‘Why are Good Grammar Books Big?’

Lecture Room 1, Main Arts Building, Bangor University
Wednesday 27 November 2019, 14:00–15:00
School of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics
Professor Raluca Radulescu

‘Why are Good Grammar Books Big?’

 Professor Robert Borsley - University of Essex / Bangor University



Robert D. Borsley

University of Essex & Bangor University

Good grammar books are big. For example, Huddleston and Pullum’s The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is over 1800 pages. Why is this? The obvious answer is that it is because the subject matter – the grammatical system of a natural language – is complex. However, a widely accepted view of grammar suggests that this complexity is illusory. Since about 1980, Chomsky and his associates have argued that grammatical systems are largely the product of assigning values to a relatively small number of innate parameters. On this view, it should be possible to largely replace complex grammar books by lists of parameters and their settings. The idea of parameters is an attractive one, among other reasons because it would explain how grammatical systems can be acquired. However, nearly 40 years after it was introduced, it is looking increasingly dubious. There is little sign of progress towards a plausible set of parameters, and it is fairly clear that languages have idiosyncratic constructions which cannot be seen as the result of parameter-setting. Thus, languages are the complex systems that they appear to be. However, as well as idiosyncrasies, they show broad generalizations and properties shared by families of constructions. A satisfactory account needs to accommodate both the idiosyncrasies and the generalizations and shared properties. An approach which is able to do this is construction grammar. A comprehensive construction grammar account of the grammar of a language will be a lot briefer than a grammar book aimed at the general reader, but considerably longer than the account imagined by proponents of parameters.