I'm a (mostly) self-taught linguist. I was always interested in syntax so I started with Carnie's (2013) Syntax: A generative introduction + few interviews with Chomsky (where I got the general idea of the philosophy behind his research and learned about PoS argument). First I was satisfied with the contents of the book, but after g oogling and reading this and that for about a year I started to question literally every possible explanation of various phenomena ( e.g. why movement in the first place? why autonomous syntax? etc.)

This made me read a few more papers and a couple of books, along with a very good blog Faculty of Language. I needed historical background, knowledge ABOUT the methodology used in modern syntax research and a lot more stuff. This is where it got really serious and hard. I also encountered a lot of irrelevant work and wasted some time.

By now I've studied enough to figure out the most influential works but few years ago I knew nothing about them. So I wonder if there is a such a list of titles one could recommend to any beginner, and, even better, an ordered list so that the beginner doesn't get confused with terminology in different theories (e.g. since ST - GB - MP of the generative enterprise are pretty different). I'd like to know other people's ideas.

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    I understand that you've expressed an interest in syntax; I don't understand what question you want answered. Can you clarify? Are you asking for the most influential works in syntax? Or do you just want people to post their personal favorites, in which case there are no good answers or bad answers.
    – user6726
    Oct 26, 2015 at 19:34
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    Asking for recommendations goes against the Stack Exchange model sorry. Questions should aim to be objectively and conclusively answered, but this cannot.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 27, 2015 at 0:08
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    We could put it like this - the ultimate guide that takes you from zero to a graduate level in a fastest way (and limit ourselves to GG) Oct 27, 2015 at 8:51
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    To the OP, I wrote an answer a while back recommending some generative texts. I think Core Syntax by Adger would be ideal for you. However, do buy the book instead of downloading from research gate. The latter version is riddled with typos.
    – Ink
    Oct 27, 2015 at 20:50
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    p. 4: "A grammar of a language purports to be a description of the ideal speaker-hearer's intrinsic competence. If the grammar is, furthermore, perfectly explicit -- in other words, if it does not rely on the intelligence of the understanding reader but rather provides an explicit analysis of his contribution --- we may (somewhat redundantly) call it a generative grammar".
    – user6726
    Oct 27, 2015 at 23:55

4 Answers 4


I agree with Greg Lee that McCawley is the place to go for the canonical generative treatment of English syntax and that GPSG is the generative counterpart to that. However, things have moved on since then. I would further recommend looking into Unification Grammars (which is very much at the heart of minimalism under a different name) and Construction Grammars.

For the former, I recommend starting with Ivan Sag et al.'s Unification and Grammatical Theory. And my personal bible on construction grammar is William Croft's Radical Construction Grammar: Syntactic Theory in Typological Perspective but Adele Goldberg's Constructions are also a good introduction. Of course, Fillmore's work on this was very foundational and elucidates the initial motivations behind the construction movement. Croft does a very good job in the introductory chapter of setting out the construction grammar space and its relationship to kindred frameworks such as the Lexical Functional Grammar.

What you will find with construction grammar is that many of the problems that the generativist frameworks deal with simply disappear as syntax and semantics are brought closer together. I think Langacker is the best author in this respect.

However, you should also not skip dependency grammars if you want to get a comprehensive view of syntactic theory. The work of Sgall and Hajicova (full disclosure - both were my teachers) has been leading the way in recent decades (e.g. with this recent publication). This work will also highlight the importance of information structure or topic-focus articulation (something none of the other frameworks are concerned with - except perhaps in a round about way construction grammar).

This is still a very selective overview, there are dozens of grammatical frameworks within these broad trends: generative (constituency), generative (dependency), constructional. With many more cutting across such as unification or information structure. You could spend a lifetime cataloging them. But I think the reading list above might give you a sense of the scope of the project.

Tim Osborne reminded me in the comments that Lucien Tesniere's "Elements of Structural Syntax" is now available in English translation, so that should definitely go on the list. He is the foundation on which all later dependency grammar frameworks explicitly build.

This also reminded me that Jan Firbas' Functional Sentence Perspective in Written and Spoken Communication would make for a great introduction to information structure.

