In his “Origins of Speech” (published in the August 2016 issue of Harper’s magazine), Tom Wolfe harshly critiques a pillar of prevalent linguistic theory: That grammar is universal, and that the differences in grammar between languages are not structural, but only variants that build on an innate faculty. According to “universal grammar”, this ability allows the “nesting” of meaning. In other words, our ability to ascribe meaning to words recursively. For example:
The tall girl
The tall girl that is smart
The tall girl that is smart that is sitting on a tree.
The tall girl that is smart that is studying for the GMAT, sitting on a tree.
As such, we are able to create complex structures of words and meaning. Far from a purely academic critique against this theory, the article seems to be a personal attack. However, I don’t want to get into the critique. In any case I am not a linguist. Instead I briefly state that I side with the more accepted theory of universal grammar because it seems to make the more logical sense (If you are interested in Chomsky’s response to the article, you can follow this link).
There are practical implications to the theory of universal grammar on the GMAT, specifically sentence correction on the Verbal section. Understanding this innate faculty to “nest” or ascribe extra meaning through recursion, we can approach sentence correction questions differently:
Instead of linearly reading sentences to discover different kinds of grammatical errors, break down sentences into their smaller parts. Scan the overall structure of a sentence, identifying the “nesting” that is being used and whether or not it makes sense and fits the overall structural.
Modifier errors, comparison errors, subject agreement errors will become more obvious. Take a look at these examples of errors.
1. Unlike in the United States where the electoral college vote decides the outcome, the elections in Mexico are decided by a popular vote.
2. Influenced by her convincing argument, the overwhelming vote of the jury was swift in its favor of the young lawyer.
3. The recent discovery of the fossilized remains of a dinosaur tail, a mosquito and a few ants all well preserved in an amber chamber provide proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs, since there seems to be feathery remains on that tail.
Can you detect the error in each of those sentences?
Sentence one commits a comparison error by comparing the United States to the elections in Mexico. We must compare two equal entities: Unlike in the United States… in Mexico.
Sentence two commits a modification error. The “vote” of a jury cannot be influenced by an argument. The jury can.
Sentence three commits a subject verb agreement error. The main subject of the sentence “The recent discovery” provides, not provide. The subject is singular and requires a single verb form.
Of course this scanning for logical structure rests upon your ability to identify correct usage, which is arbitrary in many cases unfortunately and is based on how a language evolved and what linguists decided to be correct or incorrect. For example, we go to school to learn vs. we go to school for learning (Do you know which is correct by the way?), or, singular subjects generally require verbs ending in s but not plural verbs.
A broad scan for errors will save you a lot of time and mental stamina. You no longer have to read every single possible answer and linearly scan for particular errors. Instead, you can now scan sentences to identify errors of structure and quickly eliminate them. Often, two or three answer choices will contain the same error and they can be eliminated as well. Considering that there are on average 17 sentence correction questions on the Verbal section, you can save a lot of time.
You may think it is unfair that English grammar is tested and forms cultural bias, but remember that grammar, at least according to leading linguists of our time, is innate, and can be adjusted to English if it is not your first language.