Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Grammar games

From The Christian Science Monitor:

Time, manner, place. Time, manner, place.

That was my mnemonic when, as I high school student, I struggled to learn the rules for ordering German adverbs and adverbial phrases. "I love in summer with you down the Rhein to sail." The time phrase ("in summer") is followed by indicators of manner ("with you") and place" ("down the Rhein").

It seemed utterly wrong. The only way through seemed to be to memorize the rules. Hmph! We don't have rules like this in English – or do we?


As the fascinating article goes on to explain, indeed we do.

We need not be writers to know it's wrong to say, "red big three balloons" when what we mean is three big red balloons. Most of us probably couldn't say why it's wrong; we just know that it is. We've known since we babbled our very first sentences.

Think about it, then discuss in the comments.

6 comments:

pacatrue said...

Yeah, it's weird indeed. This is one of the things linguists try to figure out when they are documenting a new language. Adding adjective after adjective to a noun of all different shapes and sizes to see what's allowed and what isn't. As far as I know all languages have these rules. We all know them and follow them as native speakers, but we don't know any of them consciously. It's the same way with high school students who can't diagram a sentence or remember what an object is - and then proceed to speak in diagrammed sentences and with objects.

I actually just posted a long essay about the nature of linguistic grammar and biology on my own blog on Friday, so here's the link if interested. (It's long.)

Kristin said...

Of course we have rules like this in English, or we'd never need to learn grammar. We could just mash sentences together any way we liked.

Imagine a German learning English...he must think it is very difficult to arrange sentences the way we do. In Spanish, you put the adjective after the verb. In Russian, as in German, you must add all kinds of endings to your verbs depending on its usage in the sentence...direct object, indirect object, etc.

These are all varying grammar rules. Every language has them. Whether they be placement of language parts in a sentence or verb conjugations or adjective endings.

Brenda Coulter said...

Of course we have rules like this in English, or we'd never need to learn grammar. We could just mash sentences together any way we liked.

But Kristin, we don't learn in school that it's "three big red balloons" and not "red big three balloons." When a kid arrives on the first day of kindergarten, she has already acquired that knowledge. That's why the article interested me--because I never realized how much grammar we pick up at extremely young ages.

Kris Eton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Allan said...

Noam Chomsky says that an imperative for language is hardwired into all of us. Though I don't agree with all his ideas, this is a position that resonates with me. According to him, we pick up the patterns of whatever language we're exposed to from the get go. Some people are fortunate enough to be blessed with a multi-lingual environment as children. Some people are blessed with a life-long 'ear' for the rhythms, patterns, and tones of language. Most are like me, and imprint on only one language pattern for their whole lives. In my case English. (I remember my high-school classmates struggling with diagramming SVO. I thought, "Why? You do this every day unconsciously.")

Brenda Coulter said...

(I remember my high-school classmates struggling with diagramming SVO. I thought, "Why? You do this every day unconsciously.")

I was one of the strugglers. Funny, isn't it, that I became a writer at the age of 45?

I still can't diagram a sentence, yet my copyeditors never find grammatical errors in my manuscripts. Go figure.