What are the other common approaches to study syntax?

Note: the source is an example question from the on-topic question list in Area51.

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    As a quick sidenote, MIT teaches a course every other year on different approaches to syntax, and they have lecture notes and readings up on their website: ocw.mit.edu/courses/linguistics-and-philosophy/… and stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/fa09/24.960/index.html (I've never looked at them, though, so I don't know how good they are.)
    – grautur
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 16:13
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    I believe that is the course commonly referred to as "bad guys", so keep that in mind when reading these. ;)
    – Alan H.
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 23:58
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    On the one hand, things should indeed be read with the author and the intended audience in mind. On the other hand, any academic department is going to go through changes in 30 years, so keep that in mind when reading comments like Alan H's.
    – Aerlinthe
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 14:02
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-bar_theory would be a step back, right?
    – Anno2001
    Commented Nov 3, 2012 at 20:10
  • The question may be broed, but it is clearly on the topic of linguistics and it has sparked several good answers. Therefore I see no reason to close it now. Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 17:58

8 Answers 8


If you want to go in depth, check the links. To name a few:

  1. Cognitive Grammar developed by Ronald Langacker.
  2. Construction Grammar (CxG): "CxG is typically associated with Cognitive Linguistics, partly because many of the linguists that are involved in CxG are also involved in Cognitive Linguistics, and partly because CxG and Cognitive Linguistics share many theoretical and philosophical foundations."
  3. Cognitive Linguistics: "Cognitive linguists deny that the mind has any module for language-acquisition that is unique and autonomous. This stands in contrast to the stance adopted in the field of generative grammar."

Don’t forget the “no particular approach” approach.

Haspelmath: “If there are no frameworks, then what should I teach my students in syntax classes? My answer is: The best syntax class is a field methods course, and the second best syntax class is a typology course.” - Framework-free grammatical theory.

  • Oooh, nice. Reminds me, need to get a hold of Dixon's BLT-books (it's a sandwich! it's Basic Linguistic Theory!) one of these days.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 20:30
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    I disagree with Martin Haspelmath. There is no such thing as "framework-free" analysis or linguistics. In the paper you mentioned he says that "grammatical descriptions must make use of abstract general entities such as rules, schemas and constraints". I wonder how he establishes those "abstract" general entities in a framework-free approach.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 23:24
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    It's true that no approach is "framework-free," but it has been argued that descriptive theories and explanatory theories need not be one and the same. In fact, one such argument can be found here: linguistics.buffalo.edu/people/faculty/dryer/dryer/… Commented Sep 16, 2013 at 18:33
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    I think what Haspelmath is implying is a more bottom-up (i.e. empirical and inductive) approach to language description. Of course, we can never completely abandon models ("language" or "sentence" are abstractions themselves), but at least we can try to get closer to the linguistic elements themselves, instead of starting with a high-level framework. Haspelmath explained his approach more in depth in other papers, but my favourite discussion is the one used by Lazard (2002)
    – Fryie
    Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 15:25

You may want to check out Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar, which is a non-derivational generative grammar, developed at Stanford beginning in 1987.

See: Pollard, Carl; Ivan A. Sag. (1994). Head-driven phrase structure grammar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


and many many more.

I will add that in NLP/CL circles, Chomsky's approaches (Principles & Parameters, Minimalist Program) seem to be mentioned only for historical reasons. Chomsky's approaches have been superseded and seem to have been almost completely abandoned. Though dependencies are not exactly a grammar formalism, they seem to be far more commonly used than all of the above in NLP/CL circles. Having said that, I believe that many psycholinguists still use Chomsky's systems for their work.

  • Do you have any ideas on which is more important or more widespread, and in comparison to Chomskyan PSG?
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 16:16
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    I'm not sure what would give the idea that TAG (Tree Adjoining Grammar) is not Chomskyan. It is a different tree structure and derivation process than the structures Chomsky and his collaborators have used in their papers, true. But it relies on the same core idea as much of his work: a mathematically formal system in the mind, specific movement and adjunction operators, etc. Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 18:37
  • LExical Functional Grammar (LFG) is often used in computational linguistics because it has multiple interfaces that work nicely from a programing perspective. Also, LFG is "non-Chomskyan" in that Joan Bresnan (one of the original architects of LFG) was a student of Chomsky's back in the 70s and much of LFG comes out of her disagreements with his position.
    – LaurenG
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 22:13
  • I think HPSG is probably the most common formalism besides principles and parameters/minimalism.
    – Alan H.
    Commented Sep 15, 2011 at 0:01
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    Principles & Parameters/Minimalism is certainly not dominant in NLP/CL circles, but not absent either. Have a look, for example, at the work of UCLA's Ed Stabler and Sandiway Fong of the University of Arizona.
    – pensator
    Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 13:12

Role and Reference Grammar

Briefly, from Wikipedia:

In RRG, the description of a sentence in a particular language is formulated in terms of (a) its logical (semantic) structure and communicative functions, and (b) the grammatical procedures that are available in the language for the expression of these meanings.


Automodular Grammar (Sorry, no Wikipedia page)

A framework by Jerrold Sadock in which each module of language (Syntax, Semantics, Morphology, etc.) is completely independent of the others.


There are formalized dependency-based grammars, such as Meaning-Text Theory or Functional Generative Description. A simple Google search will give you links to papers and books.


AUG - Applicative universal grammar, by Shauman. It somewhat mix of chomsky ideas with semiotic approach.

  • 4
    Welcome to Linguistics.SE! We're looking for long answers that provide some references, explanation, and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 11:04

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