David Deterding

Syntactic Theory and the Structure of English: A Minimalist Approach. Andrew Radford. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 558pp.

Syntax: A Minimalist Introduction. Andrew Radford. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 283pp.

Chomsky is certainly one of the most important linguists of the twentieth century. The problem is that his books are not easy to read. Consequently, there is an essential role for other writers to provide a rather more accessible explanation of the latest version of his model of grammar.

Andrew Radford is foremost among these interpreters of Chomsky, and the first of the books listed above is in fact the third book he has written in the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series to explain Chomsky's model of grammar. (The first two were Transformational Syntax in 1981 and Transformational Grammar in 1988.)

When most authors find that their book is no longer up-to-date, they prepare a revised edition. In contrast, Radford has written a completely new book each time. In fact, he has little choice, as Chomsky's model of grammar has undergone massive changes over the years. In the latest version, gone are all the phrase structure rules and transformations that were so central to his earliest work, and instead of trying to generate all the grammatical sentences of a language, the current model (termed Minimalism) concentrates on using principles of Universal Grammar to explain why ungrammatical sentences are not well-formed. (To give you a taste of the current terminology, Minimalist Grammar tries to identify which semantically uninterpretable features cause the derivation to crash because they are not erased after checking.)

One of the central principles of Minimalism is the Economy Principle: everything should be kept simple, with as few constituents and grammatical operations as possible. One might hope that, as a result, the structural representations would be straightforward, but unfortunately this is not the case, and some of the derivations are incredibly abstract. Take, for example, a tree showing the proposed structure of a basic ditransitive sentence: 'They will get the teacher a present’ (p.378):

Although there are certainly excellent empirical reasons for the establishment of traces (shown as t on the tree), empty categories (shown as ), and two different kinds of verb phrase (vp and VP), it is hard to see that the representation of this sentence is simple and straightforward.

Actually, the complexity of the representation is consistent with one of the fundamental tenets of Chomsky's theory: grammar is so complex that children cannot possibly work it out in the same way they learn how to add and subtract, so it must be innate. We are born with the structure of grammar in our brains, and the job of acquiring the grammar of a first language is simply to determine the parameter settings, such as whether a head comes at the beginning or the end of its phrase.

If you think about the ditransitive sentence for which the tree was shown above, you might notice something a little strange about it: get is not the most obvious example to use as an introductory ditransitive verb, as it would be much more common to use give in the prototype sentence. So why does Radford use get instead? One suspects it is because the use of get facilitates the presentation of the underlying sentence as:

The teacher got a present.

and then argue that, when there is another agent causing the teacher to get the present, the sentence is:

They made the teacher get a present.

and finally, if the causative verb make is absent, get moves into the space vacated by make, and we get the original ditransitive sentence. However, this analysis does not work so well with most other ditransitive verbs, such as give or send. For example,

The teacher gave a present.

is not related in any way to the ditransitive sentence:

They gave the teacher a present.

Unfortunately, this is not the only instance where Radford uses an unusual example to establish an analysis and then extends it to other cases where it is less appropriate. For example, consider so-called object-control predicates, such as persuade and tell as in the following:

She persuaded me to try phoneme-free phonology.
He told me to keep a low profile.

To establish the analysis of these, Radford (p.382) uses decide, as in:

What decided you to take syntax?

This sentence (for me, at least) is highly dubious. So why does Radford use decide? It seems to be because then the underlying sentence can then be presented as:

You decided to take syntax.

and then, just as with get above, when there is an additional agent as the subject, we have:

What made you decide to take syntax?

and finally, if the made is absent, decided gets moved to the place it vacates. But notice that this analysis does not work so well for persuade or told, as neither of the following are well-formed:

*She made me persuade to take phoneme-free phonology.
*He made me tell to keep a low profile.

I would like here to consider one further aspect of Radford’s presentation that is illustrated by the structural tree shown above. In the first half of the book, he assumes that a sentence is an IP (an Inflectional Phrase); but on page 241, he provides evidence that the head of a clause is in fact the tense marker, and from then on he treats a sentence as a TP (as in the tree shown). This evolution of the model is consistent with the tone of the whole book, which aims to investigate the structure of grammar rather than provide a single coherent model, and Radford definitely does not claim to provide any fixed answers about the structure of English. Indeed, one of his most commonly used phrases is "if we are on the right track here". While this is certainly intellectually refreshing, anyone who finds it a struggle to understand the material may find the approach frustrating: just when you think you have grasped a particular form of analysis, it is abandoned for a different (and more abstract) one! Moreover, Radford sometimes (e.g. p.144) presents trees to represent a possible analysis which he then immediately dismisses as inappropriate, and it is unfortunate that these trees are not clearly marked as wrong (in a way similar to the use of an asterisk to indicate that a sentence is ill-formed).

Given the exploratory nature of the analysis, Radford would almost certainly be delighted to admit that some of his conclusions are open to debate, and indeed, some immediate questions do emerge from the discussion. In Chapter 6, Radford (p.227) shows that in Shakespeare’s time, it was possible to have subjectless finite clauses such as:

Hast any more of this. (The Tempest, II.ii)

Such subjectless sentences are not allowed in Modern English, and Radford claims that this difference arises because Shakespeare’s English had a richer set of inflections, so that the subject could be determined even when it was omitted. While this conclusion might seem valid from consideration of different varieties of English and other Indo-European languages such as Italian, surely Chinese, which is completely uninflected but is a null-subject language, is a strong counter-example? Indeed, even though many modern scholars of syntax would claim to be studying Universal Grammar, there does seem to be an overwhelming emphasis on European languages. (One suspects that Chomsky’s model of grammar would have looked rather different if he had been Chinese or Malay!)

In conclusion, therefore, this material is deliberately speculative and certainly fairly challenging. Radford uses a lively style with frequent off-beat jokes and comments which keep the text refreshing, and his argumentation is usually clear. But there is no escaping the fact that the grammatical analysis is highly abstract.

Radford admits that the theory is difficult, and has therefore written an abridged version (the second book listed above), and this is indeed somewhat more accessible. However, even here, it is just not possible to escape the fact that the Minimalist model of grammar is difficult. Radford himself admits (p.ix) that even this abridged version gets rather abstract in the later chapters.

One option for the faint-hearted might be to stick to the first few chapters of the abridged version, where the trees are indeed a little more manageable. However, we are told early on that all trees are binary, so a reader who does not persevere to the end would be left wondering how ditransitive sentences can be handled. To gain a basic grasp of this theory, one must accept that it is abstract and soldier on.

The question remains: do we need to know all of this? And further, do undergraduates need to know it? Maybe an analogy is appropriate: if you hit a tennis ball and want to plot its flight accurately, you need to use a quadratic equation, and a bit of calculus would be useful to determine its velocity and highest point. But does a tennis player need to know this? Obviously not: even a tennis coach would find little value in being able to plot the flight of a ball accurately.

Radford's books aim to provide a technical description of the structure of grammar, but most of us have survived fine and will continue to prosper without it. Though the full version of his book should probably be required reading for all serious students of grammar, I would hesitate to recommend it to any but the most dedicated of undergraduates, and even the abridged version would almost certainly pose many difficulties for most as an introductory textbook on grammar.