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Review of  Is the Best Good Enough? Optimality and Competition in Syntax

Reviewer: Melissa Svendsen
Book Title: Is the Best Good Enough? Optimality and Competition in Syntax
Book Author: Pilar Barbosa Paul A Hagstrom Danny Fox Martha J. McGinnis
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Issue Number: 10.1147

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Barbosa, P, D. Fox, P. Hagstrom, M. McGinnis and D. Pesetsky (eds) (1998)
Is the Best Good Enough. MIT Press and MITWPL: Cambridge MA.

Reviewed by Melissa Svendsen, University of Victoria.

This volume contains sixteen articles generally focused on the application
of Optimality Theory to syntax. Optimality Theory originated in
phonology, with Prince and Smolensky's "Optimality Theory: Constraint
Interaction in Generative Grammar" (1993), and has subsequently been
extended to morphology, syntax and other areas of generative linguistics.
The central premise of Optimality Theory is that universal grammar consists
of a set of violable constraints, and that the grammars of individual
languages consist of different rankings of those constraints. The articles
in this volume explore the implications of this model for syntax and
related subjects. Most, though not all, of the articles assume the basic
tenets of Optimality Theory, which are that constraints are ranked and

In "Whot?" Peter Ackema and Ad Neeleman give an Optimality Theoretic
account of variation in wh-questions in English, Czech and Chinese, using
constraints requiring that question features and scope be marked and that
elements not move. In English, the constraint that question features must
be marked outranks the constraint against movement, which in turn outranks
the constraint requiring that scope be marked; in Czech, the constraints
requiring that question features and scope be marked both rank above the
constraint against movement; and in Chinese the constraint against movement
is ranked above the other two.

In "Optimality and Inversion in Spanish," Eric Bakovic accounts for
variation among dialects of Spanish with respect to subject/verb inversion
in matrix and subordinate wh-clauses. He does this by interleaving two
constraints -- one requiring that syntactic operators c-command their
extended projections and another against traces -- with a universal
subhierarchy of constraints that favour syntactic operators being in
specifier position. The constraints in this subhierarchy are ranked
according to the degree to which the operator in question is 'argumental'.

In "Morphology Completes with Syntax: Explaining Typological Variation in
Weak Crossover Effects," Joan Bresnan, working within the framework of
Lexical-Functional Grammar, suggests that cross-linguistic variation in the
'weak crossover effects' results from competition between constraints on
parallel structures. In her analysis, a constraint on linear order
operates on categorial structure (roughly a phase marker), and a constraint
on syntactic rank operates on f-structure (roughly a predicate structure).
Since the categorial and predicate structures of a sentence may not be
exactly parallel, the constraints operating on them may conflict.

In "Anaphora and Soft Constraints," Luigi Burzio argues that three
interacting hierarchies of violable constraints account for the
distribution of anaphors better than does standard Binding Theory. Like
Bakovic, Burzio argues for the interleaving of constraint hierarchies which
themselves have fixed internal structure. In other words, any constraint
from Hierarchy A may outrank any constraint from Hierarchy B, but
Constraint 1 from Hierarchy A always outranks Constraint 2 of Hierarchy A.

In "Some Observations on Economy in Generative Grammar," Noam Chomsky gives
a thumbnail sketch of "considerations of economy" in generative syntax as a
whole, and in the Minimalist Program in particular.

In "Locality in Variable Binding," Danny Fox argues that if two potential
binders of a given variable yield the same interpretation, the existence of
the local binder blocks the binding of that variable by the more distant
binder. He goes on to suggest that while some inviolable conditions, such
as c-command as a prerequisite for binding, can exclude representations
from the candidate set, others, such as Binding Conditions and Parallelism,
apply to the output of the Optimality Theoretic selection. Thus he seems
to lean toward confining Optimality Theoretic processes to certain
components of the grammar.

In "Optimality Theory and Human Sentence Processing," Edward Gibson and
Kevin Broihier argue that the 'winner-takes-all' approach of standard
Optimality Theory (in which the violation of any number of lower ranked
constraints is preferable to the violation of just one highly ranked
constraint) does not account for the facts of sentence parsing. Instead,
they argue for a 'cumulative constraint weighting system', in which the
violation of a highly ranked constraint may be preferred to multiple
violations of lower ranked constraints.

In "Optimal Subjects and Subject Universals" Jane Grimshaw and Vieri
Samek-Lodovici account for pro-drop (the absence of a pronominal) and
subject-verb inversion in Italian by proposing that Italian has a high
ranking for two constraints -- one against overtly realizing an argument
that is coreferent with the topic and another requiring that the left edge
of a focused constituent be aligned with the right edge of a maximal

In "Semantic and Pragmatic Context-Dependence: The Case of Reciprocals"
Yookyang Kim and Stanley Peters argue that there are eight possible
interpretations of reciprocal elements (each other and one another), which
form a candidate set from which the grammar selects the strongest one that
is consistent with the context.

In "When is Less More?" Geraldine Legendre, Paul Smolensky, and Colin
Wilson give an Optimality Theoretic formalization of the Economy Principle
'Shortest Move' ('Shortest Link' in their system) using the constraint
MinLink, which is itself a universal subhierarchy of constraints against a
chain link crossing a maximal projection which is not L-marked. Using
MinLink and a small set of additional constraints (most of which are
independently motivated), they account for cross-linguistic variation in a
variety of extraction phenomena, such as wh-island and superiority effects.

