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Describing language
Describing language

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1 The structure of language

As you saw from the Yoda example in the Introduction, it may be possible to make sense of oddly-ordered words if the idea they express is fairly short and simple. But if we are going to express complex topics in longer sentences, we have to put the words together into bigger groups, and combine those groups together, according to the rules of the language we are using.

In Week 6, you looked at grammatical words (the closed classes) and saw how they joined words from the bigger, open classes together. The closed classes add meaning and make communication more effective in various different ways:

  • using pronouns (he, she, they, etc.) stops us repeating nouns
  • using the indefinite (a/an) or definite articles (the) shows whether we’re introducing new information or talking about something we’ve mentioned before
  • conjunctions (and, but, etc.) let us join our ideas together, explore alternatives, or point out problems (Chris or Jim will take you)
  • modal auxiliary verbs (might, must, etc.) let us express how likely something is (it may rain later) or whether it’s a good idea (you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full). They also show whether we’re willing to do something (I’ll do the washing up) or see it as an obligation (we must tidy up).

The main focus this week is to investigate how we combine open and closed class words in the right order to get the most out of them. Like all the grammatical knowledge in this course, this is something you already know. It’s just a question of bringing that knowledge into focus.