Penultimacy (an essay)


‘An attempt to understand how language works without GRAMMAR labelling.’

Introduction and Premise

Something my father told me, which stuck, is that languages are always in flux. The fact that he earned a degree in TESL is not justification for his paraphrase, for it would seem to be a collective saying, and one which reflects a natural order. He seemed to be saying that measurable progress verily happens in equivalence to a collective consciousness and that there needn’t be evidence, say from the scientific community, to have to substantiate this particular phenomenon. Yet, in the name of justice, science and education, instituted in an attempt to measure time- and change, or otherwise to have the reigns on nature, humans are set on classifying and labelling and enstating[1] galling laws—rules of ‘grammar’ notwithstanding—down to the letter, which in turn come to be called ‘conventions’ and ‘norms’, which then supports the cyma of their institutions and patents, where the use of the term ‘grammar’ need be followed by explication. All the bureaucracy and paperwork seemingly slows flux and we compensate by making things go faster and more efficiently. The question will depend on whether a language changes with ‘time’ or whether its alterations simply reflect the workings of the natural world, and this despite statecraft standardisation.

It would seem that the more ‘modern’ the language, the more removed we are from intrinsic grammar[2]. If we consider for a moment putting into the equation the Fibonacci Ratio, or Golden Mean, in the workings of language flux, could we not pin-point clues as to there being a universality inseparable from human verbal expression itself?

In an attempt to educate and to pass on knowledge, our trying to simplify (and standardise) more often than not means compromising and restricting freedom of expression. The proliferation of self-help literature, which tries to help humanity free itself from pangs with all its how-tos, only italicises conventions and norms—least by the limitations of a given language’s [grammar] conventions. And yet, the teachings in this type of literature too change over time. Eitherway[3], its rule-setting comes in diet doses. But does this attitude not stem from the false conclusion that humans are a distinct creature that hold a dominion over the natural world? Isn’t that what teaching ‘grammar’ is about: Making distinctions between rules and exceptions?

Grammarians have come to admit that preposition-stranding is now ‘acceptable’ while in the same breath they will want you to avoid beginning a sentence with ‘to’—so as to make the prescriptive how-tos seem less obtrusive? Perhaps.—Another analogy is of the vast amounts of websites encumbering salesmanship strategy with what we now have come to call Business English. One such example is the rule of thumb: ‘Accentuate the positive by avoiding negative wording’[4]. Blindly following rules without realising to what end they were stipulated is senseless. And besides, the more rules there are, the more likely [native-speakers] will take the liberty of breakin’ ‘em.

My premise is that no matter which wording one offers the receiver, or listener, in discourse the message carries equal weight; someone who is discourteous or dishonest will come across as being just that, no matter which way he chooses to formulate his sentences.

For the purpose of elaborating, I am going to ask the reader to accept my liberally coining the term ‘penultimacy’. In this essay, I will attempt to show how Penultimacy (further outlined from page 3) reflects, not just the universal shape of all animate life forms but also, an innate urge for humanity collectively to glorify Life itself. 

Beyond Syntax: ‘Read between the lines’

The tendency is for [native] speakers to implicitly break the rules of grammar in order to get a message across with even greater impact. Reformulation, in the context of verbal communication, is common for native English speakers, for not only does this give [the speaker] the chance to get a message across with even more clarity and precision but it also allows for stress/focus on different words within a statement. Though the field of Linguistics has ample terminology, from Absolutive to Whorfian, still it will not fully cover all variations of speech, be they syntactic or morphological, without running into contradictions and seemingly opposing views. My idea is that the methods and descriptions may change but that the discourse itself remains the same and that whether the writer chooses plume or keyboard, reformulation in influential works exists to the same avail.

So what drives the urge, say for native-English speakers, to reformulate? Does it serve to compensate for the fact that English is a modern language which has distanced itself from a more natural speech and ‘natural’ syntax? Possibly. If so, what is the basis for there being what Cambridge [University Press] calls ‘endweight’[5] in the English language, where the focus is in the final position?

If, on the other hand, one were to introduce to Linguistics, the Fibonacci Ratio, or the Golden Mean to language analysis, what implication(s) would there be? Would it not shine a light on the basis of our having a biological foundation, a larynx, the basis for a physical existence in itself? (Is the larynx not simply the sex drive and the need for such vast terminology just another variant expression to justify communicating Life’s expression?)

What if, regardless of the speaker’s choice of syntax (e.g. whether or not it contained a time adjunct, a post-head, complement &c, and whether or not the speaker had actually consciously chosen any given syntax), the rheme—but also a kind of ‘open question’—be found in a fixed position in the mind of both receiver and transmitter at the penultimate position—an ‘embedded’ meaning at penultimacy whereby, however stylistically the phrase (may) be formulated, that which becomes most ‘imprinted’, or registered, be on the conscience of the listener were always found in the same position of the speaker’s statement?

Consider these pole factors (a & b): (a) How rarely grammar books and language course-books readily reason with just how closely connected the speaker’s emotions are with the use of phonemes, like ‘-ing’ or ‘got’ (in ‘have got’), or how rampant ‘r’ is found in this sentence and just what might that implicate. And yet, (b) now and again you read a report of how linguists are only now [contemporaneously] beginning to realise ‘how closely related some words are with various seemingly distant language roots’[6] when actually this isn’t news. To illustrate, picture the biologist who is still reluctant to admit to the mathematician just how much the Golden Ratio may reflect just about any living organism and to consider the implications…

Of course, to what extent a message’s integral meaning being conveyed, within any given statement, will remain in the same ‘mean’ position is yet to be validated. Hypotaxis? How effectively, nonetheless, it would help to explain our retaining certain idiomatic phrases and saying and proverbs, or the use and importance of more traditional stylistic expression such as foregrounding, back-grounding and fronting, passivisation and clefting, ditransitive or catenative, or the use of things like the dummy-it or an existential-there, exophora and, well, here a filler there a filler, (short and longer) pauses, or even deontic usage, remains to be proven.

Penultimacy outlined

The idea of Penultimacy came about whence trying to understand what Carter & McCarthy [Cambridge University Press] meant by ‘endweight’. So for the sake of argument, I state that ‘endweight’ does not bear weight without penultimacy and shall hence list a few of its features and characteristics:

1) Reformulation by way of an embedded clause: “The man who you spoke to on the phone is my uncle.” Though there are easier, more concise ways of saying this, it serves as a rhythmic preparation for ‘my uncle’. (More on this further down).

2) The [reason (why)] we will use pleonasms distinct from redundancy. (I outline reasons for not confusing the two, in my blog).

3) Stress of the penultimate syllable in words ending in ‘-ion’, ‘-al’, ‘-ity’, ‘-ic’ (/‘pɒlɪtɪks/, being the exception, expectedly so) etc.

4) The use of a downtoner to mark a lessening effect, in the penultimate position, will ultimately intensify it. “Her heartbeat was slightly erratic.” where ‘slightly’ is (rhythmically and syntactically) important, because it prepares us for what follows, in this case ‘erratic’.

Penultimacy, distinct from stylistic elements such as fronting [of adverbs and adjuncts], emphasis or else disjunction, may actually serve to give weight to a statement, where it is least expected—covertly.

The ear itself bears the shape and characteristics of Fibonacci’s ratio (see illustration) ; if one is to consider this aspect of communication to be universal, what need be there for grammaticality? According to traditional Chinese acupuncture, the embrio fits exactly the shape of the ear. Indeed, all the organs (like units of grammar) are found within one organ.

Naming and numbering things from resolve may actually deviate from the purpose we set out to achieve, when we consider that doing so assumes these various structures cannot work for every context (independentally) and are not without exception(s). This cannot be better exemplified than in grammar books and in grammar sections of English-language coursebooks, where sample sentences are largely provided without context and often lack authenticity[7]. Though this may well work best for better understanding anatomy and medical practices around an operation table, it seems to hinder language acquisition. After all, a language falls under the Arts, and is distinct from the Sciences.

Having said that, the urge for assigning grammatical terms and then sorting themes and rhemes into phrase structure rules may in itself reflect the human quest for expressing universality.

Take “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously[8]. A statement you’d never need learn and use outside of the world of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory, and is limited perhaps to those in the field of Linguistics. (Learners of English certainly need not find use for it.) And yet, if we apply my premise of penultimacy, it is [the verb] ‘sleep’ which, despite all, and above all, remains imprinted, that which is vital to all living organisms: (Has anyone bothered to ask why Chomsky chose these particular words?…if even from a Freudian perspective.) In any case, SLEEP is something so universal and therefore Chomsky phrase does, despite all abstractions, bear a minimal unit of meaning, that he ‘just happens to’[9] have put in the penultimate position, to describe “the unconscious state in which the physical powers are suspended”, as Oxford Dictionary of Etymology[10] so brilliantly puts it. Researchers have asserted that sleep is important if not crucial for learning, which brings me to my next point…

Unlearning ‘Grammar’—awakening from slumber

Language teachers all too familiar with academic-like texts that will states matter-of-factly that words are built around the noun, and in this order:

