Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1957, Noam Chomsky’s first book, Syntactic Structures, created something close to a revolution in the study of linguistics. The field had been dominated by scholars who analyzed examples to determine how sounds (phonetics) and words (syntax) were put together to create sentences that were considered grammatical by the speakers and writers of a language. In his book, Chomsky called attention to the fact that analysis of structurally similar sentences such as “John is eager to please” and “John is easy to please” does not explain the difference in meaning. In the first sentence, John pleases someone, but in the second, someone pleases John. At the same time, structurally dissimilar sentences such as “Ann gave Sue a gift,” “Sue was given a gift by Ann,” and “A gift was given Sue by Ann” have the same meaning.

Chomsky proposed that such sentences must be comprehended by psychological study, not by structural analysis. He proposed that they have underlying mental structures, or “deep structures,” of subject-predicate relationships. These deep structures can be transformed by regular, known rules (transformational rules) into the variety of sentences cited, their “surface structures.” It is through subconscious knowledge of the transformational rules and deep structures that speakers and writers, listeners and readers, can understand one another. Syntactic Structures established a new method of grammatical...

(The entire section is 594 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Gellner, Ernest. “Sentiments and Sentences,” in The New Republic. CXCVI (March 23, 1987), pp. 34-38.

Gelman, David. “The Mouths of Babes: New Research into the Mysteries of How Infants Learn to Talk,” in Newsweek. CVIII (December 15, 1986), pp. 84-86.

Harman, Gilbert, ed. On Noam Chomsky: Critical Essays, 1974.

Kuester, Harold H. “Chomsky on Grammar and Mind: A Critique,” in International Philosophy Quarterly. XXV (June, 1985), pp. 157-172.

Leiber, Justin. Noam Chomsky: A Philosophic Overview, 1975.

Lyons, John. Noam Chomsky, 1970.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. “Has There Been a Chomskyan Revolution in Linguistics?” in Language. LXII (March, 1986), pp. 1-18.

Peck, Jim. “Noam Chomsky: An American Dissident,” in The Progressive. LI (July, 1987), pp. 22-25.