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Analysing English Sentences provides a concise and clear introduction to current work in syntactic theory, drawing on the key concepts of Chomskys Minimalist Program. Assuming little or no prior knowledge of syntax or minimalism, Radford outlines the core concepts and leading ideas and how they can be used to describe various aspects of the syntax of English. A diverse range of topics is covered, including syntactic structure, null constituents, head movement, case and agreement and split projections. Using Radfords trademark approach and writing style, the book is intensive and progressive in nature, introducing grammatical concepts and working in stages towards more complex phenomena.
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Analysing English Sentences
Analysing English Sentences provides a concise and clear introduction
to current work in syntactic theory, drawing on the key concepts of
Chomsky’s Minimalist Program. Assuming little or no prior knowledge
of syntax or Minimalism, Radford outlines the core concepts and leading
ideas and how they can be used to describe various aspects of the syntax
of English. A diverse range of topics is covered, including syntactic
structure, null constituents, head movement, case and agreement, and
split projections. Using Radford’s trademark approach and writing style,
the book is intensive and progressive in nature, introducing grammatical
concepts and working in stages towards more complex phenomena.
a n d r e w r a d f o r d is Professor and Head of the Department of
Language and Linguistics at the University of Essex. His recent
publications include Minimalist Syntax: Exploring the Structure of
English (Cambridge, 2004) and English Syntax: An Introduction
(Cambridge, 2004).

Analysing English
A Minimalist Approach

University of Essex


Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo
Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK
Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title:
© Andrew Radford 2009
This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the
provision of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part
may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.
First published in print format 2009



eBook (EBL)







Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy
of urls for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publ; ication,
and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain,
accurate or appropriate.

This book is dedicated to my long-suffering wife
Khadija (who has had to put up with extended periods
of authorial autism) and to her family, who have
always spoiled me shamefully (and done their best to
indulge my every whim) whenever we visit Morocco.



page xi

1 Grammar
1.1 Overview
1.2 Traditional grammar: categories and functions
1.3 Universal Grammar
1.4 The Language Faculty
1.5 Principles of Universal Grammar
1.6 Parameters
1.7 Parameter setting
1.8 Summary
1.9 Bibliographical background
Workbook section


2 Structure
2.1 Overview
2.2 Phrases
2.3 Clauses
2.4 Specifiers
2.5 Intermediate and maximal projections
2.6 Testing structure
2.7 Syntactic relations
2.8 Bare phrase structure
2.9 Summary
2.10 Bibliographical background
Workbook section


3 Null

Null subjects
Null auxiliaries
Null T in indicative clauses
Null T in subjunctive clauses
Null T in infinitive clauses





Null C in finite clauses
Null C in infinitive clauses
Null complementisers and case-marking
Defective clauses
Null determiners and quantifiers
Bibliographical background
Workbook section


4 Head movement
4.1 Overview
4.2 T-to-C movement
4.3 Movement as copying and deletion
4.4 V-to-T movement
4.5 Head movement
4.6 Auxiliary raising
4.7 Another look at negation
4.8 do-support
4.9 Head movement in nominals
4.10 Summary
4.11 Bibliographical background
Workbook section


5 Wh-movement
5.1 Overview
5.2 Wh-questions
5.3 Wh-movement as copying and deletion
5.4 Driving wh-movement and auxiliary inversion
5.5 Pied-piping of material in the domain of a wh-word
5.6 Pied-piping of a superordinate preposition
5.7 Long-distance wh-movement
5.8 Multiple wh-questions
5.9 Wh-subject questions
5.10 Exclamative and relative clauses
5.11 Summary
5.12 Bibliographical background
Workbook section


6 A-movement
6.1 Overview
6.2 Subjects in Belfast English
6.3 Idioms
6.4 Argument structure and theta-roles
6.5 Unaccusative predicates




Passive predicates
Long-distance passivisation
Comparing raising and control predicates
Bibliographical background
Workbook section


7 Agreement, case and A-movement
7.1 Overview
7.2 Agreement
7.3 Feature valuation
7.4 Uninterpretable features and Feature Deletion
7.5 Expletive it subjects
7.6 Expletive there subjects
7.7 Agreement and A-movement
7.8 EPP and agreement in control infinitives
7.9 EPP and person agreement in defective clauses
7.10 Defective clauses with expletive subjects
7.11 Summary
7.12 Bibliographical background
Workbook section


8 Split


Split CP: force, topic and focus projections
Split CP: finiteness projection
Split TP: aspect projection
Split TP: mood projection
Split VP: transitive ergative structures
Split VP: other transitive structures and unergatives
Split VP: Object Control structures
Split VP: unaccusative structures
Split VP: passive and raising structures
Bibliographical background
Workbook section

9 Phases
9.1 Overview
9.2 Phases
9.3 Intransitive and defective clauses
9.4 Phases and A-bar movement
9.5 A-bar movement in transitive clauses






Uninterpretable features and feature inheritance
Reflections on feature inheritance
Independent probes
Subject questions
More on subextraction
On other phases
Bibliographical background
Workbook section

Glossary and list of abbreviations



This book supercedes my Minimalist Syntax book, published in 2004.
Although there is much in common between the two books, it should be noted
that this book contains new material and new analyses (particularly in later
chapters). It has two main aims. The first is to provide an intensive introduction
to recent work in syntactic theory (more particularly to how the syntactic
component operates within the model of grammar assumed in recent work
within the framework of Chomsky’s Minimalist Program). The second is to
provide a description of a range of phenomena in English syntax, making use of
Minimalist concepts and assumptions wherever possible.

Key features
The book is intended to be suitable both for people with only
minimal grammatical knowledge, and for those who have already done quite
a bit of syntax but want to know something (more) about Minimalism. It is not
historicist or comparative in orientation, and does not presuppose knowledge
of earlier or alternative models of grammar. It is written in an approachable style,
avoiding unnecessary complexity and unexplained jargon. Each chapter contains:

a core text (divided up into ten sections or so) focusing on a specific
a summary recapitulating the main points in the chapter
a list of key concepts/principles introduced in the chapter
a bibliographical section providing extensive references to original
source material
a workbook section containing two different kinds of exercise
a set of model answers accompanying the exercises, together with
extensive helpful hints designed to eliminate common errors students
make and to help students whose native language is not English
an extensive glossary and integral list of abbreviations

The bibliographical background section often contains references to primary
research works which are highly technical in nature, and so it would not be



appropriate for students to tackle them until they have read the whole book: they
are intended to provide a useful source of bibliographical information for
extended essays or research projects in particular areas, rather than being
essential back-up reading: indeed, the exercises in the book are designed in
such a way that they can be tackled on the basis of the coursebook material
alone. The glossary at the end of the book provides simple illustrations of how
key technical terms are used (both theory-specific terms like EPP and traditional terms like subject): technical terms are written in bold print when they
are mentioned for the first time in the main text (italics being used for highlighting particular expressions – e.g. a key word appearing in an example
sentence). The glossary also contains an integrated list of abbreviations.
The book is intensive and progressive in nature, which means that it starts at
an elementary level but gets progressively harder as you delve further into the
book. A group of students I taught an earlier version of the book to gave the
following degree-of-difficulty score to each chapter on a 5-point scale ranging
from 1 ¼ very easy to 5 ¼ very hard: ch. 1 ¼ 1.7; ch. 2 ¼ 2.2; ch. 3 ¼ 2.7;
ch. 4 ¼ 2.9; ch. 5 ¼ 3.2; ch. 6 ¼ 3.4; ch. 7 ¼ 3.7; ch. 8 ¼ 4.2; ch. 9 ¼ 4.4.
Successive chapters become cumulatively more complex, in that each chapter
presupposes material covered in previous chapters as well as introducing new
material: hence it is helpful to go back and read material from earlier chapters
every so often. In some cases, analyses presented in earlier chapters are subsequently refined or revised in the light of new assumptions made in later chapters.

Teaching materials
For teachers adopting the book, I have developed a series of web
materials (in the form of Powerpoint transparencies) designed to provide two
hours worth of teaching material for each chapter. The relevant materials
present detailed step-by-step analyses of those exercise examples which have
the symbol (w) after them in the coursebook. They can be accessed at www.

Companion volume
This book is being produced in parallel with a shorter version
entitled An Introduction to English Sentence Structure. In this longer version,
the main text (particularly in the later chapters) is generally about a third longer
than the main text in the shorter version (with the exception of chs. 1 and 6).
This longer version is aimed primarily at students with (near-) native command
of English who are taking (English) syntax as a major rather than a minor
course. The two books have an essentially parallel organisation into chapters
and sections (though additional sections, technical discussion and bibliographial


references have been added in this longer version), and contain much the same
exercise material. In keeping the two books parallel in structure and organisation
as far as possible, I am mindful of the comment made in a review of two earlier
books which I produced in parallel longer and shorter versions (Radford 1997a
and Radford 1997b) that some readers may wish to read the short version of
a given chapter first, and then look at the longer version afterwards, and that this is
‘not facilitated’ if there is ‘an annoyingly large number of non-correspondences’
between the two (Ten Hacken, 2001, p. 2). Accordingly, I have tried to maximise
correspondence between the ‘long’ and ‘short’ versions of these two new books.



I am grateful to Neil Smith (of University College London) for his forebearance
in patiently wading through an earlier draft of the manuscript and pointing out
some of the imperfections in it, while managing to make his comments challenging
and good-humoured at the same time. Thanks also go to my Essex Colleague Bob
Borsley for helpful comments, and to Michèle Vincent for preparing the index.






