Generative grammar

Generative grammar is a linguistic theory that regards grammar as a system of rules that generates exactly those combinations of words that form grammatical sentences in a given language. Noam Chomsky first used the term in relation to the theoretical linguistics of grammar that he developed in the late 1950s. [1] Linguists who follow the generative approach have been called generativists. The generative school has focused on the study of syntax, but has also addressed other aspects of a language's structure, including morphology and phonology.

Early versions of Chomsky's theory were called transformational grammar, which is still used as a general term that includes his subsequent theories. [2] The most recent is the minimalist program, from which Chomsky and other generativists have argued that many of the properties of a generative grammar arise from a universal grammar that is innate to the human brain, rather than being learned from the environment (see the poverty of the stimulus argument).

There are a number of versions of generative grammar currently practiced within linguistics. A contrasting approach is that of constraint-based grammars. Where a generative grammar attempts to list all the rules that result in all well-formed sentences, constraint-based grammars allow anything that is not otherwise constrained. Constraint-based grammars that have been proposed include certain versions of dependency grammar, head-driven phrase structure grammar, lexical functional grammar, categorial grammar, relational grammar, link grammar, and tree-adjoining grammar. In stochastic grammar, grammatical correctness is taken as a probabilistic variable, rather than a discrete (yes or no) property.


There are a number of different approaches to generative grammar. Common to all is the effort to come up with a set of rules or principles that formally defines each and every one of the members of the set of well-formed expressions of a natural language. The term generative grammar has been associated with at least the following schools of linguistics:

Historical development of models of transformational grammar

Although Leonard Bloomfield, whose work Chomsky rejects, saw the ancient Indian grammarian Pāṇini as an antecedent of structuralism, [3] [4] Chomsky, in an award acceptance speech delivered in India in 2001, claimed "The first generative grammar in the modern sense was Panini's grammar".

Generative grammar has been under development since the late 1950s, and has undergone many changes in the types of rules and representations that are used to predict grammaticality. In tracing the historical development of ideas within generative grammar, it is useful to refer to various stages in the development of the theory.

Standard theory (1957–1965)

The so-called standard theory corresponds to the original model of generative grammar laid out by Chomsky in 1965.

A core aspect of standard theory is the distinction between two different representations of a sentence, called deep structure and surface structure. The two representations are linked to each other by transformational grammar.

Extended standard theory (1965–1973)

The so-called extended standard theory was formulated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Features are:

  • syntactic constraints
  • generalized phrase structures ( X-bar theory)

Revised extended standard theory (1973–1976)

The so-called revised extended standard theory was formulated between 1973 and 1976. It contains

Relational grammar (ca. 1975–1990)

An alternative model of syntax based on the idea that notions like subject, direct object, and indirect object play a primary role in grammar.

Government and binding / Principles and parameters theory (1981–1990)

Chomsky's Lectures on Government and Binding (1981) and Barriers (1986).

Minimalist program (1990–present)

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