Where did generative semantics go wrong? Why was their conception of language faulty?

What were the main weaknesses of generative semantics adherents' claim that "a grammar starts with a description of meaning of the sentence and then generates syntactical rules through introduction of syntactical rules and lexical rules?

  • No offence, but this really looks like homework. And even if it's not, you should show that you made some efforts to answer the question yourself when posting here.
    – robert
    Feb 22, 2015 at 11:50
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    The major reason for the lack of interest in GS was that MIT and its branch offices produced a large number of similarly-indoctrinated PhDs over a short period of time, far more than McCawley, Lakoff, Postal, or their students did. See Huck and Goldsmith, 1995, Routledge: Ideology and Linguistic Theory – Noam Chomsky and the Deep Structure Debates for the demographic details. Feb 23, 2015 at 2:02
  • Who says it went "wrong"? It may not be very popular, but I don't think anyone can say it is definitively "wrong".
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 23, 2015 at 4:20

2 Answers 2


Well, it was transformations. In generative semantics, transformations are/were taken to mediate between logical form and speech. The problem was, there turned out not to be any transformations. So much for that idea, then.

Probably amongst you all there are some readers who have not yet given up on TG. So I'll just say very briefly how I became disillusioned with transformations. It was Gerald Gazdar's account using phrase structure grammar of Ross's across-the-board condition for the coordinate structure constraint. That hardly even makes sense in TG (how can things move out of several places to wind up in just one place?), while it's predicted in Gazdar's treatment from the condition on coordination that only like categories can be conjoined.

I'm very fond of McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English, and I think McCawley was headed in a good direction when he formulated the purpose of transformations as fitting conceptual structures into the templates that permit them to be pronounced in the way we humans have learned to do. It's just that the transformations don't work. Just look at that the very strange way Conjunction Reduction has to apply so as to yield structures that could have been produced directly by phrase structure rules. It's awful.

  • Only if you assume that everybody has the same transformations. I think it's clear that not everybody does, and that everybody makes their own set of tools and gets used to them; same as phonology. Then we all try to pass as speakers of the same language, which means the details -- and invariably, the internal organization -- are different, but in general agreement is achieved. The role of transformations is to be semantactic "roots" that link together simple forms with complex ones. They represent nothing that "works" in the algorithmic sense, but rather something like Levin's verb classes. Feb 23, 2015 at 1:21
  • @johnlawlerinexile. I don't assume that everybody has the same transformations. Where did you get the idea that I did? But I don't see what problem it solves to suppose people's transformations are all different, except I suppose it might make it more difficult to tell whether there are any transformations. I hope that's not where you're headed with this.
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 23, 2015 at 1:46
  • No, it just means that I see a role for rules of the traditional kind, like Equi and Conjunction Reduction (which, I grant you, is not a well-formalized concept); I don't see much use for such detailed formalization, however. The only excuses I've ever seen advanced for formalization are either (a) machine-washable algorithms and truth functions; or (b) being able to prove theorems via consistent mathematics. But (a) nobody doing CL/NLP uses formal linguistic models; and (b) nobody ever proves semantic or syntactic theorems. I'm more interested in etic syntax. Feb 23, 2015 at 1:51
  • BTw, greg, Sorry to have misrepresented you. I don't insist. But I'm still pretty much going in the direction Jim was; I reviewed the book for UC Press. I'm probly the reason why there's a chapter on negation in the second edition. Feb 23, 2015 at 1:54
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    Whatever floats (or doesn't) your boat. I don't believe in derivations any more than I do in double-entry bookkeeping; they're both just ways of keeping accounts balanced. Feb 23, 2015 at 17:30

I think "going wrong" is probably not a good way to characterize the development of Generative Semantics. What happened is that it's various proponents went in different directions - neither Ross, McCawley nor Postal were interested in pursuing the programmatic work and spent the rest of their careers on more wide ranging contributions but ultimately partial to the study of language.

George Lakoff never really abandoned the Generative Semantic program of putting meaning at the center of linguistic inquiry but left the generative, formal linguistic approach. His assessment of Generative Semantics (which can be found most clearly in 'Women, Fire and Dangerous Things') is that it was making unwarranted assumptions about meaning as being subject to formal mechanisms contained in mathematical logic - which Lakoff calls 'objectivism'. Lakoff rejected that in favor of an enriched version of 'frame semantics' having also jettisoned formal syntax in favor of construction/cognitive grammar. So you can say that generative semantics simply evolved into 'cognitive grammar'.

If you look at some of Lakoff's writing from the early 1970s (e.g. hedges), you can see a clear continuity of his overall program in the things he's concerned with.

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