In broad terms, this book is concerned with aspects of grammar.
Grammar is traditionally subdivided into two different but interrelated areas of
study – morphology and syntax. Morphology is the study of how words are
formed out of smaller units (called morphemes), and so addresses questions
such as ‘What are the component morphemes of a word like antidisestablishmentarianism, and what is the nature of the morphological operations by which
they are combined together to form the overall word?’ Syntax is the study of
the way in which phrases and sentences are structured out of words, and so
addresses questions like ‘What is the structure of a sentence like What’s the
president doing? and what is the nature of the grammatical operations by which
its component words are combined together to form the overall sentence structure?’ In this chapter, we begin (in }1.2) by taking a brief look at the approach
to the study of syntax taken in traditional grammar: this also provides an
opportunity to introduce some useful grammatical terminology. In the remainder
of the chapter, we look at the approach to syntax adopted within the theory of
Universal Grammar developed by Chomsky.


Traditional grammar: categories and functions

Within traditional grammar, the syntax of a language is described in
terms of a taxonomy (i.e. classificatory list) of the range of different types of
syntactic structures found in the language. The central assumption underpinning
syntactic analysis in traditional grammar is that phrases and sentences are built
up of a series of constituents (i.e. syntactic units), each of which belongs to
a specific grammatical category and serves a specific grammatical function.
Given this assumption, the task of the linguist in analysing the syntactic structure
of any given type of sentence is to identify each of the constituents in the sentence
and (for each constituent) to say what category it belongs to and what function it
serves. For example, in relation to the syntax of a simple sentence like:

Students protested

it would traditionally be said that the sentence consists of two constituents (the
word students and the word protested), that each of these constituents belongs



to a specific grammatical category (students being a plural noun and protested
a past tense verb) and that each serves a specific grammatical function (students
being the subject of the sentence and protested being the predicate). The
overall sentence Students protested has the categorial status of a clause which
is finite in nature (by virtue of denoting an event taking place at a specific time)
and has the semantic function of expressing a proposition which is declarative
in force (in that it is used to make a statement rather than, e.g., ask a question).
Accordingly, a traditional grammar of English would tell us that the simplest
type of finite declarative clause found in English is a sentence like (1) in which
a nominal subject is followed by a verbal predicate. Let’s briefly look at some of
the terminology used here.
In traditional grammar, words are assigned to grammatical categories (called
parts of speech) on the basis of their semantic properties (i.e. meaning),
morphological properties (i.e. the range of different forms they have) and
syntactic properties (i.e. word-order properties relating to the positions they
can occupy within sentences): a set of words which belong to the same category
thus have a number of semantic, morphological and syntactic properties in
common. There are traditionally said to be two different types of word, namely
content words/contentives (¼ words which have substantive lexical content)
on the one hand and function words/functors (¼ words which essentially serve
to mark grammatical properties) on the other. The differences between the
two can be illustrated by comparing a contentive like car with a functor like
they. A noun like car has substantive lexical content in that it denotes an object
which typically has four wheels and an engine, and it would be easy enough
to draw a picture of a typical car; by contrast, a pronoun such as they has no
descriptive content (e.g. you can’t draw a picture of they), but rather is a functor
which simply marks grammatical (more specifically, person, number and case)
properties in that it is a third person plural nominative pronoun. Because they
have lexical semantic content, content words often (though not always)
have antonyms (i.e. ‘opposites’) – e.g. the adjective tall has the antonym short,
the verb increase has the antonym decrease, and the preposition inside has the
antonym outside: by contrast, a typical function word like, e.g., the pronoun me
has no obvious antonym. Corresponding to these two different types of (content
and function) word are two different kinds of grammatical category – namely
lexical/substantive categories (¼ categories whose members are content
words) on the one hand and functional categories (¼ categories whose
members are function words) on the other.
Let’s begin by looking at the main lexical/substantive categories found in
English – namely, noun, verb, adjective, adverb and preposition (conventionally abbreviated to N, V, A, ADV and P in order to save space). Nouns (¼ N)
are traditionally said to have the semantic property that they denote entities: so,
bottle is a noun (since it denotes a type of object used to contain liquids), water
is a noun (since it denotes a type of liquid), and John is a noun (since it denotes
a specific person). There are a number of distinct subtypes of noun: for example

1.2 Traditional grammar

a noun like chair is a count noun in that it can be counted (cf. one chair, two
chairs . . .), whereas a noun like furniture is a mass noun in that it denotes
an uncountable mass (hence the ungrammaticality of *one furniture, *two
furnitures – a prefixed star/asterisk being used to indicate that an expression
is ungrammatical). Likewise, a distinction is traditionally drawn between a
common noun like boy (which can be modified by a determiner like the – as
in The boy is lying) and a proper noun like Andrew (which cannot be used in
the same way in English, as we see from the ungrammaticality of *The Andrew
is lying). Count nouns generally have the morphological property that they
have two different forms: a singular form (like horse in one horse) used to
denote a single entity, and a plural form (like horses in two horses) used
to denote more than one entity. Common nouns have the syntactic property
that only (an appropriate kind of) a noun can be used to end a sentence such as
They have no . . . In place of the dots here we could insert a singular count noun
like car, or a plural count noun like friends, or a mass noun like money, but not
other types of word (e.g. not see or slowly or up, as these are not nouns).
A second lexical/substantive category is that of verb (¼ V). Verbs are
traditionally said to have the semantic property that they denote actions or
events: so, eat, sing, pull and resign are all (action-denoting) verbs. From a
syntactic point of view, verbs have the property that only an appropriate
kind of verb (in its uninflected infinitive form) can be used to complete a
sentence such as They/It can . . . So, words like stay, leave, hide, die, starve and
cry are all verbs and hence can be used in place of the dots here (but words like
apple, under, pink and if aren’t). From a morphological point of view, regular
verbs like cry in English have the property that they have four distinct forms:
e.g. alongside the bare (i.e. uninflected) form cry we find the present tense
form cries, the past tense/perfect participle/passive participle form cried and
the progressive participle form crying. (See the glossary at the end of this book
if you are not familiar with these terms.)
A third lexical/substantive category is that of adjective (¼ A). Adjectives are
traditionally said to have the semantic property of denoting states or attributes
(cf. ill, happy, tired, conscientious, red, cruel, old etc.). They have the syntactic
property that they can occur after be to complete a sentence like They may be . . .
(as with They may be tired/ill/happy etc.), and the further syntactic property that
(if they denote a gradable property which can exist in varying degrees) they can
be modified by a degree word like very/rather/somewhat (cf. She is very happy).
Many (but not all) adjectives have the morphological property that they have
comparative forms ending in -er and superlative forms ending in -est (cf. big/
A fourth lexical/substantive category is that of adverb (¼ ADV). Adverbs
often have the semantic property that they denote the manner in which an
action is performed (as with well in She sings well). Regular adverbs have
the morphological property that they are formed from adjectives by the addition
of the suffix -ly (so that corresponding to the adjective sad we have the adverb




sadly). A syntactic property of adverbs is that an adverb (like, e.g., badly)
is the only kind of word which could be used to end sentences such as She
behaved . . ., He treats her . . . or He worded the statement . . . .
The fifth and final lexical/substantive category found in English is that of
preposition (¼ P). Many prepositions have the semantic property of marking
location (cf. in, on, off, inside, outside, under, above, below). They have the
syntactic property that a preposition (with the appropriate kind of meaning) can
be modified by right in the sense of ‘completely’, or by straight in the sense of
‘directly’ (as with the preposition down in He fell right down the stairs and the
preposition to in He went straight to bed). Prepositions have the morphological
property that they are invariable/uninflected forms (e.g. the preposition off has
no past tense form *offed, no superlative form *offest, and so on).
In addition to the five lexical/substantive categories identified above, English
also has a number of functional categories. One such functional category is that
of determiner (¼ D) – a category whose members are traditionally said to
include the definite article the and the demonstrative determiners this, that,
these, those. They are called determiners because they have the semantic
property that they determine specific semantic properties of the noun expression
that they introduce, marking it as a definite referring expression: for example, an
expression like the car in a sentence such as Shall we take the car? is a definite
referring expression in the sense that it refers to a definite (specific) car which is
assumed to be familiar to the hearer/addressee. A related class of words are
those which belong to the functional category quantifier (¼ Q), denoting
expressions of quantity, such as some, all, no, any, each, every, most, much,
many. (We shall also take the indefinite article a to be a quantifier – one which
quantifies over a single entity.)
A further type of functional category found in English is that of pronoun
(¼ PRN). Pronouns are items which are said to ‘stand in place of’ (the meaning
of the prefix pro-) or ‘refer back to’ noun expressions. However, there are
reasons to think that there are a number of different types of pronoun found in
English and other languages. For example, in sentences such as John has a red
car and Jim has a blue one, the word one is traditionally said to be a pronoun
because it has no lexical semantic content of its own, but rather takes its content
from its antecedent (i.e. one refers back to the noun car and so one is
interpreted as having the same meaning as car). However, from a morphological
perspective, the pronoun one behaves like a regular count noun in that it has
a plural form ending in -s (as in I’ll take the green apples if you haven’t got
any red ones). So, more accurately, we could say that one is an N-pronoun
(or pronominal noun). By contrast, in a sentence like Many miners were
rescued, but some died, the word some seems to function as a Q-pronoun
(i.e. a pronominal quantifier). And in a sentence like These apples are ripe, but those
aren’t, the word those seems to be a D-pronoun (i.e. a pronominal determiner).
Indeed, some linguists have argued that so-called personal pronouns like I, me,
we, us, you, he, him, she, her, it, they, them are also D-pronouns: the rationale

1.2 Traditional grammar

for this is that some such pronouns can be used as determiners which modify
a following noun (as in We republicans don’t trust you democrats, where we
could be argued to be a determiner modifying the noun republicans, and you
could be seen as a determiner modifying the noun democrats). While, as noted
here, pronouns can be argued to belong to a number of distinct types of
category, in order to simplify discussion I shall simply refer to them as
belonging to the category PRN throughout this book. (Because there are a
number of different types of pronoun, some linguists prefer to refer to them
by using the more general term proform.)
Another type of functional category found in English is that of auxiliary
(verb). Auxiliary verbs have the semantic property of marking grammatical
properties such as tense, aspect, voice or mood. (See the glossary at the end of
the book if you are not sure what these terms mean.) Auxiliaries have the
syntactic property that (unlike lexical/main verbs) they can be inverted with
their subject in questions (so that corresponding to a statement like It is raining
we have the question Is it raining? where the auxiliary is has moved in front
of the subject it and is said to have been inverted). The items italicised in
(2) below (in the use illustrated there) are traditionally categorised as auxiliaries
taking a [bracketed] complement containing a bold-printed verb:
(2) (a)

