the grammaticality fairy

Over on Language Log, Geoff Pullum argues that this sentence is “clearly ungrammatical”:

  • This accounts for the fact that family sizes of seven, eight, or nine children were common in the nineteenth century but rare today.

– he argues that it doesn’t conform to the syntactic conditions on ellipsis (ie when you supply “were”, you end up with “family sizes of seven … were rare today”, which is illegitimate in English). The facts of syntax, he says, demand that when you have sentences of the form Verb1 + Adjective-phrase + Coordinator + Verb2 + Adjective-phrase, then Verb1 and Verb2 must share the same tense inflection (or both must be untensed) in order for the ellipsis to be possible (ie Verb + Adjective-phrase + Coordinator + Adjective-phrase).

There are several serious commenters expressing reluctance to accept this – and I hate to say it, but I can’t help agreeing. Shimon Edelman says,

The ontological status of “facts of syntax” (or grammaticality that’s independent from acceptability) is the same as that of the tooth fairy: there is no independent empirical evidence for it, and phenomena attributed to it can be better explained by other means.

It’s also reminiscent of this discussion we had earlier in a more phonology-oriented context:

As John Cowan says, “what people (as opposed to parsers) make when they react to natural-language utterances are not grammaticality judgements but acceptability judgements.”

Also a heads-up: I’ll be away from the computer all day tomorrow, and probably for most of Wednesday as well.

6 thoughts on “the grammaticality fairy

  1. Well, after some serious boggling, it turns out he’s objecting to the past tense with “today”. Ie he’d prefer “They were common in the C19th but are rare today” :?


  2. I see. I am wondering whether phrasing it without the ‘are’ emphasises the ‘today’ , whereas including the ‘are’ might emphasise the ‘rare’ aspect instead.


  3. This is where my intuitions break down and i take refuge under my phonologist’s lack of need to worry about such things :) There definitely must be some stylistic choices involved tho – and the fact that so many people are deeply unconvinced about its “clear ungrammaticality” does suggest that it’s not too hideous. I might tentatively suggest that the contrast between common and rare is made clearer without having ‘are’ intruded simply to make the tense match when it’s recoverable enough without overtly including it – but what would i know, i’m only a phonologist :) (I’m also having a feebly early night, early start tomorrow. Need to message you properly at some point soon tho, hope things are going ok!)


  4. Yeah, I always like to think that a syntactician is interested in how words fit together, whereas a grammarian is more interesting in prescribing how they fit together. I like seeing the variation but I leave the cataloguing occurrences and discussion to the English Language scholars.

    Good night and good luck with your early start!


  5. Well, it took me some time to understand what the problem could be with an apparently well-formed sentence. The are/were thing is interesting, but may be an indicator that English really doesn’t have tense! (Though that may be an exagerrated claim, many English varieties are fairly loose about it).


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