Chomping on Chomsky

Empires arise, and then they fall, as did the British Empire over which the sun never set, and the Roman; and in the realms of ideas this is so too, and even in the realms of grammar, in which new and prestigious ideas may seem unimportant to the "real" world. Yet for almost 50 years there has been no abatement in the prestige and reach of Noam Chomsky’s system of grammar which still garners world-wide homage despite the pointing out of some of its shortcomings, and despite its complexity developed over the years in his attempt to validate it which brings to mind the complex of assumptions and calculations that can still show, I’m told, that the Earth, not the sun, is the center of our planetary system.

This is important because restrictions on the use and comprehension of language (as in Chomsky’s system of grammar) go hand in hand with the abuse of power in the real world (even if unintentially so, because Chomsky has been and is bravely outspoken about what seem to him such abuses), and because when the comprehension of imaginative language is suppressed as a result of such a grammar, the ability to be fully human is impaired.

About 50 years ago, the old descriptive grammar fell into the disfavor of some educated people because it did not perform certain functions, and that led some of them who should have known better (because one expects educated people to be able to read) to declare some phrases and sentences in English ungrammatical and nonsensical, as in the first three examples below from Charlton Laird’s lively book, The Miracle of Language (1953).


1. Apples harvest.

Laird says that the words in apples harvest (as opposed to those in "apple harvest, harvest apples, and harvest the apples") "are now nonsense: they have lost their grammar." But someone, who knows that certain children sentenced for murder were the apples of their parents’ eyes, could say sarcastically "Those apples harvest what they deserve." Someone else might say "Apples harvest," and mean "That’s how it is with such apples" and be understood. If not understood, the phrase was at least not meaningless to the speaker. Had it been meaningless to the speaker, someone else might have understood it. And if neither speaker nor hearer understood it, the phrase still has a potential for being understood.

Seeing bees cover and clamber over fallen apples, couldn’t someone think "Overripe apples harvest bees"? So by itself or as part of a sentence, apples harvest makes sense and is grammatical, given an appropriate context.

What if we look at the possessives, apple’s harvest and apples’ harvest, instead? The moral of a fable about an apple might be that the apple’s harvest is the fruit of its hubris or humbleness. Or in a nightmare of appley revenge, the apples’ harvest are people displayed in freezers in supermarkets run by apples wearing white coats as a symbol of cleanliness.

What if apples is a verb? "What!" says someone, becoming enraged, "This is even more ridiculous than the rest of what you’ve said so far. To apple, a verb!" And though in denying its existence this person brought the infinitive to apple into existence, I must admit it was through me — my doing, my fault. But I still want to use apples as a verb.

Then let the context be that the word apples has been written-in over the word harvest on the manuscript of an agricultural report. Its editor could say to himself that "The writer of the report apples harvest". This makes sense but could seem nonsensical without its context, like the statements of schizophrenics who take a context for granted and withhold it when they talk.

And what about an apple harvest, a harvest consisting of one apple? And an apple’s harvest? The apple in question being a person who is a bad apple (not the same as a black sheep).

Of course, in English poetical usage in the 18th century and before, apples harvest could have been an acceptable inversion of plain harvest apples with no change in meaning (except that derived from the changed sound).

Syntax and meaning, everything, seem to depend on context, and habits of thinking. Sense and grammar are inseparable, unlike sense and truth. Any group of words can be gibberish or meaningful. Disease or injury, or extreme tiredness or forgetfulness, or ignorance or bigotry can bleach the meaning out of any words.

2. From the fact of they sit side by side.

"From the fact of they sit side by side would raise a titter," says Laird, comparing it with the unremarkable from the fact of their sitting side by side. But one laughs because it was meant to have the same meaning as the latter, but doesn’t, and because less obviously, it does make good sense. "From the fact of ’they sit side by side’" would be an appropriate answer to "A conclusion from what?"

Mistakes in the use of English and other languages, by native speakers and foreigners, are of this nature. Something is said which means something it’s not meant to mean. And the unintended meaning is usually automatically ignored because it’s inappropriate and unexpected in the circumstances, and would be inconveniently distracting if noticed and attended to.

3. General it consists stringing.

"General it consists stringing makes no sense," says Laird. But "General, it, consists, stringing" is a sensible answer to "What were the four words Laird said make no sense?"

English syntax automatically makes sense, one way or another (subject to one’s knowledge of the language and the ability to apply one’s experience of life to it).


A to F (my labeling) are from C. L. Baker’s English Syntax (1989).