He has/had [gone]
They are/were [taken away for questioning]
You can/could [help us]
He will/would [get upset]

(f )

She is/was [staying at home]
He really does/did [say a lot]
They may/might [come back]
I shall/should [return]

In the uses illustrated here, have/be in (2a,b) are (perfect/progressive) aspect
auxiliaries, be in (2c) is a (passive) voice auxiliary, do in (2d) is an expletive
or dummy auxiliary (i.e. one with no intrinsic lexical semantic content), and
can/could/may/might/will/would/shall/should in (2e–h) are modal auxiliaries.
What auxiliaries in sentences like those above have in common is the fact that
they inflect for present/past tense. Hence, in work in syntax over the past ten
years or so, they have been said to belong to the category T (¼ tense-marked
An interesting word which has been argued to be related to tense-marking
auxiliaries in work over the past thirty years or so is the infinitive particle to, in
sentences such as:

They are now expecting the president to be impeached tomorrow

In a sentence like (3), infinitival to seems to have future time-reference (in that
the act of impeachment will take place at some time in the future), and this is
why we can use the word tomorrow in the to-clause. In this respect, infinitival to
seems to have much the same function as the auxiliary will in They are now
expecting that the president will be impeached tomorrow, suggesting that infinitival to is an infinitival tense marker, and so belongs to the same category T as
present/past tense auxiliaries such as is/was. The difference between auxiliaries




and infinitival to is that most auxiliaries overtly inflect for present/past tense
(though this is not true of the invariable modal auxiliaries must and ought),
whereas infinitival to is invariable in form. We can thus say that an auxiliary
like will is a finite T constituent, whereas infinitival to is a non-finite T.
The last type of functional category which we will look at is a kind of word
(like each of the words italicised in the examples below) which is traditionally
termed a (subordinating) conjunction:
(4) (a) I think [that you may be right]
(b) I doubt [if you can help me]
(c) I’m anxious [ for you to receive the best treatment possible]

Each of the bracketed clauses in (4) is a complement clause, in that it is the
complement of the word immediately preceding it (think/doubt/anxious); for
this reason, the italicised word which introduces each clause is known in work
since the 1960s as a complementiser (¼ C), and this is the terminology which
will be adopted throughout this book. Complementisers are functors in the sense
that they encode particular sets of grammatical properties. For example, complementisers encode (non)finiteness by virtue of the fact that they are intrinsically
finite or nonfinite. More specifically, the complementisers that and if are
inherently finite in the sense that they can only be used to introduce a finite
clause (i.e. a clause containing a present or past tense auxiliary or verb, like the
present-tense auxiliaries may and can in 4a and 4b); by contrast, for is an
inherently infinitival complementiser, and so can be used to introduce a clause
containing infinitival to (as in 4c). Moreover, that introduces a declarative
clause (i.e. one which has the force of a statement), if introduces an interrogative clause (i.e. one which has the force of a question), and for introduces an
irrealis clause (i.e. one relating to a hypothetical event which hasn’t yet taken
place and may or may not take place at some stage in the future). Hence, we can
say that is a finite declarative complementiser, if is a finite interrogative
complementiser, and for is an infinitival irrealis complementiser.
Using the set of syntactic categories outlined above, we can employ the
traditional labelled bracketing technique to categorise words (i.e. assign them
to grammatical categories) in a way which describes how they are being used in
a particular sentence. Using this technique, the words in sentence (5a) below can
be categorised as in (5b):
(5) (a) The president is clearly feeling angry that Congress has refused to negotiate with him
(b) [D The] [N president] [T is] [ADV clearly] [V feeling] [A angry] [C that] [N Congress]
[T has] [V refused] [T to] [V negotiate] [P with] [PRN him]

The labelled bracketing in (5b) tells us that the is a D/determiner, president a
N/noun, is a T/present-tense auxiliary, clearly an ADV/adverb, feeling a V/verb,
angry an A/adjective, that a C/complementiser, Congress a N/noun, has a
T/present-tense auxiliary, refused a V/verb, to a T/infinitival tense particle,
negotiate a V/verb, with a P/preposition, and him a PRN/pronoun.

1.2 Traditional grammar

The discussion of grammatical categories presented above is merely a brief
sketch: however, it suffices to illustrate the point that when traditional grammarians analyse the syntax of sentences, they begin by assigning each of the
words in the sentence to a grammatical category which describes how it is being
used in the sentence concerned. Grammatical differences between individual
words belonging to the same category are traditionally described in terms of
sets of grammatical features, and these features (by convention) are enclosed
in square brackets. For example, both she and us are pronouns, but they differ
in that she is a third person pronoun which is feminine in gender, singular in
number and nominative in case, whereas us is a first person pronoun which is
plural in number and accusative in case. Accordingly, we can describe the
differences between these two pronouns by saying that the pronoun she carries
the features [third-person, singular-number, feminine-gender, nominative-case],
whereas us carries the features [first-person, plural-number, accusative-case].
As noted at the beginning of this section, traditional grammarians are also
concerned to describe the grammatical functions which words and other
expressions fulfil within the sentences containing them. We can illustrate this
point in terms of the following set of sentences:
(6) (a)

John smokes
The president smokes
The president of Utopia smokes
The former president of the island paradise of Utopia smokes

Sentence (6a) comprises the noun John which serves the function of being the
subject of the sentence (and denotes the person performing the act of smoking),
and the verb smokes which serves the function of being the predicate of the
sentence (and describes the act being performed). In (6a), the subject is the
single noun John; but as the examples in (6b,c,d) show, the subject of a sentence
can also be an (italicised) phrase like the president, or the president of Utopia or
the former president of the island paradise of Utopia.
Now consider the following set of sentences:
(7) (a)

John smokes cigars
John smokes Cuban cigars
John smokes Cuban cigars imported from Havana
John smokes a specific brand of Cuban cigars imported by a friend of his from Havana

Sentence (7a) comprises the subject John, the predicate smokes and the
complement (or direct object) cigars. (The complement cigars describes the
entity on which the act of smoking is being performed; as this example
illustrates, subjects normally precede the verb with which they are associated
in English, whereas complements typically follow the verb.) The complement in
(7a) is the single noun cigars; but a complement can also be a phrase: in (7b),
the complement of smokes is the phrase Cuban cigars; in (7c) the complement is
the phrase Cuban cigars imported from Havana; and in (7d) the complement




is the phrase a specific brand of Cuban cigars imported by a friend of his from
Havana. A verb which has a noun or pronoun expression as its direct object
complement is traditionally said to be transitive.
From a semantic perspective, subjects and complements share in common
the fact that they generally represent entities directly involved in the particular
action or event described by the predicate: to use the relevant semantic terminology, we can say that subjects and complements are arguments of the
predicate with which they are associated. Predicates may have one or more
arguments, as we see from sentences such as (8) below, where each of the
bracketed nouns is a different argument of the italicised predicate:
(8) (a) [John] resigned

(b) [John] felt [remorse]

(c) [John] sent [Mary] [flowers]

A predicate like resign in (8a) which has a single argument is said to function as
a one-place predicate (in the relevant use), one like feel in (8b) which has two
arguments is a two-place predicate, and one like send in (8c) which has three
arguments is a three-place predicate.
In addition to predicates and arguments, sentences can also contain adjuncts,
as we can illustrate in relation to (9) below:
(9) (a) The president smokes a cigar after dinner
(b) The president smokes a cigar in his office

In both sentences in (9), smokes functions as a two-place predicate whose
two arguments are its subject the president and its complement a cigar. But
what is the function of the phrase after dinner which also occurs in (9a)? Since
after dinner isn’t one of the entities directly involved in the act of smoking
(i.e. it isn’t consuming or being consumed), it isn’t an argument of the predicate
smoke. On the contrary, after dinner simply serves to provide additional
information about the time when the smoking activity takes place. In much
the same way, the italicised expression in his office in (9b) provides additional
information about the location of the smoking activity. An expression which
serves to provide (optional) additional information about the time or place (or
manner, or purpose etc.) of an activity or event is said to serve as an adjunct.
So, after dinner and in his office in (9a/b) are both adjuncts.
So far, all the sentences we have looked at in (6–9) have been simple
sentences which contain a single clause. However, alongside these we also
find complex sentences which contain more than one clause, like (10) below:

Mary knows John smokes

If we take the traditional definition of a clause as a predication structure (more
precisely, a structure containing a predicate which has a subject, and which may
or may not also contain one or more complements and adjuncts), it follows that
since there are two predicates (knows and smokes) in (10), there are correspondingly two clauses – the smokes clause on the one hand, and the knows clause on
the other. The smokes clause comprises the subject John and the predicate

1.2 Traditional grammar

smokes; the knows clause comprises the subject Mary, the predicate knows and
the complement John smokes. So, the complement of knows here is itself a
clause – namely the clause John smokes. More precisely, the smokes clause is a
complement clause (because it serves as the complement of knows), while the
knows clause is the main clause (or principal clause or independent clause or
root clause). The overall sentence (10) Mary knows John smokes is a complex
sentence because it contains more than one clause. In much the same way,
(11) below is also a complex sentence:

The press clearly think the president deliberately lied to Congress

Once again, it comprises two clauses – one containing the predicate think,
the other containing the predicate lie. The main clause comprises the subject
the press, the adjunct clearly, the predicate think and the complement clause the
president deliberately lied to Congress. The complement clause in turn comprises the subject the president, the adjunct deliberately, the predicate lie and
the complement to Congress.
As was implicit in the earlier classification of (1) as a finite clause, traditional
grammars draw a distinction between finite and nonfinite clauses. In this
connection, consider the contrast between the italicised clauses below (all of
which function as the complement of an underlined adjective or verb):
(12) (a)