  1. What it is I am talking about:             noun  
  2. What kind of […] it is:             adjective
  3. What state / happening & aspect: verb  
  4. How did it happen? adverb/adverbial

and will generalise by reminding us that ‘adverbs’—already an over-generalisation—are often fronted. Still, the adverb’s natural position falls at the end of a clause. My university professor of Linguistics[11] was not alone in asserting that there exists a natural order by which one builds an idea, one which goes more or less as follows:

NOUN      ADJECTIVE  VERB                (adverb)

language     foreign            learn                      naturally    (My own example sentence)

which, if we take Chomsky’s phrase, reads something like:

ideas            green              sleep                      furiously   (Chomsky’s sentence)


That which appears in the penultimate position—the verb—is something which you find to be atypical in contemporary English. (Might this not then be a reflection of how modern languages reflect how far removed its users are from Nature?). And yet Chomsky succeeds.

But Chomsky aside for the moment, let’s look at the statement “language foreign learn naturally”. For an English-native it would go something like, “One learns a [foreign] language best naturally”, where ‘naturally’ might be interpreted in a number of ways: ‘pragmatically’,on the street’, ‘in the region where it is spoken’ and last but not least ‘without too much emphasis on the reliance of an in-depth understanding of [the target language]’s rules of grammar’. This ‘naturally’ does bear weight. What is of underlying importance never the less remains to be unveiled, namely: Why is ‘best’ inserted before it, and not after it? Here, as the receiver (and native speaker), I take it to mean that the speaker wishes to express the belief (provided that we are talking about ‘a foreign language’): “It is BEST to learn a language ‘naturally’.“

So the next question we should be asking ourselves at this point is this: What are the odds of a native english speaker actually wording that particular idea in that structure (One learns a foreign language best naturally”)? Well, even though the sentence is perfectly all right, grammatically correct, might it not sound [to the receiver] rather more like a pseudo proverb…or otherwise plain odd, vague in the native-speaker’s ear, a generalisation?

Would the English-speaker not choose rather something like this? 

         SUBJECT VERB   COMPLEMENT      ADVERB            Adverbial

         You            learn        a foreign language      best           where it is spoken.

Else, any one of several alternatives? …And what about:

     NOUN (left dislocation)  SUBJECT   VERB         ADVERB      Adverbial

         A foreign language        one             learns               best                       where it is spoken. ?

[With either of the above, the argument ‘where it is spoken’ finds itself at the end as one might expect; it is the Penultimacy ‘best’, nevertheless, which asserts and strengthens the argument.]

(Though we could perhaps argue that, as worded, the speaker finds himself in a vulnerable position and predisposes himself to a counter-argument here, probably since the Penultimacy happens to be a Superlative. Then again, if we regard it as Suppletion*, maybe not…)

* Suppletion: from ‘good’ to ‘better’ to ‘best’, and cognates with ‘remedy’ and ‘fortunate

Giving it further thought, might an English-speaker not more likely choose to add before it: Generally-speaking, one learns […] more [effectively/naturally] in […],

where ‘generally-speaking’ justifies or softens the generalisation (thereby strengthening the argument).

[The Penultimacy here is ‘more effectively/naturally’.]

Alternatively, one might use the Passive voice:

“A foreign language is best learnt in the country (where) it is spoken (in).”

[where ‘in the country’ is more concealed by the sentence’s complexity, yet expresses the rheme.]

Linguists know, after all, the dichotomy of differentiating languages simply by their being either head-initial or head-final, (as it does not actually say much about how we communicate). But then this is simply because, even if English is a subject-prominent language, the predicator is neither at the head or end of a statement, …and no matter how you choose to transform your sentence, the trend seems to be to grammatically embed [meaning] (or at least, the predicator put somewhere other than at the start or end of a sentence). Either way, then, it must be in fact embedded’.

Looking at any type of cleft sentence, (where grammar references will state that the emphasis is shifted) it is the penultimate part—just before the final clause—that is being highlighted.

All we’re looking to do is to find [the cleft] here.

And whence using a catenative verb, you are stressing the second verb, which comes incidentally in the penultimate position.

We still may not admit (to) having found it.

Penultimacy might even be a reason for having certain verbs becoming ditransitive, whereby it clearly does change the focus:

He gave Mary ten dollars.    where ‘Mary’ is put forward because it is the focus;

He gave [ten] dollars to Mary. where ‘the amount of dollars’ is the focus (more than ‘Mary’).

We could argue that, in the latter, ‘to Mary’ is the focus. But wouldn’t it be more likely for an english native to only apply the ‘prepositional version’ when there be an additional factor…? As in:

He gave (the) ten dollars to Mary [rather than to James],

where ‘Mary’ still is the focus, whether or not ‘rather than to James’ is verbally iterated.