In "Reference Set, Minimal Link Condition and Parameterization," Masanori
Nakamura argues that wh-extraction in Tagalog involves competition among
forms differing in both syntax and morphology, with the construction with
the shortest wh-chain blocking competing constructions involving longer
wh-chains. (This paper is solidly in the Minimalist Program and, like
Chomsky's contribution, can at most be said to have an Optimality Theoretic

In "On the Nature of Inputs and Outputs: A Case Study of Negation," Mark
Newson accounts for differences in the syntax of negation in English and
Hungarian. He suggests that in English a constraint requiring that all
elements be licenced is highly ranked, while in Hungarian a constraint
requiring that all heads be overt is highly ranked.

In "Some Optimality Principles of Sentence Pronunciation," David Pesetsky
argues that the laws governing movement are separate from the laws
governing the pronunciation of moved elements, and that the latter are best
characterized as Optimality Theoretic constraints.

In "Constraints on Local Economy," Geoffrey Poole, working within the
Minimalist Program, argues that the Minimalist principle 'Procrastinate'
can not account for economy in derivations. Instead, he proposes that the
relevant principle is one whereby an element moves or is inserted into a
position in which all its formal features are checked.

In "The Logical Problem of Language Acquisition in Optimality Theory,"
Douglas Pulleyblank and William J. Yurkel show that previously proposed
learning mechanisms can not adequately describe how language learners
acquire constraint rankings. They then propose a 'genetic algorithm,' in
which the 'fittest' constraint sequences recombine to form new sequences,
which are then evaluated with respect to incoming data, yielding a new
determination of which constraints are 'fittest'.

In "Error-Driven Learning in Optimality Theory via the efficient
Computation of Optimal Forms," Bruce Tesar proposes that every example of
an optimal form encountered by a learner contains implicit information
about non-optimal forms. If the learning mechanism is currently
entertaining a hypothetical constraint ranking, then it can compare the
sub-optimal (not-encountered) form that result from that constraint ranking
with the optimal (encountered) form, and adjust the hypothetical constraint
ranking accordingly.

Critical Evaluation
The excellent introduction gives a precise and elegant explanation of the
contrast between what the author's call the 'Standard Scenario' -- the
dominant paradigm in generative linguistics until very recently -- and what
they call the 'Optimality Scenario,' in which rules and constraints are
ranked and violable. This is followed be a brief survey of historical
antecedents of Optimality Theory within Generative Linguistics, and then by
an overview of the articles in the volume.

The overview, which highlights similarities and differences among the
approaches taken by the various contributors, is very important to seeing
the volume as an integrated whole. It is also a handy reference source,
especially since most of the articles lack abstracts, and some of them also
lack coherent summaries.

The quality of the papers themselves in uneven, as is the editing. Many
present ideas that are both interesting and original, but in ways that are
sometimes difficult for the reader to follow. In some, individual
constraints are used without adequate introduction. In others, there is a
paucity of data, as if contributors get carried away by the theoretical
interest of their work, and lose sight of the empirical basis of the

Simply keeping track of the constraints can be a challenge for the reader.
T.S. Eliot said that "the naming of cats is a difficult matter" and the
same may be said about the naming of constraints. In Optimality Theory(or
at least in the subset of work on syntax with which I am familiar)
constraints seem to be named without a great deal of thought for the reader
who must endeavour to keep them all straight. Particularly problematic is
the fact that sometimes what is essentially the same constraint turns up
under several different names. Occasionally this reflects a significant
theoretical difference (as in the difference between Grimshaw's Stay and
Legendre et al's *t, which state that an element does not move and that
traces are disallowed) but this is not always the case. (An example is
Newson's Move, which appears to be a combination of Stay and *t). In an
anthology of this kind, the contributors might have been encouraged to aim
for greater consistency in the naming of constraints.

Where this is not desirable for theoretical reasons, a concordance of
constraints would be useful, particularly since one of the main goals of
Optimality Theory is to posit a set of relatively simple universal
constraints which account for a wide variety of complex phenomena.
Although the field of Optimality Theory and syntax is still very young, it
is not too soon to start keeping track of which constraints account for
more than one phenomena, particularly since Optimality Theory must be
defended against the charge that its practitioners simply cut constraints
out of whole cloth as the need arises. (While Optimality Theory is very
much established in phonology, in syntax it is still very much the new kid
on the block.)

This book is part of an ongoing dialogue about syntax and Optimality
Theory, and as such it is not self-contained. Contributors build upon or
refine analysis presented in previous papers (many of which are available
on the Rutgers Optimality Archive). The subject matter ranges widely, both
in terms of the types of data considered and in terms of the theories
within which they are discussed. Many papers assume considerable prior
knowledge on the part of the reader. Readers will find it helpful to keep
on hand a linguistic dictionary or a general linguistics text with a good

Nonetheless, any reader with a serious interest in the application of
Optimality Theory outside of phonology will find reading this book very
useful, and anyone doing research involving Optimality Theoretic approaches
to syntax will find reading it a necessity. This book is a valuable
contribution to the field.

Prince, Alan S., and Paul Smolensky. "Optimality Theory: Constraint
Interaction in Generative Grammar," RuCCs Technical Report #2, Rutgers
University Center for Cognitive Science, Piscataway, N.J. (To appear;
Cambridge MA. MIT Press)

Melissa Svendsen is a graduate student at the University of Victoria. She
is currently writing her master's thesis on an Optimality Theoretic account
of cross-linguistic variation in wh-movement, focusing in particular on
optional wh-movement in Babine Witsuwit'en (an Athabaskan language).


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