Friday, June 10, 2005

Ungrammatical sentences

Over on nerdnyc, a webpage devoted to nerdly pursuits in New York city, my friend Avocadosammich (aka Isa) wrote

We have places for large conventions, it's called New Jersey.

Now she may have been trying to sigbait* me, if so it worked. But I love this sentence. The mismatch in number between the pronoun it and the antecedent places for large conventions makes it ungrammatical by anyone's definition save for the most ardent descriptivist. And yet I can't think of another way to say this sentiment.
Sure, you could say
We have places for large conventions, they're called New Jersey.

But that sounds wrong to me. Maybe the agreement failure between the prepatory they as a subject and New Jersey as the object.
Or what about the fully gramamtical
We have places for large conventions, they're in New Jersey.

But that doesn't get the proper disdain that New Yorkers feel toward the Garden State.
When I asked her about the line she said she intentionally wrote it that way. And that got me thinking about how we can purposly produce sentences that are ungrammatical. This is not news. In fact the whole industry of generative syntax is based on this ability. But, I think it's worth thinking about. It means that we have meta control over our grammars. And, as Paul Postal points out, our grammars have to be able to treat ungrammatical utterances as licit in some sense. Otherwise, we could not say
"We have places for large conventions, it's called New Jersey" is an ungrammatical utterance.

One possibility is that we can treat the stuff in quotes as an unanalyzable unit. Along the lines of
"pfffft" is a fart noise.

Maybe. It seems unsatisfactory. There's a clear difference between an ungrammatical sentence and other nonlinguistic items that might be incorporated into an utterance.

*Sigbaiting is purposely crafting a post so that a person will put it in their sig file.


Isa said...

Finally someone recognizes me genius. Let me ask you though:
I wasn't clear to me what you meant by "the things in quotes". Now, I just have a humble GED, but if the sentence was like so:
We do have "places-to-go", it's called New Jersey, would that make it gramatically correct? Is that what you were saying?

liberal elite said...

You're right to be confused. I think I'm mashing up two different ideas. The first is that we can say (write) things that are ungrammatical, like you did. That seems to mean that whatever knowledge we have about our language is separate from however we actually say things. So we're not in some grammatical straightjacket, forcing us to only say what our language let's us.

I don't think there is anyway, "we do have places to go, it's called NJ" is grammatical.

The second is that we probably have to treat as grammatical, sentence that have ungrammatical parts. Like, that last one. Also, like:

"Merde" is a French word.

Your original sentence isn't one of these I don't think. But the two issues seem related to me at least.

Alexander said...

She broke the rules to make it funnier - you don't expect the change of scale (convention center -> state), and the change of number heightens the humourous effect. It's wittier because it requires us to make that rule break. Or something.


Random Goblin said...

What I think is funniest is that you took her to town for the tricky antecedent problem, but you totally missed the glaring comma splice in the midde of the sentence.

For uber-nerd correctness, it should have read "We do have a place like that; it's called New Jersey."

Comma splices are a personal pet peeve of mine. Maybe because I had a high school English teacher who would dock 50% from a paper for every comma splice. Yikes!

liberal elite said...

Dinging people for grammar mistakes is not my bag of tea. I'll leave that to the grammar nazis. And to be clear, I'm not taking her to town, I'm celebrating her creative use of language and wondering about fundamental aspects of what it means to know a language.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Punctuation is not grammar.

"Comma splices" are stylistic errors, not grammatical ones. I'm not going to quite say that if you can't hear it when it's spoken, it's not grammar (because I don't want the apostrophe police knocking at my door), but really - spelling and punctuation are artifacts of writing.

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