LINGUIST List 25.5038

Thu Dec 11 2014

Review: Cognitive Sci; Ling Theories; Syntax: Culicover (2013)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 10-Mar-2014
From: Luis Vicente <>
Subject: Grammar & Complexity
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Peter W. Culicover
TITLE: Grammar & Complexity
SUBTITLE: Language at the Interface of Competence and Performance
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Luis Vicente, Universität Potsdam

Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Sara Couture


Suppose that you have a set of lexical items and you want to create a grammar. You are going to need at least two types of rules, viz, syntactic rules (which tell you how to combine lexical items with each other in order to produce larger structures) and semantic mapping rules (which tell you how to interpret the structures produced by your syntactic rules). Within the framework of generative grammar, the overall trend since the 1970s has been to postulate fewer rules, but each with a wider domain of application. In turn, this requires treating idiosyncrasies as properties of lexical items, including accepting the existence of non-trivial amounts of phonetically null functional structure. For example, Potts 2002 argues that a number of apparent exceptional properties of ''as''-parentheticals and ''which''-appositives follow from a totally regular syntax and semantics, so long as one accepts that ''as'' and ''which'' have certain, very specific lexical entries. Similarly, Harley 1999 argues that various intra- and cross-linguistic asymmetries of ditransitive predicates can largely be traced to one specific difference in the functional structure of such predicates, i.e., whether they contain a functional head that expresses transfer of possession or one that expresses location. As a result of this trend, minimalist syntax has been reduced to Merge and Agree. This trend is also apparent in semantics, where the contention is that all structures can be assigned a compositional meaning through Functional Application, Predicate Modification, and Predicate Abstraction (possibly supplemented with Restrict, see Chung and Ladusaw 2003). One might want to add some linearization rules and focus alignment rules to deal with the PF interface (Kayne 1994, Zubizarreta 1998, Nunes 2002), but the general direction of research is clear: people working in these frameworks strive towards a total number of general-purpose rules in the single-digit region -- or, in a worst case scenario, in the low-tens region.

''Grammar and complexity,'' which is heavily based on previous works by Culicover and colleagues (especially Culicover 1999, “Syntactic nuts”; Culicover and Nowak 2003, “Dynamical grammar”; and Culicover and Jackendoff 2005, “Simpler syntax”), is a reaction against this trend. Culicover's main hypothesis is that a small number of general-purpose rules are insufficient to account for the whole range of phenomena one finds in natural language syntax and semantics. Rather, in order to provide adequate empirical coverage, a theory of grammar has to include the concept of ''construction''. A construction, as Culicover explains in Chapter 1 (“Theoretical background”), is essentially a Saussurean sign, i.e., an arbitrary, irreducible correspondence between form and meaning. Therefore, syntax-semantics mismatches need not necessarily be covered by appeal to a more complex lexicon (including a number of phonetically null functional heads); instead, one can assume a more parsimonious syntax and handle the syntax-semantics mapping through a dedicated constructional rule.

Additionally (and importantly), Culicover proposes that constructions do not exist in isolation from each other, but rather are arranged in a dependency tree where the more specific constructions inherit the properties of the less specific ones. For example, [main] and [embedded] are subconstructions within the more general construction [clause]; as such, they both share all the properties of [clause], and each one contributes certain additional properties not specified in [clause]. For example, [main] only has the single subconstruction [finite], whereas [embedded] is partitioned into [finite] and [infinitival]; in turn, [finite] and [infinitival] are each subpartitioned into various sub-subconstructions. Note that a node in the dependency tree may be a subconstruction of several different superconstructions. For example, the [zero] construction is specified as being a dependent of both [embedded:finite], and [embedded:infinitival]. In constructional parlance, this means that the properties that [zero] contributes (i.e., that the embedded sentence in question has a null complementizer) are added to the properties contributed by the relevant superconstructions in each individual sentence. Thus, “the man he talked to” is an instance of [clause:embedded:finite:zero], whereas “the man to talk to” is an instance of [clause:embedded:infinitival:zero]. Generalizing this idea, the syntax of a language can be modeled as a set of constructions arranged in a complex dependency tree such that, for each grammatical sentence in the language, we can specify a chain of constructions (from the least to the most specific one) that define the properties of that sentence.