She was glad that he apologised
She demanded that he apologise
I can’t imagine him apologising
It would be sensible for him to apologise
It’s important to know when to apologise

The italicised clauses in (12a,b) are finite, and it is characteristic of finite
clauses in English that they contain an (auxiliary or main) verb marked for
tense/mood, and can have a nominative pronoun like he as their subject. In
(12a), the verb apologised is finite by virtue of being inflected for past tense and
indicative mood, and by virtue of having a nominative subject (he); in (12b),
the verb apologise is finite by virtue of being inflected for subjunctive mood
(and perhaps present tense, though this is far from clear), and by virtue of
having a nominative subject (he). A clause containing a verb in the indicative
mood denotes a real (or realis, to use the relevant grammatical term) event or
state occurring at a specific point in time; a subjunctive clause by contrast
denotes a hypothetical or unreal (¼ irrealis) event or state which has not yet
occurred and which may never occur. In contrast to the italicised clauses in
(12a,b), the clauses italicised in (12c–e) are nonfinite, in that they contain no
verb marked for tense or mood, and do not allow a nominative subject. For
example, the verb apologising in (12c) is nonfinite because it is a tenseless and
moodless gerund form, and has an accusative subject him. Likewise, the verb
apologise in (12d,e) is a tenseless and moodless infinitive form (as we see from
the fact that it follows the infinitive particle to), and has an accusative subject




him in (12d), and a ‘silent’ (implicit) subject in (12e). (Excluded from our
discussion here are gerund structures with genitive subjects like the italicised in
‘I can’t stand his perpetual(ly) whining about syntax’, since these are more
nominal than clausal in nature.)
As the examples in (12) illustrate, whether or not a clause is finite in turn
determines the kind of subject it can have, in that finite clauses can have a
nominative pronoun like he as their subject, but nonfinite clauses cannot.
Accordingly, one way of telling whether a particular clause is finite or not is
to see whether it can have a nominative pronoun (like I/we/he/she/they) as its
subject. In this connection, consider whether the italicised clauses in the dialogues in (13a,b) below are finite or nonfinite:
(13) (a) speaker
(b) speaker


I know you cheat on me
OK, I admit it. I cheat on you. But not with any of your friends.
I know you cheat on me
Me cheat on you? No way! I never would!

The fact that the italicised clause in speaker b’s reply in (13a) has the nominative subject I suggests that it is finite, and hence that the verb cheat (as used
in the italicised sentence in 13a) is a first person singular present tense form.
By contrast, the fact that the italicised clause in speaker b’s reply (13b) has the
accusative subject me suggests that it is nonfinite, and that the verb cheat (as
used in the italicised sentence in 13b) is an infinitive form (and indeed this is
clear from sentences like Me be a cheat? No way! where we find the infinitive
form be).
In addition to being finite or nonfinite, each clause within a sentence has a
specific force. In this connection, consider the following simple (single-clause)
(14) (a) He went home
(c) You be quiet!

(b) Are you feeling OK?
(d) What a great idea that is!

A sentence like (14a) is traditionally said to be declarative in force, in that it is
used to make a statement. (14b) is interrogative in force in that it is used to ask
a question. (14c) is imperative in force, by virtue of being used to issue an order
or command. (14d) is exclamative in force, in that it is used to exclaim surprise
or delight. In complex sentences, each clause has its own force, as we can see in
relation to (15) below:
(15) (a) He asked where she had gone
(b) Did you know that he has retired?
(c) Tell her what a great time we had!

In (15a), the main (asked) clause is declarative, whereas the complement (gone)
clause is interrogative; in (15b) the main (know) clause is interrogative, whereas
the complement (retired) clause is declarative; and in (15c), the main (tell)
clause is imperative, whereas the complement (had) clause is exclamative.

1.3 Universal Grammar

We can summarise this section as follows. From the perspective of traditional
grammar, the syntax of a language is described in terms of a taxonomy (i.e. a
classificatory list) of the range of different phrase-, clause- and sentence-types
found in the language. So, for example, a typical traditional grammar of (say)
English will include chapters on the syntax of negatives, interrogatives, exclamatives, imperatives and so on. The chapter on interrogatives will note (e.g.)
that in main-clause questions in English like ‘Is he winning?’ the present-tense
auxiliary is inverts with (i.e. moves in front of ) the subject he, but not in
complement clause questions like the if-clause in ‘I wonder if he is winning’,
and will typically not be concerned with trying to explain why auxiliary
inversion applies in main clauses but not complement clauses: this reflects
the fact that the primary goal of traditional grammar is description rather than


Universal Grammar

In contrast to the taxonomic approach adopted in traditional grammar, Chomsky takes a cognitive approach to the study of grammar. For
Chomsky, the goal of the linguist is to determine what it is that native speakers
know about their native language which enables them to speak and understand
the language, and how this linguistic knowledge might be represented in the
mind/brain: hence, in studying language, we are studying a specific kind of
cognition (i.e. human knowledge). In a fairly obvious sense, any native speaker
of a language can be said to know the grammar of his or her native language. For
example, any native speaker of English can tell you that the negative counterpart of I like syntax is I don’t like syntax, and not, e.g., *I no like syntax: in
other words, native speakers know how to combine words together to form
expressions (e.g. negative sentences) in their language. Likewise, any native
speaker of English can tell you that a sentence like She loves me more than
you is ambiguous and has two interpretations which can be paraphrased
as ‘She loves me more than she loves you’ and ‘She loves me more than you
love me’: in other words, native speakers also know how to interpret (i.e.
assign meaning to) expressions in their language. However, it is important to
emphasise that this grammatical knowledge of how to form and interpret
expressions in your native language is tacit (i.e. subconscious) rather than
explicit (i.e. conscious): so, it’s no good asking a native speaker of English a
question such as ‘How do you form negative sentences in English?’ since
human beings have no conscious awareness of the processes involved in
speaking and understanding their native language. To introduce a technical
term devised by Chomsky, we can say that native speakers have grammatical
competence in their native language: by this, we mean that they have tacit
knowledge of the grammar of their language – i.e. of how to form and interpret
words, phrases and sentences in the language.




In work in the 1960s, Chomsky drew a distinction between competence (the
native speaker’s tacit knowledge of his or her language) and performance
(what people actually say or understand by what someone else says on a given
occasion). Competence is ‘the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language’,
while performance is ‘the actual use of language in concrete situations’
(Chomsky 1965, p. 4). Very often, performance is an imperfect reflection of
competence: we all make occasional slips of the tongue, or occasionally misinterpret something which someone else says to us. However, this doesn’t mean
that we don’t know our native language or that we don’t have competence in it.
Misproductions and misinterpretations are performance errors, attributable
to a variety of performance factors like tiredness, boredom, drunkenness, drugs,
external distractions and so forth. A grammar of a language tells you what
you need to know in order to have native-like competence in the language
(i.e. to be able to speak the language like a fluent native speaker): hence, it is
clear that grammar is concerned with competence rather than performance. This
is not to deny the interest of performance as a field of study, but merely to assert
that performance is more properly studied within the different – though related –
discipline of psycholinguistics, which studies the psychological processes
underlying speech production and comprehension.
Thus, when we study the grammatical competence of a native speaker
of a language like English we’re studying a cognitive system internalised
within the brain/mind of native speakers of English which is the product of
a ‘cognitive organ’ which is ‘shared among human beings and in crucial
respects unique to them’ (Chomsky 2006, p. 1). In the terminology adopted
by Chomsky (1986a, pp. 19–56), our ultimate goal in studying competence is
to characterise the nature of the internalised linguistic system (or I-language,
as Chomsky terms it) which makes native speakers proficient in English.
Such an approach has obvious implications for the descriptive linguist who is
concerned to develop a grammar of a particular language like English.
According to Chomsky (1986a, p. 22), a grammar of a language is ‘a theory
of the I-language . . . under investigation’. This means that in devising a
grammar of English, we are attempting to uncover the internalised linguistic
system (¼ I-language) possessed by native speakers of English – i.e. we are
attempting to characterise a mental state (a state of competence, and thus
linguistic knowledge).
Chomsky’s ultimate goal is to devise a theory of Universal Grammar/UG
which generalises from the grammars of particular I-languages to the grammars
of all possible natural (i.e. human) I-languages. He defines UG (1986a, p. 23) as
‘the theory of human I-languages . . . that identifies the I-languages that are
humanly accessible under normal conditions’. (The expression ‘are humanly
accessible’ means ‘can be acquired by human beings’.) In other words, UG is
a theory about the nature of possible grammars of human languages: hence, a
theory of UG answers the question: ‘What are the defining characteristics of the
grammars of human I-languages?’

