Last Updated: 6/11/00
We are, of course, in the realm of semantics
-- the study of meaning. But before we look at the meaning of "definition"
from a grammatical perspective, we really need to explore the underlying
philosophical perspectives in order to see why different people may have
different concepts of "definition" (even though they do not realize it).
Perhaps the best perspective I have ever seen of this question was presented
in an undergraduate philosophy course where we were introduced to the question
of universals. Having explored the problem of universals, we can turn to
the problems inherent in specifically grammatical definitions.
Is a Definition?
The Problem of Universals
Words are signs (symbols) and the problem of
universals concerns what it is that signs point to (symbolize). When I
use the word "chair," what do I mean? What am I pointing to? Throughout
history, philosophers have developed three distinct views of what universals
are. These views are called ante rem (Platonic -- "before
in re (Aristotelian -- "in the thing"), and
rem (Lockean -- "after the thing").
Ante rem Universals -- Plato's Forms -- Before the thing
Plato (427?-347 B.C.) believed in a spiritual
world, a world of ideal forms which are the models (designs) of everything
that exists. Our souls, according to Plato, existed in this spiritual world
before we were born. Our souls knew and understood the entire spiritual
world of forms. Thus, a person's soul clearly knew both the word (symbol)
and the form (thing symbolized) for "chair." At birth, however, our souls
were enmeshed in the physical, imperfect, material world. In the physical
world, the clarity of the world of forms is no longer easily perceptible.
Consider the soul as the cat's eye in a cat's eye marble -- in the spiritual
world, the cat's eye can see everything clearly, but in the physical world,
the marble has been dropped into mud. Our souls remember the spiritual
world of forms, but, through the mud, we have trouble recognizing the physical
correlatives of the spiritual forms (the chair), not only because of the
"mud" in which we are embodied and which blurs our vision, but also
because those correlatives themselves (such as the chair) are now imperfectly
embodied in the physical world.
Our language, however, is based on the spiritual
world of forms. Thus, when I say "chair," I think (and hope) that I am
accurately referring to an embodied correlative of the spiritual form "chair,"
and I am also supposing that, in hearing me say chair, my listeners likewise
make the correct connection to the spiritual form for "chair." Thus, ideally,
we understand each other. A major implication of the ante rem
theory of universals is that words (symbols) have one and only one correct
definition (spiritual form). Although they may not recognize its philosophical
assumptions, this view of universals is the one held by people who want
(or think they have) THE definition of a word.
Although few modern philosophers believe in
the ante rem theory, the theory is alive and well in the general
population, including some linguists. After a conference presentation,
for example, I was informed by a linguist that a clause cannot be defined
as a subject/verb/complement pattern because "a clause is a subject / predicate
pattern." Consciously, or probably more often unconsciously, some people
who offer definitions of grammatical terms do so with the underlying assumption
of ante rem universals. The popularity of the ante rem theory,
whether conscious or unconscious, is probably strengthened by religious
beliefs. As we will see, the other two theories leave the spiritual world
(God) out of the equation. As a result, people with strong religious convictions
tend to prefer an ante rem theory of universals. My point here is
not to discuss religious convictions, but simply to suggest why ante
rem assumptions are so strong.
But even if we believe in an ante rem
theory of universals, a major problem remains -- how do we know, through
this physical world in which we are enmeshed, that we have made a correct
correlation between a word and what it symbolizes? How do we know that
a clause really IS a subject / predicate pattern and not a subject / verb
/ complement pattern? I have frequently seen (or heard) people give grammatical
definitions and statements which appear to be based on ante rem
assumptions -- "city" in "city hall" is a noun, not an adjective; "because"
is not a subordinating conjunction, etc., and, in each case, I have to
wonder on what authority these statements are being made.
Particularly troublesome are the negative
components of these definitions, i.e., "x is y, NOT z." As I will
try to explain below, there is another reason for some of these negations,
but whatever the reason, we need to examine both the assumptions underlying
the definition and the effects of adopting it. It is completely possible
that in God's mind, a clause is a subject / predicate pattern, but if someone
can show that, in this physical world in which we are embodied, students
would find the subject / verb / complement definition more helpful in learning
to deal with sentence structure, then I humbly ask that imperfect definitions
be given serious consideration. Too often, they are not.
