LINGUIST List 15.1893

Tue Jun 22 2004

Review: Linguistic Theories/Syntax: Postal (2004)

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  1. Fredrik Heinat, Skeptical Linguistic Essays

Message 1: Skeptical Linguistic Essays

Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2004 15:17:26 +0200
From: Fredrik Heinat <>
Subject: Skeptical Linguistic Essays

AUTHOR: Paul M. Postal
TITLE: Skeptical Linguistic Essays
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2004
Announced at

Fredrik Heinat, University of Lund.

Postal's book is a collection of 14 papers divided into two parts. The
six papers in the first part deal with as diverse topics as locative
inversion (chapter 1), raising from subject to complement position of
P (ch.2), complex DP shift and right node raising (ch.3),
chromaticity, a new category distinction of English DPs (ch.4),
negative polarity items (NPI) (ch.5) and the openness of Natural
Languages (ch.6). Postal's purpose with the first five chapters is to
show that even in such a well studied language as English, there are
still too many things left unexplained to warrant the optimistic view
that 'linguists are today in possession of, or even close to, adequate
descriptive accounts of syntax' (p.8). The second part consists of
eight chapters dealing with studies in 'junk linguistics'. The first
chapter in this part deals with strong crossover effects (ch.7). The
next chapter deals with the passive voice (ch.8). Chapter 9 is a paper
previously published as a topic-comment paper in Natural Language and
Linguistic Theory, 'Advances in Linguistic Rhetoric'. Chapter 10 gives
Postal's view of the refereeing process. Chapter 11 explores the most
irresponsible passage in linguistics, according to Postal. Chapters 12
and 13 are analyses of the uses of the words 'automatically',
'virtually', 'natural' and '(virtually) conceptually necessary' in the
linguistic literature. The final chapter is a list of advice how to
deal with junk linguistics.

The first chapter, 'A Paradox in English Syntax' deals with locative
inversion structures (1).

(1) Into the room walked a knight in shining armour.

The paradox according to Postal (p.17) is that there is abundant
evidence for treating the preverbal PP as the subject of the sentence
(Bresnan 1994), but on the other hand, there is abundant evidence that
this PP is not a subject. Rather, it behaves similar to subjects of
expletive clauses. Postal's analysis of these PPs is couched in the
framework of arc-pair grammar (Johnson & Postal 1980). The conclusion
is that these constructions have an invisible expletive and the PP has
certain properties in common with ordinary subjects.

The chapter contains a wealth of data and interesting discussions.
Postal's analysis is rather technical and some familiarity with arc
pair grammar is a plus for the reader. Even though Postal introduces
the framework, it is difficult for the uninitiated reader to grasp all
the details.

The second chapter 'A Putatively Banned Type of Raising' deals with
raising to complement of P (RCP) (2).

(2) Mary can depend on Bill to do something foolish.

The DP 'Bill' seems to have raised from the subject position of the
embedded clause to the complement position of the preposition, hence
the name RCP. Postal takes a starting point the general consensus of
three major syntactic theories (government and binding, lexical
functional grammar, and head-driven phrase structure grammar) that RCP
does not exist in natural language. First Postal gives the (theory
internal) reasons for each of the theories above, why there cannot be
such a thing as RCP. In the rest of the chapter he argues, supported
by data, that there in fact is RCP and that 'theoretical convergence'
does not mean that whatever theories converge on can be taken for

In the third chapter 'A New Raising Mystery' Postal explores the
correlation between Right Node Raising and Complex DP Shift, and
subject antipronominal contexts. In general both Right Node Raising
and Complex DP Shift are insensitive to subject antipronominal
contexts (Postal 1994). The exception, Postal argues is when there is
raising to object. More specifically, the restriction is connected to
raising to object of a resumptive (invisible) pronoun linked to Right
Node Raising or Complex DP shift. According to Postal it is this
resumptive pronoun (RP) that is raised to an antipronominal position
and causes the ungrammaticality. The structure looks as (3) (Postal's
(36) p.117).

(3) *Ted claimed t1 <RP1 to be the matter with the fuel pump> -
[something probably irreparable]1

Using partly new data, Postal concludes that subject to object raising
exists, that there is evidence for invisible pronouns in
topicalization clefts, object raising, object deletion and parasitic
gaps, and that this kind of analysis requires some kind of 'look
ahead', which disfavours any kind of grammar that does not allow it.

In chapter four, 'Chromaticity', Postal introduces a new category
distinction for nouns. DPs can be divided into 'chromatic' and
'nonchromatic'. The terminology is based on the fact that the
nonchromatic DPs have non-specific and very general meaning. According
to Postal this is a closed class, containing e.g. the following DPs:
'something', 'anything', 'nothing', 'what', 'whatever'. Postal
identifies seven properties that distinguish between chromatic and
nonchromatic DPs. There are also selectional restrictions. Certain
verbs obligatory selects for chromatic DPs, e.g. 'speak' in (4)

(4) Mary speaks some/every language/*something/*stuff.

