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Classical Scientific Grammar

The end of the 19th century brought a grammar of a higher type, a descriptive grammar intended to give scientific explanation to the grammatical phenomena.

This was H. Sweet's New English Grammar, Logical and Historical (1891).

Instead of serving as a guide to what should be said or written, Sweet's explanatory grammar aims at finding out what is actually said and written by the speakers of the language investigated. This leads to a scientific understanding of the rules followed instinctively by speakers and writers, giving in many cases the reasons why this usage is such and such.

The difference between scientific and prescriptive grammar is explained by H. Sweet as follows: "As my exposition claims to be scientific, I confine myself to the statement and explanation of facts, without attempting to settle the relative correctness of divergent usages. If an 'ungrammatical' expression such as it is me is in general use among educated people, I accept it as such, simply adding that it is avoided in the literary language.

... Whatever is in general use in language is for that reason grammatically correct" 1.

In the words of Sweet, his work is intended to supply the want of a scientific English grammar, founded on an independent critical survey of the latest results of linguistic investigation as far as they bear, directly or indirectly, on the English language.

Scientific grammar was thus understood to be a combination of both descriptive and explanatory grammar. Sweet defines the methods of grammatical analysis as follows: "The first business of grammar, as of every other science, is to observe the facts and phenomena with which it has to deal, and to classify and state them methodically. A grammar, which confines itself to this is called a descriptive grammar. ...When we have a clear statement of such grammatical phenomena, we naturally wish to know the reason of them and how they arose. In this way descriptive grammar lays the foundations of explanatory grammar."

Sweet describes the three main features characterising the parts of speech: meaning, form and function, and this has logical foundations but the results of his classification are, however, not always consistent.

It is to be noted, in passing, that H. Sweet's ideas seem to anticipate some views characteristic of modern linguistics.

Here are a few lines from H. Sweet's work which bear relevantly upon F. de Saussure's ideas about synchronic and diachronic linguistics: "...before history must come a knowledge of what now exists. We must learn to observe things as they are without regard to their origin, just as a zoologist must learn to describe accurately a horse ..."2.

1 H. Sweet. New English Grammar. Logical and Historical. Oxford, 1955, p. 5.

3 H. Sweet. Words, Logic and Meaning. Transactions of the Philological Society. London, 1875—1876, p. 471.


The idea that language is primarily what is said and only secondarily what is written, i. e. the priority of oral is in accord with Sweet's statement that "the first requisite is a knowledge of phonetics or the form of language. We must learn to regard language solely as consisting of groups of sounds, independently of the written symbols ..."1.

The same viewpoints were advocated by other linguists of the first half of the present century, such as C. Onions, E. Kruisinga, H. Poutsma, G. Curme, O. Jespersen, H. Stokoe, M. Bryant, R. Zandvoort and others 2.

According to O. Jespersen, for instance, of greater value than prescriptive grammar is a purely descriptive grammar, which, instead of serving as a guide to what should be said or written, aims at finding out what is actually said and written by the speakers of the language investigated, and thus may lead to a scientific understanding of the rules followed instinctively by speakers and writers. Such a grammar should also be explanatory, giving, as far as this is possible, the reasons why the usage is such and such. These reasons may, according to circumstances, be phonetic or psychological, or in some cases both combined. Not infrequently the explanation will be found in an earlier stage of the same language: what one period was a regular phenomenon may later become isolated and appear as an irregularity, an exception to what has now become the prevailing rule. Grammar must therefore be historical to a certain extent. Finally, grammar may be appreciative, examining whether the rules obtained from the language in question are in every way clear (unambiguous, logical), expressive and easy, or whether in any one of these respects other forms or rules would have been preferable3.

Some 19th-century grammars continued to be reprinted in the modern period, e. g. L e n n i e 's Principles of English Grammar underwent quite a number of editions and Mason's grammars were reprinted by A. J. Ashton (1907—1909).

