It is assumed that head movement is a syntactic operation formulated by the main framework that treats head movement as a PF operation (as suggested by Chomsky 2001) and not in the narrow syntax. Also seen Koopman (1984), Travis (1984), Chomsky (1986), and Baker (1988).

My question is to what extent PF operation could explain the different word orders existed in many languages worldwide. How is it better than flat VP structure?

  • It would be useful to actually reproduce the bibliography and not just the references, so we know what works you’re talking about.
    – jogloran
    Jul 17, 2023 at 14:15
  • 2
    Thanks! I will add more detail in the body text. It is quite an advanced and long debated question
    – Yili Xia
    Jul 19, 2023 at 1:28

2 Answers 2


You are comparing apples and oranges, though at least we remain in the realm of "syntax in linguistics". The question that you are raising makes sense in the Minimalist framework – it is an actual debate (see this and this). There is no "PF" or "Head Movement" in Relational Grammar, LFG or HPSG. There is no "flatter structure" in Minimalism. The Minimalist concept of "narrow syntax" is not to be compared with other theories of syntax, since Minimalism has bifurcated syntax, similar to how Lexical Phonology bifurcated phonology (into lexical vs postlexical phonology). So when Chomsky 1995 suggests that verb second word order is "formed by phonological operations", as a phonologist I can easily reject this statement because clearly this not not a phonological operation – but Chomsky uses words differently, so what he means by "phonology" is "not syntax and not semantics".

As that paper notes, head movement lacks semantic effect, and "violates well-established principles of narrow syntax: for instance, it goes against the Extension Condition and the head of the movement chain does not c-command its tail". You can object from an RG or HPSG perspective that these correlations are not mandatory (the claims are specific to Minimalism), but as I said so is "Head Movement". On the other hand, it is coherent to question the conclusion within Minimalism, so you could consider this.

  • 1
    thanks very much for the literature mentioned here. They are quite relevant to the question I am trying to ask.
    – Yili Xia
    Jul 24, 2023 at 7:23

I am out of my depths but I think it’s something like this.

I don’t know specific examples of flat VP structure grammars but I think dependency grammars might be considered “flatter” than X-bar theory. I don’t really know if there are people who still advocate dependency grammars.

I think X-bar theory has theoretical appeal partially with recourse to the classic idea of Occam’s razor, that it has theoretical simplicity and can account for more data with simpler structures, because in X-bar theory, all syntactic constituents have the same structure: a head and a complement (I think). There are just different types (NP, VP, etc.), but of the same template. I assume Chomsky claimed there was some cognitive-biological reason for this simple structure being at the foundation of language, but I don’t know.

Hierarchical syntactic treatments of verbs, where for example the VP is something like a verb and its complement, the complement respectively being a noun phrase, attempt to give a more general, cross-linguistic account of the syntactic nature of verbs, not restricted to the particularities of any one language, as I think a dependency grammar would - i.e., stuff as basic as SVO order, or subject-auxiliary inversion in English questions, or wh-fronting in English wh-questions - by making those “movement” rules on a higher level of the linguistic system (some of them phonological movement - they move position but still have a relationship, syntactically, to their heads or complements) - you can try to explain a widely present or universal structure that all human language has, and explain away differences in actually observed grammatical structures by movement on those higher levels. If you treat verb phrases more as “what you see is what you get” - that the surface level order is the type of grammar rules defining or dictating the language - you have a bunch of different rules for every language in the world, so more limited generalizable explainability (I think).

That’s the best of my current knowledge.

This looks like a great resource (partially) on this, I’d appreciate anyone filling me in on what I don’t know much about dependency grammars and their modern usage.

While this is not pedagogically helpful, I believe this excerpt from Chomsky’s Minimalist Program is discussing this idea: of exploring rules with higher levels of generality, but there sometimes being problems in doing so:

As for UG, the earliest versions assumed that it provided a format for rule systems and an evaluation metric that assigned a “value” to each generative procedure of the proper format. The crucial empirical condition on UG, then, is that the system provide only a few high-valued I-languages consistent with the kinds of data available to the child, perhaps only one. If UG is feasible in this sense, the fundamental problem (2b) can be addressed (Chomsky 1965). This approach recorded many achievements, but faced a fundamental and recurrent problem: the tension between descriptive and explanatory adequacy. To achieve descriptive adequacy, it seemed necessary to enrich the format of permissible systems, but in doing so we lose the property of feasibility, so that problem (2b) is still unresolved. The conflict arises as soon as we move from the intuitive hints and examples of traditional grammar to explicit generative procedures. It was quickly recognized that the problem is inherent in the kinds of rule systems that were being considered. The most plausible approach to it is to try to “factor out” overarching principles that govern rule application generally, assigning them to UG; the actual rules of grammar can then be given in the simplest form, with these principles ensuring that they will operate in such a way as to yield the observed phenomena in their full complexity (Chomsky 1964, Ross 1967). The limit that might be reached is that rules are eliminated entirely, the “apparent rules” being deduced from general principles of UG, in the sense that the interaction of the principles would yield the phe- nomena that the rules had been constructed to describe. To the extent that this result can be achieved, the rules postulated for particular languages will be shown to be epiphenomena.

(Chapter 1, p. 21)

This says in simpler language:

The original theories suggested that there was a universal grammar (UG) - a set of rules that could be applied to all languages.

The goal was to have a few, high-quality interpretations of language that could explain the data a child is exposed to when learning a language.

The problem was to fully describe a language (“descriptive adequacy”), we needed to add more rules, but this made grammars more complicated and even less “feasible”, or likely to be actual models of nature and the world (maybe) - “explanatory adequacy”.

The solution was to try and identify overarching principles that govern all languages.

These principles would be part of the UG, and the specific rules of each language would be simplified, with these principles ensuring they work in a way that explains the complexity of language phenomena.

The ultimate goal would be to eliminate the need for specific rules for each language entirely.

Instead, the interaction of the UG principles would explain the phenomena that the rules were initially created to describe.

This would mean that the specific rules for each language are just side effects of these universal principles.

  • 1
    I think Tim could help clarify your point.
    – Yili Xia
    Jul 18, 2023 at 14:28

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