Transformational grammar

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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 (called transformations) to produce new sentences from existing ones.

Deep structure and surface structure[edit]

Noam Chomsky's 1965 book Aspects of the Theory of Syntax developed the idea that each sentence in a language has two levels of representation: a deep structure and a surface structure.[1][2] The deep structure represents the core semantic relations of a sentence and is mapped onto the surface structure, which follows the phonological form of the sentence very closely, via transformations. However, the concept of transformations had been proposed prior to the development of deep structure to increase the mathematical and descriptive power of context-free grammars. Deep structure was developed largely for technical reasons related to early semantic theory. Chomsky emphasized the importance of modern formal mathematical devices in the development of grammatical theory:

But the fundamental reason for [the] inadequacy of traditional grammars is a more technical one. Although it was well understood that linguistic processes are in some sense "creative," the technical devices for expressing a system of recursive processes were simply not available until much more recently. In fact, a real understanding of how a language can (in Humboldt's words) "make infinite use of finite means" has developed only within the last thirty years, in the course of studies in the foundations of mathematics.

— Aspects of the Theory of Syntax

Formal definition[edit]

Chomsky's advisor, Zellig Harris, took transformations to be relations between sentences such as "I finally met this talkshow host you always detested" and simpler (kernel) sentences "I finally met this talkshow host" and "You always detested this talkshow host."[need quotation to verify] Chomsky developed a formal theory of grammar in which transformations manipulated not only the surface strings but also the parse tree associated with them, making transformational grammar a system of tree automata.[3] A transformational-generative (or simply transformational) grammar thus involved two types of productive rules: phrase structure rules, such as "S → NP VP" (a sentence may consist of a noun phrase followed by a verb phrase) etc., which could be used to generate grammatical sentences with associated parse trees (phrase markers, or P markers); and transformational rules, such as rules for converting statements to questions or active to passive voice, which acted on the phrase markers to produce other grammatically-correct sentences. (For more details see the Transformations section below.)

In this context, transformational rules are not strictly necessary for the purpose of generating the set of grammatical sentences in a language, since that can be done using phrase structure rules alone, but the use of transformations provides economy in some cases (the total number of rules can thus be reduced), and it also provides a way of representing the grammatical relations that exist between sentences, which would not otherwise be reflected in a system with phrase structure rules alone.[4]

This notion of transformation proved adequate for subsequent versions including the "extended," "revised extended," and Government-Binding (GB) versions of generative grammar, but it may no longer be sufficient for the current minimalist grammar, as merge may require a formal definition that goes beyond the tree manipulation characteristic of Move α.

Development of basic concepts[edit]

Though transformations continue to be important in Chomsky's current theories, he has now abandoned the original notion of Deep Structure and Surface Structure. Initially, two additional levels of representation were introduced (LF — Logical Form, and PF — Phonetic Form), but in the 1970s, Chomsky sketched out a new program of research known as Minimalism, in which Deep Structure and Surface Structure are no longer featured and PF and LF remain as the only levels of representation.[5]

To complicate the understanding of the development of Chomsky's theories, the precise meanings of Deep Structure and Surface Structure have changed over time. By the 1970s, they were normally referred to simply as D-Structure and S-Structure by Chomskyan linguists. In particular, the idea that the meaning of a sentence was determined by its Deep Structure (taken to its logical conclusions by the generative semanticists during the same period) was dropped for good by Chomskyan linguists when LF took over this role (previously, Chomsky and Ray Jackendoff had begun to argue that meaning was determined by both Deep and Surface Structure).[6][7]

Innate linguistic knowledge[edit]

Using a term such as "transformation" may give the impression that theories of transformational generative grammar are intended as a model for the processes through which the human mind constructs and understands sentences, but Chomsky clearly stated that a generative grammar models only the knowledge that underlies the human ability to speak and understand. Arguing that because most of that knowledge is innate, a baby can have a large body of prior knowledge about the structure of language in general and so need to learn only the idiosyncratic features of the language(s) to which it is exposed.

