conversation and syntax

Frederick J Newmeyer fjn at
Thu Jun 5 18:53:38 UTC 2008

Dear Funknetters,

I think that some of you might be interested in the following paper of mine:

'What Conversational English Tells Us About the Nature of Grammar'

It has become an article of faith among many functional and cognitive linguists that the complex abstract structures posited by generative grammarians are an artifact of ‘disembodied sentences that analysts have made up ad hoc, 
 rather than utterances produced by real people in real discourse situations’ (Michael Tomasello). Their view is that if one focuses on ‘naturally occurring discourse’, then grammar will reveal itself to be primarily a matter of memorized formulas and simple constructions. This paper challenges that view. Basing its claims on a 170MB corpus of conversational English, it argues that the nature of real discourse reinforces the need for a sophisticated engine for representing and accessing grammatical knowledge. At a more specific level, it challenges Sandra Thompson’s claim that evidence from conversation leads to the conclusion that sentential complements (e.g., 'you’re ready to go' in 'I guess you’re ready to go') are not grammatically subordinate.

The paper can be accessed at the following url:

Best wishes,


Frederick J. Newmeyer
Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University
[for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]

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