A Letter from the Managing Editor SpecGram Vol CXLVIII, No 4 Contents Comestible Morphosyntax: The Effects of Food Intake On Grammatical Performance--H.D. Onesimus

Multiple Choice: The Ultimate Algorithm

Gotthilf Neuerblumenfeld, Ph.D.*

Free will being the popularly touted mainspring of all human intelligence, many have mistakenly assumed the corollary: that human achievement, in all fields, including the acquisition and use of language, must be based on freedom of choice. In fact, a high degree of constraint upon choice is a prerequisite of any viable linguistic theory.

No modern school of thought assumes that a speaker chooses his words willy nilly from an infinite combination of possible phonemes or that he composes his sentences by randomly stringing along lexemes while taking careful account of inflectional requirements along the way. Such an assumption, known as the Essay Question Postulate, went out with the dark ages. (Which ended sometime in the middle of the 19th century.)

The advantage of the Essay Question Postulate would presumably have been the fact that it leaves speakers entirely unconstrained in the expression of their thoughts and feelings. The disadvantages are that the speaker must exercise so much choice that he is unlikely to be able to finish in the allotted time. Likewise, the hearer, unprepared for the endless variety of what may spew forth from the speaker's lips, is unlikely to comprehend what he is being told. Furthermore, essay questions are very hard to grade, so that grammaticality judgments would be difficult to make without reference to the actual semantics of the utterance in context. Such a burden on the theorist is entirely unacceptable.

The Infinite Recursion Rule, first postulated by Chomsky, while somewhat more realistic in the choices it presents a speaker, has likewise been disproved as the algorithm for language use. So in (1), it was previously assumed that the sentence could be lengthened indefinitely, by the insertion of as many additional iterations of the word 'very' as the speaker desired.

(1) I am a very silly person.

This ability to lengthen one's utterances without limit was for a time seen as the essence of all human creativity. However, it has since been proven that any inclusion of more than five iterations in a single cluster is ungrammatical under the principles of Universal Grammar.

Another alternative is one involving construction templates, otherwise known as the Fill In the Blank Theory. Under this view, the general arrangement of the utterances is set in advance, but each of the lexemes may be substituted from a delimited type of acceptable replacements, as in (2).

(2) I am a(n) __________ silly person.

Here we view the replacement options for the word immediately preceding 'silly', although such a template presumably exists for the substitution of each of the other words in the utterance. The designation adverb is a constraint on the category of lexemes that may be used to fill this particular blank, but the speaker is otherwise free to choose any substitute he wishes. The absurdity of this explanation for language use is readily demonstrated: most speakers don't know what an adverb is.

The Multiple Choice Algorithm transcends the limitations of the Fill In the Blank Theory by providing the speaker with a short, succinct list of possible replacements, without over-reliance on his knowledge of grammatical categories. See (3) below.

(3) I am a(n) __________ silly person.
(a) very
(b) appropriately
(c) somewhat
(d) not at all
(e) none of the above [realized as null]

This is the ideal degree of choice for the communication of all practical messages between speakers of average intelligence. Any lesser exercise of freedom would be stifling; any greater degree of choice would be burdensome. The theory takes into account the limited intelligence of speakers, the sorely tried patience of hearers and the scant resources currently available to researchers.

In closing, I would like to discourage anyone from pursuing the radical counter explanation offered by the Hallmark Card Hypothesis. It is thoroughly implausible to suppose that complete sentences (and sentiments)--not to speak of countless stanzas of light verse suitable for every occasion--are stored, prefabricated, with full color illustrations, in a speaker's lexicon. Such an assumption is inherently elitist, since not everyone can afford to send the very best, whether he cares to or not.

* Translated from the original tongue by A. Katz

A Letter from the Managing Editor
Comestible Morphosyntax: The Effects of Food Intake On Grammatical Performance--H.D. Onesimus
SpecGram Vol CXLVIII, No 4 Contents