I’m looking for information about the linguists and/or researchers from before the 1970s who at the time believed that vocabulary and grammar should be taught as two completely separate entities, that these two were not at all dependent on each other.

I know that this belief started to change during the 1970s, but that’s all I know about the shift, so I would like to know more about the linguists who believed that vocabulary and grammar were unconnected so that I can better understand their point of view and then what happened to change prevailing opinion about this in the linguistic community.

If anyone can tell me names of these linguists or references to their works that would account for them, that would be great, and I’ll go figure it out myself. If anybody knows the actual reasoning here and can provide that as a concrete answer, that would be even better.

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    ‘At a time when few linguists, other than lexicographers themselves, devoted much attention to the study of lexis, and outlines of linguistics often contained little reference to dictionaries or other methods in lexicology, J.R. Firth repeatedly stressed the importance of lexical studies in descriptive linguistics. He did not accept the equation of lexical' with semantic', and he showed that it was both possible and useful to make formal statements about lexical items and their relations.’ (Halliday 1966:148). Lexis was being recognised as an autonomous level of language.
    – Mr. Black
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 21:11
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    That 1966 paper by Halliday was called, significantly, Lexis as a Linguistic Level. And in the same collection of papers was one by Sinclair, entitled Beginning the Study of Lexis. It is interesting to note that Sinclair, writing in 1970 (Sinclair et al 1970/2004:3), still feels that Halliday has not yet sufficiently accommodated lexis, and refers to ‘Halliday (1961), where lexis was assigned the role of picking up the scraps from the tables of syntax’. philseflsupport.com/grammarnlexis.htm
    – Mr. Black
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 21:12
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    This was a starting assumption for early Generative Grammar: the model had a base component with some basic sentence structures, then transformations would be applied to get a wider variety of structures, then would come lexical insertion, when you could get different words. See Chomsky's (1965) Aspects of the theory of Syntax and subsequent commentary. Also consider earlier texts by Bloomfield and Sapir (both called Language) for theories of Language prior to Chomsky's.
    – user483
    Commented Nov 12, 2016 at 1:40

1 Answer 1


I don't know how to understand your term "lexis" -- does it mean "vocabulary", or "morphology"? I don't know who could have ever thought that "vocabulary and grammar were unconnected". How could anyone say anything without both knowing some words and how to put them together to make grammatical phrases? You can't have grammar without vocabulary, any more than you can have molecules without atoms, or portfolios without stocks.

There is a way to interpret a part of your question that interests me, so that's why I decided to attempt an answer. In the traditional view of language structure, grammars and dictionaries look different. Grammars describe phrases and dictionaries describe words. It is not obvious that we need to distinguish the kinds of items in a grammar from the kinds of items in a dictionary. A context free grammar (CFG) as described by Chomsky back in the 50s can describe the patterns of phrases and the categories of words in a uniform way.

For instance, the phrase structure rule "S -> NP-subj watches NP-obj" describes both "watches" as a word that combines a subject on its left and an object on its right to create an S, and at the same time the rule describes a sentence type in English consisting of a subject followed by a specific word, then an object.

It is not necessary to suppose that there are two books, one with an entry describing a transitive structure as a grammatical sentence type of English, and another book listing "watches" as one of the transitive verbs of English. There's just one book.

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