Generative Grammar Toward Unification And Simpfiliication English Language Essay

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The grammatical theories of Noam Chomsky, morries halle, and their followers are widely discussed but only rarely, if at all, are they applied to the teaching of English grammar in secondary schools. The reason for this lack of application are many, varied, and complex, and even the primary reason make an almost overwhelming list:

Chomsky, the generally acknowledged leader of the group, published the original statement of the theory less than ten years ago and consquently, the development of the theory is still in its early syages.

The explications of his theory have been directed more toward linguist, psychologists, and mathematicians than toward teachers of English grammar. 3)

The criticisms of his theory by other linguists have generated more heat than light, and most secondary school teacher who, after all, neither are nor need be linguists have prudently rejected the opportunity to be burned.


The secondary school teacher, even if he should be curious, has no effective way of satisfying his curiosity since, almost without exception ( according to the two-score catalogue I checked), department of English offer no course in comparative grammar.

Unfortunately these reasons have caused many teachers of English to assume that generative grammar is pedagogically unadaptable to the needs of a secondary school curriculum. According to the author such an assumption is false.

This personal feeling is based largely upon the response to a course, "English grammar for teacher", that the author conducted in summer of 1961 at Indiana university. The thirty students in the class were of widely varying backgrounds and experience. Some had just completed their second year of college work: thers had been teaching for the more than twenty years. All of them were subject in an experiment that the liberal administration of Indiana university permitted the author to conduct. Briefly the author hoped to answer one question: what do secondary school teachers think of generative grammar.

The answer proved validity of the question. The students were convinced that certain deduction from the theories of Chomsky would be applied systematically to the teaching of grammar, not only in secondary school but with equal effectiveness in the elementary school.

Because of the unanimity of class opinion, it seems worthwhile to examine the structure of the course. Purposely, no text was assigned for general use during the first four weeks. The initial lectures were devoted to the history of the language and to the development of the grammatical studies during 18 th and 19 th centuries. The course was made to appear as non-controversial as possible. As a supplement to the lectures, the students were given daily assignments; "memorize the eight parts of speech, the four kinds of sentences, the six kinds of pronounce, the four kinds of adjective; diagram ten sentences; conjugate three verbs''. Every Friday was given over to an informal clinic where they discussed the work of the proceeding weak. For the students, the initial clinic was a nearly shattering experience. Controversy forced its way in to the syllabus.


Since no single text was assigned, the students had necessarily sought their definitions and diagramming rules in different books; without exception these books were "traditional.'' The marked lack of agreement among these books ( many of which were texts currently being used in various school systems) was surprising and, for most students, disconcerting. Some texts defined eight parts of speech; others admitted only seven (dismissing or ignoring the interjection). Some presented purely semantic definitions ( A nouns the name of a person, place, or thing''). Other made a halfhearted blow toward structural definitions ("A noun is a word that names something''); and still others tried to combine the two types ("A noun is a word used to name a person, place, or thing''). Some listed four kinds of pronouns; others, six; and one, bravely, twelve. Some diagramming rules ( which a few texts quietly ignored) called for left-standing lines, some for lines. The students soon concluded that the traditionalist were not united, even on basic definition, that-in---fact---was no single traditional grammar.

The second two weeks of the course were spent in determining why this lack of agreement existed. The lectures to be historical, although somewhat controversial, and emphasized the contributions of Otto Jespersen, Holger Pedersen, Edward Sapir, and Leonard Bloomfield. Meanwhile, the student were consulting the initial chapters ( those generally devoted to debunking the traditionalists) in works by structural linguists such as Charles C. Fries James Sledd, and Harold Whitehall. These analyses, particularly Sledd's concise discussion, convinced the students that the inconsistencies of traditional grammar were fundamental. But curiously, the Friday clinic revealed that thrie initial dissatisfaction with the traditionalists was somewhat tempered, and they agreed ( with sledd ) that traditional grammar-although Latinate and essentially inadequate to describe English- provides at least a useful terminology.

Probably the most important conclusion reached by the class during this period was that form underlines meaning."

At this point and building on this axiom, we began a detailed study of Fries's method, which we supplemented from time to time with definitions taken from sledd. The class was eager and excited; they expected to find, as they later revealed, a simple, self-consistent system to replace traditional grammar. They had no difficulty in accepting the essentials of sledd's definitions since they were not aware that " mixing levels" is supporedly the unpardonable sin among structuralists. ( they balked slightly, however, when sled introduced pitch and stress levels into some of his definitions.) they admitted, in theory, that fries was right in emphasizing patterns and function, but they rebelled, in fact, when we came to a sentence analysis such as the following:

D 3 3 1 F D 1 4 2 D 3 1 F D 1 F 2 F 1

-- F -- -- -- F + J + F -

It it it he he it

As one student said at a Friday clinic, the high school pupil who understands that doesn't have to study grammar," They felt, in brief, that the cure was worse than the disease.