Numerous other grammar books continue the same tradition. Some of them, in the words of H. A. Gleason 4, are most heavily indebted to J. C. Nesfield, either directly or indirectly.

Published in 1898, Nesfield's grammar influenced prescriptive and to a certain extent scientific grammars of the 20th century, comparable to the influence of Murray's grammar on the 19th-century grammarians. It underwent a number of variant editions, such as: English Grammar Past and Present, Manual of English Grammar and Composition, and Aids

1 H. Sweet. Words, Logic and Meaning. Transactions of the Philological Society. London, 1875—1876, p. 471.

- See: C. T. Onions. An Advanced English Syntax. London, 1932; E. Kruisinga. A Handbook of Present-day English. Groningen, 1932; H. Poutsma. A Grammar of Late Modern English. Groningen, 1914—1521; O. Jespersen. The Philosophy of Grammar. London-New York, 1935; Essentials of English Grammar. London, 1933; G. Curme, A Grammar of the English Language. London-New York, 1931; M. Bryant. A Functional English Grammar. Boston, 1945; H. R. Stokoe. The Understanding of Syntax. London 1937; R. Zandvoort. A Handbook of English Grammar. Groningen, 1948.

3 See: O. Jespersen. Essentials of English Grammar. London, 1933.

4 See: H. A. Gleason. Linguistics and English Grammar. New York, I9G5, p. 72.


to the Study and Composition of English. The latter consists of five parts: Part I contains a series of chapters on Accidence; Parsing, and Analysis of Sentences, all of which are a reprint, without any change, of the corresponding chapters in his Manual of English Grammar and Composition. Part II Studies and Exercises Subsidiary to Composition nearly coincides with what was already given in different parts of the Manual, but has only a new and important chapter on Direct and Indirect Speech. Part III Composition in Five Stages is almost entirely new; Part IV contains two chapters on Idiom and Construction, which are for the most part a reprint of what we find in his English Grammar Past and Present. Part V Aids to the Study of English Literature is intended to help the student in the study of English Literature, both Prose and Verse. The last chapter Style in Prose and Verse is entirely new.

Nesfield's grammar was revised in 1924 in accordance with the requirements of the Joint Compreceded. The revision continued the tradition of 19th-century grammar: morphology was treated as it had been in the first half of the 19th century, syntax, as in the second half of that century. Of the various classifications of the parts of the sentence current in the grammars of the second half of the 19th century the author chose a system, according to which the sentence has four distinct parts: (1) the Subject; (2) Adjuncts to the Subject (Attributive Adjuncts, sometimes called the Enlargement of the Subject); (3) the Predicate; and (4) Adjuncts of the Predicate (Adverbial Adjuncts); the object and the complement (i. e. the predicative) with their qualifying words, however, are not treated as distinct parts of the sentence. They are classed together with the finite verb as part of the predicate. Although grammars as a rule do not consider the object to be the third principal part of the sentence, indirectly this point of view persists since the middle of the 19th century and underlies many methods of analysis.

In Nesfield's scheme, though the object is not given the status of a part of the sentence, it is considered to be of equal importance with the finite verb. In diagramming sentences, grammarians place the subject, predicate, objects and complements on the same syntactic level, on a horizontal line in the diagram, while modifiers of all sorts are placed below the line 1.

In Essentials of English Grammar O. Jespersen aims at giving a descriptive, to some extent, explanatory and appreciative account of the grammatical system of Modern English, historical explanations being only given where this can be done without presupposing any detailed knowledge of Old English or any cognate language.

One of the most important contributions to linguistic study in the first half of the 20th century was O. Jespersen's The Philosophy of Grammar first published in 1924 where he presented his theory of three ranks intended to provide a basis for understanding the hierarchy of syntactic relations hidden behind linear representation of elements in language structures. In its originality, its erudition and its breadth this was the best book on grammar.

