction contrasting with the undeniably acceptable parallel construction "I like to read fantasy novels in the bathtub and to experiment in the kitchen".

#7 comes from the entry on sequence of tenses, where Trask marks it with an asterisk (meaning that it's considered ill-formed in general), but it didn't actually sound wrong to me (and I was sure I'd heard similar usage before, and possibly used it myself), so I threw it in just to see. Lack of a rule regarding sequence of tenses may be more common in American dialects; Trask is British.

#8 comes from the entry on well-formed, where it is used as an example of how a well-formed sentence may not be considered acceptable by speakers. "Flounder flounder badger badger flounder" is grammatically equivalent to "Games children play include marbles", but is lexically ambiguous: since "flounder" and "badger" are both nouns and verbs, it's hard to parse it. It would be easier with "that" between the first two "flounder"s and a comma between the "badger"s; spoken, it's a bit easier to pick out, since the tone would start high and drop for each word until the first "badger", then rise for each word until it reached the starting tone (there may be a brief pause between "badger"s as well).

#9 comes from the entry on hash mark (a symbol used to mark strings that are "syntactically well-formed but semantically bizarre"). Its meaning would be considered an impossible state, but all of the words are doing what they should be doing and it can be understood without trouble. With some creativity, you can even come up with a hypothetical situation in which it is not impossible at all, such as the suggestions of British and French as names of styles.

EDIT: fadethecat posted the center-embedding survey, not padparadscha.
Tags: language


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