Syntactic Structures

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Syntactic Structures
Syntactic Structures (Noam Chomsky book) cover.jpg
First edition
Author Noam Chomsky
Language English
Subject Natural language syntax
Publisher Mouton & Co.
Publication date
February 1957
Pages 117

Syntactic Structures is the first book by American linguist Noam Chomsky, originally published in 1957. A seminal work in 20th-century linguistics,[6] it laid the foundations of Chomsky's ideas on generative grammar. 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 meaning.


Chomsky had an interest in language from a very young age. His father William Chomsky was one of the foremost Hebrew linguists in the world. At the age of twelve, Chomsky read an early form of his father's David Kimhi's Hebrew Grammar (Mikhlol) (1952), an annotated study of a thirteenth-century Hebrew grammar.[7] At sixteen, Chomsky started his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. There during his freshman year, he studied Arabic (out of interest in Arab-Jewish cooperation in a binational Palestine)[8] and was the only student to do so.[9] In 1947, the year this university established its linguistics department, Chomsky met Zellig Harris, a prominent Bloomfieldian linguist. Chomsky became very close to Harris and proofread the manuscript of Harris's Methods in Structural Linguistics (1951). This was Chomsky's introduction to formal, theoretical linguistics and soon he decided to major in the subject.[10]

For his master's thesis, Chomsky undertook to apply Harris's methods of structural analysis to Hebrew, the language he had studied under his father in childhood. At Harris's suggestion Chomsky began studying logic, philosophy, and the foundations of mathematics. He was particularly influenced by American philosopher Nelson Goodman's work on constructional systems and on the inadequacy of inductive approaches. He found striking similarities between Harris's perspective on language and Goodman's perspective on philosophical systems. Chomsky was equally influenced by American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine's critiques of logical empiricism. In his undergraduate thesis, Chomsky attempted to construct a detailed grammar of Hebrew using Harris' methods. He tried to construct a system of rules for generating the phonetic forms of sentences, and to this end devised a system of recursive rules to describe the form and structure of sentences, organizing the devices in Harris' Methods differently for this purpose. In particular, Chomsky found that there were many different ways of presenting the grammar. He tried to develop an idea of 'simplicity' for grammars that could be used to sort out the "linguistically significant generalizations" from among the alternative possible sets of grammatical rules. Chomsky finished his master's thesis The Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew in 1951.

Having won a fellowship at Harvard, Chomsky continued his studies along these lines. More significantly, he became interested in developing a linguistic theory using a non-taxonomic approach and based on mathematical formalism, and this line of inquiry represented a decisive break with the Bloomfieldian taxonomic structuralist tradition of linguistic analysis. During this fellowship, he compiled a gigantic oeuvre, nearly 1000 typewritten pages long, titling it The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (LSLT).

In 1955, with the help of Harris and MIT linguist Roman Jakobson, Chomsky moved to MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) as the in-house linguist on Victor Yngve's mechanical translation project. The same year he submitted just the ninth chapter of LSLT, titled Transformational Analysis, to the University of Pennsylvania as his doctoral dissertation and received his Ph.D. But it would be 18 more years before LSLT would see full publication.


Syntactic Structures was Chomsky's first published book, a short monograph that distilled the concepts presented in LSLT. It was published by a Dutch publishing house, Mouton. In 1956, Chomsky showed an editor at Mouton his lecture notes for MIT undergraduates[11] and a revised version of these notes were published as Syntactic Structures in the first week of February, 1957.[12] Favorable reviews from fellow American linguists, e.g., Robert Lees, made Syntactic Structures visible on the linguistic research landscape, and shortly thereafter the book created a revolution in the discipline.[3][4]


In Syntactic Structures, Chomsky tries to construct a "formalized theory of linguistic structure" and places emphasis on "rigorous formulations" and "precisely constructed models".[13]

Justification of grammars[edit]

