One of the main reasons why mass collaborative authorship of the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia has been so successful is that there is a general consensus about what an encyclopaedia entry should look like. This is not necessarily the case with a grammar book - there are many different approaches that could be taken. Hence, we have spent a lot of time elaborating a number of suggested principles that we hope will be useful to contributors to the Gràmar na Gàidhlig.

This page is about these general principles for grammatical description. Feel free to discuss these by leaving a message on the discussion tab, if you don't understand anything, or disagree with something.

It is important to note that any content you add doesn't have to be perfect in the first instance. The important thing is to add necessary content in whatever form you feel most comfortable, and then let other people come along and organise and polish it so that it fits the style used throughout the rest of the grammar.

1. Generative grammar

A "generative grammar", in the original sense of Noam Chomsky's 1957 book Syntactic Structures, is an explicit, precise specification of a language. In other words, a generative grammar should provide the reader with a means of determining whether a particular sequence of words is a grammatical sentence or not. Chomsky originally conceptualised a generative grammar as a machine - the user enters a sequence of words into the machine, and the machine outputs "yes" or "no" depending on whether the input is a grammatical sentence or not.

A generative grammar should be:
  • sound - All ungrammatical sequences must be explicitly rejected, i.e. for every sequence of words which is not a grammatical Gaelic sentence, the grammar must contain at least one rule that it can be shown to violate.
  • complete - No grammatical sentence must be rejected, i.e. the rules listed in the grammar must not be so powerful that grammatical Gaelic sentences are judged to be bad.

It is unrealistic to expect that we can write a perfectly sound and complete generative grammar of contemporary Gaelic. On the one hand, even after sixty years of trying, no-one has yet managed to write a complete grammar for English. On the other hand, the desire for total mathematical precision often gets in the way of accessibility to a general audience. But, other things being equal, we should try and be as clear and precise as possible, and strive for both soundness and completeness.

2. Synthetic grammar

There are two main ways of writing a generative grammar:
  • analytic - start with whole sentences and chop them up into their component parts, until you reach the level of individual words
  • synthetic - start with words and describe the ways in which they can combine with other words to form phrases and sentences.

For example, take the following grammatical sentence of Gaelic:
  • Dh'fhalbh na gillean a chluich ball-coise. (The boys went off to play football)

An analytic description of this sentence would start off by identifying the three immediate constituents of the sentence - the verb dh'fhalbh, the noun phrase na gillean, and the infinitive phrase a chluich ball-coise. Then the noun phrase itself can be analysed into the article na and the plural noun gillean, and so on. We then end up with a structure like this for the sentence as a whole (don;t worry about the particular labels chosen for the nodes, or what they mean):
In contrast, a synthetic description of the example sentence would start off by looking at the individual words, and figuring out which ones are linked by grammatical dependencies, and what these grammatical dependencies are. For example:
  • the plural noun gillean is the subject of the main verb dh'fhalbh
  • the compound noun ball-coise is the object of the subordinate verb chluich
  • the article na is the specifier of the plural noun gillean

A reasonably complete synthetic description of the example sentence would look something like this (again, don't worry too much about the labels on the arcs - the > and < symbols represent the direction of the arc, from head to dependent):
The analytic, top-down approach has been the dominant paradigm in American theoretical linguistics over the last century, whereas the synthetic, dependency-based approach has been used in Europe linguistics, and more recently in computational linguistics as well. We believe that the synthetic approach has much more in common with the way in which traditional descriptive/prescriptive grammars are written, and hence is the recommended approach for this grammar of Gaelic. In other words, we should try to focus on the words themselves, and on the ways in which they are related grammatically to neighbouring words.

3. Constraint-based grammar

We mentioned above that a grammar is a set of rules, and that a grammatical sentence can be described by means of a dependency structure showing which words are dependents of which other words. Bringing these two ideas together now, we can define a "rule" as a constraint (or principle) which dependency structures must obey.

Examples of the kinds of constraints we are talking about are as follows:
  • Every main verb must have exactly one subject, which must be a noun or pronoun, and which must follow the verb.
  • A noun can have at most one specifier, which must be a form of the definite article or a possessive article, and which must be the leftmost dependent of the noun.

The aim in writing the grammar, from this perspective, is to come up with a set of constraints which are obeyed by all grammatical sentences of Gaelic, and such that every ungrammatical sentence violates at least one of the constraints.

To keep things clear and simple, you will probably find it is a good idea to makes some of the constraints defaults, which can then be overridden by more specific constraints. Here is a simple example of why this might be useful:
  • Every preposition must have exactly one complement, which must be a noun or pronoun.
  • By default, the complement of a preposition must be in the dative case.
  • However, the complement of the prepositions gun and mar must be in the nominative case.

Using default constraints sensitively should result in a more readable grammar.

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