In re Universals -- Aristotle's Metaphysics -- In the thing
Once many years ago, for about five seconds,
I thought I understood Aristotle's concept of universals. Rejecting Plato's
forms, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) apparently believed that the essence of
"chair" exists not in the spiritual world, but in chairs themselves. How
language works, under this theory, I do not understand, nor have I seen
any clear (to me) explanations of it. I have included it here because it
is a possibility -- perhaps, starting from here, someone can explain
it and solve a basic problem in semantics.
Post rem Universals -- John Locke's Tabula Rasa
-- After the Thing
Our ancestors had a lot of problems to deal
with, but the problem of the meaning of meaning was not one of them. As
anyone even slightly acquainted with the history of ideas knows, the speculative,
philosophical nature of the ancient Greeks was very unusual. Even today,
for most of the world's people, words simply have meaning. How they have
that meaning is not (and was not) a relevant question. After Plato and
Aristotle, almost two thousand years passed before the question was addressed
with a significantly different answer. The most famous proponent of the
new view was John Locke (1632-1704).
Whereas Plato had believed that the essential
spiritual world of forms existed "before the things," and Aristotle believed
that forms exist "in things," Locke argued that our concepts (the only
knowledge that we have of essences) exist "after the things." We come into
the world, according to Locke, as a "blank slate" ("tabula rasa").
The only way, according to Locke, that we know what a chair is is by repeated
association between the word and some sort of physical stimulus. My concept
of "chair" is thus created in my brain by all the memories I have in which
the word "chair" was used and I was able to make an association between
the word and some perception. As a result, my concept of "chair" is determined
by the environment in which I live. My concept, for example, includes recliners,
but recliners were not part of the concept for people who lived five hundred
"Chair," moreover, is a relatively easy concept
to learn. Chairs are relatively large, commonly used, physical objects.
In the post rem theory, all definitions are very tenuous. Definitions
of abstractions are even more so. For Plato (and perhaps Aristotle), happiness,
virtue, (and clauses) have an objective, definite existence. A person's
definition might be more, or less, accurate, but there is a "true" definition.
For Locke, "truth" gives way to utility. A definition can no longer be
right or wrong, only more or less effective. It is effective to the extent
that other people appear to understand whatever I mean when I use a word.
Implications for Teaching
The philosophical implications of these three
views of universals are staggering. They go to the core of what it means
to be human. I have no desire to change anyone's philosophical beliefs,
but we need to look at the pedagogical implications of these three theories.
I want to suggest that the (often unconscious) assumption of the ante
rem view causes some of the poor grammar pedagogy and ineffective learning.
I want to be as specific as possible about
my meaning. Even if one believes in ante rem universals, i.e., that
the concept of "clause" objectively exists in God's mind, there are still
the problems of 1) knowing exactly what that concept is, and 2) convincing
others that they should believe what one knows. To my knowledge no religious
text, including the Bible, defines grammatical constructions. Indeed, most
of our grammatical definitions come to us from the ancient Greeks and Romans
(not particularly religious) or from linguists (See below.) How then, are
we to know whether, in God's mind, a clause is a subject / predicate pattern,
or a subject / verb / complement pattern? For the purposes of teaching,
therefore, it would seem that even if one believes in ante rem universals,
effective teaching requires a post rem stance.
This may seem like a big to-do about nothing,
but let's look at typical instruction in grammar. Students are told that
a "noun" is the name of a person, place, or thing, and that a "verb" shows
action or a state of being. They are also taught that subjects (nouns)
should agree with their verbs in "number." And then students are given
twenty (or fifty) simple exercises in which they are to identify the nouns,
the verbs, or the correct agreement. Implicit in this instruction is the
rem concept of universals -- if the term is defined and students are
given a few examples, the students should make the connection with the
objectively existing concepts "noun," "verb," and "number," and thus the
students will understand. Rare is the teacher who claims that this approach
works, but in spite of their knowing that it doesn't, most teachers continue
to teach this way (probably because that is the way it has always been
Pedagogically, the ante rem perspective
focuses on the definition (the symbol) at the expense of the thing defined.
Students learn, and are tested on, their knowledge of the definitions,
but, in most cases, these same students are totally at a loss when asked
to identify the subjects and verbs in a moderately complex sentence. And
this same type of instruction is usually used to teach teachers! Future
teachers are exposed to a wealth of grammatical concepts and definitions,
but most of these future teachers, having finished their course work, cannot
identify the subjects and verbs in their students' writing.
# 1 The effect of this ante rem assumption is that the
instruction is both frustrating and ultimately meaningless.
As opposed to ante rem, the post
rem stance says "point to examples!" It is the things being pointed
to, not the definitions, that are important. According to Michael
Sugrue, Wittgenstein calls this definition-by-pointing "ostensive
definition," and believes that it is more effective than a traditional
"Aristotelian" [in re?] definition. # 2
If we want to know what "mauve" is, we don't ask for a definition, we ask
for examples. I don't want to suggest that all grammatical terms should
be defined ostensively -- in fact I will argue just the opposite. But perhaps
ostensive definitions are the best way to convey the most troublesome of
grammatical terms, "noun" and "verb." There is, for example, widespread
agreement that the definition of a noun as "the name of a person, place,
or thing," and the definition of a verb as "an action word or a state of
being" are inadequate. In another essay in this series, I will suggest
that these "Aristotelian" definitions, inadequate as they may be, are still
useful tools for students, but that they should, in some cases, ultimately
be subordinated to ostensive definitions. First, however, we have to address
another problem with specifically grammatical definitions.
Bases of Grammatical Definitions
In Understanding Grammar, my favorite
grammar book, Paul Roberts discusses the "Three Bases of Definitions":
Some confusion and argument can be
avoided if we understand the bases of our definitions. There are at least
three possible bases, which will be called in this book the formal,
the syntactic, and the notional. By formal definition
we shall mean definition based on form -- sounds in the spoken language,
spelling in the written. By syntactic definition we shall mean definition
based on syntax -- the relation of words to other words in the sentence.
By notional definition we shall mean definition based on our understanding
of the relationship of words to the actual, real world phenomena represented
by the words.
Grammarians, Roberts correctly informs us, mix and match to suit their
circumstances and temperaments. As I attempted to explain in Chapter
One of Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art, grammarians have
a wide range of circumstances (and temperaments), most of which lead to
complex, and very different, grammars of the English language. And rare
is the K-12 teacher who has had extensive training in any one of these
grammars. Thus, finding themselves in a classroom, teachers are at a loss
-- what grammar should they teach? In most cases, they have no choice but
to teach whatever grammar is in the textbooks, but the textbooks are often
a confusing mix of formal, syntactic, and notional definitions. (See "Save
Money! Burn the Grammar Textbooks!")
For illustration, let us make three brief
and incomplete definitions of noun:
Formal: A noun is a word that forms a plural in -s.
Syntactic: A noun is a word that may serve as subject of a verb.
Notional: A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.
Obviously none of these adequately defines noun, but each of
them might be expanded and qualified so as to approach adequacy. Grammarians
use sometimes one kind of definition and sometimes another, and sometimes
a combination, as circumstances or as their temperament leads them. (10-11)
The problem of the three bases is aggravated
by the politics of education. As I noted fifteen years ago, when I wrote
and as I tried to explain in "The Crime,"
very few people in education are seriously looking at the question of what
grammar should be taught in our schools. And of those who are, most are
in linguistics. These people are very sincere, but it is difficult to get
them to understand that 1) the grammar (linguistics) that they have studied
in three or four years of graduate work cannot be taught to future teachers
in a single course, and 2) even if it could be, it might not be the grammar
that the teachers in K-12 need to know. ATEG,
for example, has established a committee on Scope, Sequence, and Standards,
but after two years it has accomplished very little, in part because some
of the linguists have suggested a grammar based on twelve parts of speech.
Implementing such a grammar, supposing that agreement on definitions, etc.
could be reached, would be a tremendous undertaking, requiring the re-education
of almost all the nation's teachers.
And, to quote Eliot's Prufrock,
"Would it have been worth it?" Would a new, scientific, pedagogical grammar
solve the problem? It should be obvious that I have my doubts. From what
I have seen, linguistic grammars add to the confusion of definitions (simply
by providing more of them), and they do not effectively address the practical
problems (style, errors, syntactic maturity) that the KISS approach attempts
to focus on.
So What Are We to Do?
The first thing we need to do is
to understand that grammarians cannot agree among themselves -- not only
about definitions of terms, but also about the purposes for studying (hence
teaching) grammar in K-12. At the Tenth ATEG conference, I distributed
a questionnaire and was surprised to learn that only 52% of the respondents
believed that "students, as they study a grammatical concept, should have
as an objective the ability to identify most of the examples of that concept
in whatever they read or write." Perhaps these people interpreted the question
differently from what I meant, but I always thought that the purpose of
studying grammar is to be able to discuss the grammatical aspects of language
-- spoken or written. In other words, why study about subjects and verbs,
unless one learns how to apply that study to what one says and writes?
But, in order to apply it, doesn't one have to be able to recognize subjects
Now I realize that there are people for whom
the study of grammar is an interesting end in itself. And ATEG is composed
of teachers and teachers of teachers, all of whom are interested in grammar.
But I am worried by the 48% who are not sure that students should be able
to identify constructions. If identification is not one of their primary
objectives, then what is? The further discussion and debate over definitions?
But if that is the case, are they helping to solve the problem, or are
they adding to it?
The primary purpose of pedagogical grammatical
definitions should be to enable students to identify grammatical constructions
and concepts in whatever they read or write, thereby enabling students
to discuss grammatical and stylistic questions intelligently. The KISS
Approach attempts to meet this primary criterion through what Roberts calls
syntactic definitions. ("A noun is a word that may serve as subject of
a verb.") But as Roberts' example suggests, one cannot understand syntactic
definitions without, so to speak, first cracking the shell. The definition
of a noun is meaningless unless one understands what a verb is. To crack
the shell, I urge teachers to use Wittgenstein's idea of ostensive definitions,
i.e., definition through numerous examples. As Roberts wrote:
Young learners do not master the definition of noun
and proceed from that to an identification of nouns. They learn what nouns
are by having a great many nouns pointed out to them, and they learn verbs
in the same way. Their recognition is based on formal and positional characteristics
of nouns and verbs, though they may pay lip service to the notional definition.
Perhaps the notional definition is best characterized as a useful fiction.
In essence, the KISS Approach relies on ostensive definitions of two constructions
(nouns and verbs, and of three concepts (modification, compounding, ellipsis).
Once students have mastered some of these
constructions and concepts, they can use syntactic definitions to master
almost all of the other constructions that they need to know. Consider,
for example, the clause. A clause is a subject / verb / complement pattern.
That is a syntactic definition, and it is extremely effective -- if one
can identify subjects and finite verbs in the first place. But the only
effective way to enable students to identify verbs is by using a combination
of Roberts' "notional" and Wittgenstein's "ostensive" definitions.
As I have suggested above (and elsewhere),
not everyone will agree with this approach to grammatical definitions.
But the KISS Approach is not about definitions -- it is about enabling
students to understand and to be able to discuss questions of style, meaning,
and correctness in written and oral language. Pedagogically, we need to
stop focussing on definitions, and shift our attention to the students'
purpose for studying grammar. I am aware of many grammar books and of many
internet sites on grammar, but to my knowledge, all of these books and
sites are devoted to grammatical rules and definitions. And is so doing,
they use extremely simplistic sentences for all of their exercises. I know
of no other site (or book) that focusses on using grammatical concepts
to analyze passages of real writing, as this site does.
1. If you don't believe me, ask them to take a simple
test. Use any of the exercises on
this site, for example, those on S/V/C patterns. If you yourself are not
sure of the answers, use the analysis keys to check the teachers' answers.
2. I am currently reading, not necessarily comprehending,
Wittgenstein. But the concept of the ostensive definition is, as I try
to explain, relevant to teaching grammar.