Chomsky is not the first person to suggest that all languages had certain fundamental things in common. He quoted philosophers who posited the same basic idea several centuries ago.

Chomsky helped to make the innateness theory respectable after a period dominated by more behaviorist attitudes towards language.

He made concrete and technically sophisticated proposals about the structure of language as well as important proposals regarding how the success of grammatical theories should be evaluated.[citation needed]

Grammatical theories[edit]

In the 1960s, Chomsky introduced two central ideas relevant to the construction and evaluation of grammatical theories. One was the distinction between competence and performance. Chomsky noted the obvious fact that people, when they speak in the real world, often make linguistic errors, such as bystarting a sentence and then abandoning it midway through. He argued that such errors in linguistic performance are irrelevant to the study of linguistic competence, the knowledge that allows people to construct and understand grammatical sentences. Consequently, the linguist can study an idealised version of language, which greatly simplifies linguistic analysis (see the "Grammaticality" section below).

The other idea related directly to the evaluation of theories of grammar. Chomsky distinguished between grammars that achieve descriptive adequacy and those that go further and achieve explanatory adequacy. A descriptively-adequate grammar for a particular language defines the (infinite) set of grammatical sentences in that language; that is, it describes the language in its entirety. A grammar that achieves explanatory adequacy has the additional property that it gives an insight into the underlying linguistic structures in the human mind. In other words, it does not merely describe the grammar of a language, but it makes predictions about how linguistic knowledge is mentally represented. For Chomsky, the nature of such mental representations is largely innate and so if a grammatical theory has explanatory adequacy, it must be able to explain the various grammatical nuances of the languages of the world as relatively-minor variations in the universal pattern of human language.

Chomsky argued that even though linguists were still a long way from constructing descriptively adequate grammars, progress in terms of descriptive adequacy would come only if linguists hold explanatory adequacy as their goal: real insight into the structure of individual languages can be gained only by comparative study of a wide range of languages, on the assumption that they are all cut from the same cloth.[citation needed]

"I-language" and "E-language"[edit]

In 1986, Chomsky proposed a distinction between I-language and E-language that is similar but not identical to the competence/performance distinction.[8] "I-language" refers to internal language and is contrasted with "E-language", which refers to external language. I-language is taken to be the object of study in linguistic theory; it is the mentally represented linguistic knowledge that a native speaker of a language has and so is a mental object. From that perspective, most of theoretical linguistics is a branch of psychology. E-language encompasses all other notions of what a language is, such that that it is a body of knowledge or behavioural habits shared by a community. Thus, E-language itself is not a coherent concept,[9] and Chomsky argues that such notions of language are not useful in the study of innate linguistic knowledge, or, competence even though they may seem sensible and intuitive and useful in other areas of study. Competence, he argues, can be studied only if languages are treated as mental objects.


Chomsky argued that the notions "grammatical" and "ungrammatical" could be defined in a meaningful and useful way. In contrast, an extreme behaviorist linguist would argue that language can be studied only through recordings or transcriptions of actual speech and that the role of the linguist is to look for patterns in such observed speech but not to hypothesize about why such patterns might occur or to label particular utterances as either "grammatical" or "ungrammatical". Although few linguists in the 1950s actually took such an extreme position, Chomsky was on opposite extreme, defining grammaticality in an unusually mentalistic way (for the time).[10] He argued that the intuition of a native speaker is enough to define the grammaticalness of a sentence; that is, if a particular string of English words elicits a double take or the feeling of wrongness in a native English-speaker, with various extraneous factors affecting intuitions are controlled for, it can be said that the string of words is ungrammatical. That, according to Chomsky, is entirely distinct from the question of whether a sentence is meaningful or can be understood. It is possible for a sentence to be both grammatical and meaningless, as in Chomsky's famous example, "colorless green ideas sleep furiously".[11] However, such sentences manifest a linguistic problem that is distinct from that posed by meaningful but ungrammatical (non)-sentences such as "man the bit sandwich the", whose meaning of which is fairly clear, but no native speaker would accept it to be well formed.