1 See: Q. D. Craig, A. Hutson, G. Montgomery. The Essentials of English Grammar. New York, 1941, pp. 213—214.


The book is an attempt at a connected presentation of his views of the general principles of grammar. The starting point of the theory of three ranks is the following:

"In any composite denomination of a thing or person we always find that there is one word of supreme importance to which the others are joined as subordinates. This chief word is defined (qualified, modified) by another word, which in its turn may be defined (qualified, modified) by a third word, etc."1. Distinction is thus made between different "ranks" of words according to their mutual relations as defined or defining. In the combination extremely hot weather the last word weather, which is evidently the chief idea, may be called primary; hot, which defines weather, secondary, and extremely, which defines hot, tertiary. Though a tertiary word may be further defined by a (quarternary) word, and this again by a (quinary) word, and so forth, it is needless to distinguish more than three ranks, as there are no formal or other traits that distinguish words of these lower orders from tertiary words. Thus, in the phrase a certainly not very cleverly worded remark, no one of the words certainly, not, and very, though defining the following word, is in any way grammatically different from what it would be as a tertiary word, as it is in a certainly clever remark, not a clever remark, a very clever remark.

If now we compare the combination a furiously barking dog (a dog barking furiously), in which dog is primary, barking secondary, and furiously tertiary, with the dog barks furiously, it is evident that the same subordination obtains in the latter as in the former combination. Yet there is a fundamental difference between them, which calls for separate terms for the two kinds of combination: we shall call the former kind junction, and the latter nexus. It should be noted that the dog is a primary not only when it is the subject, as in the dog barks, but also when it is the object of a verb, as in I see the dog, or of a preposition, as in he runs after the dog.

As regards terminology, the words primary, secondary, and tertiary are applicable to nexus as well as to junction, but it will be useful to have special names adjunct for a secondary word in a junction, and adnex for a secondary word in a nexus. For tertiary we may use the term subjunct, and quarternary words, in the rare cases in which a special ' name is needed, may be termed sub-subjuncts.

As will have been seen already by these examples, the group, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary, may itself contain elements standing to one another in the relation of subordination indicated by the three ranks. The rank of the group is one thing, the rank within the group another. In this way more or less complicated relations may come into existence, which, however, are always easy to analyse from the point of view given above.

He lives on this side the river: here the whole group consisting of the last five words is tertiary to lives; on this side, which consists of the particle (preposition) on with its object this (adjunct) side (primary), forms itself a group preposition, which here takes as an object the group the

1O. Jespersen. The Philosophy of Grammar. London, 1968, p. 96. 16

(adjunct) river (primary). But in the sentence the buildings on this side the river are ancient, the same five-word group is an adjunct to buildings. In this way we may arrive at a natural and consistent analysis even of the most complicated combinations found in actual language.

There is certainly some degree of correspondence between the three parts of speech and the three ranks here established. But this correspondence is far from complete as will be evident from the following survey: the two things, word-classes and ranks, really move in two different spheres. This will be seen from the following survey given by O. Jespersen.

I. Nouns as primaries are fairly common. Examples are hardly needed.

Nouns as adjuncts, e. g.: Shelley's poem, the butcher's shop, etc.

The use of nouns as adjuncts may be well illustrated by premodification of nouns by nouns. Examples are numerous: stone wall, iron bridge, silver spoon, space flight, morning star, etc.

The use of nouns as subjuncts (subnexes) is rare, e. g.: the sea went mountains high.

II. Adjectives as primaries, e. g.: the rich, the poor, the natives, etc.

Adjectives as adjuncts: no examples are here necessary. Adjectives as subjuncts, e. g.: a fast moving engine, a clean shaven face, etc.

III. Pronouns as primaries: I am well. This is mine. What happened. Nobody knows.

Pronouns as adjuncts: this book, my sister, our joy, etc. Pronouns as subjuncts: I am that sleepy, I won't stay any longer, somewhat better than usual.

IV. Finite forms of verbs can only stand as secondary words (adnexes), never either as primaries or as tertiaries. But participles, like adjectives, can stand as primaries and as adjuncts.

Infinitives in different contexts of their use may belong to each of the three ranks.