 Similarly, if you compare the following two questions, or offers:

Would you like something to drink?” and

Would you like to drink something?” you’ll agree that there’s a difference.

Decide for yourself, for each, where the focus of the question is…but inadvertently you’ll not mistrust, or ever question, what’s in the penultimate position.

Incidentally, in Systemic Functional Grammar the argument for thematic equative is that there is exclusiness in the rheme. By saying “What the guests need for breakfast is an omelette” is better than saying: “The guests need an omelette for breakfast” because it may imply that an omelette might only be just one of several things ‘the guests’ need (Wikipedia). But this is unfounded simply because you might just as well say that the first sentence implies that this is what they need ‘for breakfast’ only, (and several other things at other mealtimes). The premise, however, ignores Pragmatics and is absurd, because who will say that one should have to assume anything other than what the speaker has stated, in this case ‘omelette’, unless otherwise stated, or whence the receiver should know that other implications already exist. In any case, wouldn’t it be preferable to say: “An omelette is what the guests need for breakfast”, but not because it should emphasize ‘omelette’ (since you can still argue that ‘omelette’ applies only to ‘breakfast’) but because here ‘what the guests need’ is of more importance here.

Okay, so what about Gerund phrases?

“Learning English is an easy process for some.”

Just what exactly is behind this statement? Is it ‘Learning English’ (meaning ‘someone who is to learn English’)? Or is it ‘an easy process’? or then is it ‘for some’?

Then there are those who will say that the Gerund is the focus. If fronting makes things stand out more, then you might say:

“For some, learning English is an easy process.”

Then again, does not ‘English’ stand out more here? Meaning that ‘for others’ learning, say, Spanish is perhaps easier… And so wouldn’t it be better to say:

“Learning English for some is an easy process.”?

As such, having the argument ‘for some’ in the final position strengthens Penultimacy, with an easy processas the rheme: “Learning English is an easy process for some.”

Why not…

Learning English is an easy process for those who have come to understand Penultimacy? 


Infants will rapidly pick up the language not only because their ability to hear already develops within the foetus, but because they themselves are shaped in the womb just like the ear, in the same fashion as other babies with ears that pick up surrounding distinctive accents and tones.

What remains to be studied is whether Penultimacy (and others aspects of language) can be proven. But I rest my case with a comparison of language to many types of alternative therapeutic practices[12], not all of which are scientifically proven, but nevertheless have shown to have positive effects on healing and cognitive processes, or else to the Catholic Church who will acknowledge a person as a saint only once a miracle has been performed.

Even beyond all philosophical debate, human language merely reflects the universal shape of all animate life forms, and an innate urge for humanity collectively to glorify Life itself, to shape and to reshape it. Such, the power of discourse is pre-encoded.

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – 

Bibliography: (other sources of recent influences)

Steven Pinker: The Language Instinct, 1994

Guy Deutcher: Through the Language Glass, 2010

[1] instate/enstate: Leniance of spelling is subject matter for another essay, but how starkly we enforce spelling rules is equal to the reluctance of the acceptance of the collective mind. Who dares to spell English as Inglish?

By contrast, ‚Canada’ in German is acceptable as ‚Kanada’.

[2] intrinsic grammar being comparable to a powerful mantra and wave shapes (see Cymatics) working on a phonemic level.

[3] I dare be the first to write ‚either way’ as one word. Please resist the urge to correct me unless you can explain why ‘overnight’ as an adverb shouldn’t be two words, apart from saying ‘it has outstayed its welcome in the English language’.


[5] ‘endweight’—a word I have yet to find referenced or sourced elsewhere: {Carter/McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English, 2006, (Glossary, p. 902)}

[6] Google the phrase and you get results like Johnson, George (1995): Linguists Debating Deepest Roots of Language, NY Times

[7] „Would you like a cup of tea?“ instead of „I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?“

[8] Chomsky, Noam (1957): Syntactic Structures, The Hague/Paris: Mouton. p. 15

[9] Randomness in the IT world is but a concept, as is Abstraction in an ‚abstract’ painting.

[10] OUP 1996, 2003, for iPad: Version 1.0.1, dev. Handmark

[11] Introduction to Linguistic Science 200: 1996 Concordia University, Montréal, Canada



About clasgtr

Ever have an idea or gut feeling, which you feel may have been mediated, for which there is no proof yet you feel nevertheless is valid and important enough to share? I put these down on blog to rid myself of them - it is a question of freedom of speech, and freedom of thought, and freedom from religious persecution. If anyone should feel offended, please be free to leave my blog.
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