Certain environments require a nonchromatic DP, e.g. 'be the matter
with' as in (5).

(5) Nothing/something/*old age/*mould is the matter with that cheese.

There are also agreement phenomena with e.g. pronouns, relative
clauses, ellipsis and subject control. As pointed out by Postal, this
chapter is very informal in nature and rather than giving a detailed
analysis of the phenomenon it fleshes out the generalisations a proper
analysis must account for.

Chapter five, The Structure of One Type of American English Vulgar
Minimizer' deals with the syntax of vulgar minimizers, like 'squat',
'shit', etc (5).

(5) a. Mary knows shit about quantum physics. 
 b. Mary doesn't know shit about quantum physics.

They apparently behave like 'nothing' and 'anything', but, according
to Postal, contrary to intuition it does not make sense to treat these
minimizers as homonyms. Instead he suggests the following structure
(6)(Postal's (32) p166):

(6) squat = [DP [D Zero] + [N squat]]

where the determiner is similar to the numeral zero. He also extends
this analysis to the more standard form word 'nothing'.

The last chapter in the first group of essays, 'The Openness of
Natural Language' presents arguments against the possibility for NLs
to have proof-theoretic/generative grammars. Postal's main point is
that NLs are 'open'. Using direct speech as part of the data, he
claims that the openness of NL, invalidates Chomsky's (1959) claims
that sentences have finite length, a finite vocabulary, and that a
generative grammar is an adequate tool for describing NL.

The second part of the book is called 'Studies of Junk
Linguistics'. Of the eight papers in this section, the first two are
definitely the most interesting ones (from a linguistic point of
view). The first, 'Junk Syntax 1: A Supposed Account of Strong
Crossover Effects' (SCE) is a critique of the attempts, or rather the
lack of attempts, in government and binding theory to reduce the
effects of SCE to binding principle C violations. Postal claims that
these effects have never been proven and gives an extensive overview
of SCE and lots of data that refutes the principle C account.

The next chapter, 'Junk Syntax 2: ''There Remain a Few as Yet
Unexplained Exception''' is written in a similar vein. But here it is
the government and binding analysis of passives that is under
scrutiny. The starting point is the transformational account of
passives given in Syntactic Structures. Postal shows that there are
three major problems with this account and its variant (move
alpha). First, there is overgeneration (with for instance
'buy'). Second, undergeneration (e.g. double objects and
pseudopassives). Third, there is no satisfactory account of the
'by'-phrase. Just as in the previous chapter the reader gets a
thorough introduction and background to the topic. There are also lots
of data and arguments for why the analysis in question fails. This
chapter is also a harsh critique of how the transformational account
has more or less been taken for granted in government and binding,
despite the fact that all data have been known, and even cited in the
relevant literature.

The third chapter in the second section, 'Advances in Linguistic
Rhetoric' is a reprint from Natural Language and Linguistic Theory. Of
the studies in junk linguistics this is the most entertaining and
enjoyable paper. The next four chapters do not focus on junk
linguistics in general (even though government and binding got most of
the bashing in the previous chapters), but rather on one particular
linguist, which gives the reader the impression that as long as you
keep out of government and binding/the minimalist program, or if you
don't do what Chomsky says, you are not doing junk linguistics. This
is not to say that Postal's critique is unjustified, but it is tedious
reading after a while. In addition these are not the kind of papers
you expect when you read the blurb. (And definitely not what you want
to pay 39.95 dollars for when you don't expect to get it.)

The final chapter contains guidelines for dealing with junk
linguistics. They are very general and can, and should, be applied to
any science. The long and the short of this list how to avoid junk
linguistics is: don't do it.

This book is a goldmine for advanced students in syntax interested in,
and particularly starting to work on, locative inversion, raising,
strong crossover effects or passives. The chapters dealing with these
topics give thorough theoretical background, often from more than one
theoretical perspective, and a host of data and references. The last
part of book gives the reader something to think about concerning
ethics in science, but is slightly tiresome after a while. Even though
the criticism of Chomsky is justified the reader keeps wondering if
junk linguistics is only carried out in government and
binding/minimalist program or if it exists in other generative
frameworks as well, not to mention non- generative ones. Some previous
knowledge of syntactic theory, particularly government and
binding/minimalism, is a plus in order to fully appreciate Postal's
criticism. To conclude, I take Postal's advice to students to my
heart; Beware, be sceptical.

Bresnan, J. 1994. Locative Inversion and the Architecture of Universal 
Grammar. Language 70:72-131. 

Chomsky, N. 1959. On Certain Formal Properties of Grammars. Information 
and Control 2:137-167. 

Johnson, D. E. & P. M. Postal. 1980. Arc Pair Grammar. Princeton, New 
Jersey: Princeton University Press. 

Postal, P. M. 1994. Parasitic and Pseudo- Parasitic Gaps. Linguistic 
Inquiry 25:63-117.

Fredrik Heinat is a Ph.D. student at the Department of English at the
University of Lund. His research interests are the syntactic structure
of pronouns, reflexives, and binding theory.
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