Generative grammar

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A generative parse tree: the sentence is divided into a noun phrase (subject), and a verb phrase which includes the object. This is in contrast to structural and functional grammar which consider the subject and object as equal constituents. Parse tree 1.jpg
A generative parse tree: the sentence is divided into a noun phrase (subject), and a verb phrase which includes the object. This is in contrast to structural and functional grammar which consider the subject and object as equal constituents.

Generative grammar is a linguistic theory that regards linguistics as the study of a hypothesised innate grammatical structure. [3] A sociobiological [4] modification of structuralist theories, especially glossematics, [5] [6] generative grammar considers grammar as a system of rules that generates exactly those combinations of words that form grammatical sentences in a given language. The difference from structural and functional models [7] is that the object is placed into the verb phrase in generative grammar. [8] This purportedly cognitive structure is thought of being a part of a universal grammar, a syntactic structure which is caused by a genetic mutation in humans. [9]


Generativists have created numerous theories to make the NP VP (NP) analysis work in natural language description. That is, the subject and the verb phrase appearing as independent constituents, and the object placed within the verb phrase. A main point of interest remains in how to appropriately analyse Wh-movement and other cases where the subject appears to separate the verb from the object. [10] Although claimed by generativists as a cognitively real structure, neuroscience has found no evidence for it. [11] [12] Due to its nonstandard view of the brain, some researchers have called the scientific premises of generative grammar into question. [13]


There are a number of different approaches to generative grammar. Common to all is the effort to come up with a set of rules or principles that formally defines each and every one of the members of the set of well-formed expressions of a natural language. The term generative grammar has been associated with at least the following schools of linguistics:

Historical development of models of transformational grammar

Although Leonard Bloomfield, whose work Chomsky rejects, saw the ancient Indian grammarian Pāṇini as an antecedent of structuralism, [14] [15] Chomsky, in an award acceptance speech delivered in India in 2001, claimed "The first generative grammar in the modern sense was Panini's grammar".

Generative grammar has been under development since the late 1950s, and has undergone many changes in the types of rules and representations that are used to predict grammaticality. In tracing the historical development of ideas within generative grammar, it is useful to refer to various stages in the development of the theory.

Standard theory (1957–1965)

The so-called standard theory corresponds to the original model of generative grammar laid out by Chomsky in 1965.

A core aspect of standard theory is the distinction between two different representations of a sentence, called deep structure and surface structure. The two representations are linked to each other by transformational grammar.

Extended standard theory (1965–1973)

The so-called extended standard theory was formulated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Features are:

  • syntactic constraints
  • generalized phrase structures (X-bar theory)

Revised extended standard theory (1973–1976)

The so-called revised extended standard theory was formulated between 1973 and 1976. It contains

Relational grammar (ca. 1975–1990)

An alternative model of syntax based on the idea that notions like subject, direct object, and indirect object play a primary role in grammar.

Government and binding/Principles and parameters theory (1981–1990)

Chomsky's Lectures on Government and Binding (1981) and Barriers (1986).

Minimalist program (1990–present)

The minimalist program is a line of inquiry that hypothesizes that the human language faculty is optimal, containing only what is necessary to meet humans' physical and communicative needs, and seeks to identify the necessary properties of such a system. It was proposed by Chomsky in 1993. [16]

Context-free grammars

Generative grammars can be described and compared with the aid of the Chomsky hierarchy (proposed by Chomsky in the 1950s). This sets out a series of types of formal grammars with increasing expressive power. Among the simplest types are the regular grammars (type 3); Chomsky claims that these are not adequate as models for human language, because of the allowance of the center-embedding of strings within strings, in all natural human languages.

At a higher level of complexity are the context-free grammars (type 2). The derivation of a sentence by such a grammar can be depicted as a derivation tree. Linguists working within generative grammar often view such trees as a primary object of study. According to this view, a sentence is not merely a string of words. Instead, adjacent words are combined into constituents, which can then be further combined with other words or constituents to create a hierarchical tree-structure.

The derivation of a simple tree-structure for the sentence "the dog ate the bone" proceeds as follows. The determiner the and noun dog combine to create the noun phrase the dog. A second noun phrase the bone is created with determiner the and noun bone. The verb ate combines with the second noun phrase, the bone, to create the verb phrase ate the bone. Finally, the first noun phrase, the dog, combines with the verb phrase, ate the bone, to complete the sentence: the dog ate the bone. The following tree diagram illustrates this derivation and the resulting structure:

Basic english syntax tree.svg

Such a tree diagram is also called a phrase marker. They can be represented more conveniently in text form, (though the result is less easy to read); in this format the above sentence would be rendered as:
[S [NP [D The ] [N dog ] ] [VP [V ate ] [NP [D the ] [N bone ] ] ] ]

Chomsky has argued that phrase structure grammars are also inadequate for describing natural languages, and formulated the more complex system of transformational grammar. [17]


