Writers Talk About Writing
You Don't Say! Things Native Speakers Never Say, and Why Linguists Care
In every walk of life, there are things that fail to achieve what we're expecting them to. The love letter you thought was swoon-worthy falls flat. The greatest motivational technique ever is met with blank stares. Just as much as the successes though, we can learn from things that don't work. In fact, some people would say that you learn more from your missteps than from the things with a positive outcome.
This is part of the reason that linguists in their research put such a value on data that no one would ever say. They might make up sentences of Russian words with the order all wrong, so it's not Russian but is instead Russian gobbledygook. (Linguists like to call that kind of situation "word salad" — all mixed up.) Or they might craft English sentences where all the wrong syllables are emphasized, or there is no verb agreement. It looks like English, but it's really not what or how a native speaker would say it.
You can learn a lot from these mistakes, too. Here is a selection of instructive English that's not English: things native speakers tend to know are wrong instinctively, without having been taught it in school.
Like anything trying to inspire an epiphany in you, linguists like to start with the revelation that what one is taught in school is a lie, or at the very least, incomplete. In English class in high school, verbs are divided into three categories: intransitive, transitive, and ditransitive. This distinction is based on the objects they take: intransitives take no objects, transitives take one object, and ditransitives take two. Based on their pattern of behavior, however, linguists propose that there are actually two types of intransitive verbs.
Take, for instance, jump and fall, two intransitive verbs. One thing you can do with verbs is make them nouns, to stand for a person who is doing the action the verb describes. Jumper is perfectly fine, but what about faller? The vast majority of people say that faller is very odd, and probably ungrammatical. The obvious observation here is that there is no question as to what a faller would be — it's not obscure or unclear at all what it means, but native English speakers still have a problem saying it.
It is as if your sense of what things mean and the faculty that lets you best express that meaning are bumping up against each other. They usually get along great, but now, even when someone falls down right in front of you on the street, it's would be weird to call him a faller. It would be, well, wrong. It is this kind of error, the kind that native speakers never make, that linguists live for.
Here's a small list of verbs in the fall class so you can test whether the noun form sounds right to you:
Based on this (and a lot of other interesting evidence from languages like Hebrew and Italian), linguists think it make sense to talk about two kinds of intransitive verbs, and that that difference in behavior tells you something about the kind of object the verb takes.
If you think about verbs like jump (and laugh and run), which cooperate so well when you try to turn them into nouns, I hope you won't take them for granted anymore. Another word you may be taking for granted is the word that. It's a small word, and at first glance it seems completely optional:
(1) What do you think Mary read?
(2) What do you think that Mary read?
Those two sentences are identical except for the presence of that in one of them, and there seems to be no difference in meaning at all (keeping things like stress and intonation the same). But that is not done with us yet:
(3) Who do you think read the book?
(4) Who do you think that read the book?
All of a sudden, sentence (4) is awful, and it looks like the presence or absence of that matters a lot. I won't go into all that has been said about this since it was discovered in 1971. I'll just say that in (1) and (2), the questions are built around the object, and the potential answers — a book, a magazine — are objects of the verb read. In (3) and (4) the questions are subject questions, and the potential answers are subjects of the verb read. Again, (4) isn't a mistake someone who grew up speaking English is likely to make, but the fact that you can't say it can be illuminating.
This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as linguistics and "things people don't say" goes. For linguists, "ungrammatical English" is not about proscriptions like "don't end a sentence with a preposition" or "no split infinitives." Rather, stepping beyond the grammatical opens a window into how language is built in the brain and by extension how the mind works. These are lofty goals, but I hope until that is achieved, these kinds of examples make you think about language more deeply and in a slightly different way. I think that's a reachable goal.