LINGUISTICS AND TRUTH

Quirk, Greenbaum, Svartvik and Leech. authors of the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language

One must be brave in the search for truth and not bow to authority; bow only to reasoned argument and evidence.

By Phil Hall

I just want to share something precious with you; at least it is precious to me. I am not a doctor in linguistics, but I did do a one-year master’s degree at University College London with Sidney Greenbaum. Despite my poor first degree mark, he accepted me onto an MA course in Modern English Language. He did this because I led an interesting, peripatetic life. He was curious to meet me. He thought, perhaps, that I would add a little ferment to his select group of students.

It was a beautiful experience. At the end of the course, Professor Greenbaum suggested I do a doctorate with him and apply for a grant. I didn’t. The money was too little. I was starting a family. To do a doctorate would have been a luxury. If you really want to have a brilliant academic career you have to start young. All the same, I felt pleased and vindicated that he suggested it to me. He was a kind man.

Who is Sidney Greenbaum? Well, he won the Order of Merit from the queen, the highest honour possible for any academic in the United Kingdom.

Who is Sidney Greenbaum? Well, he won the Order of Merit from the queen, the highest honour possible for any academic in the United Kingdom. Put it this way, if you were a member of the Royal Society and had won a medal in your chosen discipline, you would probably still not win the Order of Merit. Perhaps if you won the Nobel prize, you would have a shot.


Now, Professor Greenbaum was an eminent authority on adverbials and corpus linguistics. The Corpus at UCL, the Survey of English Usage, was the first in Europe and the second in the world. On the course, many people with wonderful pedigrees taught us.

On the phonology side, we were taught by two of the illustrious students of A. C. Gimson: the irascible phonologist, J. C. Wells, who wrote Accents of English and compiled The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, and Susan Ramsaran, the editor of An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English and The English Pronouncing Dictionary. We were also taught intonation, but I can’t remember who our teacher was. I’ll look up his name later. Intonation is really hard – like singing.


The Famous Five who went to UCL to study an MA in Modern English Language

To get an idea of how culturally significant this group of lecturers was, you should know the name Henry Sweet. Well, Henry Sweet was a brilliant linguist and Bernard Shaw based his character Henry Higgins on Henry Sweet. Daniel Jones was Higgins’s student. A. C. Gimson was Jones’s student. In turn, my teachers had been students of Gimson.

For Lexicology we had Jean Aitchison, for Morphology we had Valerie Adams, for Lexicography we had John Ayto, and for Transformational/Generative Grammar (or whatever its current incarnation is called) we had Dr. Bas Aarts, son of the famous Dutch Professor, F. Aarts. For Discourse Analysis we had someone come over from the Institute of Education – a timid, irritating little man, deputising for the half-baked applied linguist, Guy Cook. The chap refused to say anything definite on the grounds that all meaning had to be ‘negotiated’.

But we could also choose to attend other lectures. So, I attended the lectures of Dick Hudson and Diane Blakemore. Those were the days when Relevance Theory was important and Diedre Wilson also taught at UCL in the linguistics department. There were opportunities to attend lectures by other linguists who were visiting, too. The lecture by Jerry Fodor, inevitably circling round to the question of the modularity of mind again, was memorable.

We wanted to use The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language itself as a textbook.

Now, if you have read this meandering article this far, well done. What valuable point am I trying to make? How does it affect you? Am I wasting your time? Almost there.


Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, from the Jewish Museum in Vienna

At the beginning of the course, the unprepossessing Professor Greenbaum told us we would use Rodney Huddlestone’s book on grammar as our textbook. My fellow students – there were five of us – decided that we did not want to use Huddlestone’s book at all. We wanted to use The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language itself as a textbook. This was the work for which four authors were awarded the OM; it is the definitive grammar of the English language. (Actually, my signed copy of the CGEL was permanently ‘borrowed’ from me by someone in the British Council offices in Moscow in 1991. I am still annoyed about it 30 years later.)

Who were the students who were supposed to challenge Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik?

So, we come to the point I want to share. The professor agreed to our suggestion that we use his grammar as a textbook and said:


‘OK. Go away and read one chapter and then formulate questions for me for the next tutorial/seminar.’

