The Case for Abstract Grammar: Formal Grammar and Linguistic Communication

by Jeanette K. Gundel and Hooi Ling Soh

University of Minnesota (Minnesota, USA)


A question that is sometimes raised about formal grammar is whether it is relevant for understanding our ability to use language to communicate. We believe that it is, and that part of the controversy surrounding this question is due to (i) a misunderstanding of the goal of the study of formal grammar; (ii) different ways in which the term “language” is used and, relatedly, to different views about the relation between language and communication; and (iii) an unwarranted conclusion that if linguistic communication cannot be explained by formal grammar alone, then formal grammar cannot be relevant for understanding linguistic communication.

Within generative linguistics, a distinction is often made between “knowledge of language” and “use of language.” “Knowledge of language” refers to “the state of the mind/brain of the person who knows a particular language” (Chomsky, 1986, p. 3). For speakers of English, this knowledge includes knowing that “the woman sees Bill” is an acceptable English sentence, but “woman sees Bill” is not, and that “the woman sees Bill” does not have the same meaning as “Bill sees the woman,” and how the meanings of the two sentences differ.

“Use of language,” on the other hand, refers to how the knowledge of language attained enters into the expression of thought and into communication. Formal grammar is a theory of our knowledge of language, and is not intended as a theory of language use. However, to the extent that our knowledge of language enters into our ability to use it to communicate, formal grammar is relevant for understanding this ability.

Some proponents of the view that formal grammar is irrelevant for understanding linguistic communication point out that linguistic communication involves more than just knowledge of language. This much is uncontroversial. For example, yesterday was a disaster when uttered by a professor to a colleague may communicate the idea that the day before the statement was uttered the professor’s class did not go well, or that the dog was misbehaving at home, or it may also simply communicate more generally that the speaker had a bad day. Which of these meanings is communicated depends, at least in part, on the hearer’s ability to infer the speaker’s communicative intention, based on the context in which the sentence was uttered. The argument appears to be that because linguistic communication involves more than just knowledge of language, formal grammar, which is concerned with our knowledge of language, is irrelevant for understanding our ability to use language to communicate. The problem with this line of argument, however, is that it essentially assumes that if x alone cannot explain y, then x must be irrelevant for an account of y. It misses the point that linguistic communication is complex and involves the interaction of a number of different systems, knowledge of language being one of these, but not the only one. As noted, for example, in accounts of linguistic communication such as the relevance theoretic model developed by Sperber and Wilson (1995, p.27) “…there are at least two different modes of communication: the coding-decoding mode and the inferential mode.” Sperber and Wilson point out that complex forms of communication (such as linguistic communication) combine both modes.

It is true of course that if the goal is simply to explain how it is possible to communicate with others using language, a number of formal features of language would be irrelevant. Many morphosyntactic features, such as agreement, for example, are not essential for getting one’s meaning across. However, even if the goal were to explain how linguistic communication works, without being concerned about whether or not the language used is native-like, some aspect of knowledge of language would still have to be part of such an account.



Chomsky, N. (1986). Knowledge of language: Its nature, origin and use. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (1995). Relevance: Communication and cognition(2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.


About the Authors

Jeanette K. Gundel received her PhD in Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1974. She is currently Professor and Chair of Linguistics and Associate Director of the Center for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Minnesota, where she also holds adjunct appointments in Philosophy and Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences.

Hooi Ling Soh received her PhD in Linguistics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1998. She is currently an Associate Professor of Linguistics and a faculty affiliate member of the Center for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

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