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Review of  Thinking Syntactically

Reviewer: Ferid Chekili
Book Title: Thinking Syntactically
Book Author: Liliane Haegeman
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Issue Number: 17.596

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Date: Mon, 20 Feb 2006 12:04:42 +0100 (CET)
From: Ferid Chekili
Subject: Thinking Syntactically: A Guide to Argumentation and Analysis

AUTHOR: Haegeman, Liliane
TITLE: Thinking Syntactically
SUBTITLE: A Guide to Argumentation and Analysis
SERIES: Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing*
YEAR: 2005

Ferid Chekili, Department of English, Faculté des Lettres, University of
Manouba, Tunisia.


''Thinking Syntactically'' contains five chapters, each divided into two
parts: discussion and exercises. The textbook is intended
for ''introductory syntax classes'' (p.x). The author describes the aim of
the book as follows (p. vi): '' reconstruct and to illustrate as
explicitly as possible the thinking behind generative syntax. In other
words, the aim is to illustrate how to ''think syntactically''.

Chapter one (Introduction: the Scientific Study of Language) deals
with the definition of Linguistics as a science, together with the
implications of such a definition. Like other sciences, Linguistics is
argued to be based on the relationship between data observation and
theory development, i.e. 'induction', and also on further refining initial
hypotheses (i.e. 'deduction'). Like other sciences, Linguistics is also
shown to be systematic and explicit, and to display economy and
doubt. The ultimate aim is explanation of the data. This is illustrated by
the relation between English subject-auxiliary inversion and question.
To explain the impossibility of subject-verb inversion - as opposed to
subject-auxiliary inversion - it is necessary, she argues, to consider
other languages. Implicit in the discussion, is the importance of
structure and how it relates to and determines interpretation.

In chapter two (Diagnostics for Syntactic Structure), she presents a
number of tests for constituent structure, including substitution,
question formation, movement, ellipsis, clefting and pseudo-clefting,
and coordination. She also adduces arguments in support of a
particular structure of the VP and of a more articulated hierarchical
structure that is subject to binary branching. Investigation of the NP
shows the need for a specifier position having agreement and subject
properties. This leads to extending the concept of specifier to the
sentence. The approach she uses in the book and that she wants the
reader/student to learn is illustrated here: starting from a given set of
data, she formulates hypotheses, tests these using further data, then
examines the predictions of these claims, looks for counterexamples,
draws conclusions (analysis)on the basis of different types of
motivations (empirical-e.g. substitution- and theoretical-e.g. the
hypothesis that structure is related to interpretation (p.79)): this is
called argumentation.

Chapter three (Lexical Projections and Functional Projections): This
chapter refines the representation of the structure of the sentence:
the sentence is taken to be a projection of I(nflection) which relates to
V(erb) either by raising V to I (French) or by lowering I to V (English).
The triggering factor is argued to be the 'strength' of the inflection.
Also discussed are the operations of Merge and Move. So is the verb
in relation to its arguments. The auxiliaries be and have are analysed
as verbs whereas modal auxiliaries are taken to be inflectional
elements. Finally, some initial theoretical motivations for a VP-internal
subject position are presented.

Chapter four (Refining Structures: from One Subject Position to
Many): In order to better capture the relationship between form and
meaning, she argues, in line with others, for a VP-internal subject
position: the VP-internal subject hypothesis. The chapter uses both
theoretical and empirical arguments in favour of this claim:
theoretically, such a position would not only eliminate the exceptional
status of the VP by assuming that it too has a specifier, but would also
explain the thematic relation between the verb and the subject. The
empirical motivation comes from the distribution of floating quantifiers
and that of the subject NP in existential sentences. Finally, she
provides evidence for the existence of intermediate specifier positions
of the projections headed by the auxiliaries through which the subject
moves successive cyclically on its way from Spec VP to Spec IP.

Chapter five (the Periphery of the Sentence): The last chapter focuses
on the periphery of the sentence where illocutionary force is encoded,
namely, the complementizer phrase (CP). The derivation of questions
is shown to involve the operation Move. The distinction between short
movement and long movement is explained and the latter is shown to
involve certain intervention effects. Relative clauses are argued to
involve the same kind of mechanisms and are subject to the same kind
of constraints as those elaborated for interrogative clauses.


The chapters progress from simple to more complex and all begin with
an overview and end with a summary, a fact with obvious pedagogical

The author makes explicit the concepts and methodology
(experimentation, types of data, induction/deduction, prediction,
theory...) that the generative syntactician uses implicitly. For example
in chapter one, she offers a clear and simple explanation of the
definition of Linguistics as the 'science of language', using analogies
from outside Linguistics; in chapter two, she makes a clear and
insightful presentation of the concept of structure, representation, the
motivations for layered structure... . Similarly, she spells out what
other introductory textbooks use implicitly. For example, whereas
other textbooks would take certain things for granted, here, every step
of the analysis is commented upon; e.g. whereas others would simply
give a definition of 'head' and 'projection', she emphasizes the
deductive nature of the definition (101-102). Particulary interesting is
the way she makes the reader/student think in advance about the
various aspects of the analysis by e.g. addressing them directly and
prompting them to think about a given problem. (cf. e.g. the discussion
of VP-layering and of adjunction -pp92ff.)

