S is for Small Words

2 01 2011

In an extract from his recently published (and long overdue!) autobiography, Mark Twain recalls how, as a child, he was once reprimanded by his mother: “It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home.” And he adds, “She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small words do effective work…” (‘The Farm’, in Granta, 111, 2010, p.237).

‘Making small words do effective work’ might in fact be a definition of English grammar. Not being a highly inflected language, English makes use almost entirely of function words (or functors), such as auxiliary verbs, determiners, and prepositions,  in order to convey all manner of grammatical relations, including definiteness, quantity, possession, duration, completion, volition, voice, futurity, habit, frequency and so on.  Small words also serve to make connections across stretches of text (e.g. and, so, but), to connect utterances to their context (here, now, this), and to manage speaker turns (well, oh, yes).

Not surprisingly, therefore, small words are everywhere: the twenty most frequent words in English are all functors, and together comprise a third of all text, while on average around half the words in any single text are likely to be function words. (Thus far, of the 200 odd words in this text, over 80 are functors).

What’s more, it’s the small words that have the highest degree of connectivity with other words: Nick Ellis (2008) cites research that shows that “the 10 most connected words of English are and, the, of, in, a, to ‘s, with, by, and is” (p. 235). The most frequent patterns that are formed by these connections are what we know as the grammar of the language. As Michael Hoey puts it:

Small words on the march: from Palmer's New Method Grammar (1938)

Grammar is … the sum of the collocations, colligations and semantic associations of words like is, was, the, a and of, syllables like ing, er and ly, and sounds like [t] (at the end of syllables) and [s] and [z] (likewise at the end of syllables)
(2004, p. 159).
It follows (arguably) that learning about the behaviour of these small words, including their constructional properties, is the key to learning the structure of English.  This is an insight that predates even corpus linguistics. In 1864 a certain Thomas Prendergast wrote:
“When a child can employ two hundred words of a foreign language he possesses a practical knowledge of all the syntactical constructions and of all the foreign sounds.”

Not just a child, but any language learner, I’d suggest. In fact, if you take just the top 200 words in English, and for each of these words you display the constructions most frequently associated with it, you cover all the main grammar structures in the language.   Just think of how many structures incorporate the verbs have, be, and do, for example. Or the adverbs ever, more and still. Or the conjunctions if, while and since.

Not only that, if you memorised just one or two common idiomatic expressions whose nucleus was one of these high frequency words, you’d be internalising the typical grammar patterns in which these words are commonly embedded. For learners who are not well disposed to generating sentences from rules, these memorised chunks offer another way into the grammar. What’s more, they provide the building blocks of spoken fluency. Think of the conversational mileage provided by these expressions with way (one of the commonest nouns in English): by the way, either way, to my way of thinking, the wrong way, no way, way to go! etc.

This is the thinking that underpins books like Harold Palmer’s Grammar of English Words (1944) which details the meanings, collocations and phraseology of 1000 common English words.  It is also the theory that prompted me to write Natural Grammar , published in 2004 by Oxford University Press (the working title of which, by the way, was The Secret Grammar of Words). In this book I take 100 high frequency words and explore their associated patterns. Predictably, this word-level view of grammar provides coverage of all the main ‘coursebook’ structures, plus a good many more.

One argument for organising a grammar around ‘small words’ is that their very smallness – and the fact that they are typically unstressed and often contracted –  means that they have low ‘perceptual saliency’. That is to say, learners simply don’t notice them. Making them salient, by devoting a double-page spread to each one, would seem to be a helpful thing to do, I figured.

Which leads me to wonder – if this was such a good idea, and so well-grounded in theories of language description and acquisition – why the lack of uptake? In short, why has this book been less than a runaway success? 😉

References:

Ellis, N.  2008. The dynamics of second language emergence: cycles of language use, language change, and language acquisition.  Modern Language Journal, 92, 232 — 249.
Hoey, M. 2004. Lexical Priming: A new theory of words and language. London: Routledge.

Prendergast, T. 1864.  The Mastery of Languages, or, the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically.