Generative grammar

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Generative grammar is a linguistic theory that considers grammar to be a system of rules that is intended to generate exactly those combinations of words which form grammatical sentences in a given language. The term was originally used in relation to the theories of grammar developed by Noam Chomsky, beginning in the late 1950s. Linguists who follow the generative approach, originated by Chomsky, have been called generativists. The generative school has focused on the study of syntax, but has also addressed other aspects of a language's structure, including morphology and phonology.

Early versions of Chomsky's theory were called transformational grammar, and this is still used as a general term that includes his subsequent theories. The most recent is the Minimalist Program, from which Chomsky and other generativists have argued that many of the properties of a generative grammar arise from a universal grammar which is innate to the human brain, rather than being learned from the environment (see the poverty of the stimulus argument).

There are a number of competing versions of generative grammar currently practiced within linguistics. A contrasting approach is that of constraint-based grammars. Where a generative grammar attempts to list all the rules that result in all well-formed sentences, constraint-based grammars allow anything that is not otherwise constrained. Constraint-based grammars that have been proposed include certain versions of dependency grammar, head-driven phrase structure grammar, lexical functional grammar, categorial grammar, relational grammar, link grammar, and tree-adjoining grammar. In stochastic grammar, grammatical correctness is taken as a probabilistic variable, rather than a discrete (yes vs. no) property.


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[edit]

Although Leonard Bloomfield, whose work Chomsky rejects, saw the ancient Indian grammarian Pāṇini as an antecedent of structuralism.,[1][2] 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)[edit]

The so-called Standard Theory corresponds to the original model of generative grammar laid out in 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)[edit]

The so-called Extended Standard Theory was formulated in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Features are:

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

Revised Extended Standard Theory (1973–1976)[edit]

The so-called Revised Extended Standard Theory was formulated between 1973 and 1976. It contains

Relational grammar (ca. 1975–1990)[edit]

Main article: Relational grammar

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)[edit]

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

Minimalist Program (1990–present)[edit]

Main article: Minimalist Program

Context-free grammars[edit]

Main article: Context-free grammar

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, but rather a hierarchy with subordinate and superordinate branches connected at nodes.

Essentially, the tree model works something like this example, in which S is a sentence, D is a determiner, N a noun, V a verb, NP a noun phrase and VP a verb phrase:

Basic english syntax tree.svg

The resulting sentence could be The dog ate the bone. 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.[3]


Generative grammar has been used to a limited extent in music theory and analysis since the 1980s.[4][5] The most well-known approaches were developed by Mark Steedman[6] as well as Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff,[7] who formalized and extended ideas from Schenkerian analysis.[8] More recently, such early generative approaches to music were further developed and extended by various scholars.[9][10][11][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bloomfield, Leonard, 1929, 274; cited in Rogers, David, 1987, 88
  2. ^ Hockett, Charles, 1987, 41
  3. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1956). "Three models for the description of language" (PDF). IRE Transactions on Information Theory. 2 (3): 113–124. doi:10.1109/TIT.1956.1056813. 
  4. ^ Baroni, M., Maguire, S., and Drabkin, W. (1983). The Concept of Musical Grammar. Music Analysis, 2:175–208.
  5. ^ Baroni, M. and Callegari, L. (1982) Eds., Musical grammars and computer analysis. Leo S. Olschki Editore: Firenze, 201–218.
  6. ^ Steedman, M.J. (1989). "A Generative Grammar for Jazz Chord Sequences". Music Perception. 2 (1): 52–77. doi:10.2307/40285282. JSTOR 40285282. 
  7. ^ Lerdahl, Fred; Ray Jackendoff (1996). A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-62107-6. 
  8. ^ Heinrich Schenker, Free Composition. (Der Freie Satz) translated and edited by Ernst Ostler. New York: Longman, 1979.
  9. ^ Tojo, O. Y. & Nishida, M. (2006). Analysis of chord progression by HPSG. In Proceedings of the 24th IASTED international conference on Artificial intelligence and applications, 305–310.
  10. ^ Rohrmeier, Martin (2007). A generative grammar approach to diatonic harmonic structure. In Spyridis, Georgaki, Kouroupetroglou, Anagnostopoulou (Eds.), Proceedings of the 4th Sound and Music Computing Conference, 97–100.
  11. ^ Giblin, Iain (2008). Music and the generative enterprise. Doctoral dissertation. University of New South Wales.
  12. ^ Katz, Jonah; David Pesetsky (2009) "The Identity Thesis for Language and Music".

Further reading[edit]