David Deterding

Transformational Grammar: From Principles and Parameters to Minimalism. (2nd Edition). Jamal Ouhalla. London: Arnold, 1999, 488pp. ISBN: 0-340-74036-1.

In this book, Ouhalla aims to give a substantial introduction and overview of Chomsky's model of grammar. One major problem with such an endeavour is that Chomsky keeps on changing the model quite radically, so that the current version (Chomsky 1995) bears little resemblance to earlier manifestations (such as Chomsky 1965). As a result it is not clear if it is best for someone writing a book of this nature to try to trace the evolution of Chomsky's thinking or instead to ignore previous models and just start right from the beginning with the most recent version.

In contrast with Radford (1981, 1988, 1997), who seems to be willing to write an entirely new book each time the foundations shift, Ouhalla feels that it is still useful to discuss features of the earliest version of the model. Consequently, the first few chapters introduce phrase structure rules, lexical subcategorisation and transformations, then the bulk of the middle sections of the book deal with principles and parameters and also with government and binding, and the final section introduces concepts from the Minimalist Program such as antisymmetry and the strength of agreement features.

Although it might seem strange to adopt this approach and introduce concepts such as phrase structure rules and the detailed mechanics of transformations only for them later to be abandoned, there is in fact quite a solid justification for doing this, as the earlier models are rather less abstract and so provide a reasonably gentle introduction to the quite difficult theory that is subsequently discussed. (In Deterding and Poedjosoedarmo 2001, Chapter 16 similarly introduces Chomsky's earliest model while Chapter 17 discusses the more recent 1995 version.)

In fact, even though Ouhalla has struggled valiantly to introduce the topics clearly and gradually in this way, the text still sometimes gets quite tough. Take, for example, the following from page 227:

"... in A'-chains involving an operator and a variable it is the variable which functions as the argument, occupying the Case-marked and ?-marked position of the chain. Variable traces are r-expressions, on a par with names and other referring expressions, and have the feature specification [-a, -p]."

Now, all this does make sense, but it is not easy to say the least. Let us consider the reactions of different kinds of people on encountering text like this.

There are, perhaps, three kinds of potential readers. The first might look at the text above, regard it as perfectly straightforward and clear, and wonder what all the fuss is about. But these people are probably already professors of syntax (or maybe brain surgeons or rocket scientists), so they are likely to have limited interest in reading an introductory textbook of this nature.

Another category of readers will look at the text and throw up their hands in horror, aghast that anyone could seriously try to cope with such gobbledygook. These people are ordinary, sane, rational folk, and they constitute the vast majority of the population. But they probably should be warned not to attempt to tackle this book.

Then there is the third kind of person, someone who looks at the text and does not understand it but would like to find out what it means. This third kind of person, maybe a very rare breed indeed, is presumably the target for the book. And for this type of reader, the book does represent a substantial and authoritative introduction to an important model of grammar.

As professionals dealing with language, we should all try to be aware of recent developments in Chomsky's thinking, as his theories continue to be extremely influential in linguistics. It is a pity that the barriers to gaining a decent grasp of them are so severe, but that is not the fault of this book. Ouhalla has put a huge amount of effort in trying to explain everything carefully and comprehensively, and it is just unfortunate that the model is so abstract. However, anyone with a serious interest in grammar should probably persevere, as this book does provide a very substantial overview that will undoubtedly prove very valuable to many people.


Chomsky, N (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N (1995) The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Deterding D and Poedjosoedarmo G (2001) The Grammar of English: Morphology and Syntax for English Teachers in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Prentice Hall.

Radford, A (1981) Transformational Syntax: A Student's Guide to Chomsky's Extended Standard Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Radford, A (1988) Transformational Grammar: A First Course. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Radford, A (1997) Syntactic Theory and the Structure of English: A Minimalist Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

From: SAAL Quarterly Vol 60, November 2002, 2-4