[Corpora-List] Google searches as linguistic evidence

Geoffrey Sampson grs2 at sussex.ac.uk
Thu Dec 7 17:16:01 CET 2006


An amazing experience I had a few years ago was being asked in all
seriousness by one of my part-time researchers whether "a bad egg" or
"an bad egg" was correct. With another part of his time he worked for a
company alongside another man who had to do some documentation and
insisted that the correct form was "an bad egg". So far as I could make
out, this other man (who, like my researcher, was as I understood it a
native speaker) thought he had learned a rule that "a" v. "an" depends
on whether the following noun begins with a vowel, and this explicit
rule overrode in his mind what must surely have been a large weight of
experience implying that it is not the following noun, but the
immediately-following word, that matters. The third party was quite
sure that only "an bad egg" would do in writing; my researcher was
dubious, but felt he needed my professorial authority to contradict his
colleague. This seemed to me very striking counter-evidence against the
idea that native speakers "know" the rules of their language.
Comparable misunderstandings of the a/an rule might perhaps explain
sporadic cases of "an w..." written by people who would surely _say_ "a
w..." when they were speaking spontaneously, without thinking about
language issues.

Geoffrey Sampson


............................................................
Prof. Geoffrey Sampson MA PhD MBCS CITP ILTM

author of "The 'Language Instinct' Debate"

Department of Informatics, University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, England

www.grsampson.net +44 1273 678525
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