  1. The king putting his gold under the bathtub.
  2. The king wanted putting his gold under the bathtub.
  3. The king kept (putting his gold).
  4. The king kept (putting under the bathtub).
  5. The king kept (putting his gold safe).
  6. The king kept (putting his gold to be under the bathtub).

We can make sense of these if they seem not to, if we assume the king is a very assiduous and eccentric golfer and an avid art collector (and if we ignore their parentheses). Perhaps the following comments are of use.

In F, the king clearly wants to be under the bathtub which has a space under it in which he keeps his gold. To make room for himself, he uses his putter to push the gold away.

In E, the safe in which the king keeps gold (or which is made of gold) needs a lot of putting to position it to his satisfaction.

In D, even when the king gets under the bathtub, he continues to putt.

C is now self-evident.

For B, we can assume the king wanted a painting, entitled "Putting his gold," under the bathtub, that favorite place of his.

A makes sense if it is the title of another painting.

All of these show how hard it can be to evade sense, if sense is wanted. Of course, Baker was using put to mean place, and his point was (following Chomsky) that these six groups weren’t acceptable as English, they didn’t obey the rules of English. But even on these grounds he is wrong. English words can automatically make sense (if their meanings are known and if preconceptions about words and truth do not hinder comprehension) no matter what their word order is, and do so easily because English has only a few syntactical slots they can be used in. Probably no language has many.

Using putting to mean placing, "The king putting his gold under the bathtub" (A) makes sense as a noun phrase (and not as a sentence which is what Baker seems to misidentify it as, though it has no verb, the usual requisite for a sentence). To take the verb away doesn’t make the other constituents of a sentence unenglish. Here no verb only makes the phrase incomplete as a sentence. Add the necessary ingredients; and "Presto!" you have a sentence. In this case, for instance, The king, putting his gold under the bathtub, took a bath. Or, The psychoanalyst saw the king putting his gold under the bathtub.

C and E can end with under the bathtub.

For F there’s a contextual solution. The gold to be is whatever a visiting alchemist has promised to transform to gold.

Using D, we make a sentence ending with over the bathtub, and identify Under The Bathtub as a painting.

In B, Putting his gold under the bathtub is the caption of a painting that the king wants to keep.

The additions and identifications above relate the meaning of A through F more firmly to how we experience the world: in terms of spaces (where and who and what) and time (when), and their relations with each other. By identifying what words are functioning as nouns, verbs, etc., in all their forms (grammar), and identifying what they refer to, we get a map of that world. Which is what the other arts do too.

Bits of Chompsky

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

The above sentence is from Noam Chomsky’s book, Syntactic Structures (1957). He says that, though grammatical, it is nonsensical. But is it nonsense? Can anything grammatical have only no meaning? Mustn’t it have meaning as well?

Couldn’t a schoolmaster at an English boarding school have the thought "people are ideas in the mind of the Creator" as he is about to inspect the dormitory of his youngest charges? Warned of his approach by their lookout, they stop their pillowfight, dive back under the bedclothes, and strenuously pretend to be fast asleep. They seem colorless and green (meaning uninteresting and immature) as he surveys them; and noticing how rucked-up the bedclothes are, he mutters aloud "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," which convinces them he is balmy.

Chomsky also reverses his sentence into Furiously sleep ideas green colorless and comments that this one is both ungrammatical and nonsensical. But is it?

A familiarity with fairytales and the achievements of enchanters and enchantresses in the poetry of Spenser and Keats is a good groundwork for any grammarian. Poetry, especially that of the more verbally exploratory modernists, will give the grammarian’s mind the equivalent of a gallop over rough ground. A knowledge of filmscripts and playscripts will help, and so will the ability to punctuate properly, which is based on understanding and meaning, as the play within the play of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows. Since the reversed sentence is nonsensical to him, Chomsky cannot punctuate it properly.

Though there are several possible meanings of it, the following and their implications will probably suffice.

(Furiously) Sleep, ideas: green, colorless.

If this is a line in a play, then "(Furiously)" is the written convention which tells the speaker, a wizard, how to say the next four words. He is commanding some ideas he materialized — some immature and colored green and some transparent and uninteresting — to fall asleep (so quelling their rebellion against him).

Or if the speaker (in a different play) is someone who thinks Furiously sleep ideas green colorless is arrant nonsense, she might pronounce each word denigratingly (and furiously, of course) with a pause between each word, and be perfectly understood. An appropriate context is always needed for syntactical sense and an inappropriate one for syntactical nonsense.

But someone might object, "Sentences which need appropriate contexts are special cases, but there are sentences which make sense instantly and need no special context, for example There’s a rat in the house" (which exemplifies the constant use by linguists of sentences which seem meant for idiots instead of, say, "What is your husband doing with that attractive woman over there?")

