The terms ‘word’ and ‘sentence’ are, no doubt, familiar to you. You have a pretty clear idea of what a word is—a sequence of letters bounded by spaces—and of what a sentence is—a sequence of words, the first of which begins with a capital letter, and the last of which is completed by a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark. But if you look again at those definitions of ‘word’ and ‘sentence’, you will notice that they derive from your experience of written language. Think now about spoken language, which, after all, is how most of us experience language most of the time. What kind of definition might ‘word’ and ‘sentence’ have for spoken language? Let us begin with sentences.
How many sentences are there in the following transcription of a spoken dialogue (from Svartvik and Quirk 1980:647)? when I was little we had a garden and we had in Persia and we had about sixteen cherry trees and I used to spend the whole of the cherry season up a ladder till one day M who was our very toothless gardener got a cherry and he opened it and it was a beautiful beautiful cherry and just flicked it with his finger and there was a little worm floating around inside
The features of intonation, pausing and the like have been omitted, but you can imagine how it might be spoken.
It is very difficult to match this spoken extract with the sentences of written text. The speaker has used a very common technique of oral story telling: the use of and to connect actions and events in the story. If we remove most of the ands, as well as the repetition of we had, we shall have something more like the sentences of written English:
When I was little, we had a garden in Persia. We had about sixteen cherry trees. I used to spend the whole of the cherry season up a ladder, until one day M, who was our very toothless gardener, got a cherry and opened it. It was a beautiful cherry. He just flicked it with his finger. There was a little worm floating around inside.
What this demonstrates is that sentences are not primarily about how you write them, but about the kinds of structure that they have. We can talk about ‘sentences’ in spoken discourse, because we recognise structures that correspond to our notions of ‘sentence’ from written text. For example, ‘We had about sixteen cherry trees’ is a structure, or pattern, that is very common: a noun or pronoun subject (we), followed by a verb (had), followed by a noun phrase object (about sixteen cherry trees).
A ‘sentence’, then, is a sequence of words in a structural pattern. The study of grammar seeks to investigate and describe the kinds of structural patterning that a language uses in order to convey meaningful messages between its speakers/hearers and writers/readers. Much of this book is devoted to studying the grammar of English. Now let us examine the term ‘word’.
Count the number of words in the following sentence: His father wants to hand on to him his hard-earned wealth, while his mother desires to put something more valuable into his hand.
As you approached this activity, you probably began asking yourself, ‘What is meant by a “word” in this instruction?’ For example, his occurs four times, so is it counted as one word or four? Hand occurs twice, but the use is different in the two occurrences: it is used first as a ‘verb’, after want to, and then as a ‘noun’, after his. The term ‘word’ is not as straightforward as it first looks. To carry out the instruction in Activity 2, you need to have the term specified more precisely.
In terms of running words, or word tokens, such as might be computed by the word count of a word processor—the sequences of letters bounded by spaces—the sentence in Activity 2 has twenty-three ‘words’. As we have noted, some of these word tokens have the same (spelling): his (4), hand (2)—and to (3). If these are counted each as one word, then the number of words, or word types, in the sentence is seventeen. But this does not exhaust the complexity of ‘words’. We have noted already that hand is used grammatically in two different ways, as a verb and as a noun. Similarly, to is used in two ways: as a marker of the ‘infinitive’ form of the verb, in to hand and to put; and as a ‘preposition’ in to him. You will notice that hard-earned counts as a single word token, even though it contains two ‘words’, hard and earned: they have been combined into a ‘compound’ word. On the other hand, hand on is two word tokens, even though it is a single unit as far meaning is concerned (meaning ‘transmit’). Notice, too, that having selected valuable, the ‘comparative’ is formed by the addition of the word more; whereas, if costly had been selected, the comparative could have been costlier, which would not have increased the word token count. How, then, do we define ‘word’? We need to recognise different kinds of word:
1. Words as units of meaning, or items of vocabulary, such as the headwords in a dictionary. The term ‘lexeme’ is used for words in this sense. So, hand on, hard-earned, mother, into are lexemes.
2. Words as defined by spelling—the sequence of letters bounded by spaces—sometimes called ‘orthographic’ words. The counterpart in speech—a sequence of sounds—would be a ‘phonological’ word.
3. Words as representatives of family variants, such as costly including costlier and costliest. We talked here of a ‘lemma’ and its word ‘forms’. So the adjective lemma COSTLY has the forms: costly (base), costlier
(comparative), costliest (superlative). We note, then, that words have structure: they are made up of sounds in speech and letters in writing. But they also have structure in terms of being made up of elements such as the -er of costlier or the -est of costliest, or the combination of hard and earned in hard-earned. Words themselves enter into the structure of sentences, as we noted earlier. The words (specifically ‘lexemes’) of a language constitute its vocabulary.
In our discussion of the term ‘sentence’, we noted that sentences are best defined in terms of structure. We identified the common structure of ‘We/had/about sixteen cherry trees.’ This sentence, then, has three elements of structure (which are called ‘phrases’), two of which comprise a single word (we, had) and the third a sequence of words. Now identify the elements of structure in the following sentences:
1. The bus is coming.
2. Uncle Jim is walking down the steps.
3. I will take his bag.
4. We can put his luggage in the boot.
5. He looks very fit.
These sentences illustrate some further common sentence structures of English. The first has two elements of structure (phrases): the bus and is coming. The second has three: Uncle Jim, is walking and down the steps. The third has three: I, will take and his bag. The fourth sentence has four phrases: We, can put, his luggage and in the boot. And the fifth has three: He, looks and very fit. You can perhaps perceive some clear patterns and regularities emerging.
In our discussion of words, we noted that some words (lemmas) have what we called ‘family variants’. Our particular example was the adjective costly, which has a ‘comparative’ (costlier) and a ‘superlative’ (costliest) variant. Many, especially shorter, adjectives are like costly in having these two variants. Similarly, many nouns (e.g. uncle) have a ‘plural’ (uncles) and a ‘possessive’ (uncle’s) variant; and most verbs (e.g. look) have a ‘third person singular present tense’ (looks), a ‘past tense/past participle’ (looked) and a ‘present participle’ (looking) variant. Some verbs (e.g. show, sing) have different ‘past tense’ and ‘past participle’ variants (showed, shown; sang, sung). Now list the variants for the following lemmas:
1. green (adjective)
2. fill (verb)
3. goat (noun)
4. mouse (noun)
5. speak (verb)
6. buy (verb)
The adjective green has the expected variants: greener, greenest. Among the verbs, fill has the ‘regular’ forms: fills, filled, filling; speak, however, has regular speaks and speaking (as do nearly all verbs), but has irregular ‘past tense’ (spoke) and ‘past participle’ (spoken); buy, similarly, has regular buys and buying, but irregular ‘past tense/past participle’ (bought). The noun goat has regular variants goats and goat’s; but mouse has an irregular ‘plural’ (mice), but a regular ‘possessive’ (mouse’s). Note that where ‘plural’ and ‘possessive’ combine, goat has goats’, while mouse has mice’s. These word variants, termed ‘inflections’ (see Unit A3), express a number of grammatical choices that speakers/writers may make: singular or plural number, present or past tense, and so on.