The use of such intuitive judgments permitted generative syntacticians to base their research on a methodology in which studying language through a corpus of observed speech became downplayed since the grammatical properties of constructed sentences were considered to be appropriate data on which to build a grammatical model.

Minimalist program[edit]

From the mid-1990s onwards, much research in transformational grammar has been inspired by Chomsky's minimalist program.[12] It aims at the further development of ideas involving economy of derivation and economy of representation, which had started to become significant in the early 1990s but were still rather peripheral aspects of transformational-generative grammar theory:

  • Economy of derivation is a principle stating that movements, or transformations, occur only to match interpretable features with uninterpretable features. An example of an interpretable feature is the plural inflection on regular English nouns:*dogs. The word dogs can be used to refer only to several dogs, not a single dog, and so that inflection contributes to meaning by making it interpretable. English verbs are inflected according to the number of their subject ("Dogs bite" v. "A dog bites"), but in most sentences, that inflection just duplicates the information about number that the subject noun already has, and the inflection is therefore uninterpretable.
  • Economy of representation is the principle that grammatical structures must exist for a purpose: the structure of a sentence should be no larger or more complex than required to satisfy constraints on grammaticality.

Both notions, as described here, are somewhat vague, and the precise formulation of the principles is indeed controversial.[13][14] An additional aspect of minimalist thought is the idea that the derivation of syntactic structures should be uniform: rules should not be stipulated as applying at arbitrary points in a derivation but instead apply throughout derivations. Minimalist approaches to phrase structure have resulted in "Bare Phrase Structure," an attempt to eliminate X-bar theory. In 1998, Chomsky suggested that derivations proceed in phases. The distinction of Deep Structure v. Surface Structure is not present in Minimalist theories of syntax, and the most recent phase-based theories also eliminate LF and PF as unitary levels of representation.

Mathematical representation[edit]

Returning to the more general mathematical notion of a grammar, an important feature of all transformational grammars is that they are more powerful than context-free grammars.[15] The idea was formalized by Chomsky in the Chomsky hierarchy. Chomsky argued that it is impossible to describe the structure of natural languages by using context-free grammars.[16] His general position regarding the non-context-freeness of natural language has held up since then although his specific examples regarding the inadequacy of CFGs in terms of their weak generative capacity were disproved.[17][18]


The usual usage of the term 'transformation' in linguistics refers to a rule that takes an input, typically called the Deep Structure (in the Standard Theory) or D-structure (in the extended standard theory or government and binding theory), and changes it in some restricted way to result in a Surface Structure (or S-structure). In TGG, Deep structures are generated by a set of phrase structure rules.

For example, a typical transformation in TG is the operation of subject-auxiliary inversion (SAI). That rule takes as its input a declarative sentence with an auxiliary: "John has eaten all the heirloom tomatoes." and transforms it into "Has John eaten all the heirloom tomatoes?" In the original formulation (Chomsky 1957), those rules were stated as rules that held over strings off terminals, constituent symbols or both.


(NP = Noun Phrase and AUX = Auxiliary)

In the 1970s, by the time of the Extended Standard Theory, following the work of Joseph Emonds on structure preservation, transformations came to be viewed as holding over trees. By the end of government and binding theory, in the late 1980s, transformations are no longer structure changing operations at all; instead, they add information to already existing trees by copying constituents.

The earliest conceptions of transformations were that they were construction-specific devices. For example, there was a transformation that turned active sentences into passive ones. A different transformation raised embedded subjects into main clause subject position in sentences such as "John seems to have gone", and still a third reordered arguments in the dative alternation. With the shift from rules to principles and constraints that was found in the 1970s, those construction-specific transformations morphed into general rules (all the examples just mentioned are instances of NP movement), which eventually changed into the single general rule of move alpha or Move.