About this belief in special cases, I say, "O illusion, illusion; like the tentacles of an octopus do you embrace the world."

If, in a far future, the descendants of our presentday small rats grow as large as the largest dinosaur, they couldn’t get into a house. Maybe a baby one could. But not if humans had grown so small that their houses have become as small as the houses in the game of Monopoly. To say in that time of gargantuan rats "There’s a rat in the house" and not seem ridiculous, would need a special case of "rats and houses" taken from the long-gone 20th century. In that future time, "There’s a house in the rat," which seems nonsensical now, would be only too self-evident.

In fact all cases are special cases. The establishment of the truth of anything depends on its accompanying assumptions. Until some years ago it was never in doubt that all sound moved at about 760 mph above the surface of the earth. No ifs were taken into account. Then someone found out sound could move at about ten thousand mph if it was a certain distance above the earth. There should be an ology, a science or art of assumptions, to bring out and display what we take for granted.

More Chompsky

The expressions below are from Chapter Two of Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965). I have retained his numbering. He says those in (13) "deviate in some manner (not necessarily all in the same manner) from the rules of English." Do they? They are all dealable with but it will be enough to deal with one.

(13 vii) John is owning a house.

What deviation from what rule of English is there here? None. If he means from the rules he has proposed for his type of generative grammar (a generative grammar produces desired sentences and doesn’t produce undesired ones), then those rules will always be inadequate because they exclude vast amounts of the English language. John is owning a house means "John is the personification and epitome of ownership of a house." "Owning a house" is the object of "is." If someone in that house asks "What are they up to?" and is answered with "Ellen’s showing off her ensemble. John is owning a house," cannot "is owning" mean "showing off his ownership of, behaving like the owner of"? If so, only "a house" is the object of the verb.

Context can force one or the other meaning forward, and determine the syntax. Pronouncements about groups of words are likely to be wrong if the syntax of the words is incorrectly identified..

Chomsky says (15 i) and (15 ii) are "fairly clear-cut cases of violation of purely syntactic rules."

(15 ii) boy the frighten may sincerity

But can’t this mean that a boy and a girl, wearing t-shirts imprinted with boy and the respectively, frighten a girl and boy wearing t-shirts imprinted with may and sincerity respectively?

Now for (15 i ) sincerity frighten may boy the. Let’s say that T-shirts with one of the following sincerity, may, boy, the on them, are worn by four of the members of a gang. Its leader, surrounded by the gang, orders sincerity to frighten may... boy... the. He does this by pointing at them and using their T-shirt names.

The first sentence resembles a tabloid headline, but both are in English, make sense, are grammatical, and are very simple constructions.

(2 i) I called the man who wrote the book you told me about up.

is from Chapter One. It reads awkwardly because the use of the word up is not clear. But even as it is, it is only a bit awkward when spoken properly. One simple solution is to change the place of the word up and put it immediately after called or man. This exemplifies what is known as stylistic grace in writing, which consists in writing in a way that impedes immediate comprehension as little as possible (without of course leaving out necessary ramifications of meaning). In this sense the third and fourth phases of the novelist Henry James (the apparently hardest of his four phases to understand because of the proliferation of qualifying phrases, clauses, and sentences resulting from his search for accuracy) are that of a graceful stylist when read aloud.

But we normally immediately dismiss (if we think about it at all) the other meaning of I called up the man who wrote the book you told me about — a meaning obtained when I lie face upward on the ground in front of the feet of a standing man, and call out, and my voice travels to the top of his head (or as far as it goes along him if he hasn’t a head). We dismiss this meaning because we are sure it wasn’t intended, and we decide it wasn’t intended from our evaluation of our previous experiences.

In the same way, we would usually dismiss the use of called, in the sense of named, as in I called the man "up" or I called the man "up who wrote the book you told me about" or I called the man "who wrote the book you told me about up?"

There is always an alternative, between making sense or gibberish. If one doesn’t know the meanings of a group of words or has forgotten them, or if one can’t tell which word is the noun and which the verb and so on, then the words are more or less gibberish. If one can tell, then they make sense; and if the noun refers to something we know, the words will make more sense still.

On the other hand, if you are making a generative grammar, like Chomsky’s, and its rules produce what they shouldn’t, that is, gibberish or a meaning other than the wanted one, then of course its rules are at fault: wrong or inadequate; and "deviance" results, wrongly labeled ungrammatical or unenglish, but in reality only an unwanted meaning.

