Just remember this: the agent of a sentence is the one doing the action of the verb. Consider the following sentences:

(1) The car struck the fence.
(2) The fence was struck by the car.

In both (1) and (2) it is the car that is doing striking, even though in (2) it is NOT the subject. It is the subject that does the action of the active sentence, and the noun of the prepositional phrase in the passive (if the sentence has a prepositional phrase at all) that is the agent.

The linguistic sign

Saussure pointed to that language is mistakenly thought of as a matching of a thing to a name. To him the link is between a concept (signified) and a sound pattern (signifier). The signified is its meaning and the signifier is the “container”. The two together makes the linguistic sign.

The linguistic sign has two characteristics. One is that the link between signified and signifier is arbitrary. There is no natural link or reason that the concept should connected to its “container”. Secondly, the signifier is linear temporally and physically. It is a thing in its own right.

Furthermore, the value of a sign is summarised thus:

A language is a system in which all elements fit together, and in which the value of any one element depends on the simultaneous coexistence of all the others.

And so, “in the language itself, there are only differences“.

Reference: Course in General Linguistics, Saussure.

The origin of English words

About 85% of words in the English language are from three languages – Germanic, French and Latin. 12% are from Greek and other minor languages like Chinese and Japanese. About 4% are proper names.

Different languages had influence on English at different periods in history. Latin was the language of the Church. French came with the Norman conquest, etc.

Finally, these numbers are counting types (dictionary-like count of entries of words) and not actual usage of words (frequencies of individual words).

Active vs. passive sentence structures

One of the reasons (there are many reason but this is just one) why we would like to change an active sentence into a passive one is because we would like to bring the object of the sentence into focus. Consider these sentences:

  1. My brother was hit by a car.
  2. A car hit my brother.

The focus on my brother is far more important than that of the car. So it would seem logical to put my brother in the subject position of the sentence, as in 1. The subject position should be seen as being reserved for more important information, or be the focus of the sentence. So if the sentence becomes a passive structure let it be so if it is appropriate. But when the choice of active or passive is an equally valid one, choose the active. The active is usually clearer and more efficient.


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.