In her argumentations (e.g. for constituent structure), she uses
processes that are popular among linguists (movement, deletion,
focus...) thus fulfilling a dual purpose, namely, motivating the particular
claim she is making and describing the process in question.

The way she makes explicit the proposed syntactic structures and
interpretations gives the book a less abstract nature. Similarly, her
extensive use of attested data (on top of the experimental or
constructed ones) though not obligatory, add a real-world dimension
to the analysis.

Finally, another strong feature of the book is that every move that is
made in the course of the analysis is accounted for and related to the
general goal of teaching the reader how to ''think syntactically''. To
achieve this goal, some of the most important issues in syntactic
theory (successive cyclicity, shortest move, subject/object
asymmetries...) are presented and discussed. To achieve the same
goal, she explains at length (in chapter five) what may count as
evidence: because attested examples are at times impossible to find
(as in the case of ungrammaticality), or may not constitute evidence
for a given hypothesis (cf. the discussion in chapter five) we must rely
on constructed sentences to test our hypotheses.

The exercises, which cover a sizeable portion of the book, do not
simply serve an illustrative/applicative purpose. Some further explore
the predictions of the analysis proposed in the text; others bring
additional information, raise further issues not considered in the body
of the text, or show the reader how concepts developed to deal with
English work in relation to less familiar languages (cf. e.g. the
structure of VSO languages including Arabic, Celtic and Greek in the
exercises part of chapter four).

The book also contains a number of minor methodological

There is some repetition. However, this may be necessary at times
when dealing with beginners.

Although in general, the book is fairly accessible to its intended
audience, it is not certain the targeted introductory syntax classes
need or understand the technical discussion about theory-building
that she presents in chapter one.

Going through the book, the reader cannot help experiencing a
feeling of 'deja-vu': the presentation and discussion, though couched
in a different model, are at times reminiscent of the ones in Haegeman
(1991). Most of the ingredients come from the latter but the aim for
which they are presented is different.

There is very little discussion of acquisition aspects of language. This
is surprising in a textbook aiming at showing how explanatory
adequacy can be attained. (cf. e.g. the discussion in chapter one or
the discussion of binary branching (102ff.))

The originality of the book should not be overestimated, I believe: all
introductory textbooks in syntax aim, implicitly or explicitly, not only at
presenting the theory and the facts of language, but also at showing
the reader/student how the syntactician goes about doing his work. In
other words, such books also aim to teach how to ''think syntactically''.
Of course, here, this is done more consciously and explicitly.

Although the author does not aim at providing detailed analyses of the
facts of syntax, at times, the proposed analyses raise doubts precisely
because of their sketchy nature: For instance, the analysis of negation
and do-insertion (179-181) is not convincing as it introduces a
disjunction between NOT (assuming it is an adjunct) and other
adjuncts: only NOT can block lowering of I onto V because I, she
argues, must remain filled when NOT is present. Compare (1) and (2):

a. John -ed always buy the paper
b. John always bought the paper
a. John -s not eat chocolate
b. *John not eats chocolate

The explanation in terms of the semantic characteristics of negation -
independently of whether it is correct or not- raises questions: when
do we take into consideration semantics in our syntactic analyses and
when do we not do so? This is important and ought to have been
further commented upon here even if it has been -both by the author
herself and others (see references in fn4, p.217)-elsewhere.

At times, the analysis takes short-cuts. For example, in investigating
whether VPs also have a specifier position on a par with NPs and IPs
(p.245), instead of following the procedure she normally adopts and
tries out several possibilities, the author hits on the right solution
immediately by proposing that the specifier of VP is the subject. After
all, in previous models, VP specifiers were taken to include adjuncts
and quantifiers.

Finally, the analysis of Standard Arabic (SA) sentence structure
(exercise 6 of chapter four) according to which agreement obtains in
the typical configuration -spec, head in IP- which she uses to account
for the agreement in (3):

(3) l-?awlaad-u katab-uu (versus kataba l-?awlaad-u )

is somewhat confusing for the reader who is not familiar with the
relevant literature as he will certainly wonder about the agreement - in
Gender - of (4)((1b) in the book under review):

(4) katab-at Mona risaalat-an

which obtains in the absence of a Spec,IP position (cf. e.g. Chekili
2002 and references there).


Chekili, Ferid. 2002. Agreement Asymmetries and the Lexical/ Null
Subject Parameter. Al'Arabiyya, Journal of the American Association
of Teachers of Arabic 35:87-127.

Haegeman, Liliane. 1991. Introduction to Government and Binding
Theory. Oxford. Basil Blackwell.

The reviewer is professor of English and Linguistics at the University
of Manouba, Tunisia. He is currently working at Nizwa College of
Education, Oman as part of a cooperation program. His research
interests include Syntax, the Syntax-Morphology interface,
Comparative Syntax, and SLA.

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