I am trying to understand the first sentence of Wikipedia's page on generative grammar:

Generative grammar is a linguistic theory that regards grammar as a system of rules that generates exactly those combinations of words that form grammatical sentences in a given language.

I have read this sentence a thousand times and find it completely impenetrable. (I read: "Generative grammar is a linguistic theory that regards grammar as [tautological definition of grammar].")

Maybe I have missed the joke. But is there actually any refutable "theory" known as generative grammar? Or is "generative grammar" really more of a paradigm/an approach to analysis?

If "generative grammar" is a theory in the strict sense, what is its claim, and what might be a counterclaim?


What does "generative" mean? Can a linguistic theory be non-generative?

What are some alternatives to Chomskian generative grammar?

  • In light of the fact that you found those questions and answers, it's not clear what more you could be asking for. If you're asking about Popperian refutationism, I think that would have the problem that there's a difference between Popper's words and people's interpretations of Popper which would equally yield the answers "Yes" and "No". There is no "strict sense" of the concept of theory, but maybe you could elaborate on what you mean and might get something besides polemical rehashes. For example, give us exemplars of things that are clearly not theories (in linguistics or anything else). – user6726 Sep 12 '17 at 21:22
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    Alternatively, are you simply asking for an explanation of the Wiki sentence (or some similar statement)? – user6726 Sep 12 '17 at 21:30
  • @user6726 Maybe the latter... I'm aware that the definition of "theory" is a problem for my question, but at a really basic level, I just want to know if generative grammar is closer to a hypothesis or to a ~paradigm (for lack of a better word) – SAH Sep 12 '17 at 22:54
  • @user6726 Otherwise, I'm interested in whether and how one could complete the sentence "Generative grammar is the theory that..." in a more clear way – SAH Sep 12 '17 at 22:55

My impression is that generative grammar is viewed by some grammarians as a Lakotosian 'research program(me)', not as a 'refutable "theory"'. I am not a generative grammarian (or any kind of grammarian), but I read the Generativist blog "Faculty of Language", whose contributor Norbert Hornstein has made references to a "research program" in various posts (e.g. "How I See The Minimalist Project", "The wildly successful minimalist program", "A (shortish) Whig history of Generative Grammar (part 1)"). Obviously Hornstein is one particular person, and has his own invidual biases (probably evident from just the title of these posts), but that is my impression. Hopefully someone more knowledgeable about Generative Grammar will post a more enlightening answer!


'Generative Grammar' is an ill defined term. You will find linguists using it to mean 'Chomskian Grammar', and linguist who think it can also refer to certain construction grammars. You mention that

a system of rules that generates exactly those combinations of words that form grammatical sentences in a given language.

is the definition of grammar. But this is not the case. There are two kinds of grammatical theory, generative enumerative (which fit this definition), and model theoretic. Model theoretic approaches to grammar do not postulate rules which build grammatical structure, but rather constraints.


It's an approach, not a theory (IMO, naturally). In Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (where "generative grammar" was first given currency, Chomsky likens the relationship of a grammar to the sentences it describes to algebraic expressions and the graphical figures they trace out, or "generate", in analytic geometry. Hence the term "generative". Chomsky's own summary of the term's force is that a generative theory is one that is explicit (as analytic geometry or, e.g., context free phrase structure grammar are explicit).

In this original understanding of "generative", there can be many different generative theories of language(s), so generative grammar is a kind of theory, not a specific theory.

However, I have noticed that the term is often not used in Chomsky's sense, by people who don't know enough about linguistics to know that there have been various generative theories of language, and who are presumably using "generative grammar" to refer to the one theory they know about (which is not necessarily even generative).

  • Could you explicate your "explicit" a bit for me? I'm a beginner--thanks! – SAH Sep 12 '17 at 23:01
  • Like what would a non-explicit grammar or grammatical theory be? – SAH Sep 12 '17 at 23:02
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    @SAH, That is a difficult matter. Approximately, "explicit" is like mathematics. Or better, formalism in mathematics, logic, and other analytic theories. Look at Haskell Curry's Foundations of Mathematical Logic and, much less technical, Walter R. Fuchs Mathematics for the Modern Mind (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Robert_Fuchs.) – Greg Lee Sep 12 '17 at 23:24
  • thanks, what might be an example of a non-explicit grammar then? – SAH Sep 14 '17 at 5:49
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    @SAH, Relying again on Chomsky's formulation, traditional grammar is inexplicit, because it deals only with describing constructions which cause problems for human speakers, leaving aside the part of natural language which makes no difficulties for human speaker-hearers. – Greg Lee Sep 14 '17 at 10:46

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