Friday, July 06, 2012

Models Of Mind, And Grammar

Okay, so yesterday I wrote this sentence:

I would have liked to attend that party.

I didn’t give it a second thought as I wrote yesterday’s post, however today it occurred to me that the sentence might cause some people to frown. I don’t know. I think some people might say I should have written: I would have liked to have attended that party.

I’m going to put up a quote from a couple of linguists discussing something similar in a bit, but first I’ve got a couple of little things to set up the quote.

First of all, read these two sentences:

I would have liked to attend that party.

I would have enjoyed that party.

The second is obviously correct. The first makes some people frown.

It appears to be a brain thing. Different people, different minds, respond to the same words differently.

Some people will read the first sentence and the meaning will group itself like this:

(I) (would have) (liked to attend) (that party).

Everything fits. The three words “liked to attend” group naturally together into a complex verb arrangement that is past tense because of the ending on “liked.” And the fact that the three words can be easily replaced by the single word “enjoyed” appears to support this approach to grammar.

But that seems silly to some people who naturally, to them, group the meaning something like this and see a mismatch of tenses between “would have” and “to attend:”

(I) (would have liked) (to attend) (that party).

There are different kinds of people in the world. Different kinds of minds.

Here’s another image from “Spider-Man 2.” Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker are arguing because Peter is trying to talk Mary Jane out of marrying the astronaut. Peter says he and Mary Jane have unfinished business with each other. Mary Jane laughs and says they can’t have any unfinished business because they’ve never started anything together. Then they have this exchange:

PETER: “I don’t think it’s that simple.”

MARY JANE: “Of course you don’t. Because you complicate things.”

There are different kinds of people in the world. Different kinds of minds.

This is one of those things that used to worry me. Now I just think people should be true to themselves.

If what some other people call “complications” seem right to a person, then I think that person should go with what seems right to him or her, not what other people think. And, of course, if a person prefers what they think of as “simple” things, then by all means they shouldn’t try to make things complicated to please anyone else.

Here are a couple of scientists discussing grammar and mind:

Sandy loves to walk with Chris
Dale cheats Chris
Chris yells at Dale

What Is a Word?

How accurate is it to think of the three structural elements of these sentences as subject, verb, and object? Of course, from the point of view of conventional grammars, the designation “verb” certainly does not include things as complex as loves to walk with.

In sentences like Chris yells at Dale or Sandy looks for Dana or Dale swims behind Sandy, schoolbook grammars have traditionally grouped the last two words as a prepositional phrase rather than grouping the middle two words as some kind of complex verb form. But these three cases somehow feel different to many people.

With yells at, one can argue either way. The traditional view is that the at introduces a prepositional phrases answering where Chris’s action is directed, and yells, by itself, is that action. However, because one can easily believe that yells at has a one-word synonym in many languages—for example, scolds in English—one could plausibly argue that its two-word status in this sentence is more an artifact of word choice than any indication about the underlying grammatical structure of the sentence.

Grammar as a Model of Mind

The argument might go as follows: to have grammatical names and categories just for the sake of having them seems pretty uninteresting.

Grammatical categories matter only when we believe that they are not purely arbitrary, that they really help us describe, for example, something about how brains process language. It seems unlikely that the rules that live in our brains distinguish between Chris yells at Dale and Chris scolds Dale. A model of mind that treats these two very differently seems unnecessarily complex.

Like yells at, looks for can feel like a single unit, though some traditional grammars would argue otherwise. It is not difficult even in English to find one-word synonyms for looks for and yells at, and it is easy to believe that in some languages the most common way of expressing these ideas uses only one word. However, swims behind seems too specific to have its own special word in any language except perhaps a Dolphin’s language. Follows specifies the relationship between the subject and object but doesn’t say whether they are swimming, driving, or walking. Swims, by itself, specifies the kind of locomotion but not a relationship with another swimmer. The same distinction can be made between house boat and light switch, which can feel like single objects (even though there are other kinds of boats and switches), and green sock, which generates no such feeling.

The difference is important. For one thing, which is more certain to you: that house boat is not house-boat or that green sock is not green-sock? What about greenhouse?

The choices of list items one makes ... can become a rich source of material for analyzing what are meaningful categories in a model of mind.

E. Paul Goldenberg
Wallace Feurzeig
writing in “Exploring Language with Logo”

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