Syntax: generative grammar

Author: David Adger


Teaching syntax using a generative approach

Table of contents


Generative Grammar is an approach to dealing with linguistic phenomena which assumes that these phenomena are amenable to formal analysis, and, in fact, can be best explained in such terms. It is therefore opposed, at least in part, to approaches which take a functional perspective, and which assume that linguistic phenomena can be analysed in terms of extra-linguistic pressures (the fact that language can be used to communicate, the signifier-signifiee relationship, etc.). Typically, the formal approach taken by Generative Grammar leads to a radical separation of sound, structure and meaning. This article focusses on the Generative approach to Syntax.

Generative Syntax splits into two main camps, especially in the UK:

  1. the transformationalist approach,
  2. and
  3. the non-transformationalist approach

The former springs from the work of Noam Chomsky, and the core idea is that linguistic phenomena are best analysed at a number of distinct formal levels, which are related to each other by special mappings, which transform one level into another. The latter approaches are best represented in the UK by Generalised Phrase Structure Grammar (GPSG), and its successor Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG); by Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG) and by various forms of Categorial Grammar (CG). These approaches eschew mapping operations transforming different linguistic levels in favour of other formal devices, most importantly, the idea that a lot of information is stored in lexical items, and that combining lexical items leads to further specification of structure (unification). Recently, the most influential transformationalist theory (the Minimalist Program) has rejected the idea of specialised linguistic levels, and has moved closer towards a CG perspective.

When teaching generative syntax, a range of approaches is possible. I list here some of these, with representative texts; I have used mainly recent texts (where available), and all of these texts incorporate more than just the approach under which I have listed them. The categorization I give here is tentative and to a large extent subjective. Which particular approach is suitable for a course will depend on the instructor's tastes, and the rest of the programme.

Possible approaches include:

  1. pick a particular theory, and show how this theory tackles a certain set of empirical data, focussing on the need to analyse the data within a coherent framework (Haegeman 1994; Haegeman and Gueron 1999; Radford 1997);
  2. pick a particular theoretical perspective, and show how this can be developed into a coherent theory by challenging it with empirical phenomena, focussing on modifying the theoretical primes and maintaining consistency (mosts texts in HPSG and LFG - see especially Sag & Wasow 1999, Bresnan 2001. For this kind of approach within a transformationalist framework, see Adger forthcoming);
  3. pick a particular approach and explain how empirical phenomena were used to motivate its current form (many texts in the trasformationalist tradition: recent examples include Roberts 1996, Culicover 1996; Ouhalla 1999; Carnie 2002, Poole 2002);
  4. show how different approaches tackle particular phenomena, using their success as a means to evaluate the theories empirically (especially Borsley 1999).

Within every approach, most syntacticians would agree, that possibly the most important thing to get over to the students is some facility with syntactic argumentation: the development of explicit hypotheses and their successive modification on the basis of new data; the evaluation of hypotheses on the grounds of their consistency with the theory, and on general grounds of simplicity; the ability to see the implications linking both theory and data so as to construct relevant counter-examples. In fact, it is perfectly possible to provide students with no 'off-the-shelf' theoretical framework, but rather to let them construct their own (this is the approach adopted in syntax teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz).


Adger, D. (forthcoming) Core Syntax: A Minimalist Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Borsley, R. (1999) Syntactic Theory: A Unified Approach (2nd Edition). London: Arnold.

Bresnan, J. (2001) Lexical Functional Gramar Oxford: Blackwells.

Carnie, A. (2002) Syntax Oxford, Blackwells.

Culicover, P. (1997) Principles and Parameters: An Introduction to Syntactic Theory. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Haegeman, L. (1994) Introduction to Government and Binding Theory. Oxford:Blackwells.

Haegeman, L. and J. Gueron (1999) English Grammar: A Generative Perspective. Oxford: Blackwells.

Ouhalla, J. (1999) Introducing Transformational Grammar: From Principles and Parameters to Minimalism (2nd edition). London: Arnold.

Poole, G. (2002) Syntactic Theory. Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Radford, A. (1997) Syntactic Theory and the Structure of English: A Minimalist Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, I. (1996) Comparative Syntax. London: Arnold.

Sag, I. and T. Wasow (1999) Syntactic Theory: A Formal Introduction. Stanford:CSLI.

Related links

Stanford University: HPSG:

Stanford University: LFG:

Functional Grammar:


Massachusetts Institute of Technology Linguistics Faculty: Chomsky:

A good collection of links can be found at the following URL, Alliance for Longlife Learning (AllLearn):

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