Chomsky writes that his "fundamental concern" is "the problem of justification of grammars". He defines "a grammar of the language L" as "essentially a theory of L", as well as "a device that generates all of the grammatical sequences of L and none of the ungrammatical ones". Talking about the goals of linguistic theory, he draws parallels to theories in physical sciences. He compares a finite corpus of utterances of a particular language to "observations", grammatical rules to "laws" which are stated in terms of "hypothetical constructs" such as phonemes, phrases, etc.[14] According to Chomsky, the criteria for the "justification of grammars" are "external conditions of adequacy", "condition of generality" and "simplicity". To choose which is the best grammar for a given corpus of a given language, Chomsky shows his preference for the "evaluation procedure" (which chooses the best possible grammar for a language against the aforementioned criteria) over the "discovery procedure" (a procedure employed in structural linguistics which is supposed to automatically produce the correct grammar of a language from a corpus) or the "decision procedure" (a procedure which is supposed to automatically choose the best grammar for a language from a set of competing grammars).[15]


According to Chomsky, "the fundamental aim in the linguistic analysis of a language L is to separate the grammatical sequences which are the sentences of L from the ungrammatical sequences which are not sentences of L and to study the structure of the grammatical sequences."[16] By "grammatical" Chomsky means "acceptable to a native speaker".[16] Analyzing further about the basis of grammaticality, Chomsky shows three ways that do not determine whether a sentence is grammatical or not: its inclusion in a corpus, its being meaningful, and its being statistically probable. To illustrate his point, Chomsky presents a nonsensical sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"[17] and says that even though the sentence is grammatical, it is not included in any known corpus at the time and is neither meaningful nor statistically probable.

Chomsky concludes that "grammar is autonomous and independent of meaning, and that probabilistic models give no particular insight into some of the basic problems of syntactic structure." [18]

Grammar models[edit]

Assuming that a set of "grammatical" sentences of a language has been given, Chomsky then tries to figure out what sort of device or model gives an adequate account of this set of utterances. To this end, he first discusses finite state grammar, a communication theoretic model based on a conception of language as a Markov process. Then he discusses phrase structure grammar, a model based on immediate constituent analysis. He shows that both these models are inadequate for the purpose of linguistic description and as a solution, proposes his own formal theory of syntax called transformational generative grammar (TGG), "a more powerful model combining phrase structure and grammatical transformations that might remedy these inadequacies."[14]

A transformational grammar has a "natural tripartite arrangement": phrase structure rules, transformational rules and morphophonemic rules.[19] The phrase structure rules are used for the expansion of grammatical categories and for substitutions. These yield a string of morphemes. A transformational rule "operates on a given string...with a given constituent structure and converts it into a new string with a new derived constituent structure."[20] It "may rearrange strings or may add or delete morphemes."[21] Transformational rules are of two kinds: obligatory or optional. Obligatory transformations applied on the "terminal strings" of the grammar produce the "kernel of the language",[19] which are simple, active, declarative and affirmative sentences. To produce passive, negative, interrogative or complex sentences, one or more optional transformation rules must be applied in a particular order to the kernel sentences. At the final stage of the grammar, morphophonemic rules convert a string of words into a string of phonemes.

In Syntactic Structures, Chomsky invented the term "generative" and used it in a particular technical sense. When he says a finite set of rules "generate" the set of potentially infinite number of sentences of a particular human language, he means that they provide an explicit, structural description of those sentences.[22]


American linguist Paul Postal wrote in 1964 that most of the "syntactic conceptions prevalent in the United States" were "versions of the theory of phrase structure grammars in the sense of Chomsky".[23] British linguist John Lyons wrote in 1966 that "no work has had a greater influence upon the current linguistic theory than Chomsky's Syntactic Structures."[24] Prominent historian of linguistics R. H. Robins wrote in 1967 that the publication of Chomsky's Syntactic Structures was "probably the most radical and important change in direction in descriptive linguistics and in linguistic theory that has taken place in recent years".[25] Another historian of linguistics Frederick Newmeyer considers Syntactic Structures "revolutionary" for two reasons. Firstly, it showed that a formal yet non-empiricist theory of language was possible and more importantly, it demonstrated this possibility in a practical sense by formally treating a fragment of English grammar. Secondly, it put syntax at the center of the theory of language. Syntax was recognized as the focal point of language production, in which a finite set of rules can produce an infinite number of sentences. As a result, morphology and phonology were relegated in importance.[26]

