Last Updated: 4/8/01
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Essays on Grammar -- Dr. Ed  Vavra
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Karl Bodmer
# 3: Language as 
a Stream of Meaning
This essay is an extension of 
the psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes language.

      How does language convey ideas from one person to another? Whereas grammarians are usually  interested in grammar as an end in itself, the general populace, including scholars in other fields, is interested in grammar primarily as it pertains to conveying ideas clearly. An exploration of this question may therefore shed some light on many of the problems in pedagogical grammars. Although no metaphor is perfect, I would like to try to explore this question by suggesting that ideas can be compared to cargo that is loaded on barges. The barges are then shipped on a stream (of sounds or witten words). Their destination is, obviously, listerners or readers, who unload the barges to get the meaning.
      "Sarah has an idea (a thought)." There are interesting philosophical and psychological arguments about what that sentence means, the most important of which is Can a thought exist without words? In order to communicate her idea, does Sarah have to find a word, or does she already have it? Anyone who thinks about this question by examining their own experience will probably agree that sometimes she automatically has it, and sometimes she has to search to "find the right word." If she has to search for a word, then she must use part of her working memory (also called short-term memory) to find the word. Because working memory is limited, a search for a word will use part of that memory and decrease the amount of memory left to continue the processing of the thought. Whether she already has the word, or she has to find it, in order for her to convey it, it has to be packed in a word.
     A word by itself, however, is usually meaningless. Walk into a room and say "Bread," and -- unless the context clarifies your meaning -- whoever is in the room will think that there is something wrong with you. How context clarifies meaning is easily imagined. I might walk into my house, look at my wife, and say "Bread." In certain circumstances, she would interpret that as meaning "I'm hungry." On the other hand, if she had told me to buy bread, she might correctly interpret my statement as meaning "I forgot to buy the bread." My point here is that, even in oral language, a word by itself does not convey much, if any,  meaning. In order to convey meaning, we need at least one more word which in some way is meaningfully connected to the first word.
     Traditional grammars point to the need for this second word when they define a sentence as a "subject" and "predicate." The subject is what one wants to talk about (that is why it is called the "subject"), and the "predicate" predicates, i.e., says something, about the subject. Unfortunately, many traditional grammars equate this subject / predicate pattern with a "complete thought," but that equation is thoughtless. To explain why, I want to use students revisions of a text about aluminum, a text that was developed by Roy O'Donnell. The passage was written as a series of very short sentences so that students could be asked to revise it to make it sound better. Let's look at just the first four sentences:

1. Aluminum is a metal. 
2. It is abundant.
3. It has many uses. 
4. It comes from bauxite.
Let's suppose that Sarah was thinking about aluminum and wrote these four sentences. She has used four subject predicate patterns, and, according to the definition of a sentence as a "complete thought," she has expressed four complete thoughts. But what if she wrote:
1 Aluminum is an abundant and useful metal.
2. It comes from bauxite.
 Clearly, we have two correct sentences, and they express essentially the same meaning as the original four. But now do we have only two "complete thoughts"? Have two of the thoughs disappeared? Of course not. But how can we say that our original first sentence (Aluminum is a metal.) is a "complete thought" when our rather simple revision (Aluminum is an abundant and useful metal.) includes that first thought plus two more? The equation simply does not make sense. If it does not make sense, it is meaningless (thoughtless), and thus all those grammars that define a sentence in this way ought to be thrown into the garbage can. They are not only useless, they are confusing (and thus harmful). 
     I'm not sure that there is such a thing as a "complete" thought (except, perhaps, in the mind of God), and most sentences are actually groups of thoughts. If we look at some of the ways in which our first three original sentences can be combined, we can begin to understand how languge works as a stream of meaning. 
1. Useful and abundant, aluminum is a metal.
2. The abundant metal aluminum is useful.
3. The useful metal aluminum is abundant.
4. The metal aluminum is useful and abundant.
In each case, we could say that Sarah had three thoughts which she packed into a barge and sent out on paper to her readers. In reading the sentence, people unpack the barge, but most readers will not interpret the four sentences as totally equivalent. In each case, one (or more) "thought" will probably be interpreted as more important than the others. The first sentence emphasizes "metal"; the second, "useful"; the third, "abundant; and the last, "useful and abundant." Most sentences, in other words, convey a number of thoughts with some of the thoughts being presented as more important than others. The verb in the sentence indicates which of the thoughts should be considered as most important.
     Although it doesn't quite fit my metaphor, we could say that the main verb in a sentence is the motor of a barge. Sarah embodies her thoughts in words, packs the words into sentences (giving each sentence a verb which acts as a motor), and then sends each sentence (barge) out into a stream of words. The reader receives each barge and unpacks it, thereby getting its meaning.

