LINGUIST List 5.1333

Sun 20 Nov 1994

Disc: Native speaker intuitions

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  1. Wayne Lawrence, Re: Sum: Native speaker intuitions

Message 1: Re: Sum: Native speaker intuitions

Date: Sun, 20 Nov 1994 12:41:23 Re: Sum: Native speaker intuitions
From: Wayne Lawrence <>
Subject: Re: Sum: Native speaker intuitions

Marilyn Silva recently summarised responses dealing with "native
speaker intuitions", especially with respect to the sentence 'John
asked Mary to leave'. She notes that several respondents pointed out
that the interpretation of this sentence is determined, at least in
part, pragmatically, and the view that the interpretation is
syntactically fixed is wrong. This point is demonstrated by the
) pair of examples:
) [1] The teacher asked the child to leave the room.
) [2] The child asked the teacher to leave the room.

I am a native speaker of English (New Zealand English), and I am not
a syntactician, so I don't think my syntax is being moulded by my, or
anyone else's, rules or theories, but, in both [1] and [2], I can
only interpret the person being asked (the child in [1], the teacher
in [2]) as being the person required to leave the room. No amount of
) intuition fatigue (which could be summed
) up as "say a weird string 50 times and it sounds good; say a
) good string 50 times and it sounds weird")
has been able to change my interpretation of this kind of sentence.
Perhaps for some people the interpretation of this sentence *IS*
syntactically determined.

The summary concludes with:
) In his post to me, Carson contends that judgment data "can
) provide real, useful data, if we would just be more systematical
) and careful about how we collect them. Of course speakers will
) differ on certain points . . . . the interesting question is whether
) the range of variation we find is systematically constrained in
) ways that interesting theories of grammar can explain."
I agree that (native) speakers will differ on certain points -- my
syntax probably differs from that of most people, and I think this is
probably typical (in my case the following (a) sentences are
ungrammatical and would normally be the (b) sentences:
 1. (a) I promised Mary to leave.
 (b) I promised Mary I would leave.
 2. (a) Candidates are recommended to obtain the booklet.
 (b) It is recommended that candidates obtain the booklet.
 3. (a) John requires to pass the examination.
 (b) John needs to/must pass the examination.
 John requires a pass in the examination.
 S.o. requires John to pass the examination.
 4. (a) I saw the barn red.
 (b) ???

It is important that syntactitions realise that one there are
probably thousands of syntactically distinct Englishes out there, and
I am not talking about socially or geographically definable varities.
There may not be many New Zealand English speakers who share the
above judgments, but *MY* English is no less based on a natural
language grammar than anyone else's. Because the interpretation of a
certain construction may be influenced by pragmatic factors is some,
or even in the majority, of speakers, does not disqualify a purely
ACCOUNTED FOR BY IT. Where there is variation among langauge users,
it is very important not to conflate these differences and try to
base a grammar (syntax/phonology...) on an impure sample.
Untimately, a grammar is an account of an INDIVIDUAL'S language.
Student's who disagree with data are rarely being contentious -- I
contend that they have a slightly different grammatical structure
which is, of course, no less valuable in the search for constraints
on syntactic structure than the teacher's or a "received" English

I heartily endorse Carson's call for more systematic and careful
collection of syntactic data. Think about it -- is YOUR English
really syntactically the same as your colleague's, or your father's?
If not, care must be taken when conflating data from these sources,
and even more care must be taken when conflating data from even more
diverse sources.

Wayne P. Lawrence
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