Tuesday, June 24, 2008

TGE & determiners

This is the third post on Ron Cowan's new and rather poorly considered The Teacher's Grammar of English. I wrote to Ron a week ago asking about his treatment of determiners but have heard nothing from him so far.

As you may have noticed, I'm interested in determinatives (also known as determiners). This is not a category that is generally recognised as one of the traditional "parts of speech". Some dictionaries, such as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English recognise determinatives, while others, such as the Canadian Oxford, still don't (though I've talked to the editor about changing this). Most ESL grammars, such as Longman's Azar series fall into the second category. For this reason, it is interesting to see that TGE has a whole chapter on determiners.

On p. 186, we learn that determiners are a kind "of word that come(s) before head nouns in noun phrases." Since we've already seen that the text and the glossary are not always in agreement, it's worth cross checking. The gloss for determiner is "a word that comes before and modifies a head noun..." (modify/modifier are not glossed). These are mostly in agreement, which is a welcome change. Unfortunately, the grammar discusses situations in which a determiner does not come before a noun.

Another positive aspect of the treatment of determiners is that TGE uncharacteristically gives us an exhaustive list of all the types. These are as follows:

There is also a note that predeterminers are mutually exclusive (suggesting that other combinations such as *all most people were there are allowed?)

The first problem with this table is that there is no indication about whether the examples are exhaustive or illustrative. Obviously, the list of cardinal numbers is infinite, but are any, every, and some the only central determiners, or are they just there as a guide? Another problem is that I'm not sure how many people you could convince that another and next are numbers.

The list of partitives seems to be especially lacking in desiderata. To me, it would seem that a glass of the wine is partitive (being that it is only part of all the wine), but a glass of wine is not (since it may be all the wine there is). If we accept the first, it upsets our nice order of determiners--the coming after the post-determiner partitive--, but if we accept only the second, then how do we distinguish between partitives and other of constructions such as:
  • rest of the world
  • president of the United States
  • end of the day
  • talk of the nation
  • turn of the century
  • fact of the matter
  • side of the house
Surely, these are not all determiners. Perhaps the glossary will clarify things. There we find that partitives are "a type of determiner that is a multiword expression consisting of a count noun + of." Not much help. But you've probably noticed that the definition of determiners as "a kind of word" conflicts with that of partitive. What we have here is a kind of word that is a multiword expression. As Geoff Pullum points out, a noun followed by a preposition is not a grammatical unit, so how can it be a "word"? Notice also that the partitive determiner itself requires a determiner. We can just say *pass me jar of peanut butter. It must be pass me the jar of peanut butter. But determiners don't come before determiners; according to Cowan, they come only before nouns.

At this point, we must resort to asking Schrödinger's cat whether this word in quantum superposition resolves to noun or determiner.

A similar problems exists with the analysis of words like John's and Anne's as "nouns as possessive determiners", which also carries over into my, your, and his as determiners (they're pronouns). This problem is mollified if one maintains a sharp distinction between categories of words and their functions. This is why it is useful to reserve the word determiner for the function and keep determinative for the category. But as it stands, TGE has totally confused these two concepts, with the result that the list of determiners is far too long.

Despite this unprincipled proliferation within the determiner category, TGE still manages to ignore other kinds of legitimate determiners. More should be said about this, but I have to get to bed.

Overall, I think it was a brave move for Cowan to address determiners in the book, but judging from the results, it might have been better if he had simply ignored them.

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