LINGUIST List 7.591

Sat Apr 20 1996

Disc: Ungrammatical sentences

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Re: 7.567, Disc: Ungrammatical sentences
  2. benji wald, Ungrammaticality

Message 1: Re: 7.567, Disc: Ungrammatical sentences

Date: Fri, 19 Apr 1996 08:37:19 EDT
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Re: 7.567, Disc: Ungrammatical sentences
I have yet to see it demonstrated that the meanings carried by
bound morphemes and grammatical processes (such as ablaut, say)
are in principle different from those carried by free morphemes
if that is what is claimed when the term 'grammatical meaning'
is used. At the very least, there would seem to be a fairly
serious overlap between the two sets of meanings. 
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Message 2: Ungrammaticality

Date: Fri, 19 Apr 1996 03:25:00 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Ungrammaticality

as usual, I've been following the discussion of "ungrammaticality"
with great interest. Several years ago the vehicle was "s/he saw the
barn red". This time it's the immediately recognisable-as- grammatical
"the scissor are happy *where they are*"

at first I thought I might just sit and enjoy the discussion,
but a recent posting by David Powers was so interesting, in
my opinion, that I wanted to comment on it. as I started
writing, some other thoughts about the issue of "ungrammaticality"
somehow came out. I'll give those first since they're more
general and then comment on what I thought was an extremely
insightful posting by David. So...

The impact that linguistics has had on other fields is something
we can take pride in as linguists, and in the current phase that
holds particularly for "grammar", "syntax", or whatever "it"
should be called. Nevertheless, I get concerned about the view
of linguistics which must obtain among some thoughtful non-linguists,
esp from introductory materials, when confronted with the kind of
"blindness" concerning grammaticality judgments which are exhibited
by some syntacticians overanxious or impatient to make a point, and
which precipitate our ungrammaticality discussions.

a good example of such "blindness", it turns out, is commented on--
poker-faced-- by Bard, Robertson & Sorace, in their 3/96 article about
measurement of (relative) acceptability in the journal Language. It
is one of Haegeman's examples from her "*Introduction* to G&B theory",
1991 (underlining mine):

"*When did John announce a plan to steal Bill's car?"
(cited by B et al p.43)

If your jaw has dropped open, hardened linguist, you can imagine
how the tender neophyte must feel-- complete disorientation? or
outrage and disgust?

Here, to their credit, B et al (p.44) recognised that the example does
have a grammatical interpretation (UNarguably), and in order to
test judgments against the ungrammatical interpretation intended
by H's *, they "relexicalised" it as

"When does John like the plan to steal the crown jewels?"

So, you see, H was only interested in "when" as extracted (or
whatever) from the lower (condensed) clause/IP "to steal it/them (at

(Maybe some die-hards will still retort that the relex is OK and the
answer is John keeps changing his mind, he likes the plan after he
looks at his bills every month or after reading the latest tabloids
about Princess Di, but not right after his weekly confession, or
watching reruns of "Dragnet" on TV. "when" still refers to the upper
clause (IP). Such a consideration won't detract from what I'm about to
say. anyway, if you read the article you'll see that linguists and
non-linguists agreed in judging the relex example as much more
terrible than the originally starred one from H).

So why didn't H use a better example instead of the "ambiguous" one
she did? I suggest blindness as more likely (and certainly more
charitable) than lack of imagination or limited English
proficiency (read the B et al section on English speakers' judgments
of acceptability for Italian sentences to see why the last even
occurred to me, as a possibility to be dismissed.)

Blindness suggests that when many(!) syntacticians have decided on a
certain analysis of some example or set thereof, they lose sight of
acceptable contextualised uses of the same examples which stand in the
way of the point/claim they want to make. But that's a price they have
to pay for separating the syntax from the (intended) "semantics" of
the example. Critics have long contended that analysts are led astray
by desired generalisations.

I have come to the conclusion that this is a problem inherent in the
most scrupulous scholarship, and requires means of correction such as
B et al suggest (not that I agree with everything they say in the
article, as you'll see). It took me a while to arrive at this
conclusion, because it was not so obvious in the early days of
generative grammar. In the old days, the analysts "often" refused to
acknowledge disagreements against their metacomments, and insisted
that the rules they proposed were true of their own grammars, and
therefore significant for "universal grammar", since UG is in each and
every grammar. By this line of "reasoning" it did not matter what
happens in other grammars. The argument typically took the
authoritative form "Well, in MY dialect...". as a sociolinguist, I
resented their use of the term "dialect" in this context. I felt that
"dialect" implied that they had a big gang of speakers backing up
their intuitions, and they should have said "MY idiolect". But
"idiolect" would sound IDIOsyncratic and puny, de/distracting from the
seriousness of whatever generalisation they were proposing. I felt
like asking "where is this MY spoken?" But I didn't because I
supposed they wouldn't understand the implications of such a "crack",
I wouldn't get a chance to explain, and I'd come off seeming nasty and
malevolent. Either despite or because of my tact, the "MY dialect"
and "other dialects are beside the point" arguments aren't common
anymore, but blindness is as common as it ever was.