1.3 Universal Grammar

There are a number of criteria of adequacy which a theory of UG must
satisfy. One such criterion (which is implicit in the use of the term Universal
Grammar) is universality, in the sense that a theory of UG must provide us with
the tools needed to provide a descriptively adequate grammar for any and
every human I-language (i.e. a grammar which correctly describes how to
form and interpret expressions in the relevant language). After all, a theory of
UG would be of little interest if it enabled us to describe the grammar of English
and French, but not that of Swahili or Chinese.
However, since the ultimate goal of any theory is explanation, it is not enough
for a theory of UG simply to list sets of universal properties of natural language
grammars; on the contrary, a theory of UG must seek to explain the relevant
properties. So, a key question for any adequate theory of UG to answer is:
‘Why do grammars of human I-languages have the properties they do?’ The
requirement that a theory should explain why grammars have the properties they
do is conventionally referred to as the criterion of explanatory adequacy.
Since the theory of UG is concerned with characterising the properties of
natural (i.e. human) I-language grammars, an important question which we
want our theory of UG to answer is: ‘What are the defining characteristics of
human I-languages which differentiate them from, for example, artificial languages like those used in mathematics and computing (e.g. Java, Prolog, C etc.),
or from animal communication systems (e.g. the tail-wagging dance performed
by bees to communicate the location of a food source to other bees)?’
It therefore follows that the descriptive apparatus which our theory of UG
allows us to make use of in devising natural language grammars must not
be so powerful that it can be used to describe not only natural languages, but
also computer languages or animal communication systems (since any such
excessively powerful theory wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the criterial properties
of natural languages which differentiate them from other types of communication system). In other words, a third condition which we have to impose on
our theory of language is that it be maximally constrained: that is, we want our
theory to provide us with technical devices which are so limited in their
expressive power that they can only be used to describe natural languages,
and are not appropriate for the description of other communication systems.
A theory which is constrained in appropriate ways should enable us to provide
a principled explanation for why certain types of syntactic structure and syntactic
operation simply aren’t found in natural languages. One way of constraining
grammars is to suppose that grammatical operations obey certain linguistic
principles, and that any operation which violates the relevant principles leads
to ungrammaticality: see the discussion in }1.5 below for a concrete example.
A related requirement is that linguistic theory should provide grammars
which make use of the minimal theoretical apparatus required: in other words,
grammars should be as simple as possible. Some earlier work in syntax involved
the postulation of complex structures and principles: as a reaction to the
excessive complexity of this kind of work, Chomsky in work over the past




two decades has made the requirement to minimise the theoretical and descriptive
apparatus used to describe language the cornerstone of the Minimalist Program
for Linguistic Theory which he has been developing. He has suggested that
language is a perfect system of optimal design in the sense that natural language
grammars create structures which are designed to interface perfectly with other
components of the mind – more specifically with speech and thought systems,
so that (in the words of Chomsky 2005b, p. 2) ‘Language is an optimal way to
link sound and meaning’.
To make this discussion rather more concrete, let’s look at the internal
organisation of the grammar of a language. One component of a grammar is a
lexicon (¼ dictionary ¼ list of all the lexical items/words in the language and
their linguistic properties), and in forming a given sentence out of a set of
words, we first have to take the relevant words out of the lexicon. Our chosen
words are then combined together by a series of syntactic computations in the
syntax (i.e. in the syntactic/computational component of the grammar),
thereby forming a syntactic structure. This syntactic structure serves as input
into two other components of the grammar. One is the semantic component
which maps (i.e. ‘converts’) the syntactic structure into a corresponding semantic representation (i.e. to a representation of linguistic aspects of its meaning):
the other is a PF component, so called because it maps the syntactic structure
into a PF representation (i.e. a representation of its Phonetic Form, giving
us a phonetic spellout for each word, telling us how it is pronounced).
The semantic representation interfaces with systems of thought, and the PF
representation with systems of speech – as shown in diagrammatic form below:







Chomsky (2005b, p. 3) refers to the interface with thought systems as the
‘conceptual-intentional interface (CI)’, and to the interface with speech systems
as the ‘sensory-motor interface (SM)’. In terms of the model in (16), an
important consideration is that the (semantic and PF) representations which
are ‘handed over’ to the (thought and speech) interface systems should contain
only elements which are legible by the appropriate interface system – so that the
semantic representations handed over to thought systems contain only elements
contributing to meaning, and the PF representations handed over to speech
systems contain only elements which contribute to Phonetic Form (i.e. to
determining how the sentence is pronounced).
The neurophysiological mechanisms which underlie linguistic competence
make it possible for young children to acquire language in a remarkably short


1.4 The Language Faculty

period of time. Accordingly, a fourth condition which a linguistic theory must
meet is that of learnability: it must provide grammars which are learnable
by young children in a short period of time. The desire to maximise the
learnability of natural language grammars provides an additional argument
for minimising the theoretical apparatus used to describe languages, in the sense
that the simpler grammars are, the simpler it is for children to acquire them.


The Language Faculty

Mention of learnability leads us to consider the related goal of
developing a theory of language acquisition. An acquisition theory is concerned
with the question of how children acquire grammars of their native languages.
Children generally produce their first recognisable word (e.g. Mama or Dada) by
around the age of 12 months (with considerable variation between individual
children, however). For the next 6 months or so, there is little apparent evidence
of grammatical development in their speech production, although the child’s
productive vocabulary typically increases by about five words a month until it
reaches around thirty words at age 18 months. Throughout this single-word
stage, children’s utterances comprise single words spoken in isolation: e.g.
a child may say Apple when reaching for an apple, or Up when wanting to
climb up onto someone’s knee. During the single-word stage, it is difficult
to find any immediately visible evidence of the acquisition of grammar, in that
children do not make productive use of inflections (e.g. they don’t productively
add the plural -s ending to nouns, or the past tense -d ending to verbs),
and don’t productively combine words together to form two- and three-word
utterances. (However, it should be noted that perception experiments have
suggested that infants may acquire some syntactic knowledge even before one
year of age.)
At around the age of 18 months (though with considerable variation from one
child to another), we find the first visible signs of the acquisition of grammar:
children start to make productive use of inflections (e.g. using plural nouns like
doggies alongside the singular form doggy, and inflected verb forms like going/
gone alongside the uninflected verb form go), and similarly start to produce
elementary two- and three-word utterances such as Want Teddy, Eating cookie,
Daddy gone office etc. From this point on, there is a rapid expansion in their
grammatical development, until by the age of around 30 months they have
typically acquired a wide variety of the inflections and core grammatical
constructions used in English, and are able to produce adult-like sentences such
as Where’s Mummy gone? What’s Daddy doing? Can we go to the zoo, Daddy?
etc. (though occasional morphological and syntactic errors persist until the age
of four years or so – e.g. We goed there with Daddy, What we can do? etc.).
So, the central phenomenon which any theory of language acquisition must
seek to explain is this: how is it that after a long drawn-out period of many




months in which there is no obvious sign of grammatical development, at
around the age of 18 months there is a sudden spurt as multiword speech starts
to emerge, and a phenomenal growth in grammatical development then takes
place over the next 12 months? This uniformity and (once the spurt has started)
rapidity in the pattern of children’s linguistic development are the central facts
which a theory of language acquisition must seek to explain. But how?
Chomsky maintains that the most plausible explanation for the uniformity
and rapidity of first-language acquisition is to posit that the course of acquisition
is determined by a biologically endowed innate Faculty of Language/FL
(or language acquisition program, to borrow a computer software metaphor)
within the brain, which provides children with a genetically transmitted algorithm (i.e. set of procedures) for developing a grammar, on the basis of their
linguistic experience (i.e. on the basis of the speech input they receive). The
way in which Chomsky visualises the acquisition process can be represented
schematically as in (17) below (where L is the language being acquired):

of L

Faculty of

of L

Children acquiring a language will observe people around them using the
language, and the set of expressions in the language which a child hears (and
the contexts in which they are used) in the course of acquiring the language
constitute the child’s linguistic experience of the language. This experience
serves as input to the child’s Faculty of Language/FL, which incorporates a set
of UG principles (i.e. principles of Universal Grammar) which enable the child
to use the experience to devise a grammar of the language being acquired. Thus,
the input to the Language Faculty is the child’s experience, and the output of the
Language Faculty is a grammar of the language being acquired.
The claim that the course of language acquisition is determined by an innate
Language Faculty is known popularly as the Innateness Hypothesis. Chomsky
maintains that the ability to speak and acquire languages is unique to human
beings, and that natural languages incorporate principles which are also unique
to humans and which reflect the nature of the human mind:
Whatever evidence we do have seems to me to support the view that the
ability to acquire and use language is a species specific human capacity,
that there are very deep and restrictive principles that determine the nature
of human language and are rooted in the specific character of the human
(Chomsky 1972, p. 102)

Moreover, he notes, language acquisition is an ability which all humans possess,
entirely independently of their general intelligence:
Even at low levels of intelligence, at pathological levels, we find a com
mand of language that is totally unattainable by an ape that may, in other

1.4 The Language Faculty

respects, surpass a human imbecile in problem solving activity and other
adaptive behaviour.
(Chomsky 1972, p. 10)

In addition, the apparent uniformity in the types of grammar developed by
different speakers of the same language suggests that children have genetic
guidance in the task of constructing a grammar of their native language:
We know that the grammars that are in fact constructed vary only slightly
among speakers of the same language, despite wide variations not only in
intelligence but also in the conditions under which language is acquired.
(Chomsky 1972, p. 79)

Furthermore, the rapidity of acquisition (once the grammar spurt has started)
also points to genetic guidance in grammar construction:
Otherwise it is impossible to explain how children come to construct gram
mars . . . under the given conditions of time and access to data.
(Chomsky 1972, p. 113)

(The sequence ‘under . . . data’ means simply ‘in so short a time, and on the basis
of such limited linguistic experience.’) What makes the uniformity and rapidity of
acquisition even more remarkable is the fact that the child’s linguistic experience
is often degenerate (i.e. imperfect), since it is based on the linguistic performance of adult speakers, and this may be a poor reflection of their competence:
A good deal of normal speech consists of false starts, disconnected phrases,
and other deviations from idealised competence.
(Chomsky 1972, p. 158)

If much of the speech input which children receive is ungrammatical (because
of performance errors), how is it that they can use this degenerate experience to
develop a (competence) grammar which specifies how to form grammatical
sentences? Chomsky’s answer is to draw the following analogy:
Descartes asks: how is it when we see a sort of irregular figure drawn in
front of us we see it as a triangle? He observes, quite correctly, that there’s
a disparity between the data presented to us and the percept that we construct.
And he argues, I think quite plausibly, that we see the figure as a triangle
because there’s something about the nature of our minds which makes the
image of a triangle easily constructible by the mind.
(Chomsky 1968, p. 687)