In addition, Syntactic Structures introduced Chomsky's mentalist perspective in linguistic analysis. This had a massive influence on the psychological study of language. Before Syntactic Structures, psychologists treated human language in terms of conditioned responses to outside stimuli and reinforcement. Chomsky argued that humans produce language using separate syntactic and semantic components inside the mind, and presented TGG as a coherent abstract description of this phenomenon. This induced a flurry of psycholinguistic research in the following decades.

Moreover, Syntactic Structures initiated an interdisciplinary dialog between philosophers of language and linguists. American philosopher John Searle wrote that "Chomsky's work is one of the most remarkable intellectual achievements of the present era, comparable in scope and coherence to the work of Keynes or Freud. It has done more than simply produce a revolution in linguistics; it has created a new discipline of generative grammar and is having a revolutionary effect on two other subjects, philosophy and psychology".[3] Chomsky and Willard Van Orman Quine, a stridently anti-mentalistic philosopher of language and one of Chomsky's early influences, debated many times on the merit of Chomsky's linguistic theories. Most philosophers supported Chomsky's idea that natural languages are innate and syntactically rule-governed. In addition, they thought that there also exist rules in the human mind which bind meanings to utterances. The investigation of what these rules might be started a new era in philosophical semantics.

With its formal and logical treatment of language, Syntactic Structures also brought linguistics and the new field of computer science closer together. Renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth has recounted he read Syntactic Structures during his honeymoon in 1961 and was greatly influenced by it.[27]


In his 1964 presidential address to the Linguistic Society of America, American linguist Charles Hockett considered Syntactic Structures one of "only four major breakthroughs in modern linguistics", alongside Sir William Jones's address to the Asiatic Society in 1786, Karl Verner's Eine Ausnahme der ersten Lautverschiebung in 1875 and Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de Linguistique Générale in 1916.[28] He rapidly turned into a fierce critic of Chomskyan linguistics. By 1966, Hockett rejected "[Chomsky's] frame of reference in almost every detail".[29] In his 1968 book The State of the Art, Hockett writes that Chomsky's main fallacy is that he treats language as a formal, well-defined, stable system and proceeds from this idealized abstraction. Hockett believes such an idealization is not possible, claiming that there is no empirical evidence that our language faculty is, in reality, a well-defined underlying system. The sources that give rise to language faculty in humans, e.g. physical genetic transmission and cultural transmission, are themselves ill-defined. In Hockett's view, "we must not promote our more or less standardized by-and-large characterization of the language to the status of a monolithic ideal, nor infer that because we can achieve a fixed characterization some such monolithic ideal exists, in the lap of God or in the brain of each individual speaker."[30] Hockett also decried Chomsky's principle that syntax is completely independent of semantics.

Another long-standing critic of Chomskyan linguistics, the British linguist Geoffrey Sampson, maintains that Chomsky's linguistics is intuition-based and non-empirical, and that it largely owes its good fortune of becoming the dominant theoretical paradigm in the following years to the charisma of Chomsky's intellect. Sampson notes that there are many references in Syntactic Structures to Chomsky's own LSLT in matters regarding the formal underpinnings of Chomsky's approach, but LSLT was not widely available in print for decades. Nevertheless, Sampson's argument runs, Syntactic Structures, albeit "sketchy", derived its "aura of respectability" from LSLT lurking in the background. In turn, the acceptance of Chomsky's future works rested on the success of Syntactic Structures.[31]

British linguist Gerald Gazdar indirectly argued in 1981 that Chomsky's criticisms of phrase structure grammar may be invalid.[32]


In 2000, University of Minnesota's Center for Cognitive Sciences compiled a list of the 100 most influential works in cognitive science from the 20th century. In total, 305 scholarly works and one movie were nominated via the internet. Syntactic Structures was ranked number one on this list, marking it as the most influential work of cognitive science of the century.[33]

Syntactic Structures was included in Martin Seymour-Smith's list of The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written.



