LINGUIST List 5.1078

Mon 03 Oct 1994

Disc: REPOST of Last Posting: The Teaching of Syntax (Part 2)

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Bill Croft, Teaching syntax
  2. , Re: 5.1023 Teaching of Syntax
  3. , Teaching GB
  4. "Larry Trask", Second summary: The teaching of syntax

Message 1: Teaching syntax

Date: Mon, 26 Sep 94 10:42:07 BSTeaching syntax
From: Bill Croft <>
Subject: Teaching syntax

I found Frits Stuurman's defense of what Larry Trask seemed
to be calling "bad GB teaching"---starting from postulated UG
principles and using them to interpret data presented to the
student, not using the data to amend or abandon those principles---
quite interesting. It raises an important issue: how the theory
of syntax that one believes may determine not just WHAT you
teach your linguistics students, but also HOW you teach them.

However, I think there is a problem with his justification for
this teaching method, which was reversing the analogy of
"the child as a little linguist"---something we might call
"the linguistics student as a big child". If we followed this
justification to its logical conclusion in teaching syntax, then
we would have to exclude the discussion of ungrammatical
sentences, since the child is not exposed to negative evidence
(at least, not direct negative evidence). This, I think, goes against
a methodological issue central to generative syntactic theorizing,
namely the importance of ungramatical sentences in inferring
principles of language and grammar.

 The difference is that the linguist, and the linguistics student,
is attempting to *discover* and make explicit the principles of
language and grammar that the child already knows implicitly
and is using in acquiring his/her language. So I would have to agree
with Trask's judgement that this is not the right way to teach
syntax---not just GB syntax, but any theory of syntax, including
the more inductivist theories where the teaching method *appears*
to emulate the child language acquisition strategy that such theories
propose. For better or for worse, we are trying to teach syntax
students to be scientists, not language learners.

Bill Croft

Dept of Linguistics, U Manchester, Oxford Rd, Manchester M13 9PL, UK Phone: +44-61-275 3188 FAX: +44-61-275 3187
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Re: 5.1023 Teaching of Syntax

Date: Mon, 26 Sep 1994 12:19:52 Re: 5.1023 Teaching of Syntax
From: <MATTHEWSHKUCC.bitnet>
Subject: Re: 5.1023 Teaching of Syntax

I was interested in Frits Stuurman's use of the word ABDUCE in the context
of language acquisition and, by implication, in grammatical inquiry.
While respecting his request not to be quoted, I'll assume that this usage
was intentional and that we mean the sme thing by abduction.
As I understood it, Frits' objection to Larry Trask's pattern-finding
approach to teaching syntax is that this is induction, which we know
to be inadequate either as an account of language acquisition or as a
methodology for formulating a generative grammar. So far, standard GB
thinking. When I was taught GB, the textbooks and lectures argued that
since lg. acquisition cannot be [purely] inductive, it must be deductive -
a claim I found somewhat wanting. SInce then it had become clear to me
that argumentation in GB theory is abductive in nature, as I pointed out
in a LINGUIST discussion some time ago. Has anyone discussed this issue
in print, or elaborated on Frits' assumption that children abduce their
Steve Matthews (epistemologically challenged teacher of GB in Hongkong)
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: Teaching GB

Date: Mon, 26 Sep 1994 09:47:28 Teaching GB
From: <>
Subject: Teaching GB

Several things seem to have gone wrong; for instance, I do not think
I have received all the LINGUIST postings on 'Teaching GB / Syntax',
and/or I have lost some. As I recall, the LINGUIST moderators were
closing the discussion, because in their view it was getting somehat
out of hand. If so, this message may indeed not be distributed at all;
but if it is, for the record I would like to state that from what I have
seen of the discussion I did not really get the impression of improper
heatedness myself. Perhaps the moderators based themselves on the tone
or contents of my own message of 20/9, distributed by LINGUIST on 21/9.
BUT if so: something went pretty awkwardly wrong here as well.

My message was intended to ONLY have been sent to Larry Trask privately;
but somehow I turn out to have pressed one or two erroneous keys;
and to my embarassment, and I'm sure at least as much to Larry's, lo
and behold my very informal exposition, private details included, being
distributed to all subscribers to LINGUIST.

