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Unofficial Rules Native speakers don’t realize they know

It can be shocking to realize that we can obey grammar rules that no one has specifically taught us. But that’s exactly what most of the language is – not the little things that textbooks tell us we’re wrong, but the solid things that we always get right. Non-native speakers might misunderstand them, however, and this gives us a great opportunity to peek at the rules that we might otherwise not notice.

1. Why it is “Great Green Dragons” and not “Green Great Dragons”

In 2016, the BBC’s Matthew Anderson tweeted about a rule that “English speakers but don’t know we know”

;. It was a screenshot of a passage by Mark Forsyth The elements of eloquence The reason why “big green dragons” sound better than “green big dragons” is that we unconsciously follow a rule that says that the order of adjectives in English is of opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin- Material-purpose. Size comes before color, so no “green big dragons”.

2. Why we say “my brother’s car” and not “my brother’s car”

There are two ways to express ownership in English, one with the property marked on the owner (my brother’s car) and one with a “from” phrase (my brother’s car). Teachers and instruction manuals usually don’t give you rules that tell you why “my brother’s car” sounds bad but “my house door” sounds good because no one even thinks to say “my brother’s car”. But why not? Finally, languages ​​like Spanish and French use this type of construction (my brother’s car, my brother’s car). Why does “my brother’s car” sound so much better than “my brother’s car” but “the door of my house” sounds the same or worse than “the door of my house”?

We don’t know, but we make these sentences with reference to something called the animation hierarchy. The hierarchy in this case is basically a scale in decreasing order of humanity, ranging from humans to animals to inanimate objects. The more animated the owner is, the worse the construction sounds. So,

“My brother’s car” sounds better than “my brother’s car”

“My parakeet’s cage” sounds a little better than “my parakeet’s cage”

“The door of my house” sounds the same or worse than “the door of my house”.

Of course, there are considerations such as conversational context and rhetorical effect that lead to exceptions to this rule, but this explains a huge difference in the relative acceptance of these two syntactic decisions. For example, “town hall” can be understood as a lifeless building (“the steps of the town hall”) or as a gathering of people (“announcement of the town hall”).

3. Why it’s “Abso-Freakin’-Lutely” and not “Absolute-Freakin’-ly”

There is a way to highlight a word in English that involves adding an expletive in the middle of the word – but not somewhere in the middle. While abso-freakin’-lutely sounds right ab-freakin’-absolut and absolutely damn it sounds awful. Here is a rule that has to do with the syllable structure of the word. Essentially, find the syllable with the most stress in the word and put the swear word in front of it. Kalama freakin ‘ZOO. Im-bloody-PORtant, la-freakin ‘-Sagna.

Things get difficult when the only stress is on the first syllable (YESter freakin ‘day? ELE Blood Phant?) or if there are other, more separable boundaries in the word like a- or Re- (unfreakin’-beLIEVable and re-freakin’-poSSESSED, are better than unbe-freakin’-LIEVable and repo-freakin’-SSESSED), but these exceptions can be categorized and explained. The important thing is that there is a rule and we already know how to apply it, even if we cannot specify it.

4. Why do we say “What did you say he ate?” and not “What did you mutter that he ate?”

When we ask a who / what / where / when / why question in English, there is usually a place in the sentence where the answer would fit if it wasn’t a question. For “What did you eat?” The corresponding sentence is: “I ate __ [potatoes/an apple/my breakfast …]. “For” Where did you go? ” The corresponding sentence is: “They went __ [to the beach/to lunch/downstairs …]. ”

Linguists talk about these kinds of issues in relation to movement; It is as if the ‘wh’ word has moved from the non-questionable sentence slot to the beginning of the sentence. Wh movement can also occur from phrases far from the beginning of the sentence. “What did you say that the beginning of the movie reminded you?” corresponds to “You said that the beginning of the film reminded you of __ [moving day/the weather report/ancient Greece…]. ”

But there are many cases when you cannot do this type of movement. For example, for these complex, long-distance cases, the main verb of the sentence must belong to a certain class of verbs that linguists call bridging verbs. Say is a bridging verb (“What did you say he ate _____?”), but verbs that contain the way in which something was said (mumble, scream, to whisper, under) are not. So “What did you mutter about that he ate ___?” Sounds terrible. We don’t make such sentences because we know the rule, even if we don’t know that there is a rule.

5. Why is it “I cheered up my girlfriend” and not “I cheered her up”

English has a group of verbs known as phrase verbs that are a huge headache for language learners. These are verbs that are made up of several words and together have a different meaning than what you would expect from a simple combination. For example bust is a phrase verb because it means “to explode”, not “to blow up”. You just have to learn what these mean. They are verbs like cancel (cancel), go over (Review and lie down (Insult). There are hundreds of them.

Phrasal verbs don’t all work by the same rules. Some don’t allow an object to come between the parts of the verb: you can say, “Don’t pick up on your sister ”, but not“ Not choose your sister on. ”But other phrase verbs can also be separated: You can say,“ Let’s cancel the meeting ”or“ let’s Call the meeting out. “Native speakers know which are separable and which are not without ever reading a rule book. Non-native speakers need to learn the difference through careful experience.

But that’s not all. Even the separable verbs have a limitation that native speakers never explicitly learn about. heads up is separable. You can say, “Me cheered my friend above“Or I cheered up my friend. “But if you want to replace my friend with a pronoun it is Got to be placed between the parts of the verb. You can’t say “I. cheered up they “only” me cheered her above. ”Pronouns are not a problem for the inseparable verbs:“ Don’t pick up on her.”

In the rest of English grammar, you can use a pronoun anywhere you have a noun phrase. Not in this case. But you already knew that, even if you didn’t know.

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