Infinitives as primaries: to see is to believe (cf. seeing is believing); to understand is to forgive; she wants to rest.

Infinitives as adjuncts: generations to come; times to come; the correct thing to do; the never to be forgotten look.

Infinitives as subjuncts: to see her you would think she is an actress; I shudder to think of it; he came here to see you.

V. Adverbs as primaries. This use is rare. O. Jespersen gives such examples as: he did not stay for long; he's only just back from abroad. With pronominal adverbs it is more frequent: from here, till now, etc.

Adverbs as adjuncts are not a frequent occurrence either: the off side; in after years; the then methods; the few nearby trees.

Adverbs as subjuncts — the ordinary use of this word-class.

Examples are hardly needed.

When a substantive, O. Jespersen goes on to say, is formed from an adjective or verb, a defining word is, as it were, lifted up to a higher


plane, becoming secondary instead of tertiary, and wherever possible, this is shown by the use of an adjective instead of an adverb form:

absolutely novel absolute novelty

utterly dark utter darkness

perfectly strange perfect stranger

describes accurately accurate description

I firmly believe my firm belief, a firm


judges severely severe judges

reads carefully careful reader

VI. Word groups consisting of two or more words, the mutual relation of which may be of the most different character, in many instances occupy the same rank as a single word. A word group may be either a primary or an adjunct or a subjunct.

Word groups of various kinds as primaries: Sunday afternoon was fine. I spent Sunday afternoon at home.

Word groups as adjuncts: a Sunday afternoon concert; the party in power; a Saturday to Monday excursion; the time between two and four; his after dinner pipe.

Word groups as subjuncts: he slept all Sunday afternoon; he smokes after dinner; he went to all the principal cities of Europe; he lives next door to Captain Strong; the canal ran north and south; he used to laugh a good deal, five feet high; he wants things his own way; he ran upstairs three steps at a time.

In his final remarks on nexus O. Jespersen gives a tabulated survey of the principal instances of nexus, using characteristic examples instead of descriptive class-names. In the first column he includes instances in which a verb (finite or infinitive) or a verbal noun is found, in the second instances without such a form:

  1. The dog barks Happy the man, whose ...

  2. when the dog barks however great the loss

  3. Arthur, whom they say is kill'd

  4. I hear the dog bark he makes her happy

  5. count on him to come with the window open

  6. for you to call

  7. he is believed to be guil- she was made happy


8. the winner to spend everything considered

9. the doctor's arrival the doctor's cleverness 10. I dance! He a gentleman!

In 1 and 10 the nexus forms a complete sentence, in all the other instances it forms only part of a sentence, either the subject, the object or a subjunct 1.

1 See: O. Jespersen. The Philosophy of Grammar. London, 1958, pp. 97, 102, 131.


O. Jespersen's theory of three ranks provides logical foundations for identifying the hierarchy of syntactic relations between elements joined together in a grammatical unit.

The "part of speech" classification and the "rank classification" represent, in fact, different angles from which the same word or form may be viewed, first as it is in itself and then as it is in combination with other words.

No one would dispute the value of O. Jespersen's analysis and deep inquiry into the structure of language. In the theory of three ranks he offered much that was new in content and had most notable merits.

The concepts on which this theory is based is the concept of determination. The primary is an absolutely independent word, the secondary is the word which determines or is subordinated to the primary, the tertiary modifies the secondary and so on. This seems perfectly reasonable as fully justified by the relations between the words arranged in a string, according to the principle of successive subordination.

With all this, O. Jespersen's analysis contains some disputable points and inconsistency.

The very definition of the notion of rank is not accurate which in some cases leads to inadequacy of analysis.

Applying his principle of linguistic analysis to sentence structures, such as the dog barks furiously he ignores the difference between junction and nexus and does not distinguish attributive and predicative relations and thus seems to return to the principle of three principal parts of the sentence.

