LINGUIST List 7.536

Fri Apr 12 1996

Disc: Ungrammatical sentences

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Sebastian Shaumyan, Disc: Ungrammatical Sentences

Message 1: Disc: Ungrammatical Sentences

Date: Tue, 09 Apr 1996 12:13:03 EDT
From: Sebastian Shaumyan <>
Subject: Disc: Ungrammatical Sentences
Karen Chung reported in LINGUIST 7-506:

>	Since we distinguish the categories of 'grammar/syntax' and
>'semantics' in our study of language, we should at least be consistent in
>our usage of the terms. Any sentence that follows the rules of grammar is
>'grammatical'. Semantic issues do not belong in grammar rules. They should
>be treated separately in the study of semantics. I believe this is one
>major area where syntax studies have gone awry.

As to the essence of Chung's claim, I completely agree. The issues of
what is commonly called "semantics" do not belong in grammar rules.I
wish only comment on the terminology. The opposition of the terms
`grammar/syntax' versus `semantics' may raise a problem. One may think
that `grammar/syntax' does not deal with meaning, while semantics
does. I would disagree with this understanding of the opposition
`grammar/syntax' versus `semantic'. Both grammar/syntax and semantics
deal with meaning but with very different kinds of meaning. And this
is crucial. There are two kinds of meaning: 1) grammatical meaning
(including the syntactic meaning) and 2) non-grammatical, or content
meaning. Grammatical meanings are represented by grammatical morphemes
while content meanings are represented by content morphems.Let me
illustrate the distinction between the two kinds of meaning by some

Consider the Russian sentence:

girl reads book

`The girl reads a book'

In the transliteration of the Russian sentence the hyphens are used to
present in a simplified form an analysis of the words into grammatical
and content morphemes. The first word consists of the content morpheme
DEVOCHK `girl' and the grammatical morpheme A. The grammatical
morpheme A denotes a bundle of grammatical meanings: 1) nominative
case and simultaneously subject, 2) feminine gender, 3) singular. The
second word consists of the content morpheme CHITA `read' and the
grammatical morpheme ET. The grammatical morpheme ET denotes: 1) the
present tense, 2) 3-d person 3) singular. The third word consists of
the content morpheme KNIG `book' and the grammatical morpheme U. The
grammatical morpheme U denotes: 1) accusative and simultaneously
direct object, 2) feminine gender, 3) singular. Comparing the content
meanings with the grammatical meanings of these words, we discover a
profound difference between the both kinds of meaning. The content
meanings are more concrete, more narrow, more specific while the
grammatical meanings are more abstract, wider, more general. The
content meaning DEVOCHK occurs in a dozen or at most in a couple of
dozen of different words, while the grammatical meaning A occurs in
thousands of words. Any language has only a closed limited set of
grammatical meanings, while the number of content meanings is huge and
unlimited, in principle.

While in inflectional languages, like Russian or Latin, grammatical
meanings are represented by sounds or sound sequences, in
non-inflectional languages like English the grammatical meanings may
be represented by word order. Thus, in the English translation of the
Russian sentence, THE GIRL READS A BOOK, we must analyze GIRL into two
morphemes GIRL-SUBJECT and BOOK into BOOK-DIRECT_OBJECT, but her these
morphemes are determined by the word order.

The grammatical morphemes belong in grammar, while content morphemes
belong in the lexicon. If this assumption is correct, then we must
replace the opposition GRAMMAR/SYNTAX VERSUS SEMANTICS by the

Traditionally, semantics has been a branch of linguistics which has
been concerned with lexical meanings. Traditionally, many linguists
have opposed semantics to syntax because they have not recognized that
syntactic functions are a special kind of meanings. Every morpheme, no
matter whether lexical or grammatical, is a bilateral linguistic unit
consisting of sign and meaning. Language does not have meaningless
morphemes. Meaning is any kind of information denoted by signs. A
syntactic function is a meaning because it is a certain information
denoted by a sign.

Now, if we agree that both grammatical and content morphemes have
meaning, one may ask: What is the place of semantics in linguistics?
This is a good question: if semantics by definition must be concerned
with meanings, and if we claim that not only lexical, but also
grammatical morphemes have meaning, then we must admit that semantics
must cover both the lexicon and grammar.

I would agree with this claim. To be consistent, we must extend the
notion of semantics to cover both the lexicon and grammar. But this in
no way will undermine the fundamental distinction between the lexicon
and grammar.

I propose the following structure of linguistics:

 / \
 / \
 / \
 / \

These scheme is motivated by the following considerations:

Every morpheme is a bilateral entity consisting of sign and meaning. A
sign consists of phonemes, which are unilateral entities. So the first
division of linguistics is into two areas of study: 1) phonology--the
study of the unilateral, that is, meaningless entities, that is
phonemes, 2) the study of meaningful entities, thar is, linguistic
units proper. The latter study in its turn divides into the theory of
grammar, or grammatical semantics and the theory of the lexicon, or
lexical semantics. Syntax is not a separate level of natural language
but an intrinsic part of grammatical semantics which is concerned with
functional relations between the components of the sentence, the
simple components being words and the compound components being word
groups of different degrees of complexity.

My scheme in no way compromises the fundamental distinction between
grammar and the lexicon. We must distinguish strictly what belongs in
grammar and what in the lexicon. The distinction between content
meanings and grammatical meanings is clear and not negotiable. Let me
give an example of the confusion of content and grammatical meanings.

Consider Fillmore's Case Grammar. In his "THE CASE FOR CASE" (In
UNIVERSALS IN LINGUISTIC THEORY.Eds. Emmon Bach and Robert T. Harms.
1968) has introduced a case system consisting of six cases: Agentive
(A), Instrumental (I), Dative (D), Factitive (F), Locative (L),
Objective (O). On page 25 of the book, Fillmore gives a list of
sentences illustrating his case system. Here is a couple of examples.
Comparing two sentences JOHN OPENED THE DOOR and THE KEY OPENED THE
DOOR, Filmore assigns Agentive to JOHN in the first sentence and
Instrumental to KEY in the second sentence. It is clear that from a
syntactic point of view, both JOHN and KEY are subjects. They differ
only with respect to their lexical meaning. Other sentences in
Fillmore's list are treated in the same spirit. Fillmore also
introduces the concepts of subjectivalization and objectivalization.
But doing so Fillmore draws from different sets. As result, his case
system becomes heterogeneous, being a mixture of grammatical and
lexical concepts.

My analysis is no way meant to compromise a very interesting work of
Filmore. I wish only to present an example of a system consisting of a
mixture of lexical and syntactic concepts.

- ------------------------------------------------------------------
Sebastian Shaumyan				 119 Whittier Road
Professor Emeritus of Linguistics	 New Haven, CT 06515, U.S.A.
Yale University					 (203) 397-1814
						 FAX: (203) 387-7433
- ------------------------------------------------------------------
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue