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Walter Hirtle, Lessons on the Noun Phrase in English

From Representation to Reference
Dennis Philps
p. 283-286
Bibliographical reference

Lessons on the Noun Phrase in English. From Representation to Reference by Walter Hirtle. Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press. Date of publication: third quarter 2009. ISBN 978-0-7735-3604-3

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1In 2007, McGill-Queen’s University Press published two works by the Canadian linguist Walter Hirtle: “Lessons on the English Verb. No Expression without Representation”, and “Language in the Mind. An Introduction to Guillaume’s Theory”. Like the first of these studies, Hirtle’s latest book, entitled “Lessons on the Noun Phrase in English. From Representation to Reference”, springs from a course the author taught over many years to ESL students at Laval University (Quebec). The four hundred and five-page book, whose purpose is to provide a deeper understanding of the noun phrase in English within the general framework of Guillaume’s psychomechanical approach to language, contains a preface, twenty-three interlinked ‘lessons’, a postscript, a glossary, notes, and references. Its structure once again reflects the methodology and expository techniques of Guillaume himself, whose own ‘lessons’ have been being published posthumously since 1971 by the Presses de l’Université Laval.

2In lesson 1, entitled “What We Are Going to Talk about and How”, Hirtle describes the purpose of his work against the backdrop of other approaches such as Quirk et al. (1985) and Strang (1962), which, he says, tell us what a noun phrase does, but not what it is. Among the questions addressed are the factors underlying the forming of different words into units, and the nature of the relationship inherent in the associating of a head with its adjuncts. The author is careful to point out that because of the incomplete state of our knowledge, he will be unable to give a complete answer in these lessons, and that further research is necessary. The task he sets himself is ambitious: “to get beyond direct observation to discern the nature of the grammatical systems required to construct a noun phrase.” (p. xiv). Following Guillaume (1883-1960), Hirtle claims that a grammatical system exists in tongue as a potential enabling the speaker-hearer to express what she/he has in mind in discourse.

3In lesson 2, “Substantive, Adjective and Adverb: The Theory of Incidence”, the author deals with internal and external incidence, pointing out that the adjective and the adverb are described in terms of other words, and the substantive in terms of realities outside language, while in lesson 3, “Parts of Speech and the Word”, he takes up the problem of word categorisation in the sections entitled “Two Types of Meaning”, “Conversion vs. Construction”, and “Ideogenesis and morphogenesis”, ideogenesis being the mental process whereby the material content of a word is called to mind, and morphogenesis that whereby the morphemes constituting a word’s formal content categorise its material content. In lesson 4, “Case and the Substantive”, Hirtle provides a brief account of the development of the system of cases since Proto-Indo-European, and responds to the question as to whether there is case in the substantive in Modern English by stating that it all depends on what is meant by ‘case’.

4To discern what else is required to permit the operation of internal incidence, the author looks, in lesson 5, “Number: Toward the System”, at grammatical number, dealing in particular with-0 morpheme and-5 morpheme (e.g. in There is coffee on the table and There is a coffee on the table for you), and in lesson 6, “Number: Testing for-Ø Morpheme”, at several of the uses of- Ø morpheme (e.g. in Stone is durable and Sound travels quite slowly). In lesson 7, “Testing for -s Morpheme”, he examines the behaviour of substantives that denote ailments (e.g. in I have the measles), natural phenomena (e.g. in the waters of the Nile) and binary objects (e.g. in A fellow in corduroys), attention also being directed towards’relational-s’ (e.g. in congratulations), and’singular -s’ (e.g. in Is there a contents in this book?).