Thus halfway through the course, the students were wandering through two worlds, powerless to be born ." while in this uncomfotablestate. They investigated--- during the third two weeks---the pertinent literature in college English, educational forum, the English journal, and the NEA journal, they found the stracturalists. ( They found very little on Chomsky.) These investigations convinced them that they were not alone in their confusion and that the structuralists were as the traditionalists, perhaps even more so.

At this point, then, most of the class felt that they could not conscientiously teach traditional grammar: the inconsistencies were too widespread and too basic. But they also felt that structural grammar even assuming that the disagreement could be resolved was far to complex to be readily adapted to the needs of secondary school pupil. Furthermore , they were antagonistic toward the emphasis my the structuralists on stress, pitch, and juncture, particularly as incorporated in immediate constituent analysis which splits the sentence, as one student" into a hodge of podges," they were in short, ready for any theory that would justify traditional grammar or simplify structural grammar, particularly (in the latter case if the theory redirected the emphasis toward the sentence as the most significant part of grammar.

With this attitude , they began their study of generative grammar, using the same text for the first time in the course: chomske's syntactic structures. within one week they were agreed that his theory provided the necessary simplification of structural grammar ( or rather, that his theory was simpler understand than that of the structuralists ) and that the resultant grammar could be adapted readily to the needs of secondary school students. during the final week of the course, the class experimented both in and out of class with applications of chomske's theory.

What, then, is theory? And how can his theory be applied to the teaching of grammar? before answering these questions ,we must consider his definition of grammar : a grammar is a device for generating the sentence of a language. thus (to belabor the point) , if a student understands the grammar of a language ,he can construct grammatically correct sentences in that language. No grammar, however, can tell a student of two grammatically correct sentences is stylistically better. Such judgements are outside the realm grammar: they are solely matters of taste and must be taught accordingly.


After having defined the limited of his theory, Chomsky introduces a basic concept: that of a group of "kernel" sentences. A kernel sentences is simple, active, declarative," and Chomsky feels that " all other sentences" are derived from kernel sentences by means of transformations. Roughly, a "transformation" is a rule that either introduces new elements into kernel sentences ( e.g., adjectives negatives) , or rearranges the elements of a kernel sentences ( e.g., to produce an interrogative sentence ) , or both ( e.g., to produce a passive sentence ). Chomsky implies, therefore, that passive, interrogative, and negative sentences, and sentences containing, for example, adjectives, adverbs, and conjuctions are all more complex or sophisticated" than kernel sentences.

Not surprisingly, Chomsky's " kernel sentence" bears a strong resemblance to the simple "subject-verb-compliment" sentence of traditional grammar. He states that a kernel sentence is composed of a noun phrase plus a verb phrase." A "noun phrase" ( symbol: NP ) consists simply of an article (T) plus a noun (N), and the presence of the article is optional. A " verb phrase" (VP) consists of an auxiliary (AUX) plus a main verb (V) plus a noun phrase ( and this last " noun phrase" is, of course, similar to the traditional "complement"); the noun phrase contained within the verb phrase is also optional. This straightforward and easy to understand:

SentenceNP +VP ( where the arrow means rewrite,"

"rewrite sentence as NP plus VP")

NPT + N

VPAux + V + NP

Thus, the following are "noun phrases"

John, the boy, a dog, the men

And the following are "verb phrase":

Reads, eats the apple, may bury a bone, have bought the farm

Therefore, the following are " kernel sentences":

John reads.

The boy eats the apple.

A dog may bury a bone.

The men have bought the farm.

Chomsky thus simplifies the descriptions of English (such as that from fries, quoted above) by limiting these descriptions to a relatively small number of simple sentences. All other sentence are generated from ( i.e., built upon) these kernel sentences by applying certain constant and invariable transformations, and the constancy of the transformation is, for most teachers of English, a major feature of chomsky's theory.

These transformations, it is worth repeating, are invariable. Given a kernel sentence of a particular farm ( and Chomsky defines the required form precisely), then any and all related non kernel sentences can be generated by applying the appropriate ( and quit simple) transformation one specific example will serve to illustrate these remarks. The "passive transformation" may be given in the following form.

To derive a passive sentence, we first need a kernel " string," containing the following elements: a noun phrase (NP), an auxiliary (Aux), a verb (V), and a second noun phrase (NP). These might be represented as follows:

(NP1) + (Aux) + (V) +(NP2)

To transform this string into a passive string," the four basic elements are rearranged and three other elements are (invariable) added as follows.

(NP2) + (Aux) + be+ en +(V) + by + (NP1)

(the en which is added is the so called past participle morpheme.)

Finally, the resultant string is converted into an English sentence by inserting appropriate parts of speech into the string.

Thus, given the kernel sentence:

( the man ) + (has) + (eaten) + ( the apple)

We may apply the transformation to produce:

( the apple ) + (has ) + be + en + (eating) + by + ( the man)

This of course, reduces to: The apple has been eaten by the man Such is the nature of chomsky's major contribution toward the simplification of grammar