My mother always told me that you should be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. In fact, I’ve discovered that her advice was far too weak: you should be careful what you idly speculate about as it may come to pass. As readers know, my last post (here) questioned the value added of the review process based on recent research noting the absence of evidence that reviewing serves its purported primary function of promoting quality and filtering out the intellectually less deserving. Well, no sooner did I write this than I received proof positive that our beloved LSA, has implemented a no review policy for Language’s new online journal Perspectives. Before I review the evidence for this claim, let me say that though I am delighted that my ramblings have so much influence and can so quickly change settled policy, I am somewhat surprised at the speed with which the editors at Language have adopted my inchoate maunderings. I would have hoped that we might make haste slowly by first trying to make the review process progressively less cumbersome before adopting more exciting policies. I did not anticipate that the editors at Language would be so impressed with my speculations that they would immediately throw all caution aside and allow anything at all, no matter how slipshod and ignorant, to appear under its imprimatur. It’s all a bit dizzying, really, and unnerving (What power! It’s intoxicating!). But why do things by halves, right? Language has chosen to try out a bold policy, one that will allow us to see whether the review process has any utility at all.
Many of you will doubt that I am reporting the aforementioned editorial policy correctly. After all, how likely is it that anything I say could have such immediate impact? In fact, how likely is that that the LSA and the editors of Language and its online derivatives even read FoL? Not likely, I am sorry to admit. However, unbelievable as it may sound, IT IS TRUE, and my evidence for this is the planned publication of the target article by Ambridge, Pine and Lieven (APL) (“Child language: why universal grammar doesn’t help” here). This paper is without any redeeming intellectual value and I can think of only two explanations for how it got accepted for publication: (i) the radical change in review policy noted above and (ii) the desire to follow the Royal Society down the path of parody (see here). I have eliminated (ii) because unlike the Royal Society’s effort, APL is not even slightly funny haha (well maybe as slapstick, I’ll let you decide). So that leaves (i).
How bad is the APL paper? You can’t begin to imagine. However, to help you vividly taste its shortcomings, let me review a few of its more salient “arguments” (yes, these are scare quotes). A warning, however, before I start. This is a long post. I couldn’t stop myself once I got started. The bottom line is that the APL paper is intellectual junk. If you believe me, then you need not read the rest. But it might interest you to know just how bad a paper can be. Finding zero on a scale can be very instructive (might this be why it is being published? Hmm).
The paper goes after what APL identify as five central claims concerning UG: identifying syntactic categories, acquiring basic morphosyntax, structure dependence, islands and binding. They claim to “identify three distinct problems faced by proposals that include a role for innate knowledge –linking, inadequate data coverage, and redundancy…(6).” ‘Linking’ relates to “how the learner can link …innate knowledge to the input language (6).” ‘Data-coverage’ refers to the empirical inadequacy of the proposed universals, and ‘redundancy’ arises when a proposed UG principle proves to be accurate but unnecessary as the same ground is covered by “learning procedures that must be assumed by all accounts” and thus obviate the need “for the innate principle or constraint” (7). APL’s claim is that all proposed UG principles suffer from one or another of these failings.
Now far be it from me to defend the perfection of extant UG proposals (btw, the principles APL discusses are vintage LGB conceptions, so I will stick to these). Even rabid defenders of the generative enterprise (e.g. me) can agree that the project of defining the principles of UG is not yet complete. However, this is not APL’s point: their claim is that the proposals are obviously defective and clearly irreparable. Unfortunately, the paper contains not a single worthwhile argument, though it does relentlessly deploy two argument forms: (i) The Argument from copious citation (ACC), (ii) The Argument from unspecified alternatives (AUA). It combines these two basic tropes with one other: ignorance of the relevant GB literature. Let me illustrate.
