Cognitive approach to the study of parenthetical elements

Written by: Natalia Miteva (The Lomonosov Moscow State University)

I would like to begin with the term “cognitive science” which stands behind the approach in question which originated several years ago.

“Cognitive science – a study which covers a knowledge relating to the human ability to think and talk, in particular artificial intelligence, linguistics, psychology and philosophy”.
Jean Aitchison “Introducing Language and Mind”, London, 1992

Here the term is interpreted in a very broad sense as everything relating to the human ability to think and talk and embraces various spheres of knowledge such as linguistics, psychology, and philosophy.

At present we can single out two trends within the framework of cognitive science. The first deals with the computer studies, artificial intelligence and information technology. The second is concerned with cognitive grammar, with psychological interpretation of linguistic phenomena.

The present paper represents a part of investigations, carried out at the Department of English Linguistics, which are devoted to the way speech is organized syntactically.

There are two forms of speech: written and spoken. The former is the basic one, although they can be both regarded as two sides of the same phenomenon. Natural human language exists primarily in its oral form as a means of passing information on to the other members of a particular speech community. The same process can be observed in the written speech, although this is not done by means of the oral explanation. What I am driving at is the fact that the product of both processes is text. One chooses the appropriate forms of the syntactic bond, in order that a given syntactic content may serve the given purpose: to influence the reader, to express one’s opinion, to comment on the subject, etc. These problems belong to the domain of the expressive syntax. Expressivity as a language category deals with different spheres of a particular language and also with different stylistic devices. The importance of expressive syntax was emphasized by many linguists. In the present paper an investigation of comment clauses will be carried out. To be successful, we should necessarily begin with parenthetical insertions with regard to expressive syntax.

In our speech there are a great number of phenomena, which interrupt it making it “non-smooth”. They can be united under the name of “parenthetical insertions’. The Oxford Advanced Learner s Dictionary gives the following definition of parenthesis: “Parenthesis – is a word, phrase or sentence inserted as an extra explanation or idea into a passage which would be complete without it. In writing it is usually separated from the rest by brackets, dashes or commas.” This describes rather generally the process of the incorporation into the sentence of elements, which are grammatically not connected, with the main sentence. In sentences with parenthetical insertions the unity of expression and content is sustained, and it is very important to understand why the speaker interrupts his speech by a fragment of an “alien” speech material. The answer may be – the speaker wants to attract the listener’s attention satiating his utterance with emotional overtones. This could be done on purpose or quite incidentally. Talking about the informative function and the function of an impact realized in fiction, we usually disregard the complicated interaction between the speaker and the hearer, the writer and the reader. It is not always necessary to turn to various expressive-evaluative means of the language. The process itself matters much. That’s why it is sometimes enough to introduce parenthetical insertions into the speech in an attempt to develop the message hidden between lines, to involve the readers into the process of the swiftly moving theme (action). All these questions demand further explanations.

Practically all the insertions may be divided into three main categories:

  1. Deliberation: indeed, moreover, perhaps, of course, in a sense, it seems, no doubt, no wonder, at any rate, at least, etc.;
  2. Reference: hence, too, then, thenceforward, to my mind, exhypotherses, etc.;
  3. Exemplification: say, for instance, suppose we take, thereby, for example, etc.

Syntagmatic parenthetical insertions are usually introduced by means of the completive syntactic bonds. Their prosodic arrangement is quite different: the range is narrowed, the tempo is faster, the loudness is diminished. Parenthetical insertions may belong to the whole sentence as well as to one part of it. As was stated before, much depends on the communicative-pragmatic orientation of the text. According to this parenthesis may occupy initial, medial or final positions.

Let’s turn to longer parenthetical insertions or the so-called comment clauses. First of all we should draw a line between shorter parenthetical insertions and comment clauses, although sometimes it may seem rather blurred. What is the “clause”? The “clause’ is a group of related words containing the subject and the predicate. It can be usefully distinguished from a phrase, which is a group of related words that does not contain a subject-predicate relationship, such as “in the morning” or “running down the street” or “having grown used to this harassment”. Sometimes a phrase will contain a verb form and a noun – “suggesting that the mayor was at fault” – but there is still no subject-predicate relationship, so the phrase does not qualify as a clause. Clauses could be dependant or independent (parenthetical), restrictive and non-restrictive. A non-restrictive clause is not essential to the meaning of the sentence; it can be removed from the sentence without changing its basic meaning. It is usually set apart from the rest of the sentence by a comma or a pair of commas. In the book “A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English” by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum we may read that “comment clauses are somewhat loosely related to a super ordinate clause and may be classed as disjuncts or conjuncts”. They vary in form and may function:

1) Like a main clause:

Vicky was just starting, it seemed.

2) Like an adverbial clause (introduced by as):

They saw, as they imagined, their enemies in flight, and they rushed after them in disorder.

Suppose you had decided to follow Snowball, with his moonshine of windmills – Snowball, who, as we now know, was no better than a criminal?

3) Like a nominal relative clause as conjunct:

What’s more, he looked so tired.

4) To-infinitive clause as style disjunct:

The men who should have been upholding the general’s point of honour were doing their best to sink him faster – in ten days, to be precise.

In short, this is a marital no-fault state, so to speak, and it wouldn’t have mattered if old Harlow had kept a harem before Abby walked out on him.

5) -ing clause as style disjunct:

Frankly speaking, I called you twice, but the line was engaged.

6) -ed clause as style disjunct:

The name of her backup group was Wheat, and the song – later extracted as a hit single – appeared on an album pressed by Regal Records, a firm now defunct but which at the time had its headquarters in New Orleans.

Outside on the bayou behind the house, a heron – startled by the sound – took sudden wing.

Parenthetical clauses are called comment clauses, because they comment on the truth of the information in the sentence, or the manner of saying it and sometimes express the author’s (speaker’s) attitude towards it. They may be directly addressed to the reader (listener):

I’d make it 300 pounds, you know, and don’t tell that’s not a tempting offer.

He escaped once, you know. (Direct address)

Comment clauses may be patterned like an independent sentence, main, coordinate or subordinate clauses. When changing the usual sequence and placing the parenthetical clauses in an unusual position, one changes the communicative value. The structure acquires a secondary status and informs the reader of the author’s opinion, contains some comments or addresses the reader directly. The embedded structure is independent and primary in importance.

That was our mistake, comrade. For we know now – it is all written down in the secret documents that we have found – that in reality he was trying to lure us to our doom. (A parenthetical clause patterned like an independent sentence.)

Parenthetical clauses may be patterned like different sentences or clauses – statements, questions, imperatives, exclamatory sentences or clauses.

As was already mentioned, this investigation is based on literary texts not scientific ones. This matters much, because the function of comment clauses in fiction and scientific texts is not always the same. It is interesting to know what role parenthetical insertions play in creating a piece of Literature. Syntactic and semantic functions of this linguistic phenomenon are deeply interrelated. Although these means carry secondary information, sometimes it can be of great importance and should be foregrounded. These constructions may be treated in terms of aesthetic value, because together with prosodic arrangements, comment clauses may be regarded as expressive stylistic devices. They may have different shades of meaning and help us to get the author’s message and read between the lines. It goes without saying that unless we analyze a great deal of the linguistic material, all will remain just so many words, untested, unchecked statements.

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