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Reading and Writing Ideas As Well As Words

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How the Language Really Works:
The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing
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Unconscious and Unwritten Rules

Speakers of a language know much about the language without quite knowing how, or even that, they know it. Most rules we learned not from grammar books, but from our experience with the language itself. Indeed, many And, as we shall see, many rules are not even written down – anywhere!

If the notion that you know rules you do not know you know still seems odd, consider the following. No native speaker of English would write, or say,

* He bought Spanish purple large seven onions.
The word order is wrong. Native speakers know to write or say:
He bought seven large purple Spanish onions.
How do we know to put the words in this order? We follow a rule for the placement of modifiers before a noun:
number / size / color / type / NOUN
No one has taught you this rule. You have inferred it on your own. You know the rule, even if you do not know you know it—or even know that it exists. With a little thought and experimentation, you can extend the rule to include other qualities, such as age and texture.

Learning a second-language involves learning new and different rules. While adjectives come before a noun in English,

white house,
they come after in French,
maison blanche,
or Spanish,
casa blanca.
One never loses the rules of their first language; rules of the second language must be added on.

A similar problem is encountered when shifting from one dialect of a language to another, or from rules of informal speech to rules of formal speech. We may not all be bilingual, but most of us are bi-dialectical.

Finally, note that rules such as those described above aredescriptive, notprescriptive. They describe the way native speakers use the language, not how they should use the language. Indeed, descriptive and prescriptive rules often conflict. We are told to never split an infinitive — as this author just did. [We are told not to say "to never split an infinitive," but rather "never to split an infinitive.") In fact, the option of splitting infinitives allows us to distinguish between "to suddenly fire" (to fire without warning) and "to fire suddenly" (to shoot many bullets in a short time).

Many prescriptive rules were written to mirror Latin usage, where the infinitive is a single word (to praise:laudare) and therefore cannot be split; English infinitives are two words (to praise) and can easily be split.

Much of this discussion is not designed to teach you new concepts so much as to help you recognize how much you already know. The more you are consciously aware of how the spoken language works, the better you can apply that understanding to texts, whether when confronting increasingly complex texts or desiring a deeper understanding.

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