The first section is an attack on the assumption that we need assume some innate specification of syntactic categories so as to explain how children come to acquire them, e.g. N, V, A, P etc. APL’s point is that distributional analysis suffices to ground categorization without this parametric assumption. Indeed, the paper seems comfortable with the idea that the classical proposals critiqued “seem to us to be largely along the right lines (16),” viz. that “[l]earners will acquire whatever syntactic categories are present in a particular language they are learning making use of both distributional …and semantic similarities…between category members (16).” So what’s the problem? Well, it seems that categories vary from language to language and that right now we don’t have good stories on how to accommodate this range of variation. So, parametric theories seeded by innate categories are incomplete and, given the conceded need for distributional learning, not needed.
Interestingly, APL does not discuss how distributional learning is supposed to achieve categorization. APL is probably assuming non-parametric models of categorization. However, to function, these latter require specifications of the relevant features that are exploited for categorization. APL, like everyone else, assume (I suspect) that we humans follow principles like “group words that denote objects together,” “group words that denote events together,” “group words with similar “endings” together,” etc. APL’s point is that these are not domain specific and so not part of UG (see p.12). APL is fine with innate tendencies, just not language particular ones like “tag words that denote objects as Nouns,” “tag words that denote events as Verbs.” In short, APL’s point is that calling the groups acquired nouns, verbs, etc. serves no apparent linguistic function . Or does it?
Answering this question requires asking why UG distinguishes categories, e.g. nouns from verbs. What’s the purpose of distinguishing N or V in UG? To ask this question another way: which GB module of UG cares about Ns, Vs, etc? The only one that I can think of is the Case Module. This module identifies (i) the expressions that require case (Nish things) (ii) those that assign it (P and Vish things) and (iii) the configurations under which the assigners assign case to the assignees (roughly government). I know of no other part of UG that cares much about category labels.  
If this is correct, what must an argument aiming to show that UG need not natively specify categorical classes show? It requires showing that the distributional facts that Case Theory (CT) concerns itself with can be derived without such a specification. In other words, even if categorization could take place without naming the categories categorized, APL would need to show that the facts of CT could also be derived without mention of Ns and Vs etc. APL doesn’t do any of this. In fact, APL does not appear to know that the facts about CT are central to UG’s adverting to categorical features.
Let me put this point another way: Absent CT, UG would function smoothly if it assigned arbitrary tags to word categories, viz. ‘1’, ‘2’ etc. However, given CT and its role in regulating the distribution of nominals (and forcing movement) UG needs category names. CT uses these to explain data like: *It was believed John to be intelligent, or *Mary to leave would be unwise or *John hopes Bill to leave or *who do you wanna kiss Bill vs who do you wanna kiss. To argue against categories in UG requires deriving these kinds of data without mention of N/V-like categories. In other words, it requires deriving the principles of CT from non-domain specific procedures. I personally doubt that this is easily done. But, maybe I am wrong. What I am not wrong about is that absent this demonstration we can’t show that an innate specification of categories is nugatory. As APL doesn't address these concerns at all, its discussion is irrelevant to the question they purport to address.
There are other problems with APL’s argument: it has lots of citations of “problems” pre-specifying the right categories (i.e. ACC), lots of claims that all that is required is distributional analysis, but it contains no specification of what the relevant features to be tracked are (i.e. AUA). Thus, it is hard to know if they are right that the kinds of syntactic priors that Pinker and Mintz (and Gleitman and Co. sadly absent from the APL discussion) assume can be dispensed with. But, all of this is somewhat besides the point given the earlier point: APL doesn’t correctly identify the role that categories play in UG and so the presented argument even if correct doesn’t address the relevant issues.
The second section deals with learning basic morphosyntax. APL frames the problem in terms of divining the extension of notions like SUBJECT and OBJECT in a given language. It claims that nativists require that these notions be innately specified parts of UG because they are “too abstract to be learned” (18).
I confess to being mystified by the problem so construed. In GB world (the one that APL seem to be addressing), notions like SUBJECT and OBJECT are not primitives of the theory. They are purely descriptive notions, and have been since Aspects. So, at least in this little world, whether such notions can be easily mapped to external input is not an important problem. What the GB version of UG does need is a mapping to underlying structure (D-S(tructure)). This is the province of theta theory, most particularly UTAH in some version. Once we have DS, the rest of UG (viz. case theory, binding theory, ECP) regulate where the DPs will surface in S-S(tructure).