The obvious implication is that in much the same way as we are genetically
predisposed to analyse shapes (however irregular) as having specific geometric
properties, so too we are genetically predisposed to analyse sentences (however
ungrammatical) as having specific grammatical properties.
A further argument Chomsky uses in support of the innateness hypothesis
relates to the fact that language acquisition is an entirely subconscious and
involuntary activity (in the sense that you can’t consciously choose whether or
not to acquire your native language – though you can choose whether or not you




wish to learn chess); it is also an activity which is largely unguided (in the sense
that parents don’t teach children to talk):
Children acquire . . . languages quite successfully even though no special
care is taken to teach them and no special attention is given to their
(Chomsky 1965, pp. 200 1)

The implication is that we don’t learn to have a native language, any more than
we learn to have arms or legs; the ability to acquire a native language is part of
our genetic endowment – just like the ability to learn to walk.
Studies of language acquisition lend empirical support to the innateness
hypothesis. Research has suggested that there is a critical period for the
acquisition of syntax, in the sense that children who learn a given language
before puberty generally achieve native competence in it, whereas those who
acquire a (first or second) language after the age of 9 or 10 years rarely manage
to achieve native-like syntactic competence. A particularly poignant example of
this is a child called Genie, who was deprived of speech input and kept locked
up on her own in a room until age 13. When eventually taken into care and
exposed to intensive language input, her vocabulary grew enormously, but her
syntax never developed. This suggests that the acquisition of syntax is determined by an innate ‘language acquisition program’ which is in effect switched
off (or gradually atrophies) around the onset of puberty.
Further support for the key claim in the Innateness Hypothesis that the human
Language Faculty comprises a modular cognitive system autonomous of nonlinguistic cognitive systems such as vision, hearing, reasoning or memory comes
from the study of language disorders. Some disorders (such as Specific Language
Impairment) involve impairment of linguistic abilities without concomitant
impairment of other cognitive systems. By contrast, other types of disorder (such
as Williams Syndrome) involve impairment of cognitive abilities in the absence
of any major impairment of linguistic abilities. This double dissociation between
linguistic and cognitive abilities lends additional plausibility to the claim that
linguistic competence is the product of an autonomous Language Faculty.
Given the assumption that human beings are endowed with an innate
Language Faculty, the overall goal of linguistic theory is to attempt to uncover
the properties that are specific to human language, that is, to the ‘faculty of
language’ FL. To borrow Jespersen’s formulation eighty years ago, the goal
is to unearth ‘the great principles underlying the grammars of all languages’
with the goal of ‘gaining a deeper insight into the innermost nature of
human language and of human thought.’ The biolinguistic perspective
views FL as an ‘organ of the body,’ one of many subcomponents of an
organism that interact in its normal life.
Chomsky (2005b, p. 1)

However, Chomsky (2006, p. 1) notes that some properties of human language
may reflect ‘principles of biology more generally, and perhaps even more
fundamental principles about the natural world’. Accordingly,

1.5 Principles of Universal Grammar

development of language in the individual must involve three factors:
(1) genetic endowment, which sets limits on the attainable languages, thereby
making language acquisition possible; (2) external data, converted to the experi
ence that selects one or another language within a narrow range; (3) principles
not specific to FL.
(Chomsky 2006, p. 2: FL ¼ Faculty of Language).

The ‘third factor principles’ referred to under (3) ‘enter into all facets of growth
and evolution’ and include ‘principles of efficient computation’ (Chomsky
2006, p. 2) and – more generally – ‘properties of the human brain that determine
what cognitive systems can exist, though too little is yet known about these to
draw specific conclusions about the design of FL’ (Chomsky 2006, fn. 6).


Principles of Universal Grammar

If (as Chomsky claims) human beings are biologically endowed with
an innate Language Faculty, an obvious question to ask is what is the nature of
the Language Faculty. An important point to note in this regard is that children
can in principle acquire any natural language as their native language (e.g.
Afghan orphans brought up by English-speaking foster parents in an Englishspeaking community acquire English as their first language). It therefore
follows that the Language Faculty must incorporate a theory of UG which enables
the child to develop a grammar of any natural language on the basis of suitable
linguistic experience of the language (i.e. sufficient speech input). Experience
of a particular language L (examples of words, phrases and sentences in
L which the child hears produced by native speakers of L in particular contexts)
serves as input to the child’s Language Faculty which incorporates a theory of
UG providing the child with a procedure for developing a grammar of L.
If the acquisition of grammatical competence is indeed controlled by a
genetically endowed Language Faculty incorporating a theory of UG, then it
follows that certain aspects of child (and adult) competence are known without
experience, and hence must be part of the genetic information about language
with which we are biologically endowed at birth. Such aspects of language
would not have to be learned, precisely because they form part of the child’s
genetic inheritance. If we make the (plausible) assumption that the Language
Faculty does not vary significantly from one (normal) human being to another,
those aspects of language which are innately determined will also be universal.
Thus, in seeking to determine the nature of the Language Faculty, we are in
effect looking for UG principles (i.e. principles of Universal Grammar) which
determine the very nature of language.
But how can we uncover such principles? The answer is that, since the
relevant principles are posited to be universal, it follows that they will affect
the application of every relevant type of grammatical operation in every language. Thus, detailed analysis of one grammatical construction in one language
could reveal evidence of the operation of UG principles. By way of illustration,




let’s look at question-formation in English. In this connection, consider the
following dialogue:

speaker a: He had said someone would do something
speaker b: He had said who would do what?

In (18), speaker b largely echoes what speaker a says, except for replacing
someone by who and something by what. For obvious reasons, the type of question
produced by speaker b in (18) is called an echo question. However, speaker b
could alternatively have replied with a non-echo question like that below:

Who had he said would do what?

If we compare the echo question He had said who would do what? in (18) with
the corresponding non-echo question Who had he said would do what? in (19),
we find that (19) involves two movement operations which are not found
in (18). One is an auxiliary inversion operation by which the past tense
auxiliary had is moved in front of its subject he. The other is a wh-movement
operation by which the wh-word who is moved to the front of the overall
sentence, and positioned in front of had. (A wh-word is a question word like
who, what, where, when etc. beginning with wh.)
A closer look at questions like (19) provides evidence that there are UG
principles which constrain the way in which movement operations may apply.
An interesting property of the questions in (18b, 19) is that they contain two
auxiliaries (had and would) and two wh-words (who and what). Now, if we
compare (19) with the corresponding echo-question in (18), we find that the first
of the two auxiliaries (had) and the first of the wh-words (who) is moved to the
front of the sentence in (19). If we try inverting the second auxiliary (would) and
fronting the second wh-word (what), we end up with ungrammatical sentences,
as we see from (20c–e) below (key items are bold-printed/italicised, and the
corresponding echo question is given in parentheses; 20a is repeated from the
echo question in 18b, and 20b from 19):
(20) (a)

He had said who would do what? (¼ echo question)
Who had he said would do what? (cf. He had said who would do what?)
*Who would he had said do what? (cf. He had said who would do what?)
*What had he said who would do? (cf. He had said who would do what?)
*What would he had said who do? (cf. He had said who would do what?)

If we compare (20b) with its echo-question counterpart (20a) He had said who
would do what? we see that (20b) involves preposing the first wh-word who and
the first auxiliary had, and that this results in a grammatical sentence. By
contrast, (20c) involves preposing the first wh-word who and the second auxiliary would; (20d) involves preposing the second wh-word what and the first
auxiliary had; and (20e) involves preposing the second wh-word what and
the second auxiliary would. The generalisation which emerges from the data
in (20) is that auxiliary inversion preposes the closest auxiliary had (i.e. the one
nearest the beginning of the sentence in (20a) above) and likewise wh-fronting

1.6 Parameters

preposes the closest wh-expression who. The fact that two quite distinct movement
operations (auxiliary inversion and wh-movement) are subject to the same locality
condition (which requires preposing of the most local – i.e. closest – expression
of the relevant type) suggests that one of the UG principles incorporated into the
Language Faculty is a Locality Principle which can be outlined informally as:

Locality Principle
Grammatical operations are local

In consequence of (21), auxiliary inversion preposes the closest auxiliary, and
wh-movement preposes the closest wh-expression. It seems reasonable to suppose
that (21) is a UG principle (rather than an idiosyncratic property of questionformation in English). In fact, the strongest possible hypothesis we could put
forward is that (21) holds of all grammatical operations in all natural languages,
not just of movement operations; and indeed we shall see in later chapters that other
types of grammatical operation (including agreement and case assignment) are
subject to a similar locality condition. If so, and if we assume that abstract
grammatical principles which are universal are part of our biological endowment,
then the natural conclusion to reach is that (21) is a principle which is biologically
wired into the Language Faculty, and which thus forms part of our genetic make-up.
A theory of grammar which posits that grammatical operations are constrained by innate UG principles offers the important advantage that it minimises the burden of grammatical learning imposed on the child (in the sense that
children do not have to learn, e.g., that auxiliary inversion affects the first
auxiliary in a sentence, or that wh-movement likewise affects the first whexpression). This is an important consideration, since we saw earlier that
learnability is a criterion of adequacy for any theory of grammar – i.e. any
adequate theory of grammar must be able to explain how children come to learn
the grammar of their native language(s) in such a rapid and uniform fashion.
The UG theory developed by Chomsky provides a straightforward account of
the rapidity of the child’s grammatical development, since it posits that there are
a universal set of innately endowed grammatical principles which determine
how grammatical operations apply in natural language grammars. Since UG
principles which are innately endowed are wired into the Language Faculty and
so do not have to be learned by the child, this minimises the learning load placed
on the child, and thereby maximises the learnability of natural language grammars. It also (correctly) predicts that there are certain types of error which
children will not make – e.g. producing sentences such as (20c–e).



