Noam Chomsky Contribution to the Study of Syntax


Auram Noam Chomsky is considered in the linguistic circles as one of the greatest contributors to the development of syntax. He is an American linguistic author, political activist, and philosopher, and he is credited with one of the most significant developments of linguistic in the 20th Century. This contribution was made through the creation of the theory of generative grammar.

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Generative grammar generally refers to a specific approach in the study of syntax. What is described as generative grammar attempts to make predictions on what combination of words can be used to make sensible grammatical sentences? Syntax in linguistics is the rules and regulations that govern the arrangement of words to make a sentence in a certain language. The syntax field in a way seeks not to provide grammatical judgments but to explain them. Therefore syntax does not in any way act as a prescription to linguistics. (Chomsky 1957).

All syntax theories use humans as their object of study. Chomsky has made a significant contribution in the syntax field by his view of syntax as a branch of biology because as he argues “syntax is the study of linguistic which is embodied in the human mind.” (Chomsky 1957) However other linguistics like Gerald Gazdar take a more Platonistic view, where they regard the study of syntax an abstract of the formal language. Other linguistics like Joseph Greenbag on the other hand regards grammar as a “taxonomical device to reach broad generalizations among languages.”

Therefore according to Noam Chomsky many properties of generative grammar are generated from the universal grammar that is “innate” and common in all languages. He further argues that most grammar as used is not simply learned from the environment or a result of the communicative function.

Sentences in most generative grammar versions are either grammatically correct or not, which means that they are either well-formed or not. Thus the rules that govern the generative grammar “function as an algorithm to predict grammaticality as a discrete- yes or no results”. (Chomsky 1957) The main generative grammar goal is to make a complete model of the inner languages of the human mind.

Towards the development of syntax, Noam Chomsky advanced various linguistic generative theories that include: Transformational Grammar (TG), Government and binding theory, and Minimalism. Chomsky is also generally credited with the development of the Chomsky hierarchy, which is a form of classification of formal languages in generative power terms. (Chomsky 1957).

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Contribution to Linguistics

Chomsky’s book Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1955) distills the syntactic structures where it introduces the transformational grammars. In this theory, utterances or word sequences possess a syntax that is grammatically characterized. Transformational roles played a vital role in extending context-free grammar. In this case “children are hypothesized to have an innate knowledge of the basic grammatical structure that are virtually common to all human languages”. (Chomsky 1981).

In 1979 in his Pisa lectures, Chomsky’s principles and parameters approach (PDP), or what came to be known as lectures on Government and Binding (LGB) Developed universal grammar claims that were strong. These claims argue that the languages underlying are “innate and fixed” and that “the differences among the world’s languages can be characterized in terms of parameter settings in the brain that are likened to switches”. (Chomsky 1981) Thus for a child to learn a language all she/he needs is to acquire the necessary logical items or (words grammatical morphemes, and idioms) in the process of determining the parameter settings that are appropriate based only on a few examples.

Chomsky in the Syntactic Structures (1957) illustrated further the purpose of the linguistic theory, which was set to describe syntax by describing the grammatical rules underlying sentence construction. (Chomsky 1965).

In the Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Chomsky further explains “all of the linguistic relationships that exist between the sound system and the meaning system of the language.”.(Chomsky 1965) From this context according to Chomsky, the grammar language must possess 3 parts

  • Syntactical Component – this produces and describes “the internal structure of the infinite number of sentences of language.”
  • Phonological component – that which describes the sentence sound structure which has been generated by the syntactical component
  • A semantic Component – describes the sentence structure. (Chomsky 1965).


Chomsky 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton. Reprint. Berlin and New York (1985).

Chomsky 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

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Chomsky 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures. Holland: Foris Publications. Reprint. 7th Edition. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1993.

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