Lasnik, Howard, (2000) Syntactic Structures Revisited: contemporary lectures
on classic transformational theory, Cambridge MA.: MIT Press, 214 pages.
Review by: Michael Moss, University of Gdansk, Poland.
This is a fresh and fascinating book. Perhaps a critical review shouldn't
begin with such a positive statement, but this book deserves it. Something
which has constantly struck me as missing from the body of literature on
Generative Linguistics is a historical perspective. In the race to 'stay
current' we are often struggling, especially if we do not have a view from
building 20 to gaze from, to adopt the latest approaches into our works.
This book is refreshing and insightful in its inclusion of historical
approaches into current problems.
The book is designed as an 'introductory' graduate linguistics course.
However, in addition to introducing the generative model and the questions
it has been trying to answer, the book also presents a strong critique of
the model�s inability to gracefully explain why simple sentences such as
'John not slept' are ungrammatical in English (but perfectly acceptable in
While my overall impressions of the book are positive, there are several
problems which need to be mentioned. First, the title would imply that it is
about Syntactic Structures (Chomsky 1957), which is true for the most part
(two out of three chapters are devoted to a detailed analysis of that
approach). In fact, however, the book addresses the credibility of the
Minimalist Program and Economy approaches found in Chomsky 1993 and 1995.
Second, it is a course-book for use in first year graduate studies. However,
it assumes a solid knowledge of Syntactic Structures, and at least a cursory
knowledge of The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (LSLT) (Chomsky
1955/1975). Now that I have finished with my personal evaluation of the
book, let us proceed to a more balanced critique.
The book is divided into three major sections: 1. Structure and Infinity in
Human Language; 2. Transformational Grammar; 3. Verbal Morphology: Syntactic
Structures and beyond. As mentioned above, the first two chapters give a
solid grounding in the approach to linguistic analysis found in Syntactic
Structures and LSLT. The final chapter is a critical analysis of more
current approaches and an inquiry into the viability of the earlier
approaches in a modern setting.
Lasnik starts the book with an analysis of children's ability to acquire
language and the problem of infinity. Using all of the 'classic' arguments
he shows that it should be the point of linguistic study to explain by what
means children can use a finite set of rules to create an infinite set of
sentences, and how it is that they can do this in a very short period of
time with extremely limited instruction. This is, of course, Chomsky's
question as it has been stated since LSLT. What is nice in Lasnik�s book, is
that he does not treat the earlier works like LSLT and Syntactic Structures
as though they were of little practical value today due to their age. Taking
us through the arguments in Syntactic Structures, Lasnik also explains the
bits and pieces that are 'missing'. For instance, he points out that some of
the transformations in Syntactic Structures must imply adjunction of two
elements while others simply use permutation. I found this to be very
useful, as such distinctions are not clear from the text in Syntactic
Structures on its own. However, Lasnik assumes that the reader is quite
familiar with Syntactic Structures and the problems discussed there by
The second chapter is a critical analysis of the transformational approach
to natural language. The chapter starts with the question �What is a
transformation� and moves on from there to a detailed analysis of the actual
transformational system worked out in Syntactic Structures. One interesting
aspect of this chapter is that it is distanced from the theory of
transformational grammar enough to ask some OElow level� questions about
natural language structures. For instance, how are transformations and
logical structures such as Boolean conditions related?
The third chapter concentrates on verbal morphology as presented in
Syntactic Structures and shows how some of the approaches proposed there
deal with problems more efficiently than the current checking theory
approach. This final chapter is very well constructed, and makes a number
of interesting observations, not the least of which is that solutions to
problems like why the following sentences are unacceptable:
1) *John left not.
2) *John not left.
which were proposed in 1957 were in many ways more intuitive and
OEminimalist� than the current minimalist proposals. However, it must be
said that Lasnik is also a bit shy of details when it comes to part of his
analysis of verbal morphology in chapter 3. Specifically I have in mind his
treatment of modal verbs. On several occasions Lasnik points out that modals
are different from other verbs because they have no agreement morphology.
This is true in English, but the evidence from other languages such as
Polish where modal verbs have full inflection for number gender and tense
would indicate that modals are not to be differentiated from other verbs on
these grounds. Perhaps they are separated by semantic or subcategorizational
features, but not by their lack of agreement features.
I found this book extremely enjoyable and theoretically valuable. I think
the main point that Lasnik was trying to make (old theory does not always
mean bad theory) is extremely valuable. There is much to be gained from a
careful study of the early works in generative grammar, which students
currently entering the field might not be exposed to. This book will
hopefully encourage them to delve into the founding works of this kind of
Chomsky , Noam. 1955/1975. The logical structure of linguistic theory. New
York: Plenum Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic structures. The Hague: Mouton & Co
Chomsky, Noam. 1993. �A minimlist program for linguistic theory.� In Chomsky
1995, pages 167-217.
Chomsky , Noam. 1995. The minimalist program. Cambridge MA.: MIT Press.
My name is Michael Moss, I am currently writing a doctorate at the
University of Gdansk. My interests research interests include: theta-role
and case assignment, agreement phenomena, and subcategorization frames in