Most readers and speakers (including some linguists) have a limited proficiency in their own language, and produce record crops of unwanted meanings without saying exatly what they mean.

How many can write a Ulysses or Finnegans Wake? How many can speak like Lincoln at Gettysburg? Or speak or write with the vim and humor of Urquahart’s translation of Rabelais? Or, like Dudley, discourse discursively to an attentive cat? In these, there is an exact wanted meaning throughout.

Analogy is what generates a grammar, but the analogies have to be the right ones. Isn’t it a matter of identification: of the linking of nouns to what they refer to, and of deciding which words are nouns and verbs and so on?


In what follows, my criticisms of Chomsky’s approach to meaning and grammar are concurrent with this walk of mine through a field of meaning. The numbered sentences in this section are from the first chapter of Noam Chomsky’s Knowledge of Language (1986) and retain his numbering.

John is too stubborn to visit anyone who talked to (14)

Chomsky says that this is a sentence, that it is gibberish, that it has no interpretation at all, and that it cannot be understood on the analogy of John is too stubborn to visit anyone who talked to Bill. (12)

To me and no doubt to many others, not only is it an uncompleted sentence, with its end left off; but one that makes sense in an appropriate context.

Imagine some people talking. One says, "John must visit everyone who has talked to Bill." Another says pedantically, "John is too stubborn to visit anyone who has talked to..." and someone else, who impatiently assumes Bill was going to be the next word after talked to, cuts in and insists, "But he’s got to." Doesn’t every bit of that conversation make sense? And make sense at every point, and not in retrospect only?

John is too clever to expect us to catch (10)

Chomsky says "it takes some thought to discover" that this "means that John is so clever that an arbitrary person cannot expect us to catch him (John)." Yes, indeed. Chomsky may believe it means that John is too clever for someone to expect us to catch John. He could intend it to mean that, or anything else. What it does mean (with next to no thought) is that John is too clever to expect us to be catchers (in games, on some locomotives, in lines of people where something is passed from one to another) or too clever to expect us to make a catch (in a game at which we are hopeless) or too clever to expect us to catch fire (if we are in fireproof clothing).

Chomsky says John is too stubborn to expect anyone to talk to (13) "is structurally analogous" to John is too clever to expect us to catch (10). It isn’t. The end of (13) contains a dative, the end of (10) doesn’t. John is too stubborn to expect anyone to talk is the right analogy for (10). Chomsky’s reliance on these sentences’ superficial looks alone, and not also on what they say and do, leads him to wrong conclusions like those unfortunate people who fall in love with people who are like beautiful-looking cars which never work properly and frustrate their expectations.

Chomsky also says (13) means John is so stubborn that an arbitrary person would not expect anyone to talk to him (John). If it can mean anything one wants it to mean, it means that. Otherwise it means John’s stubbornness prevents him from expecting someone to talk to. Some other meanings are possible. And anyone can mean everyone or some special person. And surely anyone for John to talk to is meant (or even the two-way exchange of for anyone to talk with) rather than Chomsky’s anyone to talk to him. A context might have limited the meanings, and better writing would have.

Chomsky says that the three sentences numbered 10, 12, and 13, and some other sentences not quoted here, are inapplicable as analogues of (14) because it cannot be understood by means of them. Of course. Surely one must look to other comparably incomplete sentences for the right analogues, and not apply square pegs to round holes.

So far as I can make out (his writing being what it is), Chomsky offers his interpretations, of these and other sentences, as evidence of grammatical differences (and resemblances) that "we know ... without instruction or direct evidence."

The problem is that the sentences he adduces, as evidence for this, aren’t what he says they are and don’t bear him out.

David Kozubei, 1997

This article appeared, in a slightly different form, in American Letters & Commentary, Issue 12 (2000).

Postscript. August 2002. The curse, of forcing an inadequate mathematical model onto a living language, has made an emperor wearing no clothes on into a sleeping beauty who can feel no chill from truth, no stiffness from desuetude, and no remorse for keeping courtiers spellbound. Could a salutary kiss break the spell that turned the emperor’s books of grammarie into guardian thickets made up of of cliches (hard to endure and excruciating to negotiate, for those with a feeling for language) then these books (minus the few embalmed for curioustiy-seekers and stubborn idolaters) would crumble till, become dust (their natural and too-long delyaed fate), they would be dispersed into the duststorms of the past, so that one need not be reminded again and again of the bed of Procrustes, in reading them and when memory reverts to them, and the time once spent on them be put to better use by the generations to come. And those who tasted these book at the cost of their appetite for linguistics, may become hungry again.