Finding the subject of a sentence

Perhaps the biggest problem with understanding long sentences is that they seem to be a lot longer than the basic syntax unit. Today we accept that there are seven basic sentence pattern types, where the possible number of obligatory units is between 2 and 4 (SVOC, SVOO and SVOA). Yet a sentence with, for example, eleven words seem difficult to fit into this pattern. The secret is to chunk them into units. Take the following sentence:

A lot of Carp fans are standing by the back entrance.

What is the subject? We know the subject of a sentence is a person (who) or a thing (what). And that in this case “standing” implies a person or people. So ask the question:

Who is (or who are) standing by the back entrance?

The answer is of course Carp fans. If in doubt the entire chunk ‘a lot of Carp fans’ would also be fine to be called the subject.


Incidentally, if you want to know what is the pattern type just think about what is necessary within the sentence.

In the above sentence almost every word is necessary. The only words which can be cut are ‘a lot of’, ‘Carp’ and ‘back’ which gives us

Fans are standing by the entrance.

Words which help nouns are called ‘adjectives’ and are mostly “decorative”. The remainder of the sentence therefore tells all that we need to know, that there are fans and they are standing (implying waiting) by the entrance. This is an SVA sentence. You can say

The fans are standing. 

but that would have a different meaning not implying waiting. Therefore by the entrance is obligatory.

Let it be – words are meant to be “lost”

Charles Darwin would have made a great linguist. In his thinking of life and evolution it is not someone who decides on what survives and what dies. It the larger mechanism of existence that “decides” so. Similarly, words should survive if there is a need for it to do so, not to be forced so because a small group of “elite” thinkers deem it so. If by argument these people can convince the world that it is important for a word to survive then so be it. Those words have a value within the larger picture of a language. But when words that have been lost they should not be revived just because someone has a fetish for signs.

I truly doubt the linguistic survival of ‘snout-fair’ would have any communicative value in English. There are so many other words which could probably give the same nuance. But truly do we need this word in the first place any more that we need a word for ‘man-love’, whatever that would mean.

To give one more analogy trying keep a dying word alive is like continuing to keep a dying medical patient on a life-support just for the benefit of others without regard for the patient’s quality of life (note: there are many cases in which life-support will save an important life). If words are outdated or fall out disuse then there must a reason for it to become so. No amount of life-support will 1) save them, or 2) make the world a better place (as cold-hearted this statement may seem) by them being here.

One

1.
There is something to be said about linguistic determinism, and in particular relativity. Linguistic relativity says that the form or structure of a language influences the way people think, or world-view. The often quoted example is the Inuit people and the words for “snow”. Whereas in English we have snow (and perhaps sleet and slush) the Inuit have at least nine different words for different types of snow. Because of this the Inuits have a “greater” understanding and knowledge of snow and their conditions.

But is this absolutely necessarily true?

The idea that language reflects your thought is better described as relative rather than absolute. If the relationship is absolute then all people of a language will think in exactly the same way.  But this is not true. A talk to two people from the same culture will quickly reveal that people do think differently. And you would be hard pushed to even say there are two people who are exactly identical in their way of thought. Even biological twins who are genetically the same are different in their thoughts and likes. Experience from a first-person or one-person point-of-view will guarantee that we will be different no matter what.

2.
English is a language which takes pains to highlight “one over many”. It is one of the languages which have difference morphological form for the singular and the plural (or not-singular). Is it natural to give the singular priority? Arabic has forms for “one”, “two” and “plural”. And Japanese does not differentiate between singular and plural at all.  Nor does Chinese for that matter. So grammar is really a creation of the mind, of people, to make communication possible. The rules are not set in stone or in the mind as some would like you to believe. As humans we make do with what we have – the physical world – to do things like communication.

In fact all we can do is ‘make do’. But it is important to see that making do with something does not mean it is the only way to the same thing. There is no reason for ‘one’ to be given priority over not ‘one’ … except for may be it is the first thing in an order.

Grammar or experience?

