Theory

This page gives the merest sketch of the background theory upon which the project is premised.  Subsidiary pages give more detail.  All pages will update in response to requests.  So if you have any questions, or would like to see more detail on any of the pages, e-mail us.  We need you to be our guide as to how much Theory we need to post.

The Sketch

In our design, the study of English Grammar is a thoroughly scientific enterprise, and should be thought of as an exercise in code-breaking. English, like all natural languages, is a system for converting ideas into words, messages into sentences. The system comprises a vast battery of encoding routines, or programs, with messages as their inputs and sentences as their outputs.  And the aim of the Grammarian is to crack the code for English, to puzzle out how its encoding programmes function, and thus to see how any given message ends up being articulated in its corresponding sentence.

The groundwork has already been laid.  English has just five basic encoding programs, and correspondingly all messages encodable in English fall into just five basic categories, and all (declarative) sentences of English fall into just five basic categories.

Basic programs are easier to discern in English than in most other languages, which makes English an especially useful place to begin an investigation such as ours.  For English, being an isolating language, has separated out many features which elsewhere might be thought to run together.  The English verb is not marked for mood.  The English verb is not marked for aspect.  It has but two finite forms, and correspondingly the English tense system is remarkably simple, comprising just two tenses, present and past.  And English has a comprehensive set of modals, which handle between them an impressive variety of tasks.

Crucial to understanding the five basic categories are the tense code for English, and the English modals: the five are grammatically defined by the interplay of time and tense, and the differing roles that the modals take on.  Matters that in other languages are the province of mood are handled in English partly by a particular style of encoding program, and partly by the modals.  The correlate of verbal aspect in English is the phenomenon of phase-modification.  And so it comes about that in English the issues surrounding Time, Tense, Aspect, Mood and Modality can be laid out separately for all to see.

Our question is: how far do other languages depart from the English paradigm?  In the case of the “future tense”, we imagine not at all.  How the rest pans out remains to be seen.