2.3 Using grammatical description in context
Malinowski's anthropological work illustrates a more dynamic approach to the study of language which is still influential today, particularly in functional approaches to grammar. Many linguists are exploring ways of grounding their description of language in the cultural, geographical, social and economic conditions stressed by Malinowski. These factors are seen as influencing how language is used in context; that is, how variations in what we are doing, who we are communicating with, whether we are face to face or separated in time and space from our listener/reader and so on affect the grammatical and other language choices we make. This is a wide definition of context, and is sometimes called sociocultural context. This term is to distinguish it from a narrower meaning of context which refers to the words in the immediate textual environment of the word or grammatical feature that you are looking at. So in the following sentence we might be looking at how, for example, the word wide is used.
This is a wide definition of context.
All the words that surround it form its immediate context, as does the whole paragraph. The notion of context and its influence on grammatical choice is important in this course. You will have opportunities to reflect on how the local textual context affects grammar and how the wider context of the local culture and the particular situation of people communicating influence the variations that you will observe in grammatical choices.
Before you continue reading, think about what the contextual factors are that might be influencing me as I sit here typing this course. What would be affecting me in the wider sociocultural context and in the immediate textual context surrounding each word I write?
If we are using context in its broader sense then wider influences on my selection of grammar than simply textual context can be considered. My choices of language would reflect my evaluation of the social relations between myself as writer and you as reader. We are strangers, but I wish to create a feeling of friendliness and dialogue within the text. I am conscious that I am trying to achieve a purpose through writing – helping you to understand more about grammar. I therefore select words and put them together in sentences which I hope will convey the point I am trying to make. I can't refer to things in my immediate environment because you do not share it – we are not communicating face-to-face or even simultaneously. I must make myself clear just by the ordering of the words on the page. Such contextual factors can be described and accounted for in a comprehensive description of grammar and such a grammar can also help me to think about how I can make my meanings more clearly.