“Word Grammar” v. “Clause Grammar”: Separating Morphological from Syntactic Patterning

  • Edward McDonald
Part of the The M.A.K. Halliday Library Functional Linguistics Series book series (TMAKHLFLS)


The current chapter deals with something that first became a live issue in the European tradition among French and German grammarians of the eighteenth – nineteenth centuries as they struggled to develop a new kind of grammatical unit, intermediate between the “word” and “sentence” of the Latin tradition, which they initially called groupe des mots ‘group of words’ (Graffi 2000: 136–165). In this chapter we focus almost exclusively on the experience of a particular group of twentieth century Chinese linguists to develop a similar category, a focus which will allows us to understand not merely the descriptive and theoretical challenges, but also the political and ideological pressures involved. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Chinese scholars undertook a similar challenge in their attempts to bridge between the highly-developed descriptions of the word and its patterning in the Latin tradition and the relatively under-developed treatments of the sentence and its organization. The first port of call, as we have already seen in the previous chapter, was with the notion of word classes, or “parts of speech”, a notion which, as we also saw, originated as a mistranslation of the significantly different notion “parts of the sentence”. However, if we take this original concept seriously, the question then arises: if the ancient Greeks could see the words of their language, with all their complex inflections, as nevertheless defined primarily in terms of their role in the sentence, might it not be possible for the modern Chinese to do the same? The problem here lies in what tends to be perceived as the radical difference between the Ancient Greek language (and its modern linguistic or cultural successors) and the Ancient Chinese language (and its modern descendants): namely, that Chinese possesses only a minimum of formal markers to distinguish different kinds of words. This then raises the further question as to how types of words in Chinese are to be distinguished outside of – or even in – the context of their role in the sentence. And all the while hanging over this is the vexed intellectual and political issue that all these grammatical frameworks used for Chinese are in fact foreign borrowings.

Suggestions for further reading

  1. He JY (2000) [A history of modern Chinese linguistics, 2nd edn], Chapter 2, Section 7: [Issues of grammar reform] Guangdong Education Press, Guangzhou. 何九盈《中國現代語言學史》第 2 版, 第二章第八節 : 文法革新問題, 廣東教育出版社, 廣州。Google Scholar
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  3. Pellin T (2008) Inventing a modern lexicon for grammar in Chinese: the experience of Wang Fengzao, Ma Jianzhong and Yan Fu. Lang Sci 30:529–545CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  5. Shao J (2006) [A draft history of Chinese grammatics – revised edition], Chapter 3 Section 2 [Discussions on grammar reform]. Commercial Press, Beijing, pp 103–111. 邵敬敏《漢語語法學史稿, 修訂本》第三章第二節, 中文法革新討論, 商務印書館, 北京。Google Scholar

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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Edward McDonald
    • 1
  1. 1.SydneyAustralia

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