What is wrong with the idea of “universal” in the Universal Grammar of Chomsky? It is that what is taken as being universal is wrong. It is not the grammar in the brain that is universal, but rather it is the human experience that is universal. We all have the same set of senses and mental faculty. We all input the same kinds of sensory and perceptive experience. But we also have the same kinds of choices and decisions to make about language which do not necessarily need to be a brain-module specific to operate. 

“Language is transformational” is partly correct, but it is probably at a more a general rather than being a specific mechanism that uses the properties of reality, sound and image to produce what is language. Certainly we are creatures who like to express themselves and to communicate with other creatures. We are undoubtedly social creatures. 

heaviness of rain

more than white noise
the drone continues
through the night

in dark sleep
the overflow gutters
my one exposed ear
until light reveals
the heaviness
of the rain

frogs frolic wetly
green suits shining
and birds shelter
in the eaves
leaving reluctantly 
at my presence
as warnings come
over the air waves

midnight

peak of darkness
the largest hour

the sun
is at its lowest
hidden beneath
the earth
seemingly
under ground

the stars
pinhole the sky wall
the half-moon
noticeably crawls
across the black

and the air
falls upon me –
my ominous blanket
that keeps me cold

Why syntax over morphology

Over the years of teaching and writing I have noticed how much more emphasis had been given to words (morphology) over sentences (syntax). Perhaps it is because sentences are mistakenly thought of as so much harder to pin down. When people see a sentence of twenty words they think of twenty things. Rarely do they think of the sentence as one thing. In my opinion, a sentence is a unit of complete communication. It is not the only unit to be considered complete. Words, of course, are considered (and taught as) complete units. Fair enough. We can use words out of sentence-context and still get some kind of meaning across, but just not very well. But because of the inaccuracy, it seems logical to work with the unit which best gives a “complete” meaning, instead of working with units which do not make a unit of communication. It is for this reason that I believe that syntax should be given priority in teaching and learning.

Beyond dialogue

With post-Periscope here we now have what can be considered not dialogue but what I shall call plura-logue

Conversations no longer static or deferred but dynamic and immediate. It is also dialogue with one and many simultaneously. 

How to set up and use iPhone VoiceOver for Periscope

Do you want to drive and Periscope at the same time but feel it is unsafe (let alone it being illegal in some places)? Well, there is a solution. It is called VoiceOver.


1. Set up VoiceOver
Firstly, go to
Settings > General > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut
and check VoiceOver


2. Start a broadcast
Now start a Periscope broadcast as you normally do. Once you have set the orientation triple-click the Home Button. Tap once where the comments usually appear on the screen. All comments should now be read aloud as they appear.


3. To stop a broadcast
When you want a broadcast, stop VoiceOver by triple-clicking the Home Button. Then exit as you normally do.


Bonus – To tweak VoiceOver
You can change the voice and speed of the VoiceOver in
Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver

Ben Crystal lectures in Japan

I heard Shakespearean actor, Ben Crystal, talk today. My interest in Shakespeare – which had wained with my miscomprehension or un-comprehension of it in my youth – had returned with the revelation that what I had been watching until now had been inauthentic. Ben had pointed out that modern performances had tended towards Received Pronunciation (RP) even though most of The United Kingdom (98% in fact) do not speak like the Queen. English is not the English of Lawrence Olivier. It is the English of ordinary folk. So watching Shakespeare done in RP is like watching it in another language altogether.

Modelled performances by Ben during the talk in the more natural pronunciation of English in Shakespeare’s time according to Ben meant a return to rhyme (lost in modern pronunciation of words), in a more natural tempo and rhythm (sounding more like the vernacular we recognise as native speakers), and engagement (actors spoke directly to the audience).

Some recent productions I have seen online have tried to return to these values (probably due to Ben and the Globe’s performances from 2005 onwards). These values, though, have always been there. You can still see it in the ordinary non-Shakespearean theatre of English. But the values were taken away (stolen as it were) by a small group some time in the history of the English stage performance. This revision and return is absolutely necessary if we are to appreciate Shakespeare on this day of all appropriate days – Shakespeare Day (23rd April) – once more. Bravo and thank you, Ben.