conversation and syntax

Paul Hopper hopper at
Mon Jun 9 12:06:33 UTC 2008

Dear Colleagues,

In Fritz Newmeyer's article on conversation and syntax, he gives the following example of a text in which an analysis in terms of formulaicity and formulaic fragments would be impossible:

A: hi  
B: hi so did you hear what the topic is
A: yes it's about terrorism right  
B: yeah  
B: um  
A: so what are your feelings on that [laughter
B: i have [laughter] i personally can't imagine anyone staying 
calm [laughter]
A: yeah nor can i yeah 
B: um you would even i- though if you're panicked i would assume you would try and  
B: keep your head clear enough to act to protect yourself but  
A: right  
A: yeah i don't know if there was an explosion or something 
i don't it it's a shock so i don't know that anybody can really think about it and
control themselves 
B: um  
B: right even with all the um  
B: (( [sigh] the ))  
B: the publicity and media coverage you know that's been on 
that topic 
A: (( [mn] right ))
B: twenty months it's still um  
B: is something that you wouldn't be  

Newmeyer writes (MS p. 13): "There are certainly formulaic expressions here: hi, right, take in stride, I don’t think, and possibly a few others. But in other respects the transcript reveals a sophisticated knowledge of syntax that defies any meaningful analysis in terms of ‘fragments’. The speakers know how to handle purpose clauses, wh-inversion, relative clause attachment, participial complements, and much more. If these are somehow to be subsumed under the rubric of ‘fragments’, then I would say that this infinitisemally small sample of natural speech would have to contain at least two dozen fragments. How many more would be needed to describe a typical speaker’s daily output?"

Regarding Fritz's last statement: Dwight Bolinger said somewhere that there's a reason the human brain has trillions of cells...! Well, I identified the groups of words that I would suspect are formulaic and typed them into to see if they were as unique (and therefore syntactic) as Fritz claims. The results are, it seems to me, consistent with the idea that the speaker is indeed stringing together formulaic fragments. The statistics are Google's, of course--they are rough and may fluctuate with different trials.
- Paul

did you hear what the topic is\ "Topic" doesn't occur, but about a dozen other NPs do; the formula is: \did you hear what the * is\.

it’s about terrorism\ occurs 5,240 times

what are your feelings on that\ occurs 266 times

can’t imagine anyone\ occurs 387,000 times; 

staying calm\ occurs 275,000 times

nor can I\ occurs 1,210,000 times

you're panicked\ occurs 2,090 times

i would assume you would try and\ occurs twice

to keep your head clear enough to\ occurs 14 times.

to act to protect yourself\ occurs 14 times

if there was an explosion or something\ occurs 6 times (!)

it's a shock\ occurs 98,400 times

i don't know that anybody\ occurs 17,900 times 

can really think about it\ occurs 69 times

control themselves\ occurs 406,000 times

even with all the publicity\ occurs 190 times

media coverage\ occurs 295,000 times

on that topic\ occurs 2,970,000 times

in the last twenty months\ occurs 1,070 times [NB specifically with "twenty", not just any number!]

something that you wouldn't be\ occurs 140 times

able to take in stride\ occurs 289 times


> Dear Colleagues,
> What is to be the nature of Funknet?
> Most of us would think of it as an arena in which we can discuss topics
> within the/a functionalist paradigm by swapping ideas in an ongoing
> conversation. However, the polemical "article of faith" abstract Fritz
> Newmeyer has sent round contains no empirical arguments, so it cannot be
> responded to without reading the entire article. The controversial points
> he makes in the article will basically go unanswered in this forum simply
> because the genre of email doesn't permit a paradigm-level response. Only
> another article can respond to an article. So Fritz gets to trash someone
> else's work in public on the basis of a promissory note.
> It would be sad if Funknet became a clearing house for the exchange of
> titles and abstracts rather than the actual discussion of ideas.
> - Paul
>> 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'
>> ABSTRACT 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]

Prof. Dr. Paul J. Hopper
Senior Fellow
Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Paul Mellon Distinguished Professor of Humanities
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA5213

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