(Just to keep the record straight UG was not yet a term used
in generative gr in the days I referred to as "early" above.
It was more along the more mouthy order of "innate principles of/
constraints on linguistic rule formation". UG was imported later,
after the Greenbergian universals of word order mushroomed into
mega-research,and generative semantics had been disposed of --
after tie-dyes, sandals, sideburns, and Verb-ins.)

If I still have your attention, there is another example that B et al
take from H which I wonder about.

"**This is the pen with which writing would be fun"

The meta-comment is very severe, and for this one B et al don't
comment. My thought process is that regardless of whatever parsing
H intended, the example seems "almost" as good as

Writing would be fun with this pen/With this pen writing would be fun

(NB not "writing with this pen would be fun", which is also fine)

 as for my "almost" above, I ascribe that to the speech (vs writing)
basis of my judgments. I rarely prepose prepositions in speech (as
is the case generally for colloquial English). When I write very
formally I do, but, perhaps as a consequence of the "thou shalt not"
(use double negatives, etc.) way we learn to write formal prose,
I think I have a generally more restricted written grammar which is
not completely comfortable with H's example -- but hardly to a "?"
much less the "**" that H gives. (I don't have the slightest idea
what H intended to demonstrate by claiming that "this is the pen with
which writing would be fun" is even "badder" (technical term) than
something like "when does Joanna like the plan to turn the clock back?")

In view of this, but not commented on at all by B et al (maybe because
it detracts from their thesis--which it does!), it is very interesting
that their linguist sample gave very bad reviews to the "pen with
which" example, but their undergraduate anatomy student sample were
only mildly displeased with it -- or maybe just relatively overjoyed
with simple stuff like "who did you invite?" NB nobody seems to have
frowned at absence of "whom". (chart p.46 shows that the example
ranks among the lowest among a host of examples submitted for
arbitrary numerical judgment to the linguists but near the top for the
pre-anatomists. This qualitatively contradicts their thesis that
short of dialect differences, if that, speakers will agree on
*relative* acceptability).

If you're thinking that shows I missed my calling, we have a bone of
contention. I'm encouraged that my judgments agree with "ordinary"
language users, since I want to know what's happening with English,
not just with me. I would not agree with the proposition that
linguists are in any privileged position to judge sentences (or
whatever) due to experience in dealing with "linguistic subtleties"
(or whatever) -- perhaps the opposite, in view of the "blindness" I
mentioned above.

B et al's thesis is that it doesn't matter whether you're a linguist
or not, only how "native-like" you know the language. This hither-to
uncommented on result of theirs indicates they may be
overoptimistic. Too bad they didn't discuss it. If linguists'
judgments are different from other people's they're like novelists
writing books about novelists writing books about guess what?

I didn't realise it would take so long to say the above. Count
it as a quasi-review of the B et al article.

a quick comment on Shaumjan's posting. His position, or at least his
tree of language, seems to me to threaten a replay of the "linguistics
wars" between Generative and Interpretive Semantics described in
Harris's book of that title. as a rhetorician, Harris' thesis was, if
I remember right, that Chomsky "won" on rhetorical grounds -- or that
the other side self-destructed with politically irreverent examples
and "gee whiz, language is so complicated", which gave the impression
of flippancy and floundering for direction. S and the postings
sympathetic to his concept are symptomatic of the notion that in the
long run Chomsky may not have won. as long as there are linguists I
expect there will be many who doubt the wisdom of the syntax/semantics
distinction, wherever it is placed, as long as syntax is unconvincing
in its data and arguments. In the shortrun -- the 20th century (to get
back to that theme) -- the maintenance of syntax as (somewhat)
independent of semantics runs through the entire century, and there is
more to Chomsky's success than his superior rhetoric and unsurpassable
seriousness of purpose. I won't go on with this train of thought here.
Syntactic semantics is a late-comer. Its power booster is the
micro-chip. The more info you can pack in the chip the more semantics
will come on. (Then we'll get to the problem of the unclarity between
the boundaries of semantics and pragmatics, another biggy -- but I'm

On to David Powers' excellent posting, which coincides with problems
I'm dealing with in the nuts and bolts of a language.

He says:
"Unfortunately, the distinction between grammatical and lexical morphs
is no more clear cut than is the distinction between syntactic and
semantic (un)acceptability. Many of the examples used in linguistic
texts and papers reflect this problem. Both the starred and the
unstarred examples seem awkward and unacceptable out of context, as
presented, but may be quite natural in context. This is particularly
true when it comes to determinations which hang on the
subcategorization of particular words, or the preferred near synonym
for a particular context."

Note that as far back as "aspects" (1968), violating subcat.
restrictions was a misdemeanour, not a felony. Stars and
other warnings accordingly have a different authority in such
contexts than in dealing with word salad (or reconstructed forms).
David mentions subcat. violations, because that's what "happy
scissors" are--um, is. He is not distracted into general
observations about ungrammaticality assertions, as I was above.

