a transformational grammar, or transformational-generative
grammar (TGG), is a generative
grammar, especially of a natural
language, that has been developed in a Chomskyan
tradition. Additionally, transformational grammar is the
Chomskyan tradition that gives rise to specific transformational
grammars. Much current research in transformational grammar
is inspired by Chomsky's Minimalist
Deep structure and surface structure
In 1957, Noam
Chomsky published Syntactic
Structures, in which he developed the idea that
each sentence in a language has two levels of representation
— a deep
structure and a surface
The deep structure represented the core semantic
relations of a sentence, and was mapped on to the
surface structure (which followed the phonological
form of the sentence very closely) via transformations.
Chomsky believed that there would be considerable similarities
between languages' deep structures, and that these structures
would reveal properties, common to all languages, which
were concealed by their surface structures. However, this
was perhaps not the central motivation for introducing
deep structure. Transformations had been proposed prior
to the development of deep structure as a means of increasing
the mathematical and descriptive power of Context-free
grammars. Similarly, deep structure was devised largely
for technical reasons relating to early semantic
theory. Chomsky emphasizes the importance of modern
formal mathematical devices in the development of grammatical
- 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, p. 8 )
Development of basic concepts
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), and then in the
1990s Chomsky sketched out a new program of research known
in which Deep Structure and Surface Structure no longer
featured and PF and LF remained as the only levels of
To complicate the understanding of the development of
Noam Chomsky's theories, the precise meanings of Deep
Structure and Surface Structure have changed over time
— by the 1970s, the two 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).
Innate linguistic knowledge
Terms such as "transformation" can 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. Chomsky
is clear that this is not in fact the case: a generative
grammar models only the knowledge that underlies the human
ability to speak and understand. One of the most important
of Chomsky's ideas is that most of this knowledge is innate,
with the result that a baby can have a large body of prior
knowledge about the structure of language in general,
and need only actually learn the idiosyncratic
features of the language(s) it is exposed to. Chomsky
was not the first person to suggest that all languages
had certain fundamental things in common (he quotes philosophers
writing several centuries ago who had the same basic idea),
but he helped to make the innateness theory respectable
after a period dominated by more behaviorist
attitudes towards language. Perhaps more significantly,
he made concrete and technically sophisticated proposals
about the structure of language, and made important proposals
regarding how the success of grammatical theories should
Chomsky goes so far as to suggest that a baby need not
learn any actual rules specific to a particular
language at all. Rather, all languages are presumed to
follow the same set of rules, but the effects of these
rules and the interactions between them can vary greatly
depending on the values of certain universal linguistic
parameters. This is a very strong assumption, and
is one of the most subtle ways in which Chomsky's current
theory of language differs from most others.
In the 1960s, Chomsky introduced two central ideas relevant
to the construction and evaluation of grammatical theories.
The first was the distinction between competence
Chomsky noted the obvious fact that people, when speaking
in the real world, often make linguistic errors (e.g.
starting a sentence and then abandoning it midway through).
He argued that these errors in linguistic performance
were 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, greatly simplifying
linguistic analysis (see the "Grammaticalness" section
below). The second idea related directly to the evaluation
of theories of grammar. Chomsky made a distinction between
grammars which achieved descriptive adequacy and
those which went further and achieved 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 which achieves explanatory adequacy
has the additional property that it gives an insight into
the underlying linguistic structures in the human mind;
that is, it does not merely describe the grammar of a
language, but makes predictions about how linguistic knowledge
represented. For Chomsky, the nature of such mental
representations is largely innate, 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 only come if linguists held explanatory adequacy
as their goal. In other words, real insight into the structure
of individual languages could only be gained through the
comparative study of a wide range of languages, on the
assumption that they are all cut from the same cloth.
"I-Language" and "E-Language"
In 1986, Chomsky proposed a distinction between I-Language
and E-Language, similar but not identical to the
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 is therefore
a mental object — from this perspective, most of theoretical
is a branch of psychology.
E-Language encompasses all other notions of what a language
is, for example that it is a body of knowledge or behavioural
habits shared by a community. Thus, E-Language is not
itself a coherent concept,
and Chomsky argues that such notions of language are not
useful in the study of innate linguistic knowledge, i.e.
competence, even though they may seem sensible and intuitive,
and useful in other areas of study. Competence, he argues,
can only be studied if languages are treated as mental
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 only be studied through recordings or transcriptions
of actual speech, the role of the linguist being to look
for patterns in such observed speech, but not to hypothesize
about why such patterns might occur, nor to label particular
utterances as either "grammatical" or "ungrammatical".
Although few linguists in the 1950s actually took such
an extreme position, Chomsky was at an opposite extreme,
defining grammaticality in an unusually (for the time)
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 feeling of wrongness in
a native English speaker, it can be said that the string
of words is ungrammatical (when various extraneous factors
affecting intuitions are controlled for). This (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". But such sentences manifest
a linguistic problem distinct from that posed by meaningful
but ungrammatical (non)-sentences such as "man the bit
sandwich the", the meaning of which is fairly clear, but
which no native
speaker would accept as being well formed.
The use of such intuitive judgments permitted generative
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.
Without this change in philosophy, the construction of
generative grammars, when conceived of as a some kind
of representation of mental grammars, would have been
almost impossible at the time, since gathering the necessary
data to assess a speakers mental grammar would have been
In the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, much research in transformational
grammar was inspired by Chomsky's Minimalist
The "Minimalist Program" 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 (i.e. transformations) only occur in order
to match interpretable features with uninterpretable
features. An example of an interpretable feature
is the plural inflection
on regular English nouns, e.g. dogs. The
word dogs can only be used to refer to several
dogs, not a single dog, and so this inflection contributes
to meaning, making it interpretable. English
verbs are inflected according to the grammatical
number of their subject (e.g. "Dogs bite" vs "A
dog bites"), but in most sentences this
inflection just duplicates the information about number
that the subject noun already has, and it is therefore
- Economy of representation is the principle that grammatical
structures must exist for a purpose, i.e. 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 indeed the precise formulation of these principles
An additional aspect of minimalist thought is the idea
that the derivation of syntactic structures should be
uniform; that is, 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 vs. 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.
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
This idea was formalized by Chomsky in the Chomsky
hierarchy. Chomsky argued that it is impossible to
describe the structure of natural languages using context
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 later disproven.
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 were generated by a set of phrase
For example a typical transformation in TG is the operation
inversion (SAI). This 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 their original formulation
(Chomsky 1957), these rules were stated as rules that
held over strings of either terminals or constituent symbols
- X NP AUX Y
X AUX NP Y
(where 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 yet a third reordered
arguments in the dative alternation. With the shift from
rules to principles and constraints that was found in
the 1970s, these construction specific transformations
morphed into general rules (all the examples just mentioned
being instances of NP movement), which eventually changed
into the single general rule of move alpha or Move.
Transformations actually come of 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 (e.g. Chomsky
1957). They take small structures which are either atomic
or 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.
In the Extended Standard Theory and government
and binding theory, GTs were abandoned in favor of
phrase structure rules. However, they are still present
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.
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of this function. In Michael Kenstowicz (ed.) Ken
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(See p. 49 fn. 2 for comment on E-Language.)
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