  • I am happy to see a recommendation to have a look at dependency grammars. But if one is going to recommend a book on dependency syntax, it should be Lucien Tensiere's "Elements of Structural Syntax" (1959/2015) (full disclosure, I translated it to English). Oct 27, 2015 at 8:06
  • Funnily enough, I was debating whether to put Tesniere on the list but was not sure if there was much in English by him. He was certainly high on our reading list when we were taught dependency grammar. I've now updated the recommendation. Oct 27, 2015 at 8:30
  • According to your reference Unification and Grammatical Theory, GPSG is a unification grammar. So this is not exactly "moving on" from GPSG. It's an attempt to construct an umbrella for contemporary non-transformational theories of syntax.
    – Greg Lee
    Oct 30, 2015 at 22:01
  • You are right GPSG was a broadly unificationist framework. When I think of unification, I think mostly of the more lexical approaches like HPSG or UCG. Perhaps in a technical sense, I was clumsy in the wording, but in all other respects I can hardly think of a better epithet to GPSG than 'things have moved on'. Oct 31, 2015 at 7:27
  • Regarding topic-focus articulation: According to many analyses, topic/focus appear to be an overt (postposition-marked) feature of Japanese. Do you know whether someone has tried to discuss Japanese topics from a dependency-grammar perspective? Sep 3, 2016 at 10:45

I recommend The Syntactic Phenomena of English by James McCawley. It's the best book on syntax I've ever read, and I used it at least twice for intermediate level courses on syntax. It's a book for grown-ups, and it's about doing syntax, not about methodology or syntactic theory. (There is theory there, which I don't much agree with, personally, but it doesn't matter.)

You're certainly right to question whether there is syntactic movement. I don't think there is (despite my above recommendation). You might want to look at Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar, which reconstructs the main parts of the transformational analysis of English without appeal to syntactic movement. That is also a book for grown-ups.

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    I agree with Greg's recommendations. And for history, try The Linguistics Wars, by Randy Allen Harris.
    – jlawler
    Oct 27, 2015 at 0:21
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    What about dependency grammars? Dependency-based syntax represents a much different way of doing syntax, and yet most theoretical linguists who do phrase structure grammar overlook dependency syntax. McCawley (1997), for instance, only mentions dependency syntax in passing, and Gazdar et al.'s book on Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar does not mention dependency syntax (at least it's not listed in the index). See my comment further below. Oct 27, 2015 at 8:03
  • I don't think dependency grammar is different at all. One of the very early results in the study of context free grammar was a proof that dependency grammar is just another equivalent to context free phrase structure grammar. Notations are often mistaken for theories in linguistics. This is why McCawley and Gazdar et al. don't bother with it. (McCawley does discuss the notion head, and a feature Head is used in GPSG.)
    – Greg Lee
    Oct 27, 2015 at 14:17
  • My experience is that those who have not spent much time learning dependency syntax make statements like that. Dependency syntax limits the number of nodes in the structure to the number of elements (words) in the string at hand. This is a major limitation on how one understands and explores syntax. The dependency structures are much flatter than in most versions of constituency syntax. C-command as it it is commonly understood is, for instance, not available in dependency syntax. The layered (i.e. tall) structures that are common in constituency syntax are not available. Oct 28, 2015 at 0:38
  • @TimOsborne, did Tesniere really say this about limiting the number of nodes? I don't recall that. If he did, how does this bear on what I said about dependency grammar being provably equivalent to context free grammar?
    – Greg Lee
    Oct 28, 2015 at 1:09

Since you have become sceptical about the Chomskian syntax, you may be interested in constructionist approaches to grammar. Two books I can recommend are Cognitive Grammar by John R. Taylor and Constructions at work by Adele Goldberg. William Croft's Radical Construction Grammar is another important work on this topic.

Note that different books use different terminology, what Goldberg calls a construction is more or less an equivalent of Cognitive Grammar's symbolic unit. But all in all they are very similar; there is a bit of discussion of the differences between constructionist approaches at the end of Goldberg's book.


Learn some formal language theory via Sipser's Intro to the Theory of Computation. Having the background will be useful when dealing with Minimalist Grammars and their parsers.

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