Dogs Dogs Dogs Fight Fight Fight
You might find it strange that, as a writer, I would sit here and tell you grammar is not the most important thing when it comes to writing. Surely as a writer I must be married to the idea of perfect grammar, how can I even begin to suggest that grammar is not the most important thing? Well, the simple answer is, because the most important aspect of any written materials is, and always will be, communication.
Communication is a fundamental challenge for all humans. A conversation between two people is often marred by frequent misunderstandings and an ongoing need for clarification to ensure understanding. Taken to its extreme, we can never really be sure that the person we are speaking to shares the same understanding of the words, sentences and phrases we are uttering, and ultimately, we are limited to merely hoping that they do and carrying on regardless.
This (admittedly bleak outlook) is true of speakers of the same language. Throw in the myriad complications that come with translating complex ideas between two languages, and the vast challenge of communication becomes ever deeper.
Correct grammar is an important tool in this fight against miscommunication. Nonetheless its limitations must be understood, and, as with any tool, it must always remain subservient to the ultimate goal of communication. To put it bluntly; being grammatically correct is no guarantee of being understood.
In this series of articles, we will look at a number of examples that lay bare some of grammar’s inadequacies when it comes to communication. For this first part we will look at the problem recursive grammar poses to the art of communication.
Grammar can be seen as a shared set of rules through which we can collectively appeal to determine a meaning in any given sentence. However, those meanings are not always easily found, and that which is grammatically correct can nonetheless result in sentences that have very low communicative value or acceptability for speakers of that language.
To illustrate, take the following sentence;
Dogs dogs dogs fight fight fight.
For most English speakers, the immediate reaction is that this sentence is sheer nonsense. And yet, it is grammatically correct. Let me explain;
That is a grammatically correct sentence and you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t agree. Dogs fight, cats chase, Dave smokes, haters hate. Noun plus verb equals sentence is the general rule of English grammar. So far, so good.
How about this;
Dogs that dogs fight.
Well, this constitutes what is sometimes called a noun phrase formed from a noun (dogs) plus a relative clause (that dogs fight). However, in this case, we do not necessarily require the relative pronoun ‘that’ and we end up with;
Dogs dogs fight.
Thus also, mice cats chase, cigarettes Dave smokes, and people haters hate. The thing about noun phrases however, is that for the most part, they operate according to the same rules as nouns. Thus:
Dogs that dogs fight fight.
Remember that rule above, that a noun plus a verb equals a sentence? That is all we have done here. Taken a noun or noun phrase and added a verb to make a sentence. Similarly; mice that cats chase run, the cigarettes that Dave smokes smell, and the people that haters hate forgive. Again, we do not need a relative clause, and we get;
Dogs dogs fight fight.
But why stop there? We can add another noun to the start to form an even greater noun phrase, and a subsequent corresponding verb to complete the sentence. And, so the argument goes, we can do this ad infinitum. This is called recursive grammar and, while utterly confusing and not very good at communicating what it is the speaker wants to say, it is nonetheless a grammatically correct sentence.
In this case, the sentence is communicating the idea that a very particular set of dogs (those that fight dogs) are involved in some or other act of fighting. One might point out that this is rather redundant, but other examples of recursive grammars do provide non-redundant information (for instance, see Blur’s 90s Britpop classic ‘Girls and Boys’).
The overriding point is that being grammatically correct has not guaranteed our goal of communication.
In part II, we will look at the approach of corpus linguistics and the argument that ‘grammar’ exists as a fluid and changing concept that cannot be tied down to a particular set of rules.
 It should be noted that each take a slightly different academic approach and use arguments from often conflicting linguistic theories. The ideas here are contentious and are provided solely as a means to foster debate rather than expound one particular view over another.
Author: Tom Rennell, Head Writer, Global Communications