Now, think about it. The most authoritative work in the world on the English language and we had to get clarifications and challenge what it said with its author in front of us. Who were these five daring students who were supposed to challenge Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik?

You must never, ever believe something because someone important or famous says it.

There was a Chinese intellectual, a bit of a genius. He survived the Gang of Four in China by becoming a cook and preparing food for the party bosses in China. He destroyed his stomach with spices because he did so. He used to have to fart occasionally in class because of it. There was a young lecturer from a Dutch university who had published her thesis on the difference between ‘do so’ and ‘so do’. There was a senior Japanese lecturer, Hiromichi, who was extremely knowledgeable, but not at all confident with his spoken English. Then there was me. Finally, there was a retired Englishman with a diamond-sharp mind, who had been a civil engineer.

Sidney Greenbaum gave us this talk at the beginning of the course. I want to share it with you because it is illuminating:


‘Don’t ever believe something just because you see it in print, even if you see it in the most authoritative textbook written by the most admired people. You must never, ever believe something because someone important or famous says it. Your concern should only be to find out what is true and what is not true.

Here, at UCL, we work on the principle of falsification. What does this mean? It means that nothing is true permanently.

‘Let me explain. You have an idea or a theory and you must test it to see if it fits. If it fits and explains the facts, that is good. But if there is another theory that explains the facts better than your theory, then we accept the other theory and not yours.

‘And we use Occam’s Razor. What is Occam’s Razor? Occam’s Razor says that the simplest theory that fits the facts best is probably the right one. So it is your job to test ideas and theories. It is your job to see if the theories we currently accept work; to falsify them.

‘The way you test theories is by trying to find examples that don’t fit the theory. So, for example, if a morphologist says that there are no compound nouns with the word ‘eagle’ that include a word referring to what the eagle eats and then you suddenly remember an example and shout out:


“But what about the fish eagles? ”

Then you have successfully falsified the theory. However, if there is no better explanation available then we continue to use the current one until someone comes up with a better theory, despite your brilliant counter example.

‘These ideas come from Karl Popper. This is the philosophy of science that we have chosen to use here to underpin our ideas in our department. So it is your responsibility, in fact it is your duty, to try to find counterexamples for everything. To try to falsify anything and everything anyone proposes, even if that person is the greatest authority in the world.

‘We have no untouchable authorities here. Do not be offended if someone tries to destroy your ideas with counter examples and reason. Do not take it personally, because you do not own the truth. Thank them for helping you get closer to a better explanation.’


The CGEL

Sidney Greenbaum asked us to go away and read each chapter and come back and ask questions and to try and find counter examples.

Well, I cannot say I read every chapter in great detail. I didn’t. I was not the best student of the five. But I kept up. The Chinese man, however, had a highly developed linguistic mind. Towards the end of the course he said to Sidney Greenbaum:

‘I think I have found a problem with this chapter.’ We looked at Greenbaum to see what he would say.


‘What is it?’ Greenbaum asked.

The Chinese student (was his name Bo?) told the professor what the problem was. Greenbaum looked down. He studied the page. Then he looked up and said to to the Chinese student.

‘Thank you very much. You are right. I will send a note to the publisher to make the change in the next edition.’

And there we have it. One of the greatest authorities working in English Grammer, with the book that won him the OM, conceding to a non-native speaker that he had made a mistake and thanking him for pointing it out.

We all learned a great lesson there and carried it away with us. One must be brave in one’s search for truth and not bow to authority, but bow to reason and argument and the evidence.

It is possible that in the pursuit of truth you make may make many enemies.

Of course, the person you discuss things with must also have the same approach. Imagine you are an undergraduate student discussing a new theory that your lecturer has proposed and you notice there are problems with it simply because you are observant and you do some research. Well, as we know, not everyone is in academia to pursue the truth. Some are there just to collect salaries and enjoy the prestige. It is possible that, in making a valid criticism, you may offend people and make enemies. At least that, on occasion, has been my experience.

So, I suggest you be as polite as you can be in your pursuit of truth, or you will suffer the consequences.


Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.