Posted by Austin Morris on  UTC 2015-11-13 08:02

In theory

How we on this blog dislike grammar pedants! Those who pounce on split infinitives, missing or superfluous apostrophes/commas/etc. People who go pale with shock on seeing a 'there' when a 'their' is meant or become purple with rage when they hear the song 'Me and my shadow, walking down the avenue'.

We dislike them because they are rule pedants – the biblical term would be Pharisees. They are people who rant at others for breaking some rule or other. Its always a rant, by the way, where usually a polite cough would be quite enough. Closer examination of the rant frequently (in my experience) shows that the rule has been misunderstood, misinterpreted or that it is simply no rule at all, having so many inconsistencies and exceptions that its utility as a rule has to be seriously questioned.

It was an enlightening experience for me some years ago to work alongside French colleagues on an edition of a French grammar intended for French schoolchildren. In best Encyclopédie style the grammar was structured into the usual categories and within each category there were lists of rules that the children had to learn, presumably in the hope that they would learn to apply them, too. So far, so good. But, following that old maxim, 'the exception proves the rule', for each rule there was a collection of exceptions, many of which were very substantial collections indeed, with a score or more of entries that children were also supposed to learn just as thoroughly as they were supposed to learn the rules. My French colleagues were amused by my unsystematic, utilitarian, English mind when I asked them how many exceptions were required before a rule became worthless.

We on this blog reject rule-based grammar because it is only a listing of 'form conventions'. As such it has little to contribute to the principal task of language, communicating meaning. The pedants like to seize upon cases of misplaced commas, for example, that can radically alter meaning, but usually only when read with a literalism that only pedants apply.

The greatest criticism of rule-based grammar is that it is possible to write a text that is immaculate in its application of rules - the spelling is correct, all the commas are in the right place, adverbs are not mixed up with adjectives, case, number and gender is consistently respected - but which is nevertheless confusing nonsense for the reader.

Computers were able to write grammatically correct 'poetry' in the 1970s. The 'poetry' was nonsense of course, but the grammar was OK. After forty years of algorithm development the situation is much the same.

For us, rule-based grammar should take second place to 'jigsaw-puzzle grammar'. This is a grammar that aims to assist the communication of meaning, not demands the adherence to rules. If the words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs in a text fit together as jigsaw-puzzle pieces do and thus produce a coherent image in the mind then the text meets the requirements of our jigsaw-puzzle grammar. Furthermore, because of its focus on the communication of meaning, such a text conforms to all the rules necessary to meaning. It is possible to apply rules – spelling conventions, for example – to our jigsaw-puzzle grammar, but as a secondary activity.[1]

In practice

Here is an example of a few sentences from a recent newspaper article. There may be some pedant somewhere who will find fault with something in the rule-based grammar of this text, but I think most sane people would say that, although it may not be the most elegant English they will read this year, it is fundamentally correct according to rule-based grammar. Here it is:

Colonies of ants are incredibly complex, so much so that they are often referred to as single superorganisms. But to what extent do they actually behave as a single entity? [2]

Well, let's read this text for meaning, not for its adherence to rules. To do this we break it up into jigsaw pieces, which we designate [thus]. We encounter problems right from the start:

[colonies of ants] [are] [incredibly] [complex] This text takes one jigsaw piece [colonies of ants] and links it with another, [complex]. The link applies the property [complex] to [colonies of ants]. The alert reader now says: how can [colonies of ants] be [complex]? [colonies of ants] is just a collection of individual colonies: it is just a quantity of colonies without any further organization and therefore could not be called [complex] in any sense. These two jigsaw pieces do not fit together. We can start to repair this by using the singular jigsaw piece: [a colony of ants] [is] [complex].

The fit is better, but still not perfect. As with real jigsaw pieces, in jigsaw-puzzle grammar it is considered bad form to force pieces into places in which they do not really belong. The problem with [a colony of ants] [is] [complex] is that a [a colony of ants] cannot be [complex] - the attribute [complex] cannot describe a colony, which is almost certainly not what we suspect the writer means. To illustrate this problem we just have to ask ourselves in what way a colony is complex, because in itself it cannot be. Only an attribute of a colony that is capable of being complex will do here. If you want to keep [complex] then some permissible jigsaw pieces would be [the social structure of a colony of ants], [the social organization of a colony of ants] , [the functioning of a colony of ants] and so on. If you want to keep [a colony of ants] then you can't use [complex]: the pieces don't fit together. You have to use other pieces such as [a fascinating object of study].

But, you say, this is pedantry of the worst sort: you understood what the author was saying.

