conversation and syntax

Tom Givon tgivon at
Fri Jun 6 01:49:22 UTC 2008

The paper Fritz mentioned is surely worth reading (I have, a while 
back). It makes two important point, one explicitly, the other 
implicitly. (i) (explicit) That there are no independent syntactic tests 
showing that V-COMP constructions behave like a simplex rather than 
complex clauses. The examples of the two usage of V-COMPS, the 
"direct-speech-act" ('grammaticalized') use and the "complex" use 
(Diessel 2005) have not been shown to differ syntactically, only 
semantically. That is:

Direct speech-act: I know she's not coming
Complex use: He knew she wasn't coming.

(ii) (implicit) That semantic grammaticalization does not automatically 
lead to immediate syntactic grammaticalization. In diachrony (and 
on-line communication, its progenitor) quite often form lags behind meaning.

There is another point Fritz does not make explicitly in his paper, but 
it is still implicit in his discussion. This is part of his earlier 
agenda about "Grammar is grammar and usage is usage". Or, as corollary, 
that usage frequencies are irrelevant to synchronic grammar. In the case 
of Sandy Thompson's original paper, I think usage frequencies may be 
very interesting for understanding what grammar does, or how grammar 
arises both diachronically and developmentally. Both Fritz and Peter 
Harder have criticized Sandy's paper for claiming that the 
grammaticalized speech-act usage of V-COMP constructions is the "basic" 
use, and ignoring the "complex" use. This of course depends on which 
genre of language use is "basic". The grammaticalized use certainly 
predominates in spoken language. But in adult spoken language the 
"complex" use is already entrenched, and in certain usage context 
(talking about the past) may even predominate.

In diachrony, there is strong tho by no means conclusive evidence that 
the direct speech-act usage is earlier, and that the "complex" use 
follows. And Diessel (2005) documents fairly conclusively that the same 
is true in early child language development. So while usage frequency 
(and its gradual change) may not interest Fritz, I think it interests 
many of us who look at grammar not only as a synchronic entity, but also 
as a product of developmentt, be it evolutionary, diachronic or 

There is a web site for the Rice 12th symposium (Rice U., Linguistics 
Dept.) where two of my papers on this topic are lodged (one on the 
diachrony of complex VPs, the other on the acquisition of same). I lost 
the specs for this web site, but more astute minds can probably find it.

Cheers, TG


Frederick J Newmeyer wrote:
> 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,
> Fritz
> 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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