On writing grammar clearly

I know its regularly said by those whose background is in classics and the tradition of classical philology that much of linguistics today and its own set terminology creates a sort of ivory tower situation, where it is almost impossible to follow a discussion as an outsider. And I certainly do not doubt that this is true to some extant for many of the descriptive and theoretical frameworks commonly used in linguistics, particularly in the more structuralist traditions. This problem is one that I’ve tried to fight against where I can, attempting to sufficiently define terminology as often as possible and linking to accessible sources for definitions, such as the SIL glossary of linguistic terms or the Leipzig Glossing Rules and its “appendix” of category labels.

On the other hand, whenever I open up a standard Greek grammar that’s written in the classical tradition, I cannot help but recognize the exact opposite problem. For example, for a contract project I’ve been working on, I’ve spent a little time examining the difference between ού and μή, Greek’s two negative particles. Here’s an example of the kind of obtuse, generally useless description of these two:

The two principle negative adverbs are ού and μή. Οὐ is the objective negative and μή is the subjective. It is hard to say which is stronger. Ού is stronger because it is simple, straightforward and uncompromised. Μή is stronger because it has an underlying sense of passion and rejection. The fervour and unction of μή suits the tone of much expression in the literature of the Hellenistic and Roman ages. So μή tends to supplant ού in many of its uses at writing. Some irregular uses of μή in Classical times, which do not fit into the idiomatic pattern then prevailing, are doubtless to be explained by the touch of passion beginning to make μή  win out even in the earlier period. Another important facet of the meaning of μή is its appropriateness as a generic and so hypothetical negative. The idea of rejection it retains always, at least subliminally, can prevent an idea that is to say specifically, and so the suspended idea passes into the sphere of the typical or conditional.
Gary L. Cooper, Attic Greek Prose Syntax Vol  2., 1997

The degree of nonsense in that quote is simply overwhelming. But I do not mean “nonsense” in that Cooper is wrong. No, most of the paragraph is fine, assuming one parses the actual proposition accurately (which may or may not be feasible). The nonsense is created by the sheer lack of well-defined terminology at all. What in the world does it mean for a negative to be “straightforward and uncompromised,” anyway? So much of this paragraph reads like filler solely designed to increase one’s word count. It certainly doesn’t help contribute to understanding the difference between ού and μή.

Here’s that same paragraph again with some commentary from me in bold bracketed text:

The two principle negative adverbs are ού and μή. Οὐ is the objective negative and μή is the subjective. [This is good and helpful, but it ought to be followed by a clear and straightforward definition of what these two terms mean in relation to negation] It is hard to say which is stronger. [Stronger in what way?] Ού is stronger because it is simple, straightforward and uncompromised. [What does it mean for a negator to be
uncompromised ?] Μή is stronger because it has an underlying sense of passion and rejection. [Well, “rejection” is something useful, at least etymologically, but passion? Other grammarians talk about μή being used to denote caution assertion, how does that relate to “passion”?] The fervour and unction of μή suits the tone of much expression in the literature of the Hellenistic and Roman ages. [This may be the first time I have see language change attributed to “unction.”] So μή tends to supplant ού in many of its uses at writing. Some irregular uses of μή in Classical times, which do not fit into the idiomatic pattern then prevailing, are doubtless to be explained by the touch of passion beginning to make μή win out even in the earlier period. [Which “irregular” uses are these? They’re never explicitly marked in the following detailed discussion?] Another important facet of the meaning of μή is its appropriateness as a generic and so hypothetical negative. [The term “hypothetical,” I can understand, but “generic”?  Exactly what makes μή “generic” and does that mean that ού, by implication is not “generic”?]The idea of rejection it retains always, at least subliminally [Good use of a thesaurus.], can prevent an idea that is to say specifically [It is not clear what assertion the author is making here.], and so the suspended idea passes into the sphere of the typical or conditional.

I hope that gives you a sense of the kind of things that go through my head when I’m reading traditional grammars. The nearly total lack of specificity  in terminology, definitions, and explanation is incredibly frustrating.

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