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Review of  Explaining Syntax

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: Explaining Syntax
Book Author: Peter W. Culicover
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 25.4836

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This book is a collection of thirteen of the author's journal articles, originally published at dates from 1972 to 2006; some are single-author papers, but most are co-authored. Except for the first, the chapters are equipped for republication with a paragraph or two of ''remarks'' relating the individual chapters to the book as a whole, and (particularly with older papers where Culicover would now treat some phenomenon differently) there are occasional new footnotes. Otherwise, the texts are unaltered from the original publications, for instance a chapter refers to itself as ''this paper'' rather than ''this chapter''.

Chapter 1, ''The simpler syntax hypothesis'' (co-authored with Ray Jackendoff and first published in 2006) is presented here as a ''Prologue'' to the book as a whole. The other twelve chapters are grouped under the headings ''Representations'', ''Structures'', and ''Computation''. The first of these headings accounts for half of the book, and Culicover glosses it as ''various aspects of what the proper domain of syntax is''. ''Structures'' is about ''how to properly characterize the syntax of a language''. ''Computation'' is a short section (63 out of 380 pages in the book as a whole), glossed by Culicover as ''reasons why some syntactic possibilities might be more likely to be encountered than others''. (Footnote 8 on p. 95 makes clear that for Culicover ''computational work'' does not mean research using computers, but rather work which brings considerations about how speakers and hearers mentally process utterances to bear on linguistic theories.)

Since he presents it as a ''prologue'', it is reasonable to take Chapter 1 as encapsulating the main gist of what Culicover is aiming to achieve with the book. The point of Chapter 1 is to argue that linguistics ought not to treat complex sentences as having structures which include hidden elements that function to make the logic of the sentences explicit. Rather, linguists should postulate syntactic structures that are as close as possible to the word-sequences actually spoken or written (''simpler syntax''). A concrete example would be ''Ozzie tried not to drink'', where we understand that Ozzie was the ''drinker'' as well as the ''trier'', although at the surface only the verb ''tried'' has ''Ozzie'' as subject. Culicover (actually Culicover and Jackendoff, but it would be tedious to mention co-authors here whenever a chapter that has one is quoted) says that ''mainstream generative grammar'' responds to those facts by postulating a deep structure or logical form in which the object of ''tried'' is a clause [PRO not to drink], where PRO is ''an unpronounced pronoun whose antecedent is Ozzie''. This is said to be required by an axiom, identified as ''classical Fregean compositionality'', said to be shared by many approaches to language, including much of formal logic. Culicover, on the other hand, prefers to say that the only syntactic structure for the sentence is one in which no PRO element or other subject for ''drink'' appears; our understanding that the sentence is about Ozzie not drinking arises from our semantic interpretation of that structure -- it is not encoded within the structure itself.

In this example, the covert structure rejected by Culicover is a single element, but in other cases it can be highly ramified. For the example ''Joe has put those raw potatoes in the pot'', Culicover's preferred structure has fourteen nonterminal nodes, whereas the ''mainstream'' or Minimalist Programme analysis has 33 nonterminals and several unpronounced terminal nodes; and whereas Culicover's nonterminal labels are all rather traditional grammatical concepts, e.g. S, NP, Aux, VP, Det, the mainstream labels are heavily theory-laden, e.g. TP, T', DP[nom], Spec, v. In Chapter 2 Culicover quotes Merchant (2001) as a prominent representative of the approach which he opposes.

''Simpler syntax'' is one theme running through most chapters of this book, but there is also a second theme linking several of the later chapters which is quite separate. This is the idea that language universals can sometimes be explained in terms of a pressure to use structures which facilitate speakers' and/or hearers' mental processing tasks. That idea is not original with Culicover -- it is perhaps most prominently associated with John Hawkins, who is cited several times here -- but Culicover examines it in novel ways, and it would underplay the book to suggest that it is exclusively about the topic introduced in the Prologue.


To this reviewer, the idea that surface grammar is ''all the grammar there is'' is very welcome. The abstruse, highly-ramified tree structures postulated by mainstream generative grammarians strain credulity and seem underdetermined by any observable realities.

Nevertheless, I have problems with Culicover's concept of semantic interpretation doing what ''simpler syntax'' does not. Repeatedly (e.g. pp. 16, 26, 40, 72) Culicover assumes that the meaning of a sentence is something which is to be encoded as a ''semantic representation'' -- that is, another data structure of some kind, different from the syntactic structure of the sentence. That has been treated as axiomatic by many linguists from Katz and Fodor (1963) onwards, but it is very questionable. Philosophers of logic, who have been thinking about the formalization of meaning longer than linguists, usually conceive of the meaning of a sentence not as a particular data structure but as a set of relationships with other sentences. The reason why ''Ozzie tried not to drink'' is about Ozzie drinking is that it implies, for instance, ''If Ozzie drank, his attempt failed'', where ''Ozzie'' is overtly the subject of ''drank''. Formalizing these relationships would be about defining formal rules of inference specifying when one sentence follows from another or others, not about defining ''representations'' of the meanings of individual sentences.

