Mandarin vs English grammaticality

Every learner of Mandarin has, at some point in time, been stymied in their attempt to ask: Is the sentence I just uttered grammatical? The stymying* response is usually along the lines of this: “Welllll, you could say it that way, but maybe you should say it like this.”

You: “But is it grammatical?”

B: “Or you could say it like this…”

You: “Suàn le” (算了 = fuggedaboutit)

Before you start thinking that this is somehow unique to this language community, though, consider that you might just be at the point of trying to ascertain the unknowable. Check out these Chomsky sentences and then visit Jabal Al-Lughat‘s followup post on them to see how fully you agree with Chomsky’s grammaticality judgements vs that of Jabal Al-Lughat readers:

  1. That’s the boy who they intercepted John’s message to.
  2. That’s the boy who he believed the claim that John tricked.
  3. That was a lecture that for him to understand was difficult.
  4. Which book did John wonder why Bill had read?
  5. Which book did John think that Bill had read?
  6. What would you approve of John’s drinking?
  7. What would you approve of John’s excessive drinking of?

Sometimes, English can be pretty loosey-goosey too.


*Boy, spell-checker doesn’t like that no matter how I try to flip Ys and Is, but once I put on the asterisk, it’s fine.

6 responses to “Mandarin vs English grammaticality”

  1. I guess the main point is that it is better to be natural and be ungrammatical than to be grammatical and unnatural. (which was that sentence?)

  2. Zev Handel says:

    A descriptive linguist would argue that, more or less, any natural utterance is a grammatical one. The problem for many of us is that our judgments of what is grammatical are based on what we have been taught is grammatical for our standard written language. But natural speech is not identical to formal written language.

  3. Chris says:

    Grammar in my opinion is only verifiably correct in the early stages of language acquisition, as soon as subclauses come in to play it becomes a lot harder to verify if something that is spoken is absolutely gramatically false or right.
    The bottom line to me is if/or not the emotional content of the sentence is the one that is being conceived by the speaker is clearly conveyed to the listener. This involves intonation to a great extent. Something that is very hard to determine without context or typography.

    This simple sentence to illustrate:
    He ate the apple or HE ate the apple or He ate THE apple.

    This all is grammatically a Subject Verb Object clause, but the emotional content is different everytime, hence the futility of grammar to the advanced language learner and the multitude of ways to get your meaning across.

    The mastery of a language is to creatively use the rules of that language in order to get your meaning across.

  4. Phil Hand says:

    Zev Handel, you infidel! I think your characterization of a descriptivist is a bit broad. Check out Language Log to get to grips with the descriptivist/prescriptivist thang:

    @Syz – while your point in this post is absolutely right, I’d like to remind everyone that we Chinese learners are, in general, a highly-educated bunch with a specific interest in languages. The general population of China (and even of Chinese universities) is not. We should give them a break with these weird-ass language questions that don’t make much sense.

  5. Phil: Gotta disagree with you on the point about us Chinese learners being highly-educated and with specific interest in language.

    I think it’s safe to say a fair number of Mandarin learners are business-oriented people with little interest in language for the sake of language. A great deal more just want to be part of what they perceive to be the future or to just have an adventure teaching English for a couple years. The vast majority of people I know in China who are learning Chinese fall into these categories.

    The other sector, again just in my experience, being graduate students from countries worse off than China who are seeking an education in order to have better work opportunities when they return to Senegal, Vietnam, Mongolia etc.

    As much as I’d like to think that studying Chinese puts me into an exclusive group of elite linguaphiles, I’m pretty sure it’s just not the case. And if you still think it’s true, I welcome you to visit the foreign students’ dormitory at any number of Chinese universities, where you’ll find Mandarin students are just like French students, Arabic students or Japanese students.

    But I do agree on giving them a break with the weird questions. I’ve been guilty of it far too often.

  6. Zev Handel says:

    @Phil — you’re absolutely right, I expressed that position in rather ridiculously broad terms, and you’re right to call me on it. Native speakers make speech errors all the time.

    But I stand by the main point I was trying to make — as soon as you ask someone who has received a formal education (including training in the standard written language) to make a grammatical judgment, they are as likely to try to give you information they’ve learned in school as information that is really relevant to their spoken language.

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