Generative Grammar: Definition and Examples

generative grammar

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In linguistics, generative grammar is grammar (or set of rules) that indicates the structure and interpretation of sentences which native speakers of a language accept as belonging to the language.

Adopting the term generative from mathematics, linguist Noam Chomsky introduced the concept of generative grammar in the 1950s. This theory is also known as transformational grammar, a term still used today.

Key Takeaways: Generative Grammar

• Generative grammar is a theory of grammar, first developed by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s, that is based on the idea that all humans have an innate language capacity.

• Linguists who study generative grammar are not interested in prescriptive rules; rather, they are interested in uncovering the foundational principals that guide all language production.

• Generative grammar accepts as a basic premise that native speakers of a language will find certain sentences grammatical or ungrammatical, and that these judgments give insight into the rules governing the use of that language.

Definition

Grammar refers to the set of rules that structure a language, including syntax (the arrangement of words to form phrases and sentences) and morphology (the study of words and how they are formed). Generative grammar is a theory of grammar that holds that human language is shaped by a set of basic principles that are part of the human brain (and even present in the brains of small children). This "universal grammar," according to linguists like Chomsky, comes from our innate language faculty.

In "Linguists for Non-Linguists," Frank Parker and Kathryn Riley argue that generative grammar is a kind of "unconscious knowledge" that allows a person, no matter what language they speak, to form correct sentences:

"Simply put, a generative grammar is a theory of competence: a model of the psychological system of unconscious knowledge that underlies a speaker's ability to produce and interpret utterances in a language...A good way of trying to understand [Noam] Chomsky's point is to think of a generative grammar as essentially a definition of competence: a set of criteria that linguistic structures must meet to be judged acceptable."

Generative grammar is distinct from other grammars such as prescriptive grammar, which attempts to establish standardized language rules that certain usages "right" or "wrong," and descriptive grammar, which attempts to describe language as it is actually used (including the study of pidgins and dialects). Instead, generative grammar attempts to get at something deeper—the foundational principles that make language possible across all of humanity.

For example, a prescriptive grammarian may study how parts of speech are ordered in English sentences, with the goal of laying out rules (nouns precede verbs in simple sentences, for example). A linguist studying generative grammar, however, is more likely to be interested in issues such as how nouns are distinguished from verbs across multiple languages.

Principles of Generative Grammar

The main principle of generative grammar is that all humans are born with an innate capacity for language—and that this capacity shapes the rules for what is considered "correct" grammar in a language. The idea of an innate language capacity—or a "universal grammar"—is not accepted by all linguists. Some believe, to the contrary, that all languages are learned, and therefore based on certain constraints.

Proponents of the "universal grammar" argument believe that children, when they are very young, are not exposed to enough linguistic information to learn the rules of grammar. That children do in fact learn the rules of grammar is proof, according to some linguists, that there is an innate language capacity that allows them to overcome the "poverty of the stimulus."

Examples of Generative Grammar

As generative grammar is a "theory of competence," one way to test it is with what is called a grammaticality judgment task. This involves presenting a native speaker with a series of sentences and having them decide whether the sentences are grammatical (acceptable) or ungrammatical (unacceptable). For example:

  • The man is happy.
  • Happy man is the.

A native speaker would judge the first sentence to be acceptable and the second to be unacceptable. From this, we can make certain assumptions about the rules governing the order of parts of speech in English sentences (for instance, a "to be" verb linking a noun and an adjective must follow the noun and precede the adjective).