Clearer Definitions

     One of the implications of the preceding is that the writers of many grammar books have not thought about or defined the terms "thought" and "idea" very well. In Chapter 11 of Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art, I discussed Ann Berthoff's excellent definition of a "thought" as "a mental apprehension of a relationship between an A and a B with reference to a C." This definition implies that in order to have a thought, we need at least two things, an A, and a B,1 and I simply want to suggest that in order to convey a thought, we need at least two words, one to represent A, and one to represent B. And because words and the things they represent are not the same, I want to use the word "concept" to refer to what the word represents to the person who uses it.2 If, for example, the word "aluminum" pops into Sarah's mind, we could say that she has a concept of aluminum, but she won't have a "thought" until she makes a connection between the concept of aluminum and some other concept.
     I should point out that dictionary definitions do not help us here. If you look up the words "thought" and "idea" in a dictionary, you will most likely find that both words are defined such that they could be used to designate either a "thought" or a "concept."3 To distinguish the two, as I have tried to do above, we need to go beyond dictionary definitions. For the purposes of this essay, I want to equate the words "thought" and "idea." I do so both because I believe most people would agree that an "idea" is closer to what I have defined as a "thought" than it is to a "concept," and because some interesting research has been done by Isakson and Spyridakis using what they call "idea units."
     Isakson and Spyridakis were attempting to evaluate "the influence of semantics and syntax on what readers remember." They had students read passages and then write summaries of them. In order to determine what (and how much) the students remembered, Isakson and Spyridakis divided the original passages into "idea units." They were then able to count the number of idea units in the originals that appeared in the students' summaries. Unfortunately, how the researchers determined "idea units" is not clear4, but their methodology is interesting, particularly when related to O'Donnell's "Aluminum." Although idea units are very complex things to work with, a brief glance at the aluminum passage suggests that each of the simple sentences in which it is written contains just one or two idea units. I therefore coded the passage for these units, of which I counted thirty-three. (Click here to see the coded passage.) The different ways in which students revised the passage may help us understand how ideas (thoughts) are encoded into streams of meaning.

The Thought Process at Work

     Let's begin by returning to Sarah, and imagining that, instead of being asked to revise O'Donnell's passage, she was asked to write a paper about aluminum. We also need to suppose that she already knows a lot about aluminum, and it is entirely possible that she could. Now, having been asked to write a paper about aliuminum, Sarah needs to think of something to say. She cannot just write :"Aluminum. Aluminum, Aluminum." over and over again. So she thinks and sees a connection between aluminum and that class of things known as metals. So she writes, "Aluminum is a metal." What's next? She thinks some more and connects aluminum with the concept "abundant." So she writes, "It is abundant." More thought leads to its usefulness, so she writes, "It has many uses." Searching for something else to say, she thinks of its origin and writes, "It comes from bauxite." Note the complexity of what is going on here. Sarah must search her memory for concepts that can be connected to aluminum. When she finds one, she needs to embody it in a word or words. She could, for example, have used "useful." instead of "has many uses." Or she may have remembered the concept, but not immediately the word, for bauxite. (We have all had such experiences, with the word "on the tip of our tongue," and the experience occurs in the writing process just as it does everywhere else.) Finally,  the words then need to be embodied in sentences. The sentences create a stream of meaning.
     In order to have Sarah arrive at the first four sentences of O'Donnell's "Aluminum," I have depicted her as slowly searching for concepts, finding one, and then writing it down before it gets away. If she really knew a lot about aluminum, however, her head would be full of concepts, and, instead of searching, she would have been engaged in selecting and arranging.5 This explains the commonplace of writing teachers that students write best when they are writing about the things they know most about. Familiarity with the topic certainly affects writing quality simply because the writer has more concepts easily available. There are, however, at least two other things related to "concepts" that affect writing quallity. For lack of a better word, I'll call one "detail"; the other is syntactic maturity.
     By "detail" I have in mind the writer's awareness of the need (or helpfulness) of, for example, examples. In our hypothetical example of Sarah, she wrote "It has many uses." but she did not give any examples (aluminum foil, storm windows, cars). It could be that she didn't have them, but more than twenty years of teaching Freshman composition have shown me that very often students have them -- but don't include them. This has the effect of greatly reducing the number of "concepts" which the writer has readily at hand for use in the writing. Instead of developing a concept with related concepts, the writer moves on too quickly, perhaps spending time and energy searching for other concepts. One way of improving students' writing, including the complexity of their sentences, may be to teach them to include more of the supporting details that are already in their heads, instead of simply jumping from "conclusion" to "conclusion."
     Even if we imagine a head full of details, however, there is another limit on sentence length and complexity. Kellogg Hunt referred to it as "syntactic maturity," but I'm not sure that "maturity" is the right word. Hunt and many other researchers have shown that the number of words per main clause and the number of subordinate clauses per main clause, as well as the number of several other constructions per main clause increases with age. If we take a writing sample from an entire class of students and calculate the average number of words per main clause, we can predict what that average will be, and it will increase for each grade level. In this sense, these increases reflect increased "maturity."
     But what the researchers left out is writers' preferences. Does the fact that Hemmingway used fewer words per main clause than did Henry James make Hemmingway syntactically less mature? Some people like wide streams; others prefer narrow ones. Some like deep; others, shallow. Some prefer fast; others, slow. In addition to competence, in other words, a writer's syntactic performace is a reflection of preference and/or training. Some writers like to send relatively long and complicated barges onto the stream; others simply prefer shorter and simpler ones. I intend to explore this question more, particularly in relation to the writing of newspaper journalists, who tend to pack their writing with appositives and gerundives. Here, however, I intend to collect and explore examples of how the same meaning is packed into barges of different sizes. The point is that main clauses, or, if one prefers, "sentences" are psychological units, the length of which is determined by a complex combination of the writer's competence, preference, and training.