Transformations actually come in two types: (i) the post-Deep structure kind mentioned above, which are string or structure changing, and (ii) Generalized Transformations (GTs). Generalized transformations were originally proposed in the earliest forms of generative grammar (such as in Chomsky 1957). They take small structures, either atomic or those generated by other rules, and combine them. For example, the generalized transformation of embedding would take the kernel "Dave said X" and the kernel "Dan likes smoking" and combine them into "Dave said Dan likes smoking." GTs are thus structure building, rather than structure changing. L In the Extended Standard Theory and government and binding theory, GTs were abandoned in favor of recursive phrase structure rules. However, they are still present in tree-adjoining grammar as the Substitution and Adjunction operations, and they have recently re-emerged in mainstream generative grammar in Minimalism, as the operations Merge and Move.

In generative phonology, another form of transformation is the phonological rule, which describes a mapping between an underlying representation (the phoneme) and the surface form that is articulated during natural speech.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-53007-4.
  2. ^ The Port-Royal Grammar of 1660 identified similar principles; Chomsky, Noam (1972). Language and Mind. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0-15-147810-4.
  3. ^ Stockwell, Robert P.; Partee, Barbara Hall; Schacter, Paul (1973). The major syntactic structures of English. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 978-0-03-088042-1.[page needed]
  4. ^ Emmon Bach, An Introduction to Transformational Grammars, Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Inc., 1966, pp. 59–69.
  5. ^ In a review of The Minimalist Program, Zwart 1998 observed, "D-Structure is eliminated in the sense that there is no base component applying rewrite rules to generate an empty structure which is to be fleshed out later by 'all at once' lexical insertion. Instead, structures are created by combining elements drawn from the lexicon, and there is no stage in the process at which we can stop and say: this is D-Structure." Similarly, "there is no need for language particular S-Structure conditions in order to describe word order variation" and can be handled by LF.
  6. ^ Jackendoff, Ray (1974). Semantic Interpretation in Generative Grammar. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-10013-4.
  7. ^ May, Robert C. (1977). The Grammar of Quantification. MIT Phd Dissertation. ISBN 0-8240-1392-1. (Supervised by Noam Chomsky, this dissertation introduced the idea of "logical form.")
  8. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1986). Knowledge of Language. New York:Praeger. ISBN 0-275-90025-8.[page needed]
  9. ^ Chomsky, Noam (2001). "Derivation by Phase." In other words, in algebraic terms, and the I-language is the actual function, whereas the E-language is the extension of this function. In Michael Kenstowicz (ed.) Ken Hale: A Life in Language. MIT Press. Pages 1-52. (See p. 49 fn. 2 for comment on E-language.)
  10. ^ Newmeyer, Frederick J. (1986). Linguistic Theory in America (Second Edition). Academic Press.[page needed]
  11. ^ Chomsky 1957:15
  12. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1995). The Minimalist Program. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-53128-3.
  13. ^ Lappin, Shalom; Levine, Robert; Johnson, David (2000). "Topic ... Comment". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 18 (3): 665–671. doi:10.1023/A:1006474128258.
  14. ^ Lappin, Shalom; Levine, Robert; Johnson, David (2001). "The Revolution Maximally Confused". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 19 (4): 901–919. doi:10.1023/A:1013397516214.
  15. ^ Peters, Stanley; R. Ritchie (1973). "On the generative power of transformational grammars" (PDF). Information Sciences. 6: 49–83. doi:10.1016/0020-0255(73)90027-3.
  16. ^ 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. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-09-19.
  17. ^ Shieber, Stuart (1985). "Evidence against the context-freeness of natural language" (PDF). Linguistics and Philosophy. 8 (3): 333–343. doi:10.1007/BF00630917.
  18. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey K.; Gerald Gazdar (1982). "Natural languages and context-free languages". Linguistics and Philosophy. 4 (4): 471–504. doi:10.1007/BF00360802.
  19. ^ Goldsmith, John A (1995). "Phonological Theory". In John A. Goldsmith. The Handbook of Phonological Theory. Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics. Blackwell Publishers. p. 2. ISBN 1-4051-5768-2.


  • Chomsky, Noam (1957), Syntactic Structures, The Hague/Paris: Mouton
  • Chomsky, Noam (1995). The Minimalist Program. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-53128-3.
  • Zwart, Jan-Wouter (1998). "Review Article: The Minimalist Program". Journal of Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. 34: 213–226.

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