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The Comparison of Grammars in Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures Theory

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The Definition of Syntax

According to Chomsky “syntax is the study of the principles and processes by which sentences are constructed in particular languages”. The syntactic theory is aiming to depict how people create sentences by combining words, concerned with the speaker’s knowledge of how to form sentences and how they obtain that knowledge. Both in spoken and signed languages, the speaker uses words and morphemes to create infinite set of sentences, which allows the speaker to express and understand sentences which may have never been uttered before. The construction of grammar functions as a device for producing sentences under analysis. Fromkin later proposed that “the rules of syntax combine words into phrases and phrases into sentences”, it means that syntax seeks to define the relationship between particular words and their arrangements.

Syntactic Grammars

Syntactic theory is often known as generative grammar as the speaker of a language should be able to generate all the grammatically correct sentences of the given language. Generative linguists states that the number of sentences produced in a language can potentially be infinite. On the basis of finite set of rules and words, infinite number of sentences can be uttered. A native speaker has the ability to produce grammatically well-formed sentences without knowing any rules.

Research on language acquisition has shown that children know much of the grammar of their language before they are old enough to understand explicit instruction about grammar, this theory is called universal grammar. According to this theory, certain grammatical rules are already in the human brain regardless of the language.

Transformational grammar is a device for generating sentences in a language. it generates only the well-formed or grammatically correct sentences of a language since it is meant to create the rules and principles which are in the mind of a native speaker. Chomsky believed that grammar has recursive rules allowing one to generate grammatically correct sentences over and over. Transformational process of the syntactic structures according to Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar can be summarised by adding, deleting, moving, and substituting words. These changes take place through specific rules, which are called transformational rules.

Chomsky has argued that general principles involving such common-sense notions do not even begin to provide deductions of the required sort. He has suggested that this deductive gap points to the existence of a set of genetically determined mental predispositions which play a critical role in determining the mature intuitions that result from a given body of early experiences. He has used the term universal grammar to refer to the field of inquiry whose object is to discover the nature of these innate predispositions.

Despite the central place that this concern with language acquisition occupies among the goals of Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, the literature in generative grammar and the related literature in psycholinguistics exhibit surprisingly few indications of any concrete understanding of either the projection problem itself or the precise manner in which a theory constructed in accordance with the Aspects program might solve it. A primary negative consequence for linguistic theory has been that a rich source of empirical evidence has not been applied to the resolution of disputed issues. There have also been negative consequences for the work of psycholinguists.

On one hand, the potential significance of a good linguistic theory for a solution to the projection problem has been underestimated. On the other hand, particular prevailing views in linguistic theory and in the description of individual languages have tended to be accepted uncritically as characterizations of the end result of the language acquisition process.


  • Chomsky, Noam. Syntactic Structures. Martino, 1957, pp. 1.
  • Fromkin, Victoria, et al. An Introduction to Language. Cengage, 1998, pp. 77-129.
  • Judit Górász, and Borbála Richter. “Up to the Linguistic Pyramid: Syntax.” First Steps in Theoretical and Applied Linguistic, Bölcsész Konzorcium, 2006, pp. 47–60.
  • Peters, S. (1972) ‘The Projection Problem: How Is a Grammar to Be Selected?’ in S. Peters, ed., Goals of Linguistic Theory, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. 

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