 Larry Trask and I obviously do not agree, and I DO still think
that GB can, if not should, be taught theory-first. However I also think
that Larry and I AGREE that, of course, such professional disagreements
are all in a day's work, and that there is nothing remotely like animosity
in any of this.

frits stuurman
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 4: Second summary: The teaching of syntax

Date: Sat, 24 Sep 1994 13:13:05 Second summary: The teaching of syntax
From: "Larry Trask" <>
Subject: Second summary: The teaching of syntax

A week or so ago I put out a summary of the responses to my question
about the teaching of syntax. The summary in fact provoked a much
larger volume of responses than the original posting. Since some new
points were raised, I've decided it's necessary to post a second
summary. Again, several people have asked not to be identified, and
so I shall identify no one.

First, a clarification. One or two people apparently got the
impression that I was trying to launch an attack on the GB framework
or to poke fun at its proponents. This was certainly not the case,
and in fact I carefully excluded from my summary anything that looked
like such an attack. Still, I apologize if I gave unwitting offense
to anyone.

The gap I mentioned in my first summary has now been copiously filled.
I am happy to report that a sizeable number of people wrote in to say
that the GB syntax teaching they received as undergraduates was
enjoyable, data-oriented, rewarding and not at all like the
objectionable cases I described. Here are some typical extracts:

"[Our teacher] taught us to look at data and develop theories, and, in
her choice of data to present and [in her] suggestions, we basically
redeveloped GB from the ground up. She always encouraged us to look for
more data, revise the theory as needed, repeatedly challenge our
assumptions, and never try to manipulate the data to fit a theory. It
was an amazing seminar, and all of us loved it."

"At first we [students] tried, sometimes desperately, to fit
[increasingly troublesome] data into the theory. But most of us
understood very soon that the aim of the exercise was not to succeed
in that task, but rather to force us to take distance and develop a
critical approach to the framework....I enjoyed learning GB (and the
crucial role of data) in these conditions."

"I was taught exclusively GB syntax, however in a highly data-rich
way....The professor presented us with different sets of data, and we
would work through the data on our own and discuss our solutions in
class....That exposure to data from the beginning...was FABULOUS -- I
LOVED having my mind challenged in this way."

"After studying linguistics at three universities (and an LSA Summer
Institute) I have to say that I have never encountered the kind of
theoretical single-mindedness your respondents seem to have
experienced....[T]here really are some GB syntacticians who teach the
subject extremely well, without sacrificing linguistic data in the

Unfortunately, there was also some bad news. My original query was only
directed at the teaching of beginning students. But several people
wrote in with disturbing accounts of the teaching they experienced as
post-graduate students pursuing a PhD. Here are some extracts:

"I...completed my PhD with an advisor who would hear of nothing but GB
(which, by the way, I did enjoy at the beginning of my studies).
Although there was some emphasis on data, it was always `fair' to skew
the data if it defied the theory. I felt so crushed at my own
inability to accept all of this as scientific (assuming there was
something wrong with me, that is) that I am still convince
myself that I'm worthy of the field and able to carry out research."

"I found that most of those teaching GB paid lip service to the idea
that linguistics is an empirical science, but very few made any attempt
to gather a broad set of data or to apply ordinary scientific
principles. The point of the endeavor seemed to be to manipulate the
rules to do something clever with one or two constructions at a time.
There was little or no attempt to test a new principle against cases
other than the `development set', or against a wide range of
languages....[T]here was no such thing as a counterexample; there were
only `apparent counterexamples', which could always be explained away
with an empty operator or some invisible movement....We students were
certainly not encouraged to sort through a broad range of data, and we
were actively discouraged from questioning the stylized data underlying
the theory....My [PhD] advisor had no interest in...trying to cover all
the known cases of a phenomenon, rather than one or two arbitrary
examples....Whenever we met, he would throw out some flashy idea using
the fashionable GB mechanisms, which would `explain' one little corner
of my data. I would then spend a week or two showing that the idea was
unworkable when when you looked at the broad picture, but at our next
conference the same thing would happen again. It took me quite a while
to realize the underlying philosophical problem: he really didn't care
whether the theory covered the facts or not -- his interest was in
pushing the theory further....I felt that what I had been trained to do
was intellectually dishonest."

There was one more response in this vein which I found so utterly
hair-raising that I have decided it would be unwise to include it in a
public posting.

Many people raised further points which are interesting enough to merit
a discussion of their own, but they were not strictly answers to my
question, and so I shall leave them for others to bring up, if they want

Once again, my thanks to all those who took the time to reply. With
just one exception, all the respondents were unfailingly courteous,
friendly, and constructive, even when they were taking issue with me,
and the majority were strongly supportive of my efforts.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue