Modern Grammar and Structuralism

The average educated person is no stranger to the word grammar. We all have an idea of what it means, though the concept is shrouded in vagueness, wrong-headed notions and ill-founded associations. Not only this, we use the word rather in a generalised sense in such expressions as the ‘grammar of music’, ‘the grammar of art’, and so on. This underscores the core notion that ‘grammar’ invariably refers to a set of rules that governs any system and arrangement of components.

But the notion belongs to language and its analysis, for it has always been believed that a language can not be correctly learned without mastering its grammar, and by language is meant only the written language; spoken languages donot have grammar ! It is something sacred and ideal; it provides the model of ‘correct usage’, and the learner must strictly follow its rules and precepts. Grammars are intolerant of deviations, even the slightest diversion is held in scorn ! Grammar is either good or bad, correct or incorrect, for example, to use end-prepositions is objectionable and to say ‘It’s me’ is wrong and bad ! A plethora of ideas and myths have arisen to surround what we commonly understand by the word ‘grammar’.
It was evolved in ancient Greece by sophists of the 5th century B.C. who attempted to subject everything to measurement – music, geometry, astronomy, and even language study. In their teaching of rhetoric, for example, they recommended the use of rounded sentences, in which phrases and clauses of successive sentences would be of equal length, right down to the last syllable’ (Dinneen).
Philosophers from older clays have always been interested in language as a powerful medium of attaining knowledge about nature, and were, therefore, very much concerned with maintaining ‘the purity of speech’. Development of the art of rhetoric has largely been dependent upon proper understanding of the mechanisms of language, and, more importantly, upon designing a system of rules which would serve as a model for its users. This preoccupation with what is correct and incorrect continued for several centuries, right down to the time when a ‘scientific descriptive’ outlook towards language began to develop and the normative and prescriptive tone began to weaken.
However, grammar that has continued to be taught in schools and colleges for generations, the strict classical system of rules imposed on the speakers by scholastic authorities has much deeper roots in old tradition of ancient Greek and Roman time.
Defining Grammar
The sense of bewilderment and confusion that has resulted from the multiple view points, approaches and applications of ‘grammar’ over centuries has made the task of finding a clear-cut definition of it rather formidable. Rhetoric and art of oratory created the word grammatkia or granimatika techne in Greek from which derives our word grammar – ‘these Greek words meant the art of writing’ which was a branch of philosophy. Towards the middle ages, Priscian and then Peter Helias dominated the current thinking on language with exclusive attention paid to evolving rules for talking about the nature of thing as an end in itself’ (Dinneen).
Hellas defined grammar as ‘the science that shows us how to write and speak correctly. It is the task of this art to order the combination of letters into syllables, syllables into words, and words into sentences… avoiding solecisms and barbarisms’. Later on in the 13th century Petras Hispanus sought to discuss language in his Summulae Logicales as the communication of the major stages of knowledge and went on to define his discipline as ‘science of sciences and art of arts’.
The 16th and the 17th century grammarians were rigorously prescriptive as they were acutely aware of ‘how barbarously we yet write and speak and were desirous if it were possible, that we might all write with the same certainty of words, and purity of phrase, to which the tartars first arrived and after them the French’ (Dryden).
Grammar thus describes ‘what people do when they speak their language’. Grammar doesnot exist between the covers of the book, written down and to be learnt by’ heart. A native speaker uses his language with an intuition about its grammar. According to some scholars a grammar must be capable of explaining this intuition. Grammar is a theory according to Noam Chomsky ‘that deals with the mechanisms of sentence construction, which establish a sound-meaning relation’. And according to Nelson Francis ‘grammar is the study of organisation of words into various combinations often representing many layers of structure such as phrases, sentences, and complete utterances’ (Structure of American English).
Background to Structural Grammar
The beginning of the twentieth century was marked by a new approach to grammar suggested by linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure and American linguists like Franz Boas, Edward Sapir and Bloomfield. This school of linguistics is called structuralism. This school arose as a reaction against the approach of the traditional grammarians of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
The traditional grammarians had looked upon Latin as their model. Since English is a member of the Indo-European family of languages, to which Latin and Greek also belong, it did have many grammatical elements in common with them. But many of these had been obscured or wholly lost as a result of extensive changes that had taken place in English. Early grammarians considered these changes as a sort of degeneration in language and felt duty bound to resist these changes. They, therefore, came out with a group of prescriptive rules for English on the basis of Latin. They ignored the fact that every ‘language is unique in its own way and has to be described as autonomous in itself. They did not realise that the only standard which is to be applied to a language is the language itself, its USAGE. Also, they attached more importance to the written part of language than to speech. Even the definitions of the parts of speech given by them, as has been discussed earlier, were inadequate and confusing. Instead of describing the actually spoken language, they found faults with it on trivial considerations. The following sentences, though in common use, were condemned by them for reasons shown in brackets:
1.   I do not know nothing. (double negative)
2.   I will ask you to quickly do it.
(use of ‘will’ with I and use of split infinitive)
3.   He is taller than me.
(comparison is between he and I and not me)
The real authority, in judgement concerning the correctness of sentences in a language, is the native speaker who uses the language, not the grammarian. The approach of the traditional grammarians was thus not scientific or logical; it was rather an illogical presumptive approach, prescribing certain rules of do’s and don’ts as to how people should speak or write in conformity with the standards they held dear. They did not first observe as to how people use the language and then describe it depending upon the usage.
The traditional grammarians gave a classicist’s model of grammar based on the authority of masters of classical literature and rhetoric, while later on, after this authority was challenged (a process which began from the Renaissance onwards), models of grammar began to be made on the basis of scientific observation and analysis i.e. empirical approach or model was adopted.
The structural linguists began to study language in terms of observable and verifiable data and describe it after the behaviour of the language as it was being used. These descriptive linguists emphasized the following points:
(i) Spoken language is primary and writing is secondary. Writing is only a means of representing speech in another medium. Speech comes earlier than writing in the life of an individual or in the development of a language.
(ii) The synchronic study of language should take precedence over its diachronic study. Historical considerations are not very relevant to the investigation of a particular temporal state of a language. In the game of chess, for example, the situation on the board is constantly changing. But at any one time, the state of the game can be fully described in terms of the positions occupied by several pieces on the hoard. It does not matter by what route the players have arrived at the particular state of the game.
(iii) Language is a system of systems. It has a structure of its own. Each language is regarded by the structuralists as a system of relations the elements of which sounds, words, etc. have no validity independently of the relations of equivalence and contrast which hold between them.
The structural linguists attempted to describe language in terms of its structure, as it is used, and tried to look for ‘regularities’ and ‘patterns’ or ‘rules’ in language structure. Bloomfield envisaged that language structure was associated with phoneme as the unit of phonology and morpheme as the unit of grammar. Phonemes are the minimal distinctive sound units of language. The word tap, for example, consists of three phonemes: /t/, /æ/, and /p/. Morphemes are larger than phonemes as they consist of one or more phonemes. The word playing consists of two morphemes play and ing whereas it consists of the phonemes /p/, /l/, /ei/, /i/ and /ŋ/. So in order to study the structure of a sentence, a linguist must be aware of the string of phonemes or morphemes that make up the sentence. Here is a sentence:
The unlucky player played himself out.
As a string of phonemes, it is:
i              vnlvki               plei ð    himself at/
As a string of morphemes, the structure is:
The-un-luck-y-play-er-play-ed – him-self – out.
The type of approach in respect of the structure of language was based on a desire to be completely precise, empirical, logical and scientific as against the unscientific, illogical and prescriptive approach of the traditional grammarians.
Immediate Constituent Analysis
In order to study the structure of a sentence, the structural linguists thought of dividing a sentence into its immediate constituents’ (or ICs). The principle involved was that of cutting a sentence into two, further cutting these two parts into another two, and continue the segmentation till the smallest unit, the morpheme was arrived at. This can be shown by taking a simple example of a sentence like:
A young girl with an umbrella chased the boy.
This sentence is made up of some natural groups. From one’s intuitive knowledge of the language, the only way one may divide it into 2 groups is as follows:
A young girl with an umbrella       chased the boy.
1                                  2
The two parts of the sentence as shown above are called constituents of the sentence.
Now 1 and 2 can be further divided into natural groups as follows:
A young girl    with an umbrella          chased              the boy.
1-A                         1-B                       2-A                   2-B
1-A and 1-B are the constituents of 1 while 2-A and 2-B are the constituents of 2. The above information can be displayed in the form of a tree diagram as follows:
Now, 1-A, 1-B, 2-A and 2-B can be further sub-divided into smaller constituents as follows:
This type of analysis of a sentence is called Immediate Constituent Analysis. Every constituent is a part of a higher natural word group and every constituent is further divided into lower constituents. This process goes on till one arrives at the smallest constituent, a morpheme that can no longer be further divided. The full IC analysis of the above sentence is given below:
These constituents can also be labelled as belonging to different grammatical constituents like Noun phrase, Verb phrase, Adverbial, and Prep. phrase, which can be further divided into categories such as Noun, Adjective, Verb, and Tense Morpheme. Different methods are used for showing the immediate constituents. Some of these are given below:
a)   Segmentation using vertical lines
      A | | young | | | girl | | with | | | an | | | | umbrella | chase | | | d | | the | | | boy
b)   Segmentation using brackets
[[[(A)] [(young)(girl)]] [[with] [(an)(umbrelIa)]]] [[(chase) (d)] [(the) (boy)]]]
c)   Segmentation using a tree diagram
Now, the question arises as to how we should make the cuts. The answer lies in the notion of ‘expansion’. A sequence of morphemes that patterns like another sequence is said to he an expansion of it. One sequence can, in such cases, be replaced by another as the similar sequence patterns will appear in the same kind of environments. Here is an example of similar sequences in expansion that can fit up into the same slot:
i.    Daffodils
ii.   Yellow daffodils
iii.  The yellow daffodils
iv.  The yellow daffodils with a lovely look.
The elements (ii), (iii), (iv) are expansions in the above set, i.e. “daffodils” the HEAD word, whereas the other words in (ii), (iii), and (iv) are modifiers. Incidentally, the set of examples given above can be grouped under the term Noun Phrase (NP).
A noun phrase may be a single word, a single noun or pronoun, or a group of words that belong with the noun and cluster around it. A Noun phrase has in it a Noun (a Head word) and certain modifiers. Generally a noun in a Noun phrase (optionally) has the following modifiers appearing before it in the given order:
Words like: especially, only,      merely,            just,      almost,
particularly, even
Words like: half, double, both, one-third, twice, all of
These words include
(a)  Articles: a/an, the
(b)  Demonstratives: this, that, these, those
(c)  Possessives: my, his, own, Ali’s
Words like: first, third, last, next
Words like: many, several, few, less
Adjective Phrase
good, long, tall, or intensifier and adjective, e.g. good, or adjective and adjective, e.g. good, nice looking
a city college
a leather purse
a summer dress
Here are some examples of noun phrases (shown in the form of tree diagrams) referred to above.
Here are some other examples of NP:
Preposition Phrase
A preposition phrase is a Noun phrase preceded by a preposition, i.e.
Here is an example: On the table
Sometimes, a Noun phrase contains a Preposition phrase embedded in it. In such cases, the Noun phrase can be broken up into NP and preposition phrase. Both can then be further split up. Here is an example:
The Verbal Group (VG)
The Verbal group generally immediately follows the NP in a typical English sentence, e.g.
Raheem                  plays
NP                         VG
Raheem                  is playing
NP                         VG
Raheem                  has been playing
NP                         VG
Raheem                  can play
NP                         VG
The main (or basic) verb in all these sentences is play. The Verbal group consists of the main verb and the auxiliary.
Auxiliary, in turn, is made up of the tense (compulsory item) and any one or more of the following items:
i)    modal (marked by modal auxiliaries like can, may, will, shall must).
ii)   Perfective (marked by have + en, where en is a marker of the past participle morpheme).
iii)  Progressive (marked by be + ing).
Thus, to present the whole information in the form of a tree diagram,
It should be noted that modern linguists admit of only two tenses in English Present and Past. English can express present time, past time and future time but it does not mean that it has three tenses too. Look at the following sentences:
He is playing a match now
(Present tense, Present time)
He is playing a match next Sunday
(Present tense, Future time)
If I went to Karachi, I would bring a camera for you
(Past tense, Future time)
Tense, it may be stated here, is a grammatical category seen in the form or shape of the verb. Normally, in English, tense is realized as
—e(s) (present)
—c(d) (past)
In the expressions will play or will eat, will is in the present tense, the past fort of which is would.
‘The use of modals shall/will is only one of the mechanisms of expressing the future time. Also, will/shall do not always express the future time, e.g.
Shaista will be at home now (Present time).
Also, it should be noted that while tense and the main verb are the compulsory segments of a verbal group, the modal, the perfective and the progressive are only optional items. Given below are some model analyses of some verbal groups.
Adverbials: Any group of words that performs the function of an ADVERB is called an Adverbial. It may consist of a single word, a phrase or a clause. It generally specifies time, place, manner, reason, etc., and modifies a verb, an adjective or a fellow adverb. Given below are some sentences in which the adverbials have been underlined:
She slept soundly
He spoke fluently
We have approached him a number of times.
He smokes heavily.
He spoke in a nice manner.
I shall see you in a day or so.
I went there as first as I could.
She left home when she was a young girl.
Where there is a will there is a way.
He talks as if she were a fool.
IC Analysis of Sentences
A Single sentence is made up of an NP (subject) and a predicate phrase. This predicate phrase, apart from a compulsory verbal group, may optionally have one or more noun phrase(s), preposition phrase(s), adverbials and adjective phrases. Here are a few examples:
i)    Asif has been playing cricket for several years.
ii)   After depositing the fee the boys went to the hostel.
iii)  These girls have been singing nicely.
Limitations of IC Analysis
Immediate constituent analysis has its limitations. It is not possible to analyse such structures, for example, as do not form proper grammatical groups. For example, here is a sentence:
She is taller than her sister.
In this sentence, the sequence -er than is not covered by IC analysis. Such a sequence can be explained iii terms of the following constituents only:
i)    She is tall.
ii)   She has a sister.
iii)  The sister is short.
Similarly, there are several cases of sentences that are ambiguous, e.g. ‘Time flies’. It can have two meanings:
i)    Time is flying.
ii)   Time the flies (Time as verb).
In such a case, only proper labelling can solve the problem. There arc, however, some sentences that are structurally similar but semantically they are different. An oft quoted example is:
i)    John is easy to flatter.
ii)   John is eager to flatter
Such sentences cannot he explained by IC analysis unless they are broken up into simple pairs of sentences. In the case of (i) and (ii) above, one would have the following groups:
i)    (It) is easy. Someone flatters John.
ii)   John is eager. He wants to flatter.
Many a time, overlapping ICs also cause a problem. For example, here is a sentence:
He has no interest in, or taste for, music. This sentence means to convey:
He has no interest in music.
He has no taste for music.
The word no applies to both, interest as well as taste. It is not possible to show this in IC analysis.
Also, IC analysis fails to show such elements as remain unstated in a sentence, e.g. In the sentence
Hit the ball
Who is being addressed? The element ‘you’, is missing here. There is no way of showing this in IC analysis.
Not only that. IC analysis fails to show relationship between sentence types such as active and passive, affirmative and negatives, statements and questions. Look at the following sets of sentences, which though semantically similar, have different structures:
i)    Who does not love his motherland?
      Everybody loves his motherland.
ii)   Asif hit a six.
A six was hit by Asif.
iii)  Everybody in the hall wept.
There was none in the hall but wept.
Grammarians realise the limitations of IC analysis and have to take to other means also (e.g. TG grammar) to fully explain the structure of sentences.
Phrase Structure Rules (PS Rules)
The structure of phrases, as discussed above, can be summed up in the following notation that gives the structure of the concerned phrase in a straight line. Here is a summary m         of the PS-Rules.
S ¾® NP + Pied. phr.
NP  ¾®     Restrictor-Pre-determiner-determiner-Ordinal-Quantifier-(Adjective phrase- Classifier-noun
Pred. phr.   ¾® VG –
Prep. phr.
Adj. phr.
VG ¾® Aux. + V
Aux. ¾® Tense + (Modal) + (Perfective)+(Progressive)
Prep. phr.   ¾® Prep + NP
NP ¾® NP + Prep. phr.

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