Thus far, I have argued that the Language Faculty incorporates a set
of universal principles which guide the child in acquiring a grammar. However,
it clearly cannot be the case that all aspects of the grammar of languages are




universal; if this were so, all natural languages would have the same grammar
and there would be no grammatical learning involved in language acquisition
(i.e. no need for children to learn anything about the grammar of the language
they are acquiring), only lexical learning (viz. learning the lexical items/words
in the language and their idiosyncratic linguistic properties, e.g. whether a given
item has an irregular plural or past tense form). But although there are universal
principles which determine the broad outlines of the grammar of natural languages, there also seem to be language-particular aspects of grammar which
children have to learn as part of the task of acquiring their native language.
Thus, language acquisition involves not only lexical learning, but also some
grammatical learning. Let’s take a closer look at the grammatical learning
involved, and what it tells us about the language acquisition process.
Clearly, grammatical learning is not going to involve learning those aspects
of grammar which are determined by universal (hence innate) grammatical
operations and principles. Rather, grammatical learning will be limited to those
parameters (i.e. dimensions or aspects) of grammar which are subject to
language-particular variation (and hence vary from one language to another).
In other words, grammatical learning will be limited to parametrised aspects
of grammar (i.e. those aspects of grammar which are subject to parametric
variation from one language to another). The obvious way to determine just
what aspects of the grammar of their native language children have to learn is to
examine the range of parametric variation found in the grammars of different
(adult) natural languages.
We can illustrate one type of parametric variation across languages in terms
of the following contrast between the English example in (22a) below and its
Italian counterpart in (22b):
(22) (a) Maria thinks that *(they) speak French

(b) Maria pensa che parlano francese
Maria thinks that speak French

(The notation *(they) in 22a means that the sentence is ungrammatical if they
is omitted – i.e. that the sentence *Maria thinks that speak French is ungrammatical.) The finite (present tense) verb speak in the English sentence (22a)
requires an overt subject like they, but its Italian counterpart parlanospeak in
(22b) has no overt subject. However, there are two pieces of evidence suggesting that the Italian verb parlanospeak must have a ‘silent’ subject of some kind.
One is semantic in nature, in that the verb parlanospeak is understood as having
a third person plural subject, and this understood subject is translated into
English as they; in more technical terms, this amounts to saying that, in the
relevant use, the verb parlanospeak is a two-place predicate which requires both
a subject argument and an object argument, and so it must have an ‘understood’
silent subject of some kind in (22b). The second piece of evidence is grammatical in nature. Finite verbs agree with their subjects in Italian: hence, in order to
account for the fact that the verb parlanospeak is in the third person plural form
in (22b), we need to posit that it has a third person plural subject to agree with.

1.6 Parameters

Since the verb parlanospeak has no overt subject, it must have a null subject
which can be thought of as a silent or invisible counterpart of the pronoun they
which appears in the corresponding English sentence (22a). This null subject
is conventionally designated as pro, so that (22b) has the fuller structure Maria
pensa che pro parlano francese ‘Maria thinks that pro speak French’, where pro
is a null subject pronoun.
The more general conclusion to be drawn from our discussion here is that in
languages like Italian, any finite verb can have either an overt subject like Maria
or a null pro subject. But things are very different in English. Although finite
verbs can have an overt subject like Maria in English, they cannot normally
have a null pro subject – hence the ungrammaticality of *Maria thinks that
speak French (where the verb speak has a null subject). So, finite verbs in a
language like Italian can have either overt or null subjects, but in a language like
English, finite verbs can generally have only overt subjects, not null subjects.
We can describe the differences between the two types of language by saying
that Italian is a null subject language, whereas English is a non-null subject
language. More generally, there appears to be parametric variation between
languages as to whether or not they allow finite verbs to have null subjects.
The relevant parameter (termed the Null Subject Parameter) would appear to
be a binary one, with only two possible settings for any given language L, viz.
L either does or doesn’t allow any finite verb to have a null subject. There
appears to be no language which allows the subjects of some finite verbs to be
null, but not others – e.g. no language in which it is OK to say Drinks wine
(meaning ‘He/she drinks wine’) but not OK to say Eats pasta (meaning ‘He/she
eats pasta’). The range of grammatical variation found across languages appears
to be strictly limited to just two possibilities – languages either do or don’t
systematically allow finite verbs to have null subjects.
A more familiar aspect of grammar which appears to be parametrised relates
to word order, in that different types of language have different word orders in
specific types of construction. One type of word order variation can be illustrated in relation to the following contrast between English and Chinese
(23) (a) What do you think he will say?
(b) Ni xiang ta hui shuo shenme
You think he will say what?

In simple wh-questions in English (i.e. questions containing a single word
beginning with wh- like what, where, when, why) the wh-expression is moved
to the beginning of the sentence, as is the case with what in (23a). By contrast, in
Chinese, the wh-word does not move to the front of the sentence, but rather
remains in situ (i.e. in the same place as would be occupied by a corresponding
non-interrogative expression), so that shenme ‘what’ is positioned after the verb
shuo ‘say’ because it is the (direct object) complement of the verb, and complements of the relevant type are normally positioned after their verbs in Chinese.




Thus, another parameter of variation between languages is the Wh-Parameter –
a parameter which determines whether wh-expressions are fronted (i.e. moved
to the front of the overall interrogative structure containing them) or not.
Significantly, this parameter again appears to be one which is binary in nature,
in that it allows for only two possibilities – viz. a language either does or doesn’t
allow wh-movement (i.e. movement of wh-expressions to the front of the
sentence). Many other possibilities for wh-movement just don’t seem to occur
in natural language: for example, there is no language in which the counterpart
of who undergoes wh-fronting but not the counterpart of what (e.g. no language
in which it is OK to say Who did you see? but not What did you see?). Likewise,
there is no language in which wh-complements of some verbs can undergo
fronting, but not wh-complements of other verbs (e.g. no language in which it is
OK to say What did he drink? but not What did he eat?). It would seem that the
range of parametric variation found with respect to wh-fronting is limited to just
two possibilities: viz. a language either does or doesn’t allow wh-expressions
to be systematically fronted.
Let’s now turn to look at a rather different type of word-order variation,
concerning the relative position of heads and complements within phrases. It
is a general (indeed, universal) property of phrases that every phrase has a head
word which determines the nature of the overall phrase. For example, an
expression such as students of Philosophy is a plural Noun Phrase because its
head word (i.e. the key word in the phrase whose nature determines the properties of the overall phrase) is the plural noun students: the noun students (and not
the noun Philosophy) is the head word because the phrase students of Philosophy denotes kinds of student, not kinds of Philosophy. The following expression
of Philosophy which combines with the head noun students to form the Noun
Phrase students of Philosophy functions as the complement of the noun students.
In much the same way, an expression such as in the kitchen is a prepositional
phrase which comprises the head preposition in and its complement the kitchen.
Likewise, an expression such as stay with me is a Verb Phrase which comprises
the head verb stay and its complement with me. And similarly, an expression
such as fond of fast food is an adjectival phrase formed by combining the head
adjective fond with its complement of fast food.
In English all heads (whether nouns, verbs, prepositions or adjectives etc.)
immediately precede their complements; however, there are also languages like
Korean in which all heads immediately follow their complements. In informal
terms, we can say that English is a head-first language, whereas Korean is a
head-last language. The differences between the two languages can be illustrated by comparing the English examples in (24) below with their Korean
counterparts in (25):
(24) (a) Close the door

(b) desire for change

(25) (a) Muneul dadara
Door close

(b) byunhwa edaehan galmang
change for

1.6 Parameters

In the English Verb Phrase close the door in (24a), the head verb close
immediately precedes its complement the door; if we suppose that the door is
a Determiner Phrase, then the head of the phrase (¼ the determiner the)
immediately precedes its complement (¼ the noun door). Likewise, in the
English Noun Phrase desire for change in (24b), the head noun desire immediately precedes its complement for change; the complement for change is in turn
a Prepositional Phrase in which the head preposition for likewise immediately
precedes its complement change. Since English consistently positions heads
before complements, it is a head-first language. By contrast, we find precisely
the opposite ordering in Korean. In the Verb Phrase muneul dadara (literally
‘door close’) in (25a), the head verb dadara ‘close’ immediately follows its
complement muneul ‘door’; likewise, in the Noun Phrase byunhwa-edaehan
galmang (literally ‘change-for desire’) in (25b) the head noun galmang ‘desire’
immediately follows its complement byunhwa-edaehan ‘change-for’; the
expression byunhwa-edaehan ‘change-for’ is in turn a Prepositional Phrase
whose head preposition edaehan ‘for/about’ immediately follows its complement byunhwa ‘change’ (so that edaehan might more appropriately be called
a postposition; prepositions and postpositions are differents kinds of adposition). Since Korean consistently positions heads immediately after their complements, it is a head-last language. Given that English is head-first and Korean
head-last, it is clear that the relative positioning of heads with respect to their
complements is one word-order parameter along which languages differ; the
relevant parameter is termed the Head Position Parameter.
It should be noted, however, that word-order variation in respect of the
relative positioning of heads and complements falls within narrowly circumscribed limits. There are many logically possible types of word-order variation
which just don’t seem to occur in natural languages. For example, we might
imagine that in a given language some verbs would precede and others follow
their complements, so that (e.g.) if two new hypothetical verbs like scrunge and
plurg were coined in English, then scrunge might take a following complement
and plurg a preceding complement. And yet, this doesn’t ever seem to happen:
rather, all verbs typically occupy the same position in a given language with
respect to a given type of complement.
What this suggests is that there are universal constraints (i.e. restrictions) on
the range of parametric variation found across languages in respect of the
relative ordering of heads and complements. It would seem that there are only
two different possibilities which the theory of UG allows for: a given type of
structure in a given language must either be head-first (with the relevant heads
positioned immediately before their complements) or head-last (with the relevant heads positioned immediately after their complements). Many other logically possible orderings of heads with respect to complements appear not to be
found in natural language grammars. The obvious question to ask is why this
should be. The answer given by the theory of parameters is that the Language
Faculty imposes genetic constraints on the range of parametric variation




permitted in natural language grammars. In the case of the Head Position
Parameter (i.e. the parameter which determines the relative positioning of
heads with respect to their complements), the Language Faculty allows only a
binary set of possibilities – namely that a given kind of structure in a given
language is either consistently head-first or consistently head-last.
We can generalise the discussion in this section in the following terms.
If the Head Position Parameter reduces to a simple binary choice, and if
the Wh-Parameter and the Null Subject Parameter also involve binary
choices, it seems implausible that binarity could be an accidental property of
these particular parameters. Rather, it seems much more likely that it is an
inherent property of parameters that they constrain the range of structural
variation between languages, and limit it to a simple binary choice. Generalising
still further, it seems possible that all grammatical variation between languages
can be characterised in terms of a set of parameters, and that for each parameter
the Language Faculty specifies a binary choice of possible values for the


