Linguistic Intuition

What is linguistic intuition? As native speakers of languages we all possess it, but what is it? For linguists, it’s a powerful methodology to explore the limits of grammatical structure allowed in a language, to articulate the rules that determine what is and is not part of a given language’s grammar. A simple example will illustrate this technique.

  • Elena chopped up the parsley/Elena chopped the parsley up.  Both okay
  • Elena walked up the stairs/Elena walked the stairs up. 1st yes/2nd no

The jarring impression that ‘Elena walked the stairs up’ makes on us is our linguistic intuition. By manipulating phrases, transforming them in various ways, and noting the resulting acceptability of the results, we come to discover phrasal boundaries; ‘chop up’ forms a unit and can move its particle ‘up’ beyond the object of the verb (German can do this sort of thing with verbs), but in the second pair of examples, ‘up’  is inside the unit ‘up the stairs’ and is a directional preposition, not part of the preceding verb. We have strong intuitions about how prepositional units should occur in English.

Linguistic intuition is not perfectly aligned with proper ‘schoolbook’ grammar. How many times a day do you hear or read ‘it’s I’ or ‘it was not they’?  Probably almost not at all in American English. These are the correct forms of the pronoun, because the verb is ‘to be’ and the pronoun is really the subject and should take the nominative forms: I, he, she, they.  I’m guessing your intuition is not too jarred when you hear ‘It’s me’ or ‘It was not them’,  right? But what about, ‘Me is not going’ or ‘Them were with us’?  No way. This shows we still distinguish our subject pronouns from our object pronouns. The fact that ‘It’s me’ sounds natural to most speakers (I’ve overheard even quite eloquent, educated English speakers saying this on occasion) is probably because of another intuition we have about English – the order of the words in a sentence indicates the subject and the object. The default word order for English is subject-verb-object:  ‘John plays the fiddle’, ‘She followed them up the path’. In phrases such as ‘It’s me’ and ‘It was not them’, the equational meaning of  ‘to be’ is getting trumped by the word order — the true subject of the sentence occurs after the verb, and even though semantically it is not an object, recipient, patient, etc., it feels object-like because of its position.

Linguistic intuitions are not infallible in every case (especially at the fringes where changes may be ongoing), nor are they the only method available to study the properties of language.  Consider more cases of examples related to those above.

  • not I/not me  (it was not I, it was not me)  both okay?
  • happy is he who finds his own way/happy is him who finds his own way ??
  • it was indeed they/it was indeed them   both okay?
  • it were they/it were them   both bad, right?  The verb ‘to be’ is felt to agree with ‘it’, not the extraposed subject.

I’ll leave you with one more set of examples to exercise your linguistic intuition.  These engage both word order (syntax) and meaning (semantics).

  • a big red ball/a red big ball
  • a small yellow satin purse/a yellow small satin purse/a satin yellow small purse
  • the tallest biggest strongest gladiator/the biggest strongest tallest gladiator/the strongest biggest tallest gladiator
  • the strangest prettier blue flower/the prettier strangest blue flower
  • a tall smart young woman/a young smart tall woman/a smart young tall woman

Are your intuitions clear cut for each case? Do the meanings change as the modifiers get rearranged? Are all the meanings acceptable and natural?

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