Is the basic architecture of the minimalist program, with its numeration and various interfaces, meant to model how language is comprehended or how it is generated? Or is it supposed to be abstract enough to cover both? Since the numeration is unordered, I tend to think it's supposed to be generation, since comprehension involves pre-formed strings, but my fellow student disagrees.

3 Answers 3


Not exactly the most orthodox source, but I find Johnson & Lappin's (1997) synopsis concise and easy to follow for non-practitioners. As they explain,

...on the MP, a sentence is grammatical iff it is assigned a well-formed (convergent) PF and LF via some derivation D, but a derivation D is well-formed iff it satisfies all the constraints and is most highly valued by the economy metric with respect to a set of competing convergent derivations (its "reference set"). (275--6)

So derivations, subject to grammaticality constraints and global conditions, create pairs of representations. MP then models how sets of lexical items are converted to representations. If it were a model of comprehension, it would model how PF representations are converted to LF representations. If it were a model of production, it would be the other way around. Since it is neither, the answer must be "abstract enough to cover both."


The question relates to Chomsky's competence/performance distinction, which can be a little difficult to grasp. (see the discussion in Aspects of the theory of syntax). Your question seems to presuppose that MP relates to performance, i.e. actual language use. Minimalism is not intended to be an account of the generator/parser, but rather it is intended to be a competence grammar - it models an ideal speaker/hearer's knowledge of language while abstracting away from actual language use (although, naturally, evidence on which a competence grammar is based can only be inferred from actual use).

A minimalist model of the grammar can be used as the basis for a parser or generator - adapting it for a generator would be fairly straight-forward, as derivations proceed 'from the bottom up'. This is probably the basis of your intuition.

  • Yes, derivations are where I get my idea of generation/comprehension. It seems like making a derivation at all would have to imply either hearing a word to add to the structure, or adding a word to the structure while in the process of generating a sentence.
    – Nate Glenn
    Aug 8, 2013 at 0:49
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    A derivation is NOT taken to imply "hearing a word" or "the process of generating a sentence". A derivation can be defined purely mathematically - it is an object in a competence grammar intended to reflect the knowledge structure of an idealised speaker-hearer. Ideally, the operations of the generator would relate fairly straightforwardly to the steps in a derivation, but this might not be, and probably isn't the case. When we talk about derivations in the MP, remember we abstract away from actual language use. I appreciate how counter-intuitive that may seem!
    – P Elliott
    Aug 8, 2013 at 1:00
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    One more small point: You remark in your question that "Since the numeration is unordered, I tend to think it's supposed to be generation". The fact that the numeration is given from the beginning makes it very clear that this emphatically isn't a model of the generator. The idea that we decide in advance which set of words we're going to use before generating a sentence is psychologically completely implausible.
    – P Elliott
    Aug 8, 2013 at 1:05
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    I'm glad you appreciate how difficult that is! I think that I should be thinking of this kind of theory as just categorizing sentences as grammatical or ungrammatical as defined by this mathematical structure, which represents this idealized knowledge.
    – Nate Glenn
    Aug 8, 2013 at 5:27
  • That's exactly the right way to think about it!
    – P Elliott
    Aug 8, 2013 at 11:26

Minimal Program is not to construct a grammar,rather it concerns what Chomsky calls the third factor,that is why linguistic theories do have these principles ,not others.

  • Thanks for your input! Could say a little more about the third factor? That would make your answer easier to follow for those less familiar with the topic.
    – robert
    Aug 6, 2013 at 0:22
  • @robert,you know linguitic theories have many principles,but all principle,like the theory of Chomsky's Parameter and Principle,government and binding.Why the linguistics chooses such principles not others?This is the third factor.And if I have not misunderstood Chomsky,he take computational complexity into account as one reason or causes Aug 6, 2013 at 1:01

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