Generative Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

generative grammar
"A person who knows a language," Noam Chomsky wrote, "has acquired a system of rules and principles--a 'generative grammar' in technical terms--that associates sound and meaning in some specific fashion" (Language and Freedom, 1970). (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

In linguistics, generative grammar is a 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. Also known as transformational-generative grammar.

See the observations below.

Also, see:


  • "Generative grammar can be regarded as a kind of confluence of long-forgotten concerns of the study of language and mind, and new understanding provided by the formal sciences."
  • "A generative grammar of, say, English is an attempt at providing a fully explicit and mechanical statement of the rules governing the construction of English sentences. That is, the rules of the grammar must tell us exactly what can be counted as a grammatical sentence of English while excluding everything that is not a sentence of English."
  • The Evolution of Generative Grammar
    - "A significant break in linguistic tradition came in 1957, the year American Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures appeared and presented the concept of a 'transformational generative grammar.' A generative grammar is essentially one that 'projects' one or more given sets of sentences that make up the language one is describing, a process characterizing human language's creativity. Modified in its theoretical principles and methods over succeeding years by many linguists, principally in the USA, a transformational generative grammar attempts to describe a native speaker's linguistic competence by framing linguistic descriptions as rules for 'generating' an infinite number of grammatical sentences.
  • A Theory of Competence
    "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."


    Noam Chomsky, ​The Minimalist Program. The MIT Press, 1995

    R.L. Trask and Bill Mayblin, Introducing Linguistics, 2000

    Frank Parker and Kathryn Riley, Linguistics for Non-Linguists. Allyn and Bacon, 1994