Lack of evidence

Noam Chomsky, the creator of generative grammar, believed to have found linguistic evidence that syntactic structures are not learned but ‘acquired’ by the child from universal grammar. This led to the establishment of the poverty of the stimulus argument. It was later found, however, that Chomsky's linguistic analysis was inadequate. [18]

There is no evidence that syntactic structures are innate. While some hopes were raised at the discovery of the FOXP2 gene, [19] [20] there is not enough support for the idea that it is 'the grammar gene' or that it had much to do with the relatively recent emergence of syntactical speech. [21]

Neuroscientific studies using ERPs have found no scientific evidence for the claim that human mind processes grammatical objects as if they were placed inside the verb phrase. [11] Consequently, it is stated that generative grammar is not a useful model for neurolinguistics. [12]

Generativists also claim that language is placed inside its own mind module and that there is no interaction between first-language processing and other types of information processing, such as mathematics. This claim is not based on research or the general scientific understanding of how the brain works. [13] [22]

Chomsky has answered the criticism by emphasising that his theories are actually counter-evidential. He however believes it to be a case where the real value of the research is only understood later on, as it was with Galileo. [23]


Generative grammar has been used to a limited extent in music theory and analysis since the 1980s. [24] [25] The most well-known approaches were developed by Mark Steedman [26] as well as Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, [27] who formalized and extended ideas from Schenkerian analysis. [28] More recently, such early generative approaches to music were further developed and extended by various scholars. [29] [30] [31] [32] The theory of generative grammar has been manipulated by the Sun Ra Revival Post-Krautrock Archestra in the development of their post-structuralist lyrics. This is particularly emphasised in their song "Sun Ra Meets Terry Lee".[ citation needed ] French Composer Philippe Manoury applied the systematic of generative grammar to the field of contemporary classical music.[ citation needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, usually including word order. The term syntax is also used to refer to the study of such principles and processes. The goal of many syntacticians is to discover the syntactic rules common to all languages.

Phrase structure rules are a type of rewrite rule used to describe a given language's syntax and are closely associated with the early stages of transformational grammar, proposed by Noam Chomsky in 1957. They are used to break down a natural language sentence into its constituent parts, also known as syntactic categories, including both lexical categories and phrasal categories. A grammar that uses phrase structure rules is a type of phrase structure grammar. Phrase structure rules as they are commonly employed operate according to the constituency relation, and a grammar that employs phrase structure rules is therefore a constituency grammar; as such, it stands in contrast to dependency grammars, which are based on the dependency relation.

In linguistics, transformational grammar (TG) or transformational-generative grammar (TGG) is part of the theory of generative grammar, especially of natural languages. It considers grammar to be a system of rules that generate exactly those combinations of words that form grammatical sentences in a given language and involves the use of defined operations to produce new sentences from existing ones.

Parse tree ordered, rooted tree that represents the syntactic structure of a string according to some context-free grammar

A parse tree or parsing tree or derivation tree or concrete syntax tree is an ordered, rooted tree that represents the syntactic structure of a string according to some context-free grammar. The term parse tree itself is used primarily in computational linguistics; in theoretical syntax, the term syntax tree is more common.

Lexical semantics, is a subfield of linguistic semantics. The units of analysis in lexical semantics are lexical units which include not only words but also sub-words or sub-units such as affixes and even compound words and phrases. Lexical units include the catalogue of words in a language, the lexicon. Lexical semantics looks at how the meaning of the lexical units correlates with the structure of the language or syntax. This is referred to as syntax-semantic interface.

In linguistics, X-bar theory is a theory of syntactic category formation. It embodies two independent claims: one, that phrases may contain intermediate constituents projected from a head X; and two, that this system of projected constituency may be common to more than one category.

In linguistics, the minimalist program (MP) is a major line of inquiry that has been developing inside generative grammar since the early 1990s, starting with a 1993 paper by Noam Chomsky.

In generative grammar, a theta role or θ-role is the formal device for representing syntactic argument structure—the number and type of noun phrases—required syntactically by a particular verb. For example, the verb put requires three arguments.

In linguistics, branching refers to the shape of the parse trees that represent the structure of sentences. Assuming that the language is being written or transcribed from left to right, parse trees that grow down and to the right are right-branching, and parse trees that grow down and to the left are left-branching. The direction of branching reflects the position of heads in phrases, and in this regard, right-branching structures are head-initial, whereas left-branching structures are head-final. English has both right-branching (head-initial) and left-branching (head-final) structures, although it is more right-branching than left-branching. Some languages such as Japanese and Turkish are almost fully left-branching (head-final). Some languages are mostly right-branching (head-initial).

The term phrase structure grammar was originally introduced by Noam Chomsky as the term for grammar studied previously by Emil Post and Axel Thue. Some authors, however, reserve the term for more restricted grammars in the Chomsky hierarchy: context-sensitive grammars or context-free grammars. In a broader sense, phrase structure grammars are also known as constituency grammars. The defining trait of phrase structure grammars is thus their adherence to the constituency relation, as opposed to the dependency relation of dependency grammars.

