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Transformational Generative Grammar Definitions

Updated on January 31, 2018

TGG Definitions

Liles (1971:6) says with the publication of Noam Chomsky's syntactic structure a new approach to the study of language was installed. This newer grammar has gone under different names: generative, transformational, generative-transformational, and transformational-generative.

Trask ( 1992:282) assumes that two words or more precisely terms of this name which are ‘transformational’ and ‘generative’ are quoted from mathematical theories to refer to some linguistic principles applied to grammar.

Crystal (1997:166) states that ‘generative’ is “a term derived from mathematics, and introduced by Noam Chomsky, in his Syntactic Structures (1957), to refer to the capacity of a grammar to define… the set of grammatical sentences in a language”.

Such a thing is also proved by Wales ( 2001:174) who states that “the term generative was first introduced by Chomsky (1957) to describe a specific group of grammars which clearly aim by a set of finite rules to describe and produce all and only the grammatical sentences of a language”.

Trask defines TGG as “a theory of grammar conceived by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and elaborated by Chomsky and others during the succeeding decades”. He continues, TGG is “a grammar for a particular language which at least enumerates and usually also characterizes all and only the well-formed sentences of that language”(ibid).

Trask believes that “such a grammar differs from other approaches to grammatical description in that it is fully explicit, leaving nothing to be filled in by a human reader’(ibid:117).

In the same way, Ambrose (1978:50) defines TGG as “a grammar able to describe a language and establish rules which account for the potential utterances of that particular language"

Crystal (ibid:166) declares that technically “a generative grammar is a set of formal rules which project a finite set of sentences upon the potentiality infinite set of sentences that constitute the language as a whole, and it does this in an explicit manner, assigns to each a set of structure description”.

Unlike the above mentioned definitions Byram (2004:232-3) attempts to present historically the notion of TGG rather than the approach itself, he even mentioned it as ‘generative principle’ rather than generative grammar. He states “the generative principle refers to the human ability to generate an infinite number of sentences from a finite grammatical competence”. He clarifies this pointing that “it” he means this human ability “… reflects the crucial feature of human language sometimes called compositionality, meanings are built out of parts and from the way they are combined”.

Again, Richards (1992:386-377,154-155) but in more comprehensive way tries to bring to us all different names of this type of grammar. He declares clearly that all names are referring to the same approach. He defines such theory by that “a theory of grammar which was proposed by the American linguist Chomsky in 1957… has been developed by him and many other linguists” and he says Chomsky “…attempted to provide a model for the description of all languages”, (ibid:387).

Johnson (1998:138-140) makes an attempt to generally define or identify what and which types of grammar can be mentioned as generative and on other hand what and which cannot be mentioned as generative grammar. He starts by mentioning that “the term generative means that the grammar is formal and explicit; when we speak of the linguist’s grammar as a generative grammar we mean only that is sufficiently explicit to determine how sentences of the language are in fact characterized by the grammar”.

He goes on “ this approach, pioneered by Chomsky in 1957, made the form of the rules explicit so that nothing needed to be read into them”, (Johnson, ibid:138).

Furthermore, Johnson suggests and of course from the point of view of Chomsky’s ideas “in principle there is no way of doing generative grammar; any grammar is generative if its form of statement is sufficiently explicit”, (ibid:139).

Unlike the above mentioned definitions is Trask’s one (2007:101-103, 319-321) he maintains “the notion of generative grammar was introduced by Noam Chomsky in 1950”, such a type of grammar he mentions as “mechanical and mindless” and “a successful generative grammar must have the property of recursion: a single rule must be allowed to apply over and over in the construction of a single sentence”.

He continues (ibid:102), “a key characteristic of any generative grammar is its power, the larger the number of different kinds of grammatical phenomena the grammar can handle successfully, the more powerful is the grammar”.

Trask believes that Chomsky’s TGG is not the only one for there are other generative types but and according to Trask Chomsky is the one who initiated such an idea. He declares (2007:319), “transformational grammar is a type of generative grammar” introduced by Noam Chomsky, but now “there are very many different types of generative grammar which can be conceived of”. He then returns to say “most types of generative grammar in which anybody has ever been interested can be usefully viewed as working like this: starting with nothing, the rules of grammar build up the structure of a sentence piece by piece, adding some thing at each step, until the sentence structure is complete”.

He concludes “TGG thus is a theory of grammar which holds that a sentence typically has more than one level of structure” and it “has developed through a number of versions each succeeding the other” (ibid: p320).

Add to what have been mentioned above, Malmkjær’s definition (2006:218) who maintains: A generative grammar of some language is the set of rules that defines the unlimited number of sentences of the language and associates each with an appropriate grammatical description, the concept is usually associated with linguistic models that have a mathematical structure and with a particular view of the abstract nature of linguistic theory through the early work of Noam Chomsky and perhaps for this reason is often, though wrongly, associated exclusively with his school of linguistics.

Continuing to describe this type of grammar, Malmkjær (ibid:219) suggests, it is formulated in accordance with some general principles… the most general of these is that a grammar consists of a number of distinct components; in this case there are two: a syntax, which defines permissible constituent structures, and a lexicon, which lists the words in the language and the lexical class to which each belongs.


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    • K S Lane profile image

      K S Lane 

      9 months ago from Melbourne, Australia

      This was an interesting read. I was happy to find that I recognised some of the people talked about, particularly Chomsky. Thanks for sharing!


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