Grammar: Making Sense of the Linguo

In any language we have to do two things in order to make sense:

(a) use the right words, and

(b) put them together ‘correctly’

(a) is just about learning the words and expressions of the language. (b) is using the grammar of the language: it’s about learning the rules of ‘what goes where’ and ‘how to play‘. This one often goes by trial and error and it’s perfectly ok.

But when we try to learn these rules, new words pop up: is it really useful to learn what a pronoun, a preposition and an object are? Mostly, yes. Because they will help you in getting to the next level of fluency by understanding the language you’re learning.

These grammar words are a classification system. They belong to two categories:

  • the words in the first category define the nature of a word,
  • those in the second category define their role in a sentence.

Using a philosophical analogy, they answer very different questions about the vocabulary.

  • nature of a word: ‘What am I?’
  • role of a word: ‘What am I doing here?’

Below we review them quickly. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I will use English as an example.

The nature of words

Intuitively, the words ‘cat’ and ‘brown’ can go together. A brown cat. But can they be separated and still mean anything at all in a conversation? Yes for ‘cat’: you can point and shout ‘Cat!’ if one shows up and you don’t know how to say ‘Oh look at this pretty cat that just jumped on the sofa!’, and people will understand you. You cannot do so with ‘Brown!’ (try it if you don’t believe me).

These two words belongs to different categories: ‘brown’ is a description, while ‘cat’ is a living thing. You can use many different words to describe a cat: ‘playful’, ‘soft’, ‘white’ etc, and you can describe many living or inanimate things with these: ‘children’, ‘toy’, ‘table’ etc.

The words used for living or inanimate things are nouns. The words used to describe them are adjectives.

Same with verbs: ‘run’ can be described too: for example you can run quickly or slowly. ‘quickly’ and ‘slowly’ are called adverbs.

In English there are thus eight categories of words:

  • nouns and pronouns: all the things, living or inanimate, real or abstract
  • adjectives: to describe the nouns
  • verbs: the action words
  • adverbs: to describe the actions
  • determinants: to specify which nouns we talk about (the, a, two, these…)
  • prepositions: to put things in relationship one with another (on the table, under the bed…)
  • conjunctions: to make complex sentences (and, or, while…)
  • interjections: stand-alone sentences, mostly for surprises (Oh! Alas!)

Once you understand this classification, you can understand the mistake you made when you said ‘a quickly car’, since you cannot describe a thing with a word used to describe an action. You now understand which words can go together. In the same way, when you meet a new unknown word, you  have an idea of what it is used for. In your question: ‘a what cat??’, you know that the word you expect is a description.

Ok, now what do I do with them?

You can only go so far with the classification of the first category. You can say ‘Pretty cat’, ‘run quickly’ but that’s about it. In order to have more substantial conversations, languages such as English rely on placing the words in a specific order around the core of the sentence: the Verb Phrase.

The Verb Phrase is made of the one or more words that describe the action, eg ‘run’, ‘walk’, ‘have been cooking’, ‘may come’ etc. The Verb Phrase is the axis of the sentence, it’s most important element.

Now, in a very general sense, an action has two ends: a doing and a receiving end. An action is usually done by something or someone (the doer) and can be done onto something (the receiver). The doing end is called the Subject, and the receiving end is called the Object. Subject and Object are phrases, ie they can be composed of several words.

For example, consider this simple sentence: ‘I eat an apple’. The action (Verb Phrase) is ‘eat’. ‘I’ is the Subject and ‘an apple’ is the Object.

That’s easy. But in the following examples, you see why it is important to place the words correctly. Indeed the two sentences

James called William
William called James

are almost identical, except that the places of ‘James’ and ‘William’ are reversed around the Verb ‘called’. And because of that we understand that the person who made the phone call is not the same in each sentence.

Other languages can have different ways of differentiating the Subject from the Object, but we’ll get to that another time.

The order we just looked at is called S-V-O, for Subject-Verb-Object. A language doesn’t always follow the same order: in English for example, questions start with the Verb. And then, different languages can follow a different word order. In Hindi, the standard order is Subject-Object-Verb (S-O-V). SVO and SOV are the two more common word orders, but they are not the only ones: Gaelic follows a rarer VSO.

This is a simple model, which doesn’t look deep into the structure of questions and the complex Verb Phrases. But simple as it is, this is sufficient to be helpful to a language learner.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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