Parameter setting

The theory of parameters outlined in the previous section has
important implications for a theory of language acquisition. If all grammatical
variation can be characterised in terms of a series of parameters with binary
settings, it follows that the only grammatical learning which children have to
undertake in relation to the syntactic properties of the relevant class of constructions is to determine (on the basis of their linguistic experience) which of
the two alternative settings for each parameter is the appropriate one for the
language being acquired. So, for example, children have to learn whether the
native language they are acquiring is a null subject language or not, whether it is
a wh-movement language or not, and whether it is a head-first language or
not . . . and so on for all the other parameters along which languages vary. Of
course, children also face the formidable task of lexical learning – i.e. building up
their vocabulary in the relevant language, learning what words mean and what
range of forms they have (e.g. whether they are regular or irregular in respect
of their morphology), what kinds of structure they can be used in and so on.
On this view, the acquisition of grammar involves the twin tasks of lexical
learning and structural learning (with the latter involving parameter-setting).
This leads us to the following view of the language acquisition process. The
central task which the child faces in acquiring a language is to construct a
grammar of the language. The innate Language Faculty incorporates (i) a set of
universal grammatical principles and (ii) a set of grammatical parameters which
impose severe constraints on the range of grammatical variation permitted in
natural languages (perhaps limiting variation to binary choices). Since universal
principles don’t have to be learned, the child’s syntactic learning task is limited

1.7 Parameter setting


to that of parameter-setting (i.e. determining an appropriate setting for each of
the relevant grammatical parameters). For obvious reasons, the theory outlined
here (developed by Chomsky at the beginning of the 1980s) is known as
Principles-and-Parameters Theory/PPT.
The PPT model clearly has important implications for the nature of the
language acquisition process, since it vastly reduces the complexity of the
acquisition task which children face. PPT hypothesises that grammatical properties which are universal will not have to be learned by the child, since they are
wired into the Language Faculty and hence part of the child’s genetic endowment: on the contrary, all the child has to learn are those grammatical properties
which are subject to parametric variation across languages. Moreover, the
child’s learning task will be further simplified if it turns out (as research since
1980 has suggested) that the values which a parameter can have fall within a
narrowly specified range, perhaps characterisable in terms of a series of binary
choices. This simplified parameter-setting model of the acquisition of
grammar has given rise to a metaphorical acquisition model in which the child
is visualised as having to set a series of switches in one of two positions
(up/down) – each such switch representing a different parameter. In the case
of the Head Position Parameter, we can imagine that if the switch is set in the
up position (for particular types of head), the language will show head-first
word order in relevant kinds of structure, whereas if it is set in the down
position, the order will be head-last. Of course, an obvious implication of the
switch metaphor is that the switch must be set in either one position or the other,
and cannot be set in both positions. (This would preclude, e.g., the possibility
of a language having both head-first and head-last word order in a given type of
The assumption that acquiring the grammar of a language involves the
relatively simple task of setting a number of grammatical parameters provides
a natural way of accounting for the fact that the acquisition of specific parameters appears to be a remarkably rapid and error-free process in young children.
For example, young children acquiring English as their native language seem
to set the Head Position Parameter at its appropriate head-first setting from
the very earliest multiword utterances they produce (at around 18 months of
age), and seem to know (tacitly, not explicitly, of course) that English is a headfirst language. Accordingly, the earliest Verb Phrases and Prepositional Phrases
produced by young children acquiring English consistently show verbs and
prepositions positioned before their complements, as structures such as the
following indicate (produced by a young boy called Jem/James at age 20 months;
head verbs are italicised in (26a) and head prepositions in (26b), and their
complements are in non-italic print):
(26) (a) Touch heads. Cuddle book. Want crayons. Want malteser. Open door. Want biscuit. Bang
bottom. See cats. Sit down
(b) On Mummy. To lady. Without shoe. With potty. In keyhole. In school. On carpet. On box.
With crayons. To mummy



The obvious conclusion to be drawn from structures like (26) is that children
like Jem consistently position heads before their complements from the very
earliest multiword utterances they produce. They do not use different orders
for different words of the same type (e.g. they don’t position the verb see after
its complement but the verb want before its complement) or for different types
of word (e.g. they don’t position verbs before and prepositions after their
A natural question to ask at this point is how we can provide a principled
explanation for the fact that from the very onset of multiword speech we find
English children correctly positioning heads before their complements. The
Principles-and-Parameters model enables us to provide an explanation for
why children manage to learn the relative ordering of heads and complements
in such a rapid and error-free fashion. The answer provided by the model is that
learning this aspect of word order involves the comparatively simple task of
setting a binary parameter at its appropriate value. This task will be a relatively
straightforward one if the Language Faculty tells the child that the only possible
choice is for a given type of structure in a given language to be uniformly headfirst or uniformly head-last. Given such an assumption, the child could set the
parameter correctly on the basis of minimal linguistic experience. For example,
once the child is able to analyse the structure of an adult utterance such as Help
Daddy and knows that it contains a Verb Phrase comprising the head verb help
and its complement Daddy, then (on the assumption that the Language Faculty
specifies that all heads of a given type behave uniformly with regard to whether
they are positioned before or after their complements) the child will automatically know that all verbs in English are canonically (i.e. normally) positioned
before their complements.
One of the questions posed by the parameter-setting model of acquisition
outlined here is just how children come to arrive at the appropriate setting for a
given parameter, and what kind(s) of evidence they make use of in setting
parameters. There are two types of evidence which we might expect to be
available to the language learner in principle, namely positive evidence and
negative evidence. Positive evidence comprises a set of observed expressions
illustrating a particular phenomenon: for example, if children’s speech input is
made up of structures in which heads precede their complements, this provides
them with positive evidence which enables them to set the Head Position
Parameter at the head-first setting appropriate to English. Negative evidence
might be of two kinds – direct or indirect. Direct negative evidence could come
from the correction of children’s errors by other speakers of the language.
However (contrary to what is often imagined), correction plays a fairly insignificant role in language acquisition, for two reasons. Firstly, correction is
relatively infrequent: adults simply don’t correct all the errors children make
(if they did, children would soon become inhibited and discouraged from
speaking). Secondly, children are notoriously unresponsive to correction, as
the following dialogue (from McNeill 1966, p. 69) illustrates:

1.7 Parameter setting


child: Nobody don’t like me
adult: No, say: ‘Nobody likes me’
child: Nobody don’t like me
(8 repetitions of this dialogue)
adult: No, now listen carefully. Say ‘Nobody likes me’
child: Oh, nobody don’t likes me

As Hyams (1986, p. 91) notes: ‘Negative evidence in the form of parental
disapproval or overt corrections has no discernible effect on the child’s developing syntactic ability.’
Direct negative evidence might also take the form of self-correction by other
speakers. Such self-corrections tend to have a characteristic intonation and
rhythm of their own, and may be signalled by a variety of fillers (such as those
italicised in (28) below):
(28) (a) The picture was hanged . . . or rather hung . . . in the Tate Gallery
(b) The picture was hanged . . . sorry hung . . . in the Tate Gallery
(c) The picture was hanged . . . I mean hung . . . in the Tate Gallery

However, self-correction is arguably too infrequent a phenomenon to play a
major role in the acquisition process.
Rather than say that children rely on direct negative evidence, we might
instead imagine that they learn from indirect negative evidence (i.e. evidence
relating to the non-occurrence of certain types of structure). Suppose that a
child’s experience includes no examples of structures in which heads follow
their complements (e.g. no Prepositional Phrases like *dinner after in which the
head preposition after follows its complement dinner, and no Verb Phrases such
as *cake eat in which the head verb eat follows its complement cake). On the
basis of such indirect negative evidence (i.e. observing that such structures
never occur in English), the child might infer that English is not a head-last
Although it might seem natural to suppose that indirect negative evidence
plays some role in the acquisition process, there are potential learnability
problems posed by any such claim. After all, the fact that a given construction
does not occur in a given chunk of the child’s experience does not provide
conclusive evidence that the structure is ungrammatical, since it may well be
that the non-occurrence of the relevant structure in the relevant chunk of
experience is an accidental (rather than a systematic) gap. Thus, the child would
need to process a very large (in principle, infinite) chunk of experience in order
to be sure that non-occurrence reflects ungrammaticality. It is implausible that
young children process massive chunks of experience in this way and search
through it for negative evidence about the non-occurrence of certain types of
structure, since this would impose an unrealistic memory load on them. In any
case, given the assumption that parameters are binary and single-valued, negative evidence becomes entirely unnecessary: after all, once the child hears
a Prepositional Phrase like with Daddy in which the head preposition with




precedes its complement Daddy, the child will have positive evidence that
English allows head-first order in Prepositional Phrases; and given the assumption that the Head Position Parameter is a binary one and the further assumption
that each parameter allows only a single setting, then it follows (as a matter
of logical necessity) that if English allows head-first Prepositional Phrases, it
will not allow head-last Prepositional Phrases. Thus, in order for the child to
know that English doesn’t allow head-last Prepositional Phrases, the child does
not need negative evidence from the non-occurrence of such structures, but rather
can rely on positive evidence from the occurrence of the converse order in headfirst structures (on the assumption that if a given structure is head-first, UG
specifies that it cannot be head-last). And, as we have already noted, a minimal
amount of positive evidence is required in order to identify English as a uniformly
head-first language (i.e. a language in which all heads precede their complements). Learnability considerations such as these have led Chomsky (1986a, p. 55)
to conclude that ‘There is good reason to believe that children learn language from