  1. ^ In Lees 1957, an influential review of Syntactic Structures, linguist Robert Lees wrote that "Chomsky's book on syntactic structures is one of the first serious attempts on the part of a linguist to construct within the tradition of theory-construction a comprehensive theory of language which may be understood in the same sense that a chemical, biological theory is ordinarily understood by experts in those fields. It's not a mere reorganization of the data into a new kind of library catalog, nor another speculative philosophy about the nature of Man and Language, but a rather rigorous explanation of our intuitions about language in terms of an overt axiom system, the theorems derivable from it, explicit results which may be compared with new data and other intuitions, all based plainly on an overt theory of the internal structure of languages".
  2. ^ Robins 1967
  3. ^ a b c Searle 1972
  4. ^ a b Newmeyer 1996
  5. ^ Cook 2007
  6. ^ [1][2][3][4][5]
  7. ^ Barsky 1997: 10
  8. ^ personal email 2015-02-18
  9. ^ Barsky 1997: 47
  10. ^ Barsky 1997: 49-50
  11. ^ Chomsky's own typewritten letter to Mouton editor Cornelis van Schooneveld here:
  12. ^ There are at least two accounts from Chomsky on this subject. In LSLT, Chomsky recounted: "In 1956, at the suggestion of Morris Halle, I showed some of my lecture notes for an undergraduate course at MIT to Cornelis van Schooneveld, the editor of the Janua Linguarum series of Mouton and he offered to publish them. A slightly revised version appeared in 1957, under the title Syntactic Structures." Two decades later (Dillinger & Palácio 1997:162-163), Chomsky recounted: "At the time Mouton was publishing just about anything, so they decided they’d publish it along with a thousand other worthless things that were coming out. That’s the story of Syntactic Structures: course notes for undergraduate science students published by accident in Europe." The publication of Syntactic structures is also discussed in Noordegraaf 2001 and van Schooneveld 2001.
  13. ^ Chomsky 1957, Preface
  14. ^ a b Chomsky 1957: 49
  15. ^ Chomsky 1957: 49-56
  16. ^ a b Chomsky 1957: 13
  17. ^ Chomsky 1957:15
  18. ^ Chomsky 1957: 17
  19. ^ a b Chomsky 1957: 45
  20. ^ Chomsky 1957: 44
  21. ^ Chomsky 1957: 46
  22. ^ Chomsky 1957 and Chomsky 1965
  23. ^ Postal 1964
  24. ^ Lyons 1966
  25. ^ Robins 1967:226
  26. ^ Newmeyer 1996: 24-26
  27. ^ From the preface of Knuth 2003: "...researchers in linguistics were beginning to formulate rules of grammar that were considerably more mathematical than before. And people began to realize that such methods are highly relevant to the artificial languages that were becoming popular for computer programming, even though natural languages like English remained intractable. I found the mathematical approach to grammar immediately appealing—so much so, in fact, that I must admit to taking a copy of Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures along with me on my honeymoon in 1961. During odd moments, while crossing the Atlantic in an ocean liner and while camping in Europe, I read that book rather thoroughly and tried to answer some basic theoretical questions. Here was a marvelous thing: a mathematical theory of language in which I could use a computer programmer's intuition! The mathematical, linguistic, and algorithmic parts of my life had previously been totally separate. During the ensuing years those three aspects became steadily more intertwined; and by the end of the 1960s I found myself a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, primarily because of work that I had done with respect to languages for computer programming."
  28. ^ Hockett 1965:185
  29. ^ Hockett 1966: 156
  30. ^ Hockett 1968: 83
  31. ^ Sampson 2001: 152
  32. ^ Gazdar 1981
  33. ^ See the list online here:

Further reading[edit]

  • Tomalin, Marcus (2006), Linguistics and the Formal Sciences: The Origins of Generative Grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 
  • Pullum, Geoffrey K. (forthcoming) On the mathematics of Syntactic Structures. To appear in Journal of Logic, Language and Information. PDF format (18 pages)

External links[edit]