Back to David:

"When apparent synonyms show restriction of some form, my sense is that
this is more related to idiom than to grammar, and to the dialect than
to the language."

"... with "jump" I want to illustrate
the dialectic point. I would tend to judge:

 * He jumped rope

That is an Americanism (and perhaps "jump rope" should be read as a
single lexeme) which is unacceptable in Australian or British English!
I could quite imagine that in some dialect the following was
acceptable (and children do come up with such things, which can thus
relatively easily enter the language):

 He jumped me a rope
Now you're talking! Let's talk "jump rope".
Either no or irrelevant. Single lexeme idea is closer to the mark,
but exclusive constituent hits it:

Let's play *jumprope*

= the actual nominal compound of the expression (for children)
I know because as a kid I watched girls jump rope. I was especially
interested when they "jumped the letters" of the name of the
boy they liked, and then "jumped out".

That tendency toward an exclusive constituent (rather than a single
lexeme) militates against interruption with a "dative" constituent.

In La gang culture people get "jumped in" (=intiation) and
"jumped out"(=expulsion) to/of gangs. This use of "jump" is the
same as David's "jump the burglar". Naturally, then, they can
jump you in. But if they jump you in to impress her, I don't think
there's a dialect (or idiolect) of English in which they can
"jump her you/you her in" -- if you could say it, what order do
you like?

What kinds of verbs can take "dative movement" is a distinct issue,
one which, in fact, raises with great clarity the problem of "sub-
categorisation" phenomena, and the unclarity of *one of the
boundaries* between lexicon and syntax. Thus,

"he waved us with his hand"

meaning: "he waved (with) his hand at/to us"

is historically attested, but strikes me as non-current. But
as David implies, if it was once said it may still be
said somewhere.

It would not be historically surprising if unmarked "datives" had
greater range in earlier periods of the language, since "dative" use
by no means died with the dative/accusative distinction in English.
It certainly has become more restricted *in some ways* than it was
when the distinction obtained, but, to my knowledge, it is not well
established what the trends have been since that time, other than that
prepositional alternatives (not necessarily replacements) have
continued to evolve.

There are "still" things that strike me as dative, but do not, as far
as I know, have prepositional paraphrases, e.g.,

there's enough to last *you* a lifetime
spare *me* the details (????...from/on me)

are these examples of "dative NON-movement"?

To appreciate the problem, consider such things as

 "he waved - us on
 the taxi - over/to the curb/etc",

usages which arose *after* the loss of the dative/ accusative
distinction. *us* in such contexts is certainly closer to the older
use of the dative than to the accusative (theme/patient?), cntr.

 "he waved his hand/the flag/etc" (=made acc. wave).

Do we conclude that the subcategorising properties of the verb "wave"
have changed, and stop there (with a lexical fact) -- why would that
happen? --, or do we recognise a *grammatical* process at work which
also applies to other verbs? (activity used as a signal for something
else, "she nodded us aside/winked us over"? What about "she shook us

(In fact, all transitive uses of "wave" seem to follow the dat/acc
case-marking collapse, cf. "waver")

My impression is that the English has reacted to the loss of overt
case-marking by increasing, not decreasing, the number of roles that
an "object" can take, for an increasing variety of verbs.
Passvisation is a chapter in that story. The old story of loss and
compensation seems incomplete. The case cat went away and the object
mice have been playing ever since (with occasional adjuncts
masquerading as object mice joining the party?, e.g.,
"run/walk/crawl/etc the three-minute mile"= *adverbial* accusative?)
Increasing use of prepositions, as police called in by irate
neighbours, is only part of the story. They're also in the
passivisation chapter, but they haven't done a good job with the
unruly caseless objects.

By the way, what do British and australian boxing trainers call the
boxer's exercise of "jumping rope"? "jumping with a rope"?
"rope-jumping"? Could it be that for them this americanism becomes
"acceptable"? These things easily spread, which by no means indicates
that they are actuated by "mere" lexical rather than grammatical
factors, cf. "jump the hurdle", "climb the rope", ?"fall the tree"
(earlier attested as either "fell the tree" or "fall from/off/out of
the tree.") Can't australians say "jump the rope/s" meaning "jump over
the rope/s"? "Keep jumping it/them".

Is "jump rope" a 0-article problem? cf. "play ball/chess/etc"
but "play *a* game" 0-article for names, including names of games.
Was "jump-rope" once simply called "(the game of) rope"?

Finally, David says:

"Our response to all this is to decline to reject sentences on the
basis of subcategorization"

This suggestion wondereth me/I wonder (at) this suggestion/I'm
wondered by this suggestion. (all attested) Me()thinks:

Rejection is not the point. The point is as above. What linguistic
features determine use or non-use for any group of speakers, and
how long do we wait for spontaneous use before we do something
experimental like asking, with all the pitfalls that has? Then
to what extent are such differences as we can dicover among groups
socially defined, and what other factors, if any, come into play
in determining individual differences? -- Benji
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