No you didn't. You read 'colonies of ants' and visualised all these thousands of tiny creatures milling around and then read 'complex' and thought you understood the text. You hadn't, simply because it didn't say that. You projected some idea from your head into this text. The flow of information was therefore in the wrong direction: you have received no information or knowledge from this text, you have just reinforced what you already know. This is not the point of reading.

This kind of writing is all too common. It is only relatively harmless when it has nothing to do, that is, when the reader knows nearly as much about the topic as the writer. In this case the reader will supply all the necessary meaning. But when we are reading about a subject that is new to us then faulty jigsaw-puzzle grammar makes the text intractable – or, at least, much heavier going than it should be.

Back to our text. Squashed in front of [complex] is the piece [incredibly], which has been hammered into the jigsaw without any respect for its outline. The fact is that, whatever the writer is talking about here, let us assume it is [the organization of a colony of ants], few would find its complexity 'incredible', that is 'unbelievable'. It seems the writer is using [incredibly] to potentiate [complex], in which case pieces such as [very], [extremely], [astonishingly] and many others would fit much better into the jigsaw. Using [incredibly] as a short form of [so complex that you would not believe it] makes little sense at all in this context.

So here we are, having applied our jigsaw grammar to only six words of this text so far. Will it ever end? Not for a while, unfortunately. Onwards and downwards, insanity awaits us. The next section of this text is:

[so much so that] [they] [are] [often referred to as] [single] [superorganisms]

The jigsaw piece [they=colonies of ants] will never fit with [single] [superorganisms]. The collection of colonies might be construed to be a collection of superorganisms, but what the writer seems to be saying is that [a colony of ants][is][a superorganism]. These pieces would fit together better, but still not quite perfectly: we are surely entitled to ask why [a colony of ants][is] not just an 'organism', particularly since we still have the jigsaw piece [single] lying around on the board. Our author could therefore have written [a colony of ants][is][a single][organism]. We can approach our goal of communication meaning even more closely if we replace [is] with [behaves as] in this construction.

Let's do a bit more cleaning up around the piece [so much so that]. This phrase describes causation: 'because an ant colony is (so) complex some call it a superorganism', but here the writer is hammering jigsaw pieces into place that really don't fit together at all. Complexity is not a sufficient property to characterise an organism, whether super- or not. A few seconds' reflection will bring to mind many examples of non-organic things that are extremely complex. The writer really means something such as 'the degree of coordination within a colony has led to their being called single organisms in their own right'. [have been referred to] does not fit in here, either. When you refer to something you make a reference to it: 'he referred to his many years of service'. It might be acceptable in the clumsy construction [have been referred to as being], but let's keep things as simple as possible. [have been referred to] is just being used by the writer as a pretentious and incorrect substitute for [have been said to be]. We can now take this first sentence of our jigsaw and try and put some pieces in the places in which they fit.


Colonies of ants are incredibly complex, so much so that they are often referred to as single superorganisms.


[the degree of coordination within a colony of ants] [is] [astonishingly] [complex], [so much so that] [ant colonies] [have been said to be] [single] [organisms] [in their own right]

Moving on to the next sentence.

But to what extent do they actually behave as a single entity?

Let's clean up the obvious point first: 'they' refers to 'superorganisms', but only the singular 'a superorganism' could conceivably behave as 'a single entity'. If we keep 'superorganisms' we require 'single entities'.

Presumably driven by the need to avoid repeating 'superorganisms' the writer now confronts us with [a] [single] [entity]. But these jigsaw pieces do not fit together –[entity] is not a synonym for [organism]. The principal and necessary property of an [entity] is that it is entire. If an entity moves right, all of it moves right, not just one part. [organism] is the only piece that fits in this context, since the writer is referring to behaviour that is identifiably organic, not just unitary. We can therefore re-lay the jigsaw pieces:

[but] [to what extent] [do they] [really] [behave as] [organisms]?

Putting it all together:


Colonies of ants are incredibly complex, so much so that they are often referred to as single superorganisms. But to what extent do they actually behave as a single entity?


The degree of coordination within a colony of ants is astonishingly complex, so much so that ant colonies have been said to be single organisms in their own right. But to what extent do they really behave as organisms?

We have reconstructed two sentences of rule-based grammar into two sentences of jigsaw-puzzle grammar. I hope you agree that these sentences have been improved, in so far as they now at least communicate meaning to the reader. We could go through the rest of the article in the same manner, but your author and his battered readers would fall asleep from tedium well before we reached the third paragraph.


  1. ^ At this point, students of linguistics are jumping up and down in their chairs shouting 'semantics'. I would ask them to be calm: I am trying to focus attention on the role of meaning in texts in a way that will be practical and useful for non-specialists. Entering the labyrinth that is modern semantic theory would inevitably bring the focus on to the tools and away from the material.
  2. ^ Daily Mail: Ant colonies under attack work like a 'nervous system'

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