5Lesson 8, “Gender in the Substantive”, discusses the case for gender of agreement in English (e.g. as in “It [My little girl] hasn’t got a warm coat for next month, so I’m making one for her”), for notional gender in the substantive, and for gender in discourse. According to Hirtle, gender, which Guillaume called “the most obscure of grammatical categories”, is the grammatical formative in the substantive’s morphogenesis which is most closely related to the ‘lexeme’ (i.e. the lexical meaning imported by certain words (substantives, adjectives, adverbs, verbs) to be formed by their grammatical meaning), as actualised by ideogenesis. Lesson 9, “The Substantive”, furnishes a summary of Hirtle’s view of the substantive in the light of the three formative phases constituting its morphogenesis, and lesson 10, “The System of the Articles”, a discussion on determiners, particularly the indefinite article (e.g. A in A tiger is sleeping in the cage/My project is to photograph a tiger in the wild/A tiger is dangerous) and the definite article (e.g. The in A tiger is sleeping in the cage/The tiger in captivity is a sorry sight/The tiger is a beautiful animal). Lesson 11, “A vs. the in Discourse”, examines the article as a support (e.g. in “They have just bought a new house. The kitchen needs to be painted”), as well as the notions of minimum, intermediate and maximum extensity, the latter being defined as the part or ‘degree’ of a lexeme’s extension actualised in a particular use. In lesson 12, “Bare vs. Articled -s Substantives”, Hirtle deals with the problem of explaining the difference between using the substantive with an article or with ‘zero article’ (e.g. in The birds do not sing in the winter/Where I live birds do not sing in the winter).

6Lesson 13, “Bare vs. Articled-Ø Substantives”, discusses articles from the same, systemic point of view as in the previous lesson, which brings in a third variable, i.e. the lexical distinction between ‘continuum’ and ‘unit’ senses (e.g. as in There is bread on the table / The bread is on the table). In lesson 14, “Any as a Quantifier”, Hirtle reminds us that a substantive, as the lexical head, provides a spatial representation of some fragment of the speaker’s experience, and that all the other lexical imports of the phrase are incident to it. In this light, he analyses examples such as Any policeman will be able to tell you and Any computer with a defective keyboard should be returned. Lesson 15, “Some and the System”, focuses on some in an attempt to discern how it both resembles and differs from any (e.g. in Would you like any more of this pudding? / Would you like some more of this pudding?). Lesson 16, “The Demonstratives”, addresses issues such as spatial/temporal deixis and the intended message (e.g. in The odd numbers are on this side of the street, so 52 will be on that side and I only learnt about it this week respectively), contextual deixis vs. coreference (e.g. in “It appears that Tom did most of the damage. The boy’s becoming quite a problem”) and deixis in shared knowledge (e.g. in Those memories that we acquire in early childhood rarely lose their vividness).

  • 1 Hewson, John, 1991. “Determiners as heads.” Cognitive Linguistics 2, 317-337.

7In lesson 17, entitled “Determiners as Completive Pronouns”, the reader is introduced to the Guillaume-inspired notion of articles as completives, to the relation between determiners and reference, and to determiners as pronouns. The author points out that several linguists, including Hewson1, have maintained that it is the determiner and not the substantive that is head of the noun phrase, a position which has manifold implications for the analysis of the latter. In lesson 18, -’s Phrase”, Hirtle examines the suffix and its functions, preferring to use the term ‘possessive’ rather than ‘genitive’, as the latter suggests one among a series of cases, as in Old English. Topics discussed include the reference role, as in the man she was speaking to’s reaction, the support role, as in the various possible interpretations of Mary’s book, and the characterizing function of-’s, as in the ambiguous that woman’s magazine.

  • 2 Curme, George O., 1931. Syntax. Boston: Heath, p. 552.
  • 3 Joly, André, 1975. “Toward a Theory of Gender in Modern English”, in A. Joly & T. Fraser (eds.), S (...)

8Lesson 19, “Suppletive Pronouns as Noun Phrase”, focuses on the type of minimal noun phrase made up of a pronoun (e.g. It in It’s a terrible shame or Let’s get on with it). Hirtle’s position is that a pronoun can supplete for a noun in the sense of fulfilling the same functions in the sentence, but cannot express lexical import because, as a transpredicative part of speech, it does not bring its own lexeme to the sentence. In lesson 20, “Personal Pronouns and the Expression of Gender”, the author examines several topics relating to personal pronouns, including gender (contextual reference vs. ‘real world’ reference), it referring to humans, as in Would you like to marry Malcolm? Fancy being owned by that! Fancy seeing it every day!2, he and she referring to animals, as in... a sow and her litter of pigs3 she and he referring to things, as in She’s blowing a real gale or “Dug himself in, has he?” with reference to a difficult-to-extract molar, and gender in the pronouns in general.