In his Analytic Syntax, published in 1937, O. Jespersen gives a symbolic representation of the structure of English. Grammatical constructions are transcribed in formulas, in which the parts of the sentence and the parts of speech are represented by capital and small letters — S for subject, V — for verb, v — for auxiliary verb, O —for object, I — for infinitive, etc. and the ranks by numerals 1, 2, 3. As far as the technique of linguistic description is concerned this book may be regarded as a forerunner of structural grammar which makes use of such notations.

O. Jespersen's morphological system differs essentially from the traditional concepts. He recognises only the following word-classes grammatically distinct enough to recognise them as separate "parts of speech", viz.:

  1. Substantive (including proper names).

  2. Adjectives.

In some respects (1) and (2) may be classed together as "Nouns".

  1. Pronouns (including numerals and pronominal adverbs).

  2. Verbs (with doubts as to the inclusion of "Verbids").

  3. Particles (comprising what are generally called adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions — coordinating and subordinating and interjections). This fifth class may be negatively characterised as made up of all those words that cannot find any place in any of the first four classes.

Methods of scientific research used in linguistic studies have always been connected with the general trends in the science of language.

The first decade of the 20th century is known to have brought new theoretical approaches to language and the study of its nature. Thus,

2* 19

for instance, the principles of comparative linguistics have been of paramount importance in the development of scientific approach to historical word study. In the beginning of the present century linguistic studies were still concentrated on historical problems. The historical and comparative study of the Indo-European languages became the principal line of European linguistics for many years to come.

The most widely acclaimed views of language during the past thirty years have been directed toward the development of methodologies for dealing with the structure of a language in a non-historical sense.

The historical comparative method was applied only to the comparative study of kindred languages. But to gain the deeper insight into the nature of language, all languages must be studied in comparison, not only kindred. Modern linguistics is developing the typological study of languages, both kindred and non-kindred.

Towards the end of the 19th century attention was concentrated on the history of separate lingual elements, with no reference to their interrelations in the system of language. This "atomistic" approach was criticised and abandoned. Modern linguistics is oriented towards perfecting the analytical and descriptive technique in historical studies. And this brings new scientific data widening the scope of comparative linguistics and contributing greatly to its progressive development.

The first treatments of language as a system whose parts are mutually interconnected and interdependent were made by Beaudouin de Courtenay (1845—1929) and F. F. Fortunatov (1848—1914) in Russia and Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist (1857—1913).

F. de Saussure detached himself from the tradition of the historical comparative method and recognised two primary dichotomies: between "language" (langue) and "speech" (parole), and between synchronic and diachronic linguistics. "Language is a system whose parts can and must all be considered in their synchronic solidarity" 1.

De Saussure's main ideas taken in our science of language with some points of reservation and explanatory remarks are:

  1. Language as a system of signals may be compared to other systems of signals, such as writing, alphabets for the deaf-and-dumb, military signals, symbolic rites, forms of courtesy, etc. Thus, language may be considered as being the object of a more general science — semasiology —a science of the future which would study different systems of signals used in human society.

  2. The system of language is a body of linguistic units sounds, affixes, words, grammar rules and rules of lexical series. The system of language enables us to speak and to be understood since it is known to all the members of a speech community. Speech is the total of our utterances and texts. It is based on the system of language, and it gives the linguist the possibility of studying the system. Speech is the linear (syntagmatic) aspect of languages, the system of language is its paradigmatic ("associative") aspect.

1 F. de Saussure. Cours de linguistique generale. Paris, 1949, p. 9.


c) A language-state is a system of "signs": a sign being a two-sided entity whose components are "signifier" (sound-image) and the "signified" (concept), the relationship between these two components being essentially correlative 1.

We understand the meaning of the linguistic sign as reflecting the elements (objects, events, situations) of the outside world.

F. de Saussure attributed to each linguistic sign a "value": "Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others" 2. The linguistic sign is "absolutely arbitrary" and "relatively motivated".

