A girl was taking her little brother for a walk in the park. ‘Can I go and run along the top of that wall?’ he asked her.
‘No,’ said the sister.
‘Go on,’ insisted the little boy.
‘Well, OK,’ she said, ‘but if you fall off and break both your legs, don’t come running to me.’
Ask most EFL teachers what the grammar is in that text and they will probably home in on the past continuous (was taking), modal auxiliary verbs in an inverted question-form (Can I…?), the past simple (asked, insisted, said) and some kind of conditional construction: ‘if …’. They might also pick up on the phrasal verbs (go on, fall off), although they might not be sure as to whether these are grammar or vocabulary, strictly speaking.
These are all items that are prominent in any coursebook grammar syllabus.
But if grammar is defined as something like ‘generative multi-morpheme patterns’, and if we understand ‘pattern’ to mean any sequence that recurs with more than chance frequency, a quick Google search, or, more scientifically, a nearly-as-quick corpus search, will throw up many more patterns in this text than your standard grammar syllabus accounts for.
- take a/the [noun] for a/the [noun] – there are over 100 instances in the British National Corpus (BNC), according to StringNet, of which round 20 are some form of take the dog for a walk
- a walk in the [noun] – 44 occurrences in the BNC
- a [noun] in the [noun] – 10,000 occurrences
- [verb] and [verb], as in go and run – 82,000 occurrences, of which over 5000 start with some form of go
- [preposition] the top of [noun phrase] as in along the top of that wall
- [prep] the top of the [singular N] = 1665 instances in the BNC
- [prep] the [sing N] of the [sing N] = 60,000 occurrences
- [personal pronoun] + [verb] + [personal pronoun], as in he asked her – over 220,000 occurrences, of which 3169 involve the verb ask
- [verb] + [subject], as in said the sister, insisted the little boy – too difficult to count, but very common, especially in fiction
- both + [possessive pronoun] + [plural noun] (as in both your legs): 423 examples
- come/came etc running – 174 examples
- don’t come running to me (a Google search returned a figure of approximately 579,000 results for this complete utterance)
This doesn’t exhaust the frequently occurring patterns by any means, but it’s enough to give you an idea of how intensely and intricately patterned that text is. Moreover, many of the patterns in my list are just as frequent – if not more so – as the relatively narrow range of patterns that form traditional coursebook grammar. There are as many instances of the pattern [preposition] the [noun] of the [noun] (as in along the top of the wall) per million words of running text as there are examples of the past continuous, for example.
The range and heterogeneity of these patterns also challenges the traditional division between grammar and vocabulary, such that some grammarians have opted for the vaguer, but perhaps more accurate, term constructions. As Nick Ellis (2011, p. 656) puts it:
Adult language knowledge consists of a continuum of linguistic constructions of different levels of complexity and abstraction. Constructions can comprise concrete and particular items (as in words and idioms), more abstract classes of items (as in word classes and abstract constructions), or complex combinations of concrete and abstract pieces of language (as mixed constructions). Consequently, no rigid separation is postulated to exist between lexis and grammar.
Note that, according to this view, the pattern go and [verb] is a construction, and so is the idiom don’t come running to me, since both have a semantic and syntactic integrity that has become routinised in the speech community and entrenched in the minds of that community’s speakers. Given the first couple of words of each construction we can make a good guess as to how it will continue.
In this sense, predictive writing tools, like Google Scribe, that draw on a vast data-base to predict the next most likely word in a string, are replicating what speakers do when they speak, and what listeners do when they listen. Rather than mapping individual words on to a pre-specified grammatical ‘architecture’ (as in a Chomskyan, generative grammar view), speakers construct utterances out of these routinised sequences – the operative word being construct. As one linguist put it, “when it comes to sentences, there are no architects, there are only carpenters” (O’Grady, 2005, p. 2).
And it is out of these constructions that a speakers ‘grammar’ is gradually assembled. Nick Ellis again: “The acquisition of grammar is the piecemeal learning of many thousands of constructions and the frequency-biased abstraction of regularities within them” (2003, p. 67).
If this is true, what are the implications for the teaching of a second language, I wonder? Where do learners encounter these ‘many thousands of constructions’? How do they ‘abstract regularities’ out of them?
Ellis, N. 2003. Constructions, Chunking, and Connectionism. In Doughty, C J, & Long, M H (eds) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition Oxford: Blackwell.
Ellis, N. 2011. The emergence of language as a complex adaptive system. In Simpson, J. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics. London: Routledge.
O’Grady, W. 2005. Syntactic Carpentry: An Emergentist Approach to Syntax. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Illustrations from Goldschmidt, T. 1923. English by Intuition and Pictures. Leipzig: Hirt & Sohn.
 Girling, B. 1990. The Great Puffin Joke Directory. London: Puffin Books.