Actants

In any English sentence there are either zero, one, two or three actants.

Actants are the “participants” of the sentence. They are either people or things. In (1) below the action of “to rain” itself is the “zero” actant.

(1) It is raining.

“It” is the dummy subject.

In (2) and (3) the subjects “Peter” and “Charlene” are the actants respectively.

(2) Peter is swimming.
(3) Charlene is a teacher.

In (2) the act itself is performed by the subject “he”. In (3) “Charlene” and “the teacher” are one and the same person. Only one actant is involved in the description of the situation. In (4) and (5) below there are two actants. In (4) they are “Dave” and “the ball”. In (5) they are “the people” and “Hilary”. Since “Hilary” and “he president” are one and the same person we do not count the president as an actant.

(4) Dave kicked the ball.
(5) The people made Hilary the president.

In (6) we have three actants.

(6) Tony gave Leslie a presnet.

They are “Tony”, “Leslie” and “a present”.

Technically, it is possible to have more actants (and more than likely some languages do) but in English our limit seems to be three. More complex sentences will be simple sentences in disguise.

In praise of lexicogrammar

Lexicogrammar is not a word you hear much but those of a certain following – cognitive linguists, functional grammarians, etc – use this word to describe what is traditionally call vocabulary and grammar as one system rather than being two separate systems.

As a researcher in prepositions this is a big deal. It means I (can) treat prepositions as vocabulary, requiring them to be learnt by students when before they were and still are somewhat relegated to the category of grammar. Vocabulary and grammar should not be studied separately. Vocabulary are not individual words to be studied, or looked up when you don’t know the word. Vocabulary only have full function within a sentence, and shine bright within the context of use within communication. Certainly, in Saussurean linguistics the signifier/signified duality of words are an important and enlightening feature. But words are best understood in communicative units, namely sentences. And Saussure will not have argued against that. In fact he argued for it.

Undoubtedly dictionaries are useful tools. But they generally push the learner to think of words as separate objects with separate meanings. Good dictionaries will give plenty of examples of usage but students will generally use the cheapest or most handy dictionary at hand. Today this is the smartphone dictionary and translator. Rarely do they give examples. And for most of the time they give one translation to one word, suppressing the multiple nuanced (often schematically-related) meanings that most words have. I shall talk about this point in another post.

Form and meaning in linguistics

Form in linguistics and language refers to the symbols used to represent meaning. Each form has a particular meaning in a particular context. This cannot be stressed enough. It implies that a form can have different meanings in different contexts. However, the range of meanings for a form is usually limited to a prototype or prototypes based around an image schema to a set of extensions. This is referred to as polysemy (think of the different meanings listed in a dictionary of a particular word).

Note that the relationship of the form to meaning is largely arbitrary. This is quite easily proven to be true. Firstly, if meaning is linked to form then naturally all languages will have the same form for the exact same meaning. This is obviously not true by observation of any two language. Secondly, meaning changes over time for a form. An example of this is ‘gay’. Two hundred years ago this word had meant ‘happy’. Today it signifies a social group. Furthermore, ‘gay’ no longer has negative connotations that it did just 30 years ago.

But in linguistics, it is not form and meaning but form-meaning, one word. The proper terms used for form-meaning, form and meaning are sign, signifier and signified respectively.

Finally, signs can represent either real things or imaginary concepts. As long as these things or concepts are considered coherent they can be given a form, and turned into a sign by a language community.

Sometimes the adverb is obligatory and unmovable

Consider this sentence:

(1) He put the bag down.

The parts of the sentence are He (S) / put (V) / the bag (O) / down (A). The removal of A (adverbial) would render the sentence incomplete. In other words, the A is obligatory.

Some teachers call this sentence SVO but that would make “the bag down” the object of the sentence, which of course is not true. It is true the V and A make a set. We can see this by rearranging the syntax elements to

(2) He put down the bag.

By doing so we can explain it as SVO where put down is the single unit of V. A problem arises when the A is a longer element, and cannot be moved easily like (2). For example,

(3) He put the bag on the overhead baggage shelf.

is a perfectly good sentence and again it is SVOA. But if we try to rearrange it as in (3a)

(3a) He put on the overhead baggage shelf the bag.

we find the sentence to be clumsy and unnatural.

For this reason it is better to teach SVOA rather than try to slim the sentence patterns to less for the sake of brevity. Sometimes this can be too much to be useful.

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.

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. 

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.

Dealing with long difficult to understand sentences

I have talked about the seven sentence patterns here. Those are all simple sentences. A simple sentence contains a single verb, that is, one clause. Complex sentences contain more than one verb, or two or more clauses.

An SVO sentence theoretically can have three clauses, having one each for the subject, verb and object. It is possible to have more clauses (and/or phrases) by adding optional elements like adjectives and adverbs. But the more clauses you add the more complex and difficult it becomes to understand what-is-what within a sentence.

It is advisable not to make add too many clauses to a sentence. If you do find you have created a long and difficult to understand sentence on your hands break it down to two or more shorter simpler sentences.

What is morphosyntax?

Morphosyntax is another word for grammar.

Grammar can be divided into morphology and syntax. Morphology is the study of words and their rules of formation. And syntax is the study of sentences and their rules of formation. Essentially, morphology and syntax are studies of the same thing – formation rules of a language – but at differing “levels”.

By calling it by the transparent term morphosyntax we are highlighting this dualism.

When we talk about word-formation (morphology) we use terms like

  • Noun
  • Verb
  • Adjective
  • Adverb
  • Pronoun
  • Determiner
  • Preposition
  • Conjunction

And when we talk about sentence-formation (syntax) we use terms like

  • Subject
  • Verb
  • Object
  • Complement
  • Adverbial

The term verb unfortunately has “double duty” for word-forming and sentence-forming. So when using the term be careful and clear to your reader/listener as to which meaning of the verb you are trying to convey.

Note also that the sentence-formation terms do not appear in dictionary definitions, indicating most clearly the idea that dictionaries are about words, and not sentences.

Don’t blame the computers for poor scores

Recent PISA score (shown in today’s newspaper) from the OECD has shown Japan has dropped from 4th to 8th in the ranking for Reading. A government official was quoted as saying the lower score was due to the change to an all-computerised testing system, and that students were confused as to how to answer questions. But isn’t it true that all other students from around the world had the same conditions of this new test format?

Either Japan heavily prepares their students for these tests (which I suspect might be true) or they cannot cope with change. 

Think again. The students sitting for these tests are not the same students for the last test. So one must assume some kind of priming (preparing) is occurring here. So I guess it is not the students who cannot cope  with change.