November 25, 2003

Ever heard a Chomsky sentence?

Which auxiliary in a declarative clause is the one that must precede the subject in the corresponding closed interrogative? In example (1) it's the first auxiliary, as can be seen from the grammatical interrogative in (2). (The auxiliaries are underlined and subscripted for reference, and "__" appears where the auxiliary would have been if it weren't before the subject.)

(1) This is1 the unit you will2 be delivering to me.

(2) Is1 this __ the unit you will2 be delivering to me?

If you choose the other auxiliary, the result is badly ungrammatical:

(3) *Will2 this is1 the unit you __ be delivering to me?

But "the first auxiliary" isn't the right answer. And a very important point about the learning of grammar hangs on this. Let me explain.

In the declarative clause (4), it is not the first auxiliary that is placed before the subject to make the interrogative.

(4) The unit you will1 be delivering to me is2 is simi lar to this one.

Using the first auxiliary would get you the disastrously ungrammatical (5).

(5) *Will1 the unit you __ be delivering to me is2 is sim ilar to this one?

Instead, it's the second auxiliary that you should choose. Putting that before the subject gets you the right result, namely (6).

(6) Is2 the unit you will1 be delivering to me __ similar to this one?

So the "first-auxiliary" rule is definitely wrong.

But how do we know this? How did we learn it? The correct rule is, as it happens, that it is whichever auxiliary is the one belonging to the main clause that must go before the subject. But how does a young learner ever find that out? What could convince a child who hit on the first-auxiliary rule that it is a mistake, only working accidentally in cases like (2) where the first auxiliary is the main clause auxiliary?

Well, we could learn that the first-auxiliary rule was wrong if we heard an example like (6). So for anyone who thinks we learn from the example of our parents and peers, it becomes an important question whether we ever do hear such examples.

Noam Chomsky does not believe that we learn most of our language from examples that we hear. He thinks much of the structure of human language is built into us at birth in some way ("innate"). And Chomsky has asserted firmly in numerous publications that we couldn't learn that the first-auxiliary rule was wrong. In one statement of the case he asserted that "A person could go through much or all of his life without ever having been exposed to relevant evidence" of the sort that (6) represents (paper and discussions recorded in Language and Learning: The Debate Between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky, ed. by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1980, p.40). However, he gave not one whit of empirical evidence supporting this confident assertion.

For convenience, let me refer to sentences with the property that (6) exhibits as Chomsky-sentences. Barbara Scholz and I have pointed out that it is not hard to find Chomsky-sentences in any text that one searches with any care, from newspaper prose to Oscar Wilde plays to Mork and Mindy scripts (see our paper `Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments', The Linguistic Review 19 [2002], 9-50). But do they occur in spontaneous speech? Geoffrey Sampson, who believes people do learn purely from the evidence of hearing other people speak, suggests (in "Exploring the richness of the stimulus", The Linguistic Review 19 [2002], 73-104) that they don't -- and he thinks it is also the case that people never learn to produce Chomsky-sentences in speech. That is, he proposes that the rule about making interrogatives by placing the auxiliary before the subject is to some extent a rule of written English rather than spoken. (He even encountered, just once, a woman who attempted a Chomsky-sentence in spontaneous conversation, and she got it completely wrong: she was attempting to say Is what I'm doing worthwhile?, but what came out of her mouth was *Am what I doing is worthwhile?, completely ungrammatical.)

Whether Chomsky-sentences occur in spoken English is a real bone of contention, therefore. That is why I jumped as if stung by a bee when I was listening to the BBC World Service on December 7, 2001, at about 4:30 p.m. GMT and I heard a business reported doing an unscripted interview with a Swissair executive say:

(7) How radical are2 the changes you're1 having to make __?

That's a Chomsky-sentence. In declarative analogs like The changes you're1 having to make are2 so radical, the auxiliary of the main clause, are, is the one that has to be put up front before the subject (right after the fronted interrogative phrase how radical which begins the whole sentence). So much for the claim that you could live your whole life without hearing a Chomsky-sentence.

So are they common? Well, on February 2, 2002, I was listening to the BBC again, and I heard an interviewer doing an unscripted interview by satellite phone with a yacht race contestant, and the interviewer said:

(8) How sophisticated is2 the computer equipment you've1 got on board __?

That's another Chomsky-sentence in spontaneous speech. It raises the issue of whether perhaps both Chomsky and Sampson are wrong. Both my examples are from the BBC, and both are how questions; but how many more Chomsky-sentences are going past our ears all the time? And how many would it take to settle the question of whether it was possible for children to learn which auxiliary to front simply from examples of what they had heard? I have no idea. But the sentences in question don't have to be long and cumbersome like the ones above. The shortest Chomsky-sentence I've been able to construct is only four syllables:

(9) Is2 what's1 left __ mine?

Ever heard someone say that on seeing that there's just two slices of pizza left in the box? I have a feeling I may actually have said it myself on occasion. But I don't know.

It's actually scientifically important whether Chomsky sentences turn up in everyday speech, and if they do, how common they are. Keep your ears open, and make notes. I would love to see any accurately transcribed examples that you hear, written down with date and details of the speaker, and preferably witnessed independently by a third person who was there. You could send the examples to me by email. My login name is pullum and is the domain.

(Forgive me for not including a mail-to link, but it would immediately be seized upon by foraging spambots who would send me unwanted messages about Viagra and toner cartridges.) This post was edited on Wed 26 Nov 2003 at about 09:45 PST. Among other things, the word "not" was invisible for about twelve hours in the sentence "Noam Chomsky does not believe that we learn most of our language from examples that we hear" -- because of a formatting error, not a belief error. That's a rather serious alteration in sense. Apologies. --GKP

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 25, 2003 10:27 PM