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Chomsky and Transformational-generative Grammar

Bronwen was a teacher for over forty years. Degrees include School Librarianship, Psycholinguistics and Theology, and Applied Linguistics.

Noam Chomsky and transformational-generative theory

In the quest for the development of a way of studying the nature of language in a scientific manner, linguists have proposed a number of different models. Zelig Harris proposed the concept of a process called transformation where the order of the constituents of a sentence could be changed, deleted, substituted or added in order to account for the way a language was constructed, rather than the inadequate earlier methods of syntactic analysis of the descriptive linguists.

Noam Chomsky was a student of Harris, and, drawing on his knowledge of logic and mathematics, in 1957 he postulated the transformational-generative theory in order to construct models that would represent the psychological process of language.

Like the descriptivists, Chomsky held that the proper object of linguistic study is the native speaker's oral language, which he extended to include grammatical intuition and knowledge. He referred to this as "competence," which involves the ability to perceive the structure of sentences, to recognize paraphrases, and to detect ambiguity. He held that this ability is what enables people to produce and understand an infinite number of sentences in that language; he called this "performance."

Chomsky was interested in constructing a grammar that would generate the structures that constitute the individual's linguistic competence, the native speaker's reliance on linguistic intuition and creativity, and then be able to test the results against actual samples of the language.

Transformationalists and Descriptivists

Transformationalists differ from descriptivists in several ways.

  • They first study the underlying language system, defining competence in terms of the rules a mature speaker follows in producing and understanding sentences.
  • They also differ in that transformational analysis assumes that all languages are basically similar in the deep, underlying structure, and aims to discover linguistic universals among the sentences of all languages.
  • They state that there are two levels for each sentence: a deep structure which represents the meaning, and a surface structure which represents the sound.
  • One of their main contributions was to show formally the relationship of sentences which were alike, for example, active and passive forms which are related in that both are derived from the same deep structure.

The Advantages of Transformational Grammar

Transformationalists hold that rules should generate structural descriptions for all the grammatical sentences of a language, and for no ungrammatical ones. Their work has also helped to overcome the lengthy rules of the descriptivists including their determination to concentrate on the gathering of vast quantities of the data of a target language.

Chomsky's Contribution

Although there have been substantial changes in Chomsky's system for a transformational-generative grammar over the years since it was first proposed, his contribution is seen as important in the discipline of linguistics and Chomsky himself is seen as an important system-builder. In the light of what had gone before over many centuries, he constructed a more complete picture of the nature of language and of the language-user.

Prescriptive Grammars

Prescriptive Grammars


  • The History of Grammar
    A brief look at language study and grammar, including traditional types of grammars and universal grammar as seen by grammarians and linguists.
  • Descriptive Grammar
    Discusses the limitations of a prescriptive grammar and the development of a more liberal approach that resulted in a variety of descriptive grammars as linguistics developed into a separate discipline.
  • Grammar and Structural Analysis
    Structuralists and Descriptivists had different approaches to the study of grammar and this can be especially seen in the work of Bloomfield and Chomsky.
  • Descriptive Versus Prescriptive Grammars
    This is the final article on linguistics and the changes that have come about between descriptive and prescriptive ways of looking at grammar.


Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on March 04, 2013:

always exploring: Thank you for your encouraging comments.

tireless traveller: I know what you mean. Those trees!

Eiddwen: Thank you, Eddy. There are always so many interesting things to learn about and language is something that we almost all use to communicate with, so it's interesting to look at the different ways some people have striven to understand it.

Michael-Milec: I'm glad you enjoyed it. Actually linguistics is about studying to understand how all languages are made and used for communication. To me, to be able to communicate is the important thing; being perfect in a language's grammar definitely comes second.

Michael-Milec on March 01, 2013:

Hi BlossomsB,


Scroll to Continue

Great and enjoyable read, including the comments.

Even with a to a degree understanding due to English language no being my native, this article is very educational. My determination is continue to learn , regardless when and where start has occurred. One day will just begin to emerge...

Up & useful.

Be blessed .

Eiddwen from Wales on March 01, 2013:

This is so interesting Blossom and you have certainly done your homework. I am finding myself reading different topics to what I have been used to .

I think it's a better late than never for me to educate myself further and this hub is certainly one great lesson.

Thank you for sharing and I vote up,across and share.


Judy Specht from California on February 28, 2013:

Chomsky drove me crazy in school. He still drives me crazy he's just 34 years older. Still a nice hub.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on February 28, 2013:

Blossom your topics are always interesting and educational. Thank you for sharing with us...

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on February 28, 2013:

Seckin Esen: Thank you for your comment and vote.

CurrentScience303: I'm not sure what your comment has to do with transformational-generative grammar, but thanks anyway.

Jason from HighPoint, N.C. on February 28, 2013:

Chomsky is influenced too greatly via his peers {"Cultural Zionism"}, much as Albert Einstein was {he supported Cultural Zionism, yet didn't believe in any Hebrew God(s). Einstein was more an adherent to Spinoza's God (i.e. "energy")}. It's odd that Chumsky {having a Jewish Cultural Agenda}: NEVER mentions the Scandinavian Countries (who all, just so happen to have populations of people who are primarily Atheist/Anti-theist, are of the utmost progressive societies in the modern 1st world, possess some of the grandest incentives for Scientific Progress {Nobel Prices}, have the Lowest Crime Rates in the world, of the Cleanest Environments, .... any oh yeah, do I have to mention, those people are of what one could label "Aryan/Pagan" heritage?!! People fears this sort of information being brought forth for various reasons: One being: the Vast Majority of the Earth's Population are NOT of North-Western Euro-descent // Another Prominent Reason is it's too "secular" of culture {non-religious}, and it's "scary" for many people to witness how these Scandinavians are able to be of the Utmost Progressive, while the rest of the world continues with their unrest/wars in the name of the GREATEST FORM OF POPULATION CONTROL: "Abraham Religion" (i.e. Christianity, Islam, Judaism). I'm here {along with the works of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett}, to help bring this knowledge to the rest of the 1st world's ignorant citizens. - HOW 'BOUT THAT 'UN!?!!

Seckin Esen from Ankara, Turkey on February 28, 2013:

Great hub. Voted up.

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