MoL 10: Geoffrey K. Pullum (University of Edinburgh)

Creation myths of generative grammar, and the mathematics underlying Syntactic Structures

Syntactic Structures (SyS) is perhaps the most influential book ever published on syntactic theory. It locked syntacticians into a half-century of work dominated by the generative conception of grammar. Its empirical analyses of English are as widely admired as its theoretical rigor.

Without in any way denying the lasting impact, brilliant clarity, or persuasive force of SyS, I examine here a few cases of exaggeration or misapprehension, and challenge some creation myths about generative grammar that seem to have emerged from inaccurate recollections.

What is perhaps most of interest in the context of this conference is that its claim to be based on formal methods does not square with its loose and confusing use of symbols. It shows little sign of the care found in the best successful formalizations. Its supposedly formalized restatements of transformations are sometimes less explicit than the intuitive presentations of their content earlier in the text.

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