I am reading the textbook Contemporary Linguistic Analysis by William O'Grady ninth edition. The text makes the claim that "grammatical knowledge is subconscious". They submit that most people can't explain the meaning of "or" in differing contexts, therefore the knowledge of its actual use is in our subconscious. Using this logic, the fact that I can't explain what happens when I press buttons on a microwave but I know that the input 1-0-0-start will microwave for one minute would mean the low level knowledge of how a microwave works therefore exists in my subconscious. Clearly it does not. Are they saying it does? Should O'Grady not actually state that our knowledge of grammar is often of high level understanding instead of in our subconscious?

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    Not sure who wrote the actual chapter - btw one of the editors is William O'Grady (John Archibald is the second editor), William is his first name (and not O'Grady and William, as you erroneously wrote). And there's nothing controversial about this claim. Grammars are created/written by linguists, they study corpora that consist of speech/text samples of many different people and it takes a lot of time to come up with an accurate description, which can never be comprehensive (for different reasons). An ordinary person cannot even understand a typical linguistic research paper, which is ok. – Alex B. Sep 3 at 18:34
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    tl;dr: You use English (or any other L1) with a varying degree of accomplishment, but you have no idea how you do it (examples galore). Linguists try to understand it and even we linguists don't really know for sure how you do it. – Alex B. Sep 3 at 18:41
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    And I encourage you to re-read Chapter 1 (written by William O'Grady himself, as I just found out from my copy of the textbook). 1. How does he understand the term grammar? Ask yourself, how much do you know about all those subfields of grammar? 2. Re-read the section on inaccessibility, think about why this section is called so. What is inaccessible? Inaccessible for what? How does O'Grady understand grammatical knowledge, and esp. re-read this sentence "Speakers of a language know what sounds right and what doesn't sound right, but they are not sure how they know it." – Alex B. Sep 3 at 18:58
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    You've not proven or given evidence that low level knowledge of language exists in the human subconscious, as the author of the text stated it does. I think the author should say people have a high level understanding of language and how we use it, not that that low level understanding exists in human subconscious, which it may or may not. It is a science text book. That kind of claim would need to be proven. ie the scientific method. A more abstract and honest assessment would be the term "high level understanding". – STL34 Sep 3 at 19:19
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    More questions for you: 1. Is there any difference, in your opinion, between I know Hittite and I know Hittite grammar and why do you think so? 2. When you say, I know (or don't know) Hittite grammar, what exactly do you mean by that? Looking forward to reading your answers to my questions. – Alex B. Sep 3 at 19:59

Like TKR has already said, I believe it’s mostly a terminological preference.

I don’t really want to discuss here what it means “to know a language” in linguistic research, i.e. not something what linguistically naïve (untrained) people may think. Tons of research have been written on this; if you’re interested, you can start with Andrew Mills' "Knowledge of Language" in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (it's scholarly and peer-reviewed).

Nor do I want to start a philosophical discussion of what knowledge is – you can read a review article "Knowledge" by Stephen Hetherington or "Knowledge How" by Jeremy Fantl, among many, many others. Why not check out "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker then?

When we talk about knowledge of (a) language, the following descriptors are commonly used: implicit, subconscious (and sometimes even unconscious), or tacit. This list is by no means exhaustive.

The idea is that a non-linguist (most of language users) does not understand how they learned their language (“I just picked it up from my parents”) - so no formal/explicit training was necessary to learn your L1, how they can use (“Come up with a thought and open your mouth!”), nor can they teach their language to anyone else, without proper training (“What’s the difference between "for instance" and "for example?”). In other words, I can use a language (or, in common, non-technical parlance, I “know” it) but I don’t understand (=know) how I do it, or, as Dr William O'Grady wrote in the textbook he also edited,

"Speakers of a language know what sounds right and what doesn't sound right, but they are not sure how they know it."

This kind of knowledge is - alas! - inaccessible to language users but, on the other hand, it is the object of serious study by linguists.

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    That makes sense. Thanks for answering. – STL34 Sep 7 at 18:53
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    After trying to answer questions on english.SE and ell.SE, I'd change the O'Grady quote to *I know what sounds right and what sounds wrong, and there is no way I can explain how I know or what the difference is'. – simon at rcl Sep 9 at 16:23

There are two kinds of knowledge, conscious and subconscious. Some knowledge about language is conscious, for example you may consciously know that the English word "father" is derived from the same Indo-European root as "paternal" (the latter having come through Latin, the former having come through Germanic). You may consciously know that we negate sentences with "not". These are facts about language data. O'Grady and William are obliquely talking about the underlying mental mechanisms that cause overt language behavior, which is a special kind of "knowing", similar to your knowledge of how to walk: it is a thing that you do automatically. Another kind of subconscious knowledge is "naming", the ability to classify thing according to some "definition". Typically, people who see dogs can correctly say "that is a dog", but they cannot correctly state the necessary and sufficient conditions for a being to be labeled as a dog – because they have internalized an ostensive definition of the term. People also can't explain how they can identify a thing as "red", but they can (unless they literally cannot). That is, they have an internal knowledge state that allows them to classify visual stimuli, but they do not consciously know what that internal state is.

In your microwave example, you don't even know at any level what the underlying mechanism is: you have no knowledge.

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  • What about intuitive knowledge? Walking is not something one does automatically, it is practiced, failed at and eventually a person can do it. The lack of ability to state the necessary and sufficient conditions for labeling a dog a dog is not proof that that knowledge is in ones subconscious. I have knowledge of how a microwave works. I know through experience that a certain input will make it act in a certain way. Much the same as through experience/learning I know how to use the word "or". I think stating the difference between high and low level understanding is an actual explanation. – STL34 Sep 3 at 16:47
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    I don't know what you mean by "intuitive knowledge". I think you have a completely different theory of what "knowledge" is. You seem to be complicating the question by throwing in variables about how we know what we know, without resolving the fundamental question of what it even means to know. You want a philosophical answer, Philosophy SE is the place to go. I'm giving you exegesis about the linguistic concepts. – user6726 Sep 3 at 16:52
  • There are more than two types of knowledge. As a logical contradiction to your statement there are only two types of knowledge I gave an example of another therefore negating what you asserted. Intuition definitely exists outside of philosophy. I think the answer here is that what is stated in the book is wrong. Linguistics is a science therefore any assertion made in a text should be heavily backed by empirical evidence and rationale. The statement in question has not been by you or the text. – STL34 Sep 3 at 16:58
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    @STL34 How is "intuitive knowledge" not just another name for "subconscious knowledge"? – TKR Sep 3 at 20:18
  • I would say the difference is nuanced, but still exists. The easiest way to understand, ironically would be to intuitively accept that intuition and subconscious are not the same, therefore they're different. The why is admittedly difficult to explain. – STL34 Sep 3 at 21:20

The microwave analogy is irrelevant: when you use a microwave, you don't need to have any knowledge of how it heats your food, because it's the microwave that is heating the food, not you. When you produce language, on the other hand, you do so unassisted, so any knowledge required for language production must exist in your brain. In most cases, speakers are unable to consciously articulate such knowledge, so it can be aptly described as subconscious.

This is no different from what you describe as "intuitive knowledge" in your comment on user6276's answer. As you say, "Walking is not something one does automatically, it is practiced, failed at and eventually a person can do it" -- the same is true of language. Whether you call this intuitive knowledge, subconscious knowledge, or higher-level understanding is a matter of terminological preference.

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  • I didn't make up english though. I learned how to use it. The low level understanding of OR vs AND will only exist in my brain if I learn it. It's not waiting unhatched in my subconscious, or at least that's not been proven. My point was we can use things that we can't describe, like a microwave and that does not necessarily imply that what is indescribable or unknown exists in one's subconscious. Also, I didn't use the term "higher-level understanding", I used "high-level understanding" referring to abstraction layers. – STL34 Sep 3 at 21:06
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    Mmm, when they say “subconscious”, they don’t mean “innate”. It can still be knowledge you’ve acquired – it’s just that you don’t have conscious access to it. That seems to be exactly what you mean by “intuitive”, so I think the whole thing is a misunderstanding. – rchivers Sep 3 at 21:23

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