Grammar rules, OK!

I am the Roman Emperor, and am above grammar
Emperor Sigismund

La grammaire qui sait régenter jusqu'aux rois
(Grammar which can govern even kings)
Molière, Les Femmes Savantes


Lonely Hearts sentences are English sentences

In discussing the Lonely Hearts environment, we noted that the interrelationships between the component procedures - represented in the call diagram - were a direct expression of the hierarchical (or constituent) structure of the advertisements generated by a call to lonely. At the time, we took the line that advertisements have hierarchical structure more for programming convenience than anything else. If we had been more intent on taking advantage of this notion as linguists, we might, for example have concluded that at the highest level each advertisement, each mini text, consisted of two sentences - the first being a statement of intent, the second providing the contact instructions. But, one thing we would have quickly realised is that, although this two-part text structure may indeed be a feature of many newspaper small ads, any genuinely linguistic hierarchical structure within the two constituent sentences is not a function of their role in any advertisement. It stems simply from the fact that they are sentences of English, even if perhaps marginally abbreviated.

Take the first example that lonely returned to me a moment ago:

TORY WIDOW 31 YEARS SEEKS INTELLIGENT BOY SCOUT 81 YEARS FOR HELP WITH HOMEWORK. PHONE 86 82 62 OFFICE HOURS.

I have inserted two full stops (periods) which lonely did not provide. If I now go on to 'restore' the word old after years (twice) and the word during before office (all of which were no doubt omitted to keep down the cost), then each sentence conforms to a common pattern in the language at large. Indeed, if we assume that there is a you which is 'understood' at the start of the second sentence, they might both be considered instances of one and the same pattern. In other words, one general formula - Subject + Verb + Object + Adverbial-Phrase - covers both.

The Lonely Hearts structures are all around you

To demonstrate that pairs of sentences with these structural characteristics are not exclusive to Lonely Hearts advertisements, we have only to combine other English sentences of the same structure and see that they can be used together in quite different situations.

Try:

Mum's made a cup of tea for you. Drink it now.

or

Two aircraft are circling the convoy all the time. Take a look on the radar.

And if we take each sentence as a separate entity, it is even easier to construct variants on the structure. For example, following the pattern of the first, we have:

A cell can supply a current of 1.2 amps through two 2 ohm resistors connected in parallel

or

The Association has many local branches throughout the country.

Of course, if you are only to be convinced by well attested instances, then you should take:

You don't want no pie in the sky when you die, You want something here on the ground while you're still around (Muhammad Ali)..

That's one small step for a man. (that's) one giant leap for mankind. (Neil Armstrong's own version of his moon landing message)

Similarly, following the pattern of the second sentence, you can say:

Give a brief explanation in terms of kinetic theory

or you can trot out well worn examples:

Say it with flowers

Drinka pinta milka day

Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag

Play it again (Sam).

A table draws out the parallels:

Notice that The second master of the school has been teaching my sons Euclid since Thursday last (which you met earlier) has also the same pattern except for the extra noun phrase my sons which appears after the verb:

The second master of the school // has been teaching // my sons // Euclid // since Thursday last

Son of Lonely Hearts - a sentence generator?

If the sentences created within Lonely Hearts are just English sentences and if the internal hierarchical structure of sentences can be directly encoded in the interrelationship between the procedures of such a system, then it might seem a feasible project to convert Lonely Hearts into a sentence generating mechanism - i.e. to use the general framework to implement a working grammar of a language. Indeed, it may even seem more sensible that the original idea, since it is precisely because the constraints on sentence internal structure are tighter than the constraints on the structure of texts that linguists have normally restricted their attention to sentences, taking these to be the largest units about which it is possible to formulate explicit rules.

Let's see how this can be done



Ron Brasington
Department of Linguistic Science
The University of Reading
Reading
UK

E-mail: ron.brasington@rdg.ac.uk