This is to say that if we take a word "absolutely" disregarding its connections to other words in the system, we shall find nothing obligatory in the relation of its phonological form to the object it denotes (according to the nature of the object). This fact becomes evident when we compare the names of the same objects in different languages, e. g.:

English horse hand spring

Russian лошадь рука весна

Ukrainian кінь рука весна

French cheval main printemps

The relative motivation means that the linguistic sign taken in the system of language reveals connections with other linguistic signs of the system both in form and meaning. These connections are different in different languages and show the difference of "the segmentation of the picture of the world" — the difference in the division of one and the same objective reality into parts reflected in the minds of different peoples, e. g.:

English arrow — shoot — apple — apple-tree Russian стрела — стрелять — яблоко — яблоня Ukrainian стріла— стріляти — яблуко — яблуня

  1. Language is to be studied as a system in the "synchronic plane", i. e. at a given moment of its existence, in the plane of simultaneous coexistence of elements.

  2. The system of language is to be studied on the basis of the oppositions of its concrete units. The linguistic elements (units) can be found by means of segments, e. g. in the strength of the wind and in to collect one's strength we recognise one and the same unit strength in accord with its meaning and form; but in on the strength of this decision the meaning is not the same, and we recognise a different linguistic unit.

G. Curme's Grammar of the English Language (1931) presents a systematic and rather full outline of English syntax based upon actual usage. The attention is directed to the grammatical categories — the case forms (the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative), the prepositional

1 See: F. de Saussure. Op. cit., pp. 66—67.

2 Ibid., p. 114.


phrase, the indicative, the subjunctive, the active, the passive, the word-order, the clause formations, clauses with finite verb, and the newer, terser participial, gerundial, and infinitival clauses, etc.

Serious efforts have been made everywhere throughout this book to penetrate into the original concrete meaning of these categories.

The peculiar views on accidence, e. g. the four-case system in G. Curme's grammar, are reflected in syntax. Curme discusses accusative objects, dative objects, etc.

Most grammarians retain the threefold classification of sentences into simple, compound and complex, as given in the prescriptive grammars of the mid-19th century. H. Poutsma introduces the term "composite sentence" as common for compound and complex sentences. Some changes have taken place in the concept of the clause (as part of a larger sentence). It is probably under the influence of Nesfield's grammar, where this definition first appeared, that grammarians do not insist any longer, as C. T. Onions did, that in a complex sentence each clause has a subject and a predicate of its own. They take into consideration the structural peculiarity of complex sentences with subject and predicate clauses, where the "main" clause lacks one or both of its principal parts.

As a matter of fact, scientific grammar gave up the strictly structural concept of a clause as of a syntactic unit containing a subject and a predicate, recognised by prescriptive grammar. Beginning with Sweet's grammar, grammarians have retained the concepts of half-clauses, abridged clauses, verbid clauses, etc. Thus, H. Poutsma treats substantive clauses, adverbial clauses, infinitive clauses, gerund clauses and participle clauses as units of the same kind.

E. Kruisinga's grammar is one of the most interesting of those scientific grammars which have retained the traditional grammatical system. Kruisinga criticises the definition of the sentence for its indeterminacy but does not redefine the term. The concept of the phrase was not popular among the writers of scientific grammars. Kruisinga originated the theory of close and loose syntactic groups, distinguishing between subordination and coordination. Closely related to this theory is the author's concept of the complex sentence.

E. Kruisinga's Handbook of Present-day English (1932) presents a new viewpoint on some parts of English structure suggesting interesting approaches to various disputable points in the treatment of phrase-structure.

Setting up two major types of syntactic structures: close and loose syntactic groups he defines them as follows: in close groups one of the members is syntactically the leading element of the group; in loose groups each element is comparatively independent of the other member.

By way of illustration: a country doctor or mild weather are close groups; word-combinations like men and women are loose groups. The individual words are thus left "unaffected by their membership of the group".

Describing the close groups according to their leading member, E. Kruisinga classifies them into: verb-groups, noun-groups, adjective-groups, adverb-groups and preposition-groups; pronoun-groups are

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