(The reference to ''Fregean compositionality'' might seem to lend the ''semantic representation'' concept some philosophical respectability. But I am not aware that Gottlob Frege discussed such a concept, and Jeffry Pelletier (2001) says that Frege never stated and perhaps did not believe in the compositionality principle to which Culicover appeals.)

Culicover says (pp. 2-3) ''The fact that Ozzie is understood as the 'drinker' results from a principle of semantic interpretation that assigns 'Ozzie' this extra role. Thus, semantics can have more elaborate structure than the syntax that expresses it.'' But if syntax is made simpler merely by moving structural complexities out of syntactic structure into another structure called a ''semantic representation'', it is not clear what has been gained.

One can also ask how simple ''simpler syntax'' really is. Chapter 8 argues that English complement clauses have the complementizer structure:

[CP Spec C [PolP Spec Pol [IP ... ] ] ]

(where the dots stand for the substance of the clause). ''IP'' is Inflection Phrase, roughly speaking a simple clause, and the kind of theory-laden concept which the Prologue chapter seemed to reject. This looks like the sort of complicated covert structure which ''simpler syntax'' holds to be unnecessary.

If there is a contradiction here, that could be because, over the 30+ years represented by these papers, Culicover like other generative linguists has heavily revised his conception of how grammar works. His new footnotes sometimes say things like (p. 169, added to a transformational analysis first published in 1982) ''The use of transformational rules to generate tag questions is a device rooted in the earliest period of generative grammar ... a more contemporary approach would take a constructional perspective ...''. The reader wonders how much of the chapter would remain valid if recast into the grammatical approach Culicover now favours. Presumably replacing a transformational with a constructional perspective could not simply leave the substantial content of the chapter unaltered, otherwise the two perspectives would appear to be mere notational variants of one another. But it would be taking a lot on trust to assume that, though significant revision of the content would be needed, if it were carried out the overall message of the chapter would be sure to survive unscathed.

Culicover might have made his book more valuable if, rather than reprinting the papers unaltered, he had reworked the contents so as to fit them together into a coherent book-length exposition, all conforming to a shared framework of grammatical assumptions which he was currently willing to defend. The new ''remarks'' and footnotes are a gesture in this direction but fall far short of what is ideally needed. Indeed, Culicover does not even correct obvious mistakes in the originals. On p. 35, for instance, a series of example sentences contains an alternation between the phrases ''rob a bar'' and ''rob a bank''. The reader's immediate reaction is to take this difference as significant (small wording differences like this, e.g. ''got the present'' v. ''got the president'' on p. 132, are often crucial to Culicover's arguments), but on further examination it seems that the bar/bank case is just a typing error which has been preserved from the original publication in 1972 through into the new millennium.

The low point of the book is Chapter 12, where Culicover claims to explain Greenbergian language universals, such as the correlation of verb-first word order with prepositions rather than postpositions, via a computer simulation. The simulation is displayed graphically as a large square comprising many small squares representing individual speakers; initially the large square is speckled randomly in eight colours, representing idiolects characterized by each logically possible combination of three binary properties. After 150 steps the display has evolved to contain just two domains each of a single colour: many logical possibilities, comparable to ''verb-first but postpositions'', have been eliminated. But the experiment is lamentably misdescribed. Culicover says that the population contains 2500 (50 x 50) individuals, whereas it is easy to see that it contains 30 x 30 = 900 individuals. Much more important, we are told nothing whatever about what happens from step to step in the simulation. We see that a random arrangement of eight colours evolves into clumps of two colours, but we have no idea what drives this in the simulation or whether that is a plausible model of something that affects languages in reality. This chapter is effectively empty.

(In any case, I should have thought that a simple alternative explanation for the verb-first/prepositions finding, not considered by Culicover, might be that prepositions have typically developed out of verbs through grammaticalization. I do not know whether there is evidence for such an origin in the Indo-European family, but in some languages it is obvious.)

Chapter 12 is not typical, though. In general, I found that Culicover's book provided a valuable window into the thinking of a linguist who is hard-nosed enough to steer an intellectual course of his own rather than just accepting the current theoretical consensus, but who nevertheless sees the generative approach as a suitable overall framework for exploring grammar. The book is worth reading. A book which reworked the original papers rather than just reprinting them could have been more worthwhile still.


Katz, J.J. and J.A. Fodor. 1963. The structure of a semantic theory. Language 39.170-210. Reprinted in J.A. Fodor and J.J. Katz, eds., 1964, The Structure of Language: readings in the philosophy of language. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, pp. 479--518.

Merchant, J. 2001. The Syntax of Silence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pelletier, F.J. 2001. Did Frege believe Frege's Principle? Journal of Logic, Language, and Information 10.87--114.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199660230
Pages: 400
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