Principles and parameters is a framework within generative linguistics in which the syntax of a natural language is described in accordance with general principles and specific parameters that for particular languages are either turned on or off. For example, the position of heads in phrases is determined by a parameter. Whether a language is head-initial or head-final is regarded as a parameter which is either on or off for particular languages. Principles and parameters was largely formulated by the linguists Noam Chomsky and Howard Lasnik. Many linguists have worked within this framework, and for a period of time it was considered the dominant form of mainstream generative linguistics.

<i>Syntactic Structures</i> book by Noam Chomsky

Syntactic Structures is an influential work in linguistics by American linguist Noam Chomsky, originally published in 1957. It is an elaboration of his teacher's, Zellig Harris's, model of transformational generative grammar. A short monograph of about a hundred pages, Chomsky's presentation is recognized as one of the most significant studies of the 20th century, and in 2011 was selected by Time magazine as one of the 100 most important nonfiction books ever written. It contains the now-famous sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously", which Chomsky offered as an example of a grammatically correct sentence that has no discernible meaning. Thus, Chomsky argued for the independence of syntax from semantics.

Linguistic competence is the system of linguistic knowledge possessed by native speakers of a language. It is distinguished from linguistic performance, which is the way a language system is used in communication. Noam Chomsky introduced this concept in his elaboration of generative grammar, where it has been widely adopted and competence is the only level of language that is studied.

Generative semantics is the name of a research program within linguistics, initiated by the work of various early students of Noam Chomsky: John R. Ross, Paul Postal, and later James McCawley. George Lakoff and Pieter Seuren were also instrumental in developing and advocating the theory.

The subject-side parameter, also called the specifier–head parameter, is a proposed parameter within generative linguistics which states that the position of the subject may precede or follow the head. In the world's languages, Specifier-first order is more common that Specifier-final order. For example, in the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS), 76% of the languages in their sample Specifier-first. In this respect, the subject-side parameter contrasts with the head-directionality parameter. The latter, which classifies languages according to whether the head precedes or follows its complement, shows a roughly 50-50 split: in languages that have a fixed word order, about half have a Head-Complement order, and half have a Complement-Head order.

In linguistics, a small clause consists of a subject and its predicate, but lacks an overt expression of tense. Small clauses have the semantic subject-predicate characteristics of a clause, and have some, but not all, the properties of a constituent. Structural analyses of small clauses vary according to whether a flat or layered analysis is pursued. The small clause is related to the phenomena of raising-to-object, exceptional case-marking, accusativus cum infinitivo, and object control.

The term linguistic performance was used by Noam Chomsky in 1960 to describe "the actual use of language in concrete situations". It is used to describe both the production, sometimes called parole, as well as the comprehension of language. Performance is defined in opposition to "competence"; the latter describes the mental knowledge that a speaker or listener has of language.

In certain theories of linguistics, thematic relations, also known as semantic roles, are the various roles that a noun phrase may play with respect to the action or state described by a governing verb, commonly the sentence's main verb. For example, in the sentence "Susan ate an apple", Susan is the doer of the eating, so she is an agent; the apple is the item that is eaten, so it is a patient. While most modern linguistic theories make reference to such relations in one form or another, the general term, as well as the terms for specific relations, varies: "participant role", "semantic role", and "deep case" have also been employed with similar sense.

Merge is one of the basic operations in the Minimalist Program, a leading approach to generative syntax, when two syntactic objects are combined to form a new syntactic unit. Merge also has the property of recursion in that it may apply to its own output: the objects combined by Merge are either lexical items or sets that were themselves formed by Merge. This recursive property of Merge has been claimed to be a fundamental characteristic that distinguishes language from other cognitive faculties. As Noam Chomsky (1999) puts it, Merge is "an indispensable operation of a recursive system ... which takes two syntactic objects A and B and forms the new object G={A,B}" (p. 2).

<i>Aspects of the Theory of Syntax</i> book by Noam Chomsky

Aspects of the Theory of Syntax is a book on linguistics written by American linguist Noam Chomsky, first published in 1965. In Aspects, Chomsky presented a deeper, more extensive reformulation of transformational generative grammar (TGG), a new kind of syntactic theory that he had introduced in the 1950s with the publication of his first book, Syntactic Structures. Aspects is widely considered to be the foundational document and a proper book-length articulation of Chomskyan theoretical framework of linguistics. It presented Chomsky's epistemological assumptions with a view to establishing linguistic theory-making as a formal discipline comparable to physical sciences, i.e. a domain of inquiry well-defined in its nature and scope. From a philosophical perspective, it directed mainstream linguistic research away from behaviorism, constructivism, empiricism and structuralism and towards mentalism, nativism, rationalism and generativism, respectively, taking as its main object of study the abstract, inner workings of the human mind related to language acquisition and production.


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Further reading