Definition and Examples of Transformations in Grammar

A syntactic rule that can move an element from one position to another

A piece of half eaten cake on a disposable plate

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In grammar, a transformation is a type of syntactic rule or convention that can move an element from one position to another in a sentence. It comes from the Latin, "across forms" and is pronounced "trans-for-MAY-shun." It is also known as a T-rule


In "Aspects of the Theory of Syntax," Noam Chomsky wrote, "A transformation is defined by the structural analysis to which it applies and the structural change that it effects on these strings." Other authors, linguists, and grammarians described the term as follows:

"In traditional grammar, the concept of transformation was used mainly as a didactic means for developing the appropriate linguistic habits....
"The credit for making the concept of transformation popular and significant belongs primarily to Zellig S. Harris and Noam Chomsky....Harris introduced the concept of transformation to linguistics in order to reinforce the effectiveness of the method of reducing utterances to certain basic sentence structures."

– Kazimierz Polanski, "Some Remarks on Transformations," in Linguistics Across Historical and Geographical Boundaries, ed. by D. Kastovsky, et al. Walter de Gruyter, 1986

"Some of [Noam] Chomsky's notation, and some of his terminology too--including transform itself, defined in part by the Random House Dictionary as 'changing the form of (a figure, expression, etc.) without in general changing the value' -- have a distinctly mathematical air about them. . . . [But] TG [transformational grammar] is not a mathematical grammar. The processes it describes are not mathematical processes and the symbols it describes are not used with their mathematical meaning.
"Chomsky's grammar is a 'generative grammar of the transformational type.' By that he means that it makes explicit the rules for generating new sentences, not for analyzing existing sentences; the rules themselves provide the analysis. And he means that among the rules are those for transforming one type of sentence into another (affirmative into negative, simple into compound or complex, and so forth); the transformations make the relationships among such sentences clear."

– W.F. Bolton, A Living Language: The History and Structure of English. Random House, 1982

Example of a Transformation

"Passive Agent Deletion. In many instances, we delete the agent in passive sentences, as in sentence 6:
6. The cake was eaten.
When the subject agent is not identified, we use an indefinite pronoun to fill the slot where it would appear in the deep structure, as in 6a:
6a. [Someone] ate the cake.
This deep structure, however, would result in the surface structure of 6b:
6b. The cake was eaten [by someone].
To account for sentence 6, T-G grammar proposes a deletion rule that eliminates the prepositional phrase containing the subject agent. We can say, therefore, that sentence has undergone two transformations, passive and passive agent deletion."
– James Dale Williams, The Teacher's Grammar Book, 2nd ed. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Transformations in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Nov. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, November 28). Definition and Examples of Transformations in Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Transformations in Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).

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