LINGUIST List 6.20

Thu 12 Jan 2095

Sum: Grammatical relations and Derived notions

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  1. Bernard Comrie, Grammatical relations and Derived notions

Message 1: Grammatical relations and Derived notions

Date: Tue, 3 Jan 1995 07:15:48 -Grammatical relations and Derived notions
From: Bernard Comrie <>
Subject: Grammatical relations and Derived notions

About two months ago I posted a query which, somewhat abbreviated, ran as

"For some time, I have been puzzled by a claim that I come across
frequently in the formal grammatical literature, namely that SINCE
grammatical relations are derived, THEREFORE they cannot be referred to by
the grammar. More specifically, my puzzlement is not concerned with why
some people believe both that grammatical relations are derived and that
grammatical relations cannot be referred to by the grammar, but rather with
why they think the second belief follows necessarily from the first. I
would be grateful for any enlightenment on this issue."

My query didn't elicit a vast number of responses, so maybe I should
conclude that people aren't really interested in this issue, but for those
who might be interested I will summarize the responses.

First, no one defended the position that I criticized. Indeed, the general
tenor, explicit or implicit, of the responses is that the position is
erroneous. I am thus inclined to continue believing that it is an error
that has unfortunately crept into the literature, one which I hope will
disappear. Some people pointed to other specific examples in linguistics
and other sciences where derived notions play a crucial role, making it
meaningful to argue about what are the correct derived notions.

Second, some people suggested that those who appear to make the claim in
question might really be trying to say something different (e.g. simply
that the grammar should not refer directly to grammatical relations). But
examination of the two most recent instances that I encountered, and which
prompted me to post the query, shows that they only make sense if the claim
is interpreted literally as I suggested.

Third, some people asked me to cite references to where the claim is made.
I prefer not to do so. (1) It isn't my aim to embarrass anyone in front of
the whole LIST; there are others who are much better at that than I am. (2)
It would be unfair to the authors of the two instances that I encountered
most recently and which I remember--I don't see why I should cite them,
especially as they are linguists whose work I respect--while those I happen
not to remember go uncited. I will be happy if the erroneous claim doesn't
appear in future.

I am grateful to the following for their responses: Dan Finer, F. Lehman,
Adam Meyers, Fritz Newmeyer, Sebastian Shaumyan, Jean-Roger Vergnaud.

Bernard Comrie (

Bernard Comrie
Dept of Linguistics GFS-301 tel +1 213 740 2986
University of Southern California fax +1 213 740 9306
Los Angeles, CA 90089-1693, USA e-mail
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