The ideas summarized in the previous paragraph lead to a discussion of complexity in Chapter 2 (“The architecture of constructions”). Here, Culicover argues that each postulated construction has a cost, which negatively correlates with the generality of the construction, where generality is in turn defined in terms of the formal similarity of the elements the construction makes reference to and the evenness of the coverage of the construction. The toy example that Culicover provides on p. 48 is that “a construction that is restricted to the words ‘girl’ and ‘television’ is more costly than one that is restricted to the words ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ [LV: because ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ are more similar to each other than ‘girl’ and ‘television’ are, in the sense of having features in common]. A construction that is restricted to the words ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ is more costly than one that is restricted to all of the words that refer generically to male and female humans [LV: because the former needs to be restricted to a very specific subset of humans, whereas the latter does not]”. In principle, the fact that costlier constructions are dispreferred relative to cheaper ones can be used as a measure against the postulation of superfluous constructions (e.g., one can imagine that the best constructional grammar for a given language is the one with the minimal overall cost). In practice, though, this is a difficult idea to implement, as it involves measuring the density of regions defined by each construction in a multidimensional feature space.

The rest of the book offers a lengthy discussion of various consequences of this approach to syntax. Specifically, Chapters 3 and 4 in Part II develop a constructional analysis for a number of English phenomena, namely, relative clauses, focus inversion, sluicing, comparative correlatives, concessives, imperatives, and ''not''-topics. Part III, which consists of the single Chapter 5 (''Reflexes of processing complexity''), switches from formal complexity to processing complexity as a means to deal with the idiosyncrasies of island restrictions (drawing heavily on research by Hofmeister 2007 and Hofmeister and Sag 2010) and parasitic gaps. Finally, the three chapters of Part IV apply this line of reasoning to various aspects of language acquisition and change. As I mentioned above, these case studies are mostly updated versions of selected previous work by Culicover and colleagues. As a consequence, readers familiar with Culicover's research will find few new things in this book. Readers that are not familiar with Culicover's research might find the book useful as an introduction to Culicover's research program; however, unless they are pressed for time, they should supplement their reading of ''Grammar and complexity'' with reading of the referenced works (alternatively, they might also want to consult the existing reviews of ''Syntactic Nuts'' (Fodor 2001) and/or ''Simpler Syntax'' (McDonald 2005)).


The attentive reader might have noticed that, by defining ''construction'' in the way Culicover does, one effectively places no upper bound on the number of possible constructions. In fact, it is possible to define a language that is purely constructional, in that each sequence of sounds is arbitrarily (i.e., non-compositionally) mapped to some specific meaning. Fortunately, work on computational language evolution has shown that, given certain reasonable assumptions about the language faculty, this class of languages is highly unstable and quickly decays into a largely compositional language (cf. chapter 2 of Brighton 2003 for an illustrative summary). Thus, although in principle there are infinitely-many possible constructions, the number that one might actually find in any given language is considerably smaller (although, in any case, the number of constructions will still be considerably larger than the number of operations postulated in minimalist syntax and semantics).

More specifically, Culicover's proposal can be seen as a qualified appeal to Occam's Razor. As discussed above, his general notion of complexity is that degree of complexity of a grammar depends on the specificity of its rules (chapters 1 and 2). That is, a grammar with a small number of general-purpose rules is less complex than a grammar with a large number of idiosyncratic rules. This approach is illustrated throughout the book with the idea that constructions exist in a dependency hierarchy, with constructions at the bottom of the hierarchy being special cases of those constructions higher up. In this sense, Culicover seems to agree with the standard generative view that construction- or language-specific rules/constraints are to be avoided. However, this position is supplemented with statements like ''when we see a construction with idiosyncratic properties, a plausible analysis is that it is a construction with idiosyncratic properties'' (p. 129), which suggest that Culicover is willing to take at least some idiosyncrasies at face value -- i.e., properties that appear to be idiosyncratic reflect an actual underlying idiosyncrasy in grammar, rather than a failure of analytic insight on the part of the linguist. One might wonder to what extent this intuition is justified, rather than being a reflection of Culicover’s theoretical bias. Consider for illustration, the discussion of comparative correlatives (''the more I know people, the more I love my dog'') in chapter 4; here, Culicover argues that this class of sentences exhibit a number of idiosyncrasies that suggest a constructional analysis. The issue here is not whether a constructional analysis captures the properties of the comparative correlative (it does, as one can always define constructions in whichever way is necessary to capture the relevant properties); the issue is that, in line with his general approach, Culicover is implicitly asking the reader to accept that the properties of the comparative correlative are constructionally irreducible, i.e., not derivable from a more parsimonious syntax/semantics mapping. A number of arguments to the effect that such an alternative is possible (e.g., den Dikken 2005, Taylor 2009, Smith 2011, etc.) are dismissed almost without comment. Most of the space of chapters 3 and 4 is taken up by this type of argumentation: Culicover argues that a certain construction (focus inversion, sluicing, imperatives, etc.) is irreducibly constructional, with little to no mention of published arguments to the effect that a reduction to more general operations is feasible.

