S J Gould and grammar

Doyle Saylor djsaylor at SPAMprimenet.com
Wed Dec 22 21:38:22 MST 1999

Title: S J Gould and grammar
Greetings Comrades,
    On the whole I think Carrol's point about being disappointed about S J
Gould's remarks on knowing English grammar is not a feeling I share.  I have
great failings in terms of expressing myself, I am not an educated man though I
am self educated.  I think that Carrol's point about grammar is not something
one teaches, but is grasped out side of academic structure is correct.  But what
Gould and Phil drive at is the use of writing systems to clearly express
oneself.  And I don't think Carrol adequately answers that point.
Let me give you an extreme case which is probably representative
of large numbers of those bad papers you have read. Many
years ago I had a student for three semesters, two writing
courses and a literature course. I don't think he ever wrote
a complete sentence in all that time. I passed him with C's
the first two semesters. The third semester he was in my
office one day discussing an assignment (a fairly complex
novel) with me. At that time I had a quick memory and was
able to listen to him, memorized his sentences, and cast them
on a mental screen. I realized that he was speaking not
only "correct" English but in fact was speaking in quite
complex and flexible English sentences. (He also had some
very intelligent things to say about the book.) In other
words, orally he was an A+ student in English (and in
the use of English grammar).
In this case what Carrol is giving is the difference between speech acts and
writing systems which does not adequately understand the difference.  There is a
vast gap between the two.  It is ok in my opinion for someone to do as S J Gould
does, which is excel at writing with clarity in English writing systems.  This
is not the same thing as human consciousness.  Human speech is not precisely
grammatical, can be understood without a grammar, hence pidgin languages which
lack grammatical structures in the ordinary sense of codified writing systems
In my opinion to talk about grammar requires having a considerable wide range of
understanding of various areas these debates entail.  At the least it is
important to reference Chomsky's universal generative grammar.  I can't see how
any one can ignore Chomsky.  In other words, one must say explicitly that
grammar is not inherited as Chomsky says, otherwise the term, rule bound, is
virtually meaningless.  And one has to then ground one's views of grammar in the
history of writing systems, not just writing.  Must have some idea of what the
mind does.  For example where Carrol writes that
You do not learn grammar by studying grammar (unless
you already know grammar and don't need to study
it). The main thing belaboring students about grammar
does is make them self-conscious, slow up the writing
process, and create even more interference between
the accurate sentences created in the brain and the
garbage transferred to paper.
I would say this statement reflects in some elementary sense without knowing it,
that neural networks learn things outside the level of consciousness.  Involuntarily
without a sense of rules to the method.  But Carrol doesn't know what I am
talking about and talks in the sense of folk wisdom rather than a materialist
and scientific orientation.  And therefore it is frustrating and backwards
sounding to listen to Carrol make assertions about S J Gould when Carrol doesn't
know enough about the actually existing physical issues involved to give a
grounded materialist answer to the meaning of grammar in human communication.  It
is absurd to say grammar is solely an etiquette.  There is self evidently in
words themselves structure to what they refer.  Nouns and verbs refer to
specific kinds of meaning which are different from each other.  What are we to
make of these differences and to make ourselves understood over the Platonic
ideas of Chomsky?  It is not enough to point at typical sequences of words as
grammatical when there are many examples of speech acts that defie these sorts
of conventions.  But how is Carrol to understand what is materially happening?  While
I agree with Carrol mostly in his comments, I think Phil makes a good and
correct rejoinder defending Gould.  Carrol's remarks are too superficial.
Doyle Saylor

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