So though GB versions of UG don’t worry about notions like SUBJECT/OBJECT, they do need notions that allow the LAD to break into the grammatical system. This requires primitives with epistemological priority (EP) (Chomsky’s term) that allow the LAD to map PLD onto grammatical structure. Agent and patient, seem suited to the task (at least when suitably massaged as per Dowty and Baker). APL discusses Pinker’s version of this kind of theory. Its problem with it? APL claims that there is no canonical mapping of the kind that Pinker envisages that covers every language and every construction within a language (20-21). APL cites work on split ergative languages and notes that deep ergative languages like Dyirbal may be particularly problematic. It further observes that many of these problems raised by these languages might be mitigated by adding other factors (e.g. distributional learning) to the basic learning mechanism. However, and this is the big point, APL concludes that adding such learning obviates the need for anything like UTAH.
APL’s whole discussion is very confused. As APL note, the notions of UG are abstract. To engage it, we need a few notions that enjoy EP. UTAH is necessary to map at least some input smoothly to syntax (note: EP does not require that every input to the syntax be mapped via UTAH to D-S). There need only be a core set of inputs that cleanly do so in order to engage the syntactic system. Once primed other kinds of information can be used to acquire a grammar. This is the kind of process that Pinker describes. This obviates the need for a general UTAH like mapping.
Interestingly APL agrees with Pinker’s point, but it bizarrely concludes that this obviates the need for EPish notions altogether, i.e. for finding a way to get the whole process started. However, the fact that other factors can be used once the system is engaged does not mean that the system can be engaged without some way to get it going. Given a starting point, we can move on. APL doesn’t explain how to get the enterprise off the ground, which is too bad, as this is the main problem that Pinker and UTAH addresses. So once again, APL’s discussion fails to engage UG’s main worry: how to initially map linguistic input onto DS so that UG can work its magic.
APL have a second beef with UTAH like assumptions. APL asserts that there is just so much variation cross linguistically that there really is NO possible canonical mapping to DS to be had. What’s APL’s argument? Well, the ACC, argument by citation. The paper cites resaearch that claims there is unbounded variation in the mapping principles from theta roles to syntax and concludes that this is indeed the case. However, as any moderately literate linguist knows, this is hotly contested territory. Thus, to make the point APL wants to make responsibly requires adjudicating these disputes. It requires discussing e.g. Baker’s and Legate’s work and showing that their positions are wrong. It does not suffice to note that some have argued that UTAH like theories cannot work if others have argued that they can. Citation is not argumentation, though APL appears to read as if it is. There has been quite a bit of work on these topics within the standard tradition that APL ignores (Why? Good question). The absence of any discussion renders APL’s conclusions moot. The skepticism may be legitimate (i.e. it is not beside the point). However, nothing APL says should lead any sane person to conclude that the skepticism is warranted as the paper doesn’t exercise the due diligence required to justify its conclusions. Assertions are a dime a dozen. Arguments take work. APL seems to confuse the first for the second.
The first two sections of APL are weak. The last three sections are embarrassing. In these, APL fully exploits AUAs and concludes that principles of UG are unnecessary. Why? Because the observed effects of UG principles can all be accounted for using pragmatic discourse principles that boil down to the claim that “one cannot extract elements of an utterance that are not asserted, but constitute background information” …and “hence that only elements of a main clause can be extracted or questioned” (31-32). For the case of structure dependence, APL supplements this pragmatic principle with the further assertion that “to acquire a structure-dependent grammar, all a learner has to do is to recognize that strings such as the boy, the tall boy, war and happiness share both certain functional and –as a consequence- distributional similarities” (34). Oh boy!! How bad is this? Let me count some of the ways.
