My name is Antonio, and I'm an undergraduate student at one of the many colleges that are focusing on language. I'm mainly studying the English language, and this is my first year of studying concepts of modern grammar. And I'm lost. I'm not looking for compassion, as my situation is not to be pitied, for I know I have to study more, read more, analyse more, I have, in fact, to work more toward understanding this rather sophisticated grammar. The problem is that I don't know where to start.

Now, I'm not very good with grammar, with traditional grammar. Perhaps my deficiences regarding transformational generative grammar are due my poor, shallow study of this very traditional grammar.

I want to start building a base of knowledge, and from there to add more on as I'm moving through the study of grammar. Having said these, I'm bound to ask for some recommendations of books, or other publications, that could help a person that encounters generative grammar (in a sense Chomsky conceived it, for he's my main interest in my studies at college) for the first time. What texts would you recommend to start with? Some introductions, anything? I've so far pored over ''Introduction to the Theory of Grammar'' by Henk van Riemsdijk, a book from which I've learned about other books that can server as introductory ones, namely ''Modern Linguistics'' by Neil Smith, ''Linguistics'' by Adrian Akmajion'' and ''Introduction to Generative-transformational Syntax'' by C.L. Baker.

I have yet to read these books, which I will looking for, and I am curious what other sugestions might be? What are some fundamental readings? Some very good introduction studies that can initiate one for the study of generative grammar?

Thank you very much! This site is full of precious informatinons and I'm looking forward to activating on it.

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    As one who only started studying 'modern' grammar about four years ago, I recommend McCawley, The Syntactic Phenomena of English. It don't think it can be characterized as strictly Generative-Transformational' (McCawley's not wedded to any orthodoxy I can identify); but it's full of scores of valuable insights into English syntax, and more importantly it starts by teaching you how to think like a modern grammarian. --And it is beautifully written, a model of clarity and grace. Jan 14, 2017 at 20:34
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    Yes, McCawley's book is very good. Even, I'd say, the best. It is not much like Chomsky's original theory, but neither are Chomsky's more recent views.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 15, 2017 at 0:20
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    Agreed. It's the best. You can check part of it out at Google books.
    – jlawler
    Jan 15, 2017 at 3:17

1 Answer 1


If your aim is to understand modern Chomskian syntax, in the sense of work produced between the original presentation of the 'minimalist programme' in 1992 and Chomsky's latest published technical work on the matter, dated about ten years ago, McCawley's book (or C.L. Baker's, or A. Akmajian's, or N. Smith's, all of which you refer to) will not help you at all. They are all excellent textbooks on syntax and on the early development of TGG, but appeared long before the minimalist programme was conceived (and positively 'destroyed' much of the theoretical basis of previous transformational generative grammar).

I would recommend you to, instead, read, first, Andrew Radford's Syntactic theory and the structure of English (Cambridge UP, 1997) and the same author's Minimalist Syntax. Exploring the structure of English (Cambridge UP, 2004), two excellent and detail-rich textbooks (with glossary and exercises), then a very different earlier book by Juan Uriagereka, Rhyme and Reason. An Introduction to Minimalist Syntax (MIT Press, 1998), which offers a comprehensive account of both the minimalist philosophy in the context of general science and most of its technical apparatus at the time, then, Howard Lasnik's Minimalist Analysis (Blackwell, 1999), Norbert Hornstein's Move. A Minimalist Theory of Construal (Blackwell, 2001), Liliane Haegeman's Thinking Syntactically. A Guide to argumentation and analysis (Blackwell Publishing, 2006), and, in no particular order, Howard Lasnik & Cedric Boeckx's A Course in Minimalist Syntax (Blackwell Publishing, 2005), Cedric Boeck's Understanding Minimalist Syntax (Blackwell Publishing 2008), and, to gain a wider perspective on 'biolinguistics' - apart from Uriagereka's already cited early Rhyme and Reason - Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, J. Uriagereka & P. Salaburu's Of Minds and Language. A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky and Chomsky's recent video lectures on YouTube. At that stage, you could perhaps go 'backwards' and read Chomsky's own technical papers in The Minimalist Program (MIT Press, 1995, especially chapter 4), his papers on semantics and the philosophy of language in New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (Cambridge UP, 2000), and his last major technical papers, 'Minimalist Inquiries. The Framework' (MIT Occasional Papers in Linguistics 15, 1998), 'Derivation by phase' (MIT Occasional Papers in Linguistics, 18, 1999), 'Beyond explanatory adequacy' (MIT Occasional Papers in Linguistics, 20, 2001),'Three factors in language design' (Linguistic Inquiry 56.1 (2005):1-22) and his paper 'On Phases' (initially 2005). [All the latter papers - except the LI one - preliminarily published in MITOPL, have since been republished as book chapters in later compilations, but, as far as I can tell, with no significant revision, so it's not worth your while to spend two hundred dollars or so to buy the 'definitive' versions].

Reading just that will give you a sound technical basis to tackle the thousands of broadly minimalist papers and monographs that have appeared in the last two and a half decades. As far as I know, no major theoretical breakthrough has occurred in 'minimalist syntax' since about 2008. On the contrary - as I extensively argued elsewhere - with the adoption of 'just-recursion' and 'no tampering' as the core principles of the Language Faculty (as now understood), Chomsky's 'minimalist programme' has virtually reduced his initially ambitious and interesting view of the Human Language Faculty to near emptiness. The 'real action' from about 2008 onwards has been taking place, to my knowledge, in cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, brain science,..., but not really in Linguistics, something you should perhaps consider very carefully if you are about to start an academic career as a linguist.

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    Re 'The "real action" from about 2008 onwards has been taking place, to my knowledge, in cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, brain science': I can't agree with that. There's much progress in typology and diachronic linguistics - in Tibeto-Burman morphosyntax, for example. Jan 15, 2017 at 10:27
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    And honestly, I'm a bit confused why your answer focused on minimalism. The OP didn't specifically mention minimalism, you aren't a big fan of minimalism yourself (if I recall correctly), and McCawley's book is likely better at teaching the OP to analyse syntax than books specifically about minimalism. Jan 15, 2017 at 10:43
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    I was obviously referring to developments within Chomskian linguistics as conceived within the minimalist programme, not to the whole field of linguistics, but the OP DID mention his special need to understand Chomskian linguistics (cf. paragraph 2) as presented in Van Riemsdijk's and the other books he refers to in his paragraph 3, which are books on Chomskian linguistics. It is your privilege to be 'confused' by my focusing on current Chomskian theory, but you needn´t be (not if you have read the books the OP cites). As to myself, I have spent a lifetime doing generative linguistics.
    – user6814
    Jan 15, 2017 at 11:43
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    @WavesWashSands "There's much progress in typology and diachronic linguistics." In the MP?!
    – Alex B.
    Jan 15, 2017 at 21:25
  • @AlexB. My reply was in response to his contrast of linguistics with other fields; the Tibeto-Burman work I was referring to is the stuff by people like Scott DeLancey. With that said, Ian Roberts is a name I hear a lot, and he does typology and diachronic syntax in the MP (though of course I'm not familiar with that literature). Jan 16, 2017 at 1:01

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