A Postcard From Galicia


Grammarians might want to make their own pilgrimage to this street in one Spanish town.

Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain—This historic city, famous as the endpoint of a 1,000-kilometer pilgrimage route, has a short street named (in Galician) “Tránsito dos Gramáticos.” I don’t know of another city with a street dedicated to the grammarians of the world. How appropriate that the local university should be holding an international workshop on discourse analysis (IWoDA 2013).

I’m here not as a pilgrim but qua grammarian, to give a plenary lecture at the workshop on passive clauses in English discourse. But I’ve heard some papers that have increased my interest in a different topic.

Connective adjuncts (see The Cambridge Grammar, 775–779) are expressions that establish logical or rhetorical connections in sequences of sentences: adverbs like consequently or nevertheless, prepositional phrases like of course or by contrast, etc. I attended an interesting paper about one such item: “Besides as a connective,” by Michael Hannay, John Lachlan Mackenzie, and Elena Martínez Caro.

You might think that besides does the same work as all sorts of other devices for tacking on additional statements, like in addition or moreover or furthermore. Not so. It is much more sophisticated. Some contexts make it completely inappropriate, as witness the part of the following sequence that I prefix with ‘#’ (following a convention in linguistics for marking semantic anomaly):

New York is a major port city. #Besides, it is a global financial center.

Besides is clearly not equivalent to in addition (though I am told that teachers of English as a second language often find learners using it thus).

So what is the key element of the correct use? According to Hannay and colleagues, introducing a sentence with besides signals that a completed argument for some conclusion has already been given but is now to be augmented, perhaps even supplanted, by a further point that establishes the conclusion independently.

When Jack Worthing, in The Importance of Being Earnest, calls his friend Algernon heartless for eating muffins when their true loves are threatening to break up with them, Algernon replies:

When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as anyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins.

The self-indulgent excuse about a psychological response to unhappiness suffices (for a narcissist like Algernon) as a completed argument; but then he adds a further fact, an assertion of personal taste serving as a distinct and independent answer to Jack’s allegation. Algernon knows exactly how the besides card is played (he uses it three times during the play).

It’s a small step forward in lexicography to tie down this little detail of discourse semantics. But we need many such steps forward. Dictionaries are weak on the meanings and functions of connective adjuncts.

They fail on other discourse-linking items, too. Consider let alone (the topic of a classic paper by Fillmore, Kay, and O’Connor) and the comparable expressions never mind, not to mention, and much less. You might think they are just synonyms:

I can’t afford a garden shed, { let alone / never mind / not to mention / much less } a new house.

Indeed, some dictionaries give not to mention as the meaning of let alone, or let alone as the meaning of never mind, and so on. But a paper called “Contrast and Addition in Complementary Alternation Discourse Constructions,” by a young Basque linguist, Aneider Iza Erviti, of the University of La Rioja, convinced me that the four expressions have distinct meaning contributions. They agree in signaling that earlier material identifies a point on some scale that is not the maximum, but there are subtle semantic differences affecting their appropriateness in specific contexts.

As I listened to papers on such topics I ruminated, not for the first time, on the fact that not even the basic meanings for simple words and idiomatic phrases that every native English speaker knows have been accurately described thus far. Decades of further lexicography lie ahead. And full and detailed understanding of the syntax and semantics of the language, the goal for us gramáticos, lies beyond that.

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