Hypercorrection, schemata and UG

A student asks why “she and I” sounds so much better than “I and she.” A simple, but resonant question — the bias for the former has the strength of a grammatical intuition, the stuff syntactic theories are made of. So it’s not a trivial question. Evidently the schemata that we learn, especially, I imagine, those we learn at an early age, embed themselves deeply — and inflexibly — alongside our original and much more flexible, productive grammar.

Corrections, including hypercorrections like just for you and I, fall into the category of memorized forms along with formulaic and schematic utterances. Their relation to the grammar of the language is incidental, but they are strongly imprinted on memory, in some ways more inflexibly than grammatically generated forms. They show up in places where the standard forms no longer carry any grammatical function. Along with formulae and schemata, they are a part of language deeply embedded, but agrammatical. They show some instructive contrasts with forms grammatically generated.

Maybe a word first about the “original” grammar. Such structures as “Me and my mom went to Disneyland” are frequent in many “non standard” dialects of English. Yet the same speakers who naturally utter them would never say “Me went to Disneyland.” That’s Tarzan-talk to them. Concluding that these speakers are speaking ungrammatically or failing to be consistent in their speech would miss the point utterly and entirely.

The point not to be missed is this: oblique case — or whatever you want to call the me form — is not really the accusative or dative grammarians claim it to be. The me form seems to be a reflex of distance. Conjunction (and), though it seems pretty simple, actually introduces significant distance between subject and verb, assuming the basic structure of the language to be a context-free grammar with some modifications (see below, “Syntax for the uncertain”). If the “me” form is induced by such distance, we have an explanation for the “me and her went” dialect, which seems to be the default mode for English, since it turns up untaught in so many dialectal varieties, whereas the “she and I” variety seems to turn up only in the taught versions of English.

In other words, “me and her went to Disneyland” reflects the natural grammar of English; “she and I went” reflects a crude human intervention, entirely ignorant of the underlying complexities — and power and beauty — of the grammatical machine structure.

Note an important contrast: in the untaught variety, “Her and me went to Disneyland” is also possible, though less likely; in standard, “I and she went to Disneyland” just doesn’t sound right. Sounds awful. Yet “I and she” is easy to understand. That’s one mark of memorized form as distinct from grammatical form: violations of grammar are usually uninterpretable gibberish, while violations of memorized forms may sound odd but still be comprehensible.

The difference between a grammatical reflex and a memorized scheme

There’s no question that we use formulae and schemata all the time in our speech. We repeat the same structures over and again with different words, sometimes with the same words. A lot of speech shows, disappointingly, little productivity. My friend Diana Sidtis is compiling a list of English schemata, and the list is getting long.

The prevalence of formulae and schemata has been used to diminish the importance of the generative program — quite wrongly, since the generative program is as much justified by the sentences that cannot be processed in a language as by the unbounded number it predicts can be processed (once again, see below, “Syntax for the uncertain”).

Hypercorrections fall into the category of memorized forms. They show up in places where the uncorrected forms no longer carry any grammatical function. The difference between “I” and “me” was strongy grammatical in Old English, but today it mostly marks a difference in style, not comprehension. There’s a wonderful sentence in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle telling the story of the fate of St. Columba’s island after he died [here in modified transliteration]

There stowe habbeth yiet his ierfenumman.

The place still have his followers.

If I ask students what’s grammatically wrong with this sentence, they reply, 99% of the time, “have” is wrong; it should be “has”:

The place still has his followers.

Only once has someone suggested the subject and object need to be reversed:

His followers still have the place.

That’s, of course, the meaning of the chronicler. In Old English, “habbath” indicates a plural subject (“his followers,” not “the place”). Word order indicates nothing.

Today, word order (really order of syntactic category) provides all the grammatical relations. If “the place” comes first followed by the verb, “the place” must be the subject, regardless what form the verb takes. The difference between “have” and “has” indicates nothing grammatical at all. It typically indicates personal facts about the speaker like level of education or dialectal variety or style: “I has one/I have one,” “She have it in her room/she has it in her room.” These are not functions of grammar. Grammar is the brain’s means of processing and communicating content, not social status. With the exception of plural, progressive, past, comparative and superlative markers, inflections have lost grammatical function in English. Even possessive has been replaced with word order in ICE (inner city English):

They covered with they blood.

Pronoun+noun= possessive+noun

Into this space where the standard insists on retaining non functional forms, creep the hypercorrections: between you and I, which has spread recently among reasonably well-educated folks to for you and I. I hear both of these in film and TV, always scripted for the educated characters. Only working-class characters use the standard form from twenty years ago between you and me, for you and me.

Notice again that it is the conjunction and that allows the form for you and I among educated English speakers who would never dream of saying It’s just for I.

Hypercorrections (for you and I), like standard orrections (she and I left), are memorized forms.

Corrections and grammar

What I find suggestive here is that hypercorrections appear to be schemata: they are most likely memorized forms and they do not have much flexibility in contrast with generative grammar (“me and her went”) which is flexible and therefore not likely to be a memorized form. The suggestive conclusion — to spell it out: formulae and schemata needn’t be part of generative grammar at all. Memorization is as deeply rooted as grammar, but it is not grammatical. And vice versa, grammar is not memorized.

This cuts against both the Chomsky program and the anti-Chomskians. It means that much of the data of speech will contain deeply rooted non grammatical structures unrelated to universal grammar (UG, the innate grammar capacity which makes it possible for us to learn language as children just by hearing it — without having it taught to us), making the project of discovering UG all the more difficult. It also means that schemata don’t tell us anything interesting about grammar, though they do say something important about how the mind processes language: it has to be done with more than just the grammar processor. It’s got to use a simple template archive.

It’s not all bad news for the Chomskians. It leads to a diagnostic: if it’s inflexible, then maybe it’s not grammatical. Pare away all the inflexible structures of speech and you should be left with the original grammar. So the work that Sidtis is doing, collecting the schemata of English, though it is being gathered from the perspective of those who want to diminish the significance of generative grammar in speech, should be taken as an invaluable resource for discovering UG — specifically, what part of English speech must be removed before the grammar remains pure. It’s a tricky task, because no doubt some, probably most, of the schemata follow the grammar of the language. So there’s no guarantee anything will be left. But if flexibility or productivity is the test, pieces can be returned, one by one.

Well, the mind is a big and powerful place. I don’t see why anyone should be surprised that it uses many modes — a grammar fully flexible and productive within its machine limits; memory only minimally flexible: open only to lexical or phrasal substitutions.

In other words, generative grammar doesn’t need to worry about the order “she and I” vs. “I and she.” It can be left out without prejudice to the theory of UG.

Wherever syntacticians gather, they quible over grammatical intuitions. Maybe we should start looking more carefully at our intuitions and separate the memorized schemes from the generative rules.


One Response to “Hypercorrection, schemata and UG”

  1. John Hetland Says:

    In grammar school we were taught to say It is I or It’s I, not It’s me. But almost everyone would say It’s me. The French say C’est moi, and they call moi the disjunctive form (at least that’s what my French for English speakers grammar book calls it). They would never say C’est je.

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