Because of his willingness to rely on a relatively large (effectively unbounded) set of constructions, I find that Culicover's proposals lack predictive bite. For example, chapter 4, which has the suggestive title ''Constructions and the notion of possible human language'', concludes with ''this perspective does not promise to distinguish between possible and impossible languages'' (p. 135). I find this conclusion surprising, given that other (non-constructional) proposals make very clear predictions about which types of languages are possible and which are not. For example, Kayne 1994 predicts the impossibility of certain word orders (e.g., penultimate position effects), and Hornstein 1999 predicts the impossibility of certain types of control relations (e.g., obligatory control with split antecedents). We know which kinds of data support these analyses, and under which kinds of data they break; if we find good evidence that the latter kind of data exists, then these analyses should have to undergo significant amendments, or even be rejected outright. Culicover’s proposals are not easily amenable to this kind of reasoning. Compare, for example, the standard Ross/Merchant analysis of sluicing with Culicover's (chapter 4, section 1). Ross and Merchant propose that an example like ''someone arrived, but I don't know who'' is derived from ''someone arrived, but I don't know who arrived'' by PF deletion (non-pronunciation) of the embedded interrogative. In contrast, Culicover proposes that there is no unpronounced structure in the sluiced sentence: ''who'', a bare wh- word, is the immediate complement of ''know''. Note that Ross and Merchant provide several theory-independent arguments in favor of a clausal-complement-plus-deletion analysis -- i.e., they point out that, with respect to several tests (word order, agreement patterns, selectional requirements, etc), ''who'' behaves as part of an embedded (but superficially invisible) clause. These results might seem to directly falsify Culicover's analysis, but he gets around them by appealing to the power of constructions: specifically, he proposes that, in “someone arrived, but I don’t know who”, the complement of “know” is a bare wh- word, but it is imbued with certain clause-like properties (e.g., it is exceptionally assigned category S, rather than NP) that make it behave as if it was a sub-constituent of a silent embedded interrogative. More generally, any property of language, no matter how problematic for other theories, falls under the scope of Culicover's analysis, so long as we are willing to grant it a construction status.

The ultimate question then, is whether Culicover's proposals merit further attention from linguists who are committed to a different view of syntax and semantics. As a member of this group of linguists, my opinion is arguably somewhat biased against Culicover's proposals, and as such I feel that the best way to conclude this review is by referring to the conclusion of Fodor's 2001 review of ''Syntactic Nuts'': we cannot deny that the relevant phenomena are worthy of investigation, but it is at least questionable whether a constructional theory like Culicover's is the best way to approach them.


Brighton, Henry. 2003. Simplicity as a driving force in linguistic evolution. Doctoral dissertation, University of Edinburgh.

Culicover, Peter. 1999. Syntactic Nuts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Culicover, Peter, and Andrzej Nowak. 2003. Dynamical grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Culicover, Peter, and Ray Jackendoff. 2005. Simpler syntax. Oxford: Blackwell.

den Dikken, Marcel. 2005. Comparative correlatives crosslinguistically. Linguistic Inquiry 36:497-532.

Fodor, Janet Dean. 2001. Parameters and the periphery: reflections on syntactic nuts. Journal of Linguistics 37:367-392.

Harley, Heidi. 1996. If you have, you can give. In Agbayani and Tang (eds.) ''Proceedings of WCCFL 15''.

Hofmeister, Philip. 2007. Representational complexity and memory retrieval in language comprehension. Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University.

Hofmeister, Philip, and Ivan Sag. 2010. Cognitive constraints and island effects. Language 86:366-415.

Hornstein, Norbert. 1999. Movement and control. Linguistic Inquiry 30:69-96.

Kayne, Richard. 1994. The antisymmetry of syntax. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McDonald, Edward. 2005. Review of Simpler Syntax. LinguistList 17.718.

Merchant, J. 2001. The syntax of silence: Sluicing, identity, and the theory of ellipsis. Oxford University Press.

Potts, Christopher. 2002. The lexical syntax and lexical semantics of parenthetical 'as' and appositive 'which'. Syntax 5:55-88.

Ross, John Robert. 1969. Guess who? The Fifth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society (CLS 5), 252–286. Chicago, IL: Chicago Linguistic Society.

Smith, E. Allyn. 2011. English comparative correlatives, conditionals, and adverbs of quantification. In Reich et al (eds.) ''Proceedings of Sinn and Bedeutung 15''.

Taylor, Heather Lee. 2009. The syntactically well-behaved comparative correlative. In Brucart et al (eds.), ''Merging features: computation, interpretation, and acquisition''. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


I'm a lecturer and researcher at the University of Potsdam (Germany), specializing in theoretical syntax and semantics. I work primarily on ellipsis, parentheticals, and coordinate structures, with occasional forays into other topics.

Page Updated: 11-Dec-2014