Reviewerish Field Notes—Cy Tayshon and M. Paktphaq-Torr SpecGram Vol CLXXV, No 2 Contents Not So Perry So-So—On Pragmatics, Fieldwork, and Imperialism—Əəәəᶕᵊ Ӛәəəәɚ Әәӛәₔ

The Speculative Grammarian Survey of Grammar Readers

Morris Swadesh III

In 2014 SpecGram published our Survey of Grammar Writers in three parts. As a follow-up to that revealing research, we offer here a survey of the corresponding consumers: Grammar Readers.


We sent our survey to 457.5 professional linguists,1 of whom 233.5 returned it, for a response rate of about 51%.

We asked respondents to self-identify with a primary linguistic subdiscipline from a standard list. Responses broke down as follows:

Historical Linguist1%
No preference21%

From this, we can probably conclude that linguists, on the whole, are a bunch of posers.

Table of Contents and Index

By far, the most important part of a grammar, for our respondents, was the table of contents. In fact, 51% of grammar readers said they only read the table of contents of most grammars.

Some (self-described) typologists, however, ignore the table of contents and read only the index. A representative comment was this: “With a good index, I can tell within seconds of picking up a grammar whether or not I’ll ever choose to include it in a random sample.”

Order of Presentation

Over nine-tenths of respondents (91%) expressed opinions about the order in which chapters of a grammar are presented. Of these, over half wanted an analyzed text at the beginning, rather than (as is usual) at the end. One respondent commented, “the requisite ‘animal hero’ folktale is typically way more plausible than the ‘cultural context’ and ‘historical background’ people shoehorn into the average Chapter 1.”


Respondents were evenly split regarding the requisite phonology chapter of a grammar. Half of our respondents said that phonology is an important linguistic subdiscipline, and that it ought to be included even though it is totally irrelevant to the main grammatical patterns and morphological processes of most languages. The other half of our respondents submitted comments along the lines of this one: “If phonology deserves its own chapter, then ethnopoetics should get a whole book.”


About a quarter of our respondents chose response (C) here: “Morphology doesn’t exist; it’s just mis-labeled grammar and/or over-transcribed phonology.”

Among those who chose other responses, we found that some only read the morphology section of any grammar (generally because they chiefly read grammars in order to find data for exams in their Intro to Linguistics courses), and some reported deep disappointment at having waded through innumerable descriptions of morphemes and morphomes, without ever finding a single reference to morphames or morphumes.3


Remarkably few respondents commented at all on the syntactic elements of the grammars with which they are familiar. A couple of representative comments on this topic will suffice to provide the flavor:

You read one tagmemic grammar, you’ve read them all.

I’m amazed at how few actual syntactic facts make it into these “grammars”. Not a single parameter is ever mentioned. If I wanted to do real syntax on any of these languages, I’d have to get a native speaker to translate my 28 English test sentences from scratch.

Other comments

We made the tactical mistake of leaving space on our form for “other comments”, to which most people responded with vitriolic and vituperous eloquence. We cannot reprint any of the actual comments here, but they nearly all referred to the publishers of grammars, who apparently are a class of people with whom one would be wise to avoid association. We confess to having learned a number of euphemisms for “unethical business practices” in the course of reading these responses.


While our respondents do not feel charitable towards the economic character of published grammatical descriptions, they seemed to feel, in the main, that grammars are holding up their end of the academic linguistic enterprise, enabling the pedagogical and publicational activities which are the lifeblood of grammar consumers. Just the same, we intend to steer well clear of any publishers’ displays at future conferences, as we do not wish to witness the violence which our surveys suggest could well be in store for the purveyors of these publications.

1 Linguists who teach in English departments were assigned a value of .5.

2 Several of the possible choices in the list were not chosen by any of our respondents: Post-doc; Professional Grant Applicant; Semanticist; Assistant Department Chair; and Skinnerian Generativist. We can offer no explanation for this apparent lack of honesty on the part of our otherwise reliable respondents.

3 We were at first tempted to attribute this to the appalling cross-linguistic dearth of ablaut processes, but a simple gedankenexperiment clarified for us the real problem: grammar writers lack imagination.

Reviewerish Field NotesCy Tayshon and M. Paktphaq-Torr
Not So Perry So-SoOn Pragmatics, Fieldwork, and Imperialism—Əəәəᶕᵊ Ӛәəəәɚ Әәӛәₔ
SpecGram Vol CLXXV, No 2 Contents