9Lesson 21, “The Noun Phrase and Person”, examines what permits the noun phrase to fulfil its role of support function in the sentence, as well as ordinal and cardinal person, while in lesson 22, “Syntactic Function”, Hirtle discusses the close relationship between referential incidence and grammatical incidence, as well as grammatical incidence and case, support case and import case, and case and the noun phrase, proposing that case is a potential in tongue, a grammatical precondition of all noun phrase functions.

10In the final lesson, entitled “Concluding Remarks”, Hirtle returns to the implications of treating either the substantive or the determiner as the headword in the noun phrase, summarizes his positions on suppletive pronouns, on syntax within the NP, on case, and on person. There follows a short postscript, in which the author steps “outside the scientific arena” (p. 376) to consider postulates he adopted before undertaking his study, a short but useful glossary of technical terms stretching alphabetically from ‘Animate Gender’, through ‘Incidence’, to ‘Unbounded’, a set of notes, and a bibliography including well over a hundred references.

11Clearly, an important consideration with respect to this book is its links with the author’s two other studies published in 2007 by MQUP, namely “Lessons on the English Verb”, and “Language in the Mind”, with which it forms a triptych. With “Lessons on the Noun Phrase in English”, Hirtle has once again made Guillaume’s psychomechanical approach to language accessible to a wide potential audience, and this in itself must be recognized as a major achievement. Although his book deals with a highly complex subject and makes demands on the reader, it never fails to render this complexity understandable.

12As noted in my review of Hirtle’s “Lessons on the English Verb”, (Anglophonia/Sigma 22/2007, pp. 223-225), the field of the psychomechanics of language has been lacking in full-scale studies on (and in) English. True, there are several recent publications in English on the noun phrase, including The Noun Phrase (J. Rijkhoff, OUP, 2002), The Raising of Predicates: Predicative Noun Phrases and the Theory of Clause Structure (A. Moro, CUP, 2006), Noun Phrase in the Generative Perspective (A. Alexiadou et al., Mouton de Gruyter, 2007), and The English Noun Phrase: The Nature of Linguistic Categorization (E. Keizer, CUP, 2007), which bears witness to a renewed interest in the subject. However, Hirtle’s study is, to my knowledge, the only one that treats the subject in a psychomechanical framework. Indeed, the author is one of the few ‘Anglo-Saxon’ linguists to have attained a profound understanding of the workings of psychomechanics, and to have rendered it accessible to non French-speaking readers and students alike.

13Lastly, it should not be forgotten that Hirtle is, in collaboration with John Hewson (Memorial University of Newfoundland), the only linguist to have published a full-scale English translation of one of Guillaume’s major works, Principes de linguistique théorique, under the title “Foundations for a Science of Language” (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, vol. 31, Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 1984).

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1 Hewson, John, 1991. “Determiners as heads.” Cognitive Linguistics 2, 317-337.

2 Curme, George O., 1931. Syntax. Boston: Heath, p. 552.

3 Joly, André, 1975. “Toward a Theory of Gender in Modern English”, in A. Joly & T. Fraser (eds.), Studies in English Grammar. Villeneuve d’Ascq: Université de Lille 3 and Paris: Éditions universitaires, p. 269.

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Bibliographical reference

Dennis Philps, “Walter Hirtle, Lessons on the Noun Phrase in English ”Anglophonia/Sigma, 13 (26) | 2009, 283-286.

Electronic reference

Dennis Philps, “Walter Hirtle, Lessons on the Noun Phrase in English ”Anglophonia/Sigma [Online], 13 (26) | 2009, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 22 January 2021. URL:; DOI:

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Dennis Philps

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