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What is Generative Grammar?

Dana Hinders
Updated May 23, 2024
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Generative grammar is a branch of theoretical linguistics that works to provide a set of rules that can accurately predict which combinations of words are able to make grammatically correct sentences. Those who study this subject hope to improve our overall understanding of the mental makeup of the human species as a whole. Generative grammar has been associated with several schools of linguistics, including transformational grammar, relational grammar, categorical grammar, tree-adjoining grammar, head-driven phrase structure grammar, generalized phrase structure grammar, relational grammar, and lexical-functional grammar.

The study of generative grammar began in the 1950s as the result of work performed by Noam Chomsky, a notable American linguist, philosopher, writer, and lecturer. He took a naturalistic approach to the study of language which is said to have contributed to the cognitive revolution in psychology. A key component of his work was the theory that the properties of generative grammar come from a universal grammar that is common among all spoken and written language forms. The Chomsky hierarchy is a tool he developed to help compare the properties of various grammar systems and their increasing expressive powers.

The primary components studied by experts in generative grammar include syntax (structure of sentences), semantics (linguistic meaning), phonology (sound patterns of language), and morphology (structure and meaning of words). Derivation trees are a primary focus of study for many linguists working in this field; these diagrams view a sentence as a tree with connected subordinate and superordinate branches as opposed to a simple string of words.

Generative grammar can be thought of as a way of formalizing the implicit rules a person seems to know when he or she is speaking in his or her native language. Theories are based upon the belief that humans have an innate language faculty that allows children to learn to speak their native language in little or no time with a very minimal amount of conscious effort. The rules set out by this branch of theoretical linguistics can be considered a type of algorithm designed to predict grammaticality with a "yes" or "no" result.

While generative grammar may first appear to have very limited practical applications outside language studies, it is interesting to note that the ideas behind this particular branch of theoretical linguistics have also been used to advance the study of music. Schenkerian analysis helps define tonality in music by applying generatie principles, and notable composer Fred Lerdahl has also used them to advance his musical studies.

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Dana Hinders
By Dana Hinders
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to her work as a freelance writer. After discovering her passion for freelance writing following the birth of her son, Dana has been a vital part of the Language & Humanities team. She also showcases her versatility by creating sales copy and content for e-courses and blogs.
Discussion Comments
By mitchell14 — On Apr 18, 2011

Oddly enough, one of the best grammar teachers I have found in the last few years is a comic writer called The Oatmeal. His website is full of comics he writes himself about all sorts of topics; many are strange, ridiculous, or even rude, but he also has a whole series about grammar rules: things like how to use i.e. and e.g., what it really means when you say "literally", and even overuse of commas. As a college graduate in English, I think it says something that the most grammar I've learned since middle school has come from a Seattle-based web designer who decided to start drawing comics and see what happened.

By helene55 — On Apr 16, 2011

I wish there as more space for learning generative grammar theory in schools. Especially by the time you reach high school in the United States, there seems to be no real time for learning grammar anymore, and students are definitely not masters of it yet.

When I was in college, I even had writing teachers who, when we peer edited papers, told us not to worry "too much" about the little mistakes. I think that if we all learned more about generative grammar, we might improve those "little" mistakes that can really affect how well we understand one another.

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to...
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