Chomsky’s Contribution to the Study of Syntax

In the theory of linguistics, Noam Chomsky introduced the concept of generative grammar in the latter half of the 1950s. This concept was also known as transformational grammar, however, Chomsky’s most recent theory is known as the Minimalist Program (Chomsky, 1995). Generative grammar is simply a specific approach to the way syntax is studied. In this approach, there are a particular set of rules which determine the combination of words that will lead to grammatically correct sentences.

Chomsky published Syntactic Structures in 1957. In this, he proposed the idea that there are two distinct tiers of representation in any sentence in a language. One of these is the deep structure and the other is the surface structure. The former stands for the fundamental semantic interplay of the sentence, and through transformations, is projected onto the surface structure. According to Chomsky, the deep structures of languages would possess significant similarities, and they had properties that were shared by all languages, but these properties were obscured by their surface structures (Newmeyer, 1986).

However, developing the concept of the deep structure was motivated by technical reasons related to the semantic theories of that time. As Chomsky wrote, “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” (Chomsky, 1965).

One of the earlier concepts which Chomsky introduced as generative grammar was called transformational grammars. This theory takes an arrangement of words to have a syntactic structure which can be, for the most part, within the framework of formal grammar, specifically, a context-free grammar that has a broader scope owing to transformational rules. A typical example is in the case of subject-auxiliary inversion, where an auxiliary verb comes before a subject. Hence, a declarative sentence with an auxiliary is taken such as “John has eaten all the heirloom tomatoes.” and transformed into “Has John eaten all the heirloom tomatoes?”.

There is a prevalent belief that children have an innate knowledge of rudimentary grammatical structures which are shared by all human languages, and this innate knowledge is given the name of universal grammar. Chomsky developed the Principles and Parameters Approach (P&P) in which he laid down his theories relating to universal grammar (Chomsky, 1965).

Chomsky believed that the grammatical rules which form the basis for the world’s languages are all innate and of a fixed nature, and the differences among the various languages can all be attributed to the human brain’s parameter settings, the function of which is often compared with that of switches. According to this view, when a child learns a language, he or she need only learn the requisite lexical parts such as words, idioms, etc., and identify what the suitable parameter settings would be, which is easy to determine with the aid of examples (Chomsky, 1965).

One should not be misled by the word “transformation” as that does not mean that these theories are models for the processes the human brain undergoes to form and understand sentences. Chomsky strongly claims that this is not the case: generative grammar models are simply the knowledge that is the basis of our ability to speak and understand. One of his most interesting contributions was that he helped to garner a lot of respect for the innateness theory after several years of a more behaviorist school of thinking related to language (Chomsky, 1986).

According to Chomsky, most of the knowledge which underlies our ability to speak and understand is innate, it comes from within, which means that a baby already has a large accumulation of knowledge regarding the structure and fundamentals of language, which are the same across the world’s languages, and he only needs to acquire the specifics, or idiosyncrasies of the language he comes into contact with. While Chomsky might not have been the first person to point towards the common roots of languages, and he didn’t claim to be so either, his contribution was important because he devised many tangible and technically sophisticated proposals about linguistics and the evaluation criteria of grammatical theories and models. What makes Chomsky’s theory of language different from others is because he pointed to the role certain universal linguistic parameters play in determining the differences between languages since he believed that they all followed the same rules (Chomsky, 1986).

Another interesting contribution Chomsky made relating specifically to syntax was that he defined grammaticality by saying that if extraneous factors are controlled for, a native speaker is the best judge for how grammatically correct or incorrect a particular sentence or string of words is. Also, for Chomsky, this was not related to whether the sentence was meaningful or not, or could be understood or not. A famous example he gave was “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” This was to show how inadequate the probabilistic models of grammar adhered to in those times were as this was a sentence that was grammatically correct, yet meaningless. When such intuitive judgments started gaining popularity, syntacticians no longer had to rely on a body of observed speech to study language, and they could study the grammatical properties of sentences that were probably not used in everyday speech (Aarsleff, 1970).


Aarsleff, H. (1970). The History of Linguistics and Professor Chomsky. Language, 46 (3), 570-585.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press.

Chomsky, Noam (1986). Knowledge of Language. New York:Praeger.

Chomsky, Noam (1995). The Minimalist Program. MIT Press.

Newmeyer, F. J. (1986). Has There Been a ‘Chomskyan Revolution’ in Linguistics? Language, 62 (1), 1-18.

Radford, A. (1981) Transformational Syntax: a student’s guide to Chomsky’s extended standard theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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