Two Examples from a Fourth Grader's Writing

     In analyzing the writing of ten fourth graders, I ran across a little problem. One of the writers demonstrated a number of mature characteristics, not the least of which was the inclusion of nice details. In working at Level Five, I ran into the following description of the writer's brother, Paul:

He can be a really pain sometimes. | Like [when I am talking {on the phone}and sitting {on the sofa}] he starts jumping {on the sofa} | and I start bouncing up and down. |
How does one explain the function of "like"? One could consider it as an informal interjection -- many people, especially young ones, so use it. ["Like WOW!"]  But it can also be considered a preposition:
He can be a really pain sometimes, (Like [[when I am talking {on the phone}and sitting {on the sofa}] he starts jumping {on the sofa} ] and [I start bouncing up and down.])
Viewing it this way creates a 33-word main clause (one big barge), extremely complex for a fourth grader.  The way the student wrote it, the 33 words are distributed over three main clauses, creating an average of 11 words per main clause, which is still almost 45% above the average of  7.6 words per main clause in the student's sample. We can probably safely say that this student was not competent to write the 33-word main clause. But the point here is that the exact same meaning can be put on the stream in four (or even more) smaller barges:
He can be a really pain sometimes. | I can be talking {on the phone}and sitting {on the sofa}, | and  he starts jumping {on the sofa} | and I start bouncing up and down |
With the "like when" eliminated, we have essentially the same meaning conveyed in four main clauses, averaging 7.8 words.
     The other example from this writer suggests another way in which we can create smaller barges:
My house is mosty made {of bricks} | and the other part is made {out of something else} | I don't know [what it is] though. |
The last clause may or may not have been an afterthought, but the final "though" suggests how the three small barges could have been packed into two:
My house is mosty made {of bricks} | and [although I don't know [what it is]]  the other part is made {out of something else} |
Or even one:
[Although my house is mosty made {of bricks}]  the other part is made {out of something else}, [although I don't know [what it is]] |
Theoretically, once competency has been achieved, it may be possible to rewrite every paragraph ever written as single sentence paragraphs. Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from this is the danger of unguided, uneducated sentence-combining exercises.

See also: "Afterthoughts" in "Fragments, Comma-splices and Run-ons in Seventh Graders' Writing."

1. I have started to develop the "with reference to a C" in a section on grammar and logic.

2. The relationships between words and what the words mean are studied by linguists, psychologists, and philosophers, and numerous sets of terns have been used to designate the signifiers (words) and things signified. Because I am attempting to reach a general audience, I am hoping that the term "concept" will make my meaning clear.

3. The problems with the definitions of these two terms go beyond the area of grammar. Many composition textbooks tell students, for example, to begin a new paragraph with a new idea. But I have yet to see a textbook which defines "idea."

4. For more on their concept of "idea units," see my "Aluminum Project #1."

5. The effect on working memory (STM) of searching for something to say would be an interesting area of study.  My guess is that it tends to empty it. The psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes language suggests that STM is cleared at the end of a main clause (and thus at the end of a sentence). This would apply to the writer as well as to the reader. Thus, if a writer embodies a thought in a sentence (so as not to let it get away), the writer's STM is then cleared.