First, there is no semantic or pragmatic reason for why back-grounded information cannot be questioned. In fact, the contention is false. Consider the Y/N question in (1) and appropriate negative responses in (2):
(1) Is it the case that eagles that can fly can swim
(2) a. No, eagles that can SING can swim
b. No eagles that can fly, can SING
Both (2a,b) are fine answers to the question in (1). Given this, why can we form the question with answer (2b) as in (3a) but not the question conforming to the answer in (2a) as in (3a)? Whatever is going on has nothing to do with whether it is possible to question the content of relative clause subjects. Nor is it obvious how “recogniz[ing] that strings such as the boy, the tall boy, war and happiness share both certain functional …and distributional similarlities” might help matters.
(3) a. *Can eagles that fly can swim?
b. Can eagles that can fly swim?
This is not a new point and it is amazing how little APL has to say about it. In fact, the section on structure dependence quotes and seems to concede all the points made in the Berwick et. al. 2011 paper (see here). Nonetheless APL concludes that there is no problem in explaining the structure dependence of T to C if one assumes that back-grounded info is frozen for pragmatic reasons. However, as this is obviously false, as a moment’s thought will show, APL’s alternative “explanation” goes nowhere.
Furthermore, APL doesn’t really offer an account of how back-grounded information might be relevant as the paper nowhere specifies what back-grounded information is or in which contexts it appears. Nor does APL explicitly offer any pragmatic principle that prevents establishing syntactic dependencies with back-grounded information. APL has no trouble specifying the GB principles it critiques, so I take the absence of a specification of the pragmatic theory to be quite telling.
The only hint APL provides as to what it might intend (again copious citations, just no actual proposal) is that because questions ask for new information and back-grounded structure is old information it is impossible to ask a question regarding old information (c.f. p. 42). However, this, if it’s what APL has in mind (which, again is unclear as the paper never actually makes the argument explicitly) is both false and irrelevant.
It is false because we can focus within a relative clause island, the canonical example of a context where we find back-grounded info (c.f. (4a)). Nonetheless, we cannot form the question (4b) for which (4a) would be an appropriate answer. Why not? Note, it cannot be because we can’t focus within islands, for we can as (4a) indicates.
(4) a. John likes the man wearing the RED scarf
b. *Which scarf does John like the man who wears?
Things get worse quickly. We know that there are languages that in fact have no trouble asking questions (i.e. asking for new info) using question words inside islands. Indeed, a good chunk of the last thirty years of work on questions has involved wh-in-situ languages like Chinese or Japanese where these kinds of questions are all perfectly acceptable. You might think that APL’s claims concerning the pragmatic inappropriateness of questions from back-grounded sources would discuss these kinds of well-known cases. You might, but you would be wrong. Not a peep. Not a word. It’s as if the authors didn’t even know such things were possible (nod nod wink wink).
But it gets worse still: ever since forever (i.e. from Ross) we know that Island effects per se are not restricted to questions. The same things appear entirely with structures having nothing to do with focus e.g. relativization and topicalization to name two relevant constructions. These exhibit the very same island effects that questions do, but in these constructions the manipulanda do not involve focused information at all. If the problem is asking for new info from a back-grounded source, then why can’t operations that target old back-grounded information not form dependencies into the relative clause? The central fact about islands is that it really doesn’t matter what the moved element means, you cannot move it out (‘move’ here denotes a particular kind of grammatical operation). Thus, if you can’t form a question via movement, you can’t relativize or tropicalize using movement either. APL does not seem acquainted with this well-established point.
One could go on: e.g. resumptive pronouns can obviate island effects but the analogous non-resumptive analogues do not despite semantic and pragmatic informational equivalence, islands in languages like Swedish/Norwegian do not allow extraction from any island whatsoever, contrary to what PL suggests. All of this is relevant to APL’s claims concerning islands. None of it is discussed, nor hinted at. Without mention of these factors, APL once again fails to address the problems that UG based accounts have worried about and discussed for the last 30 years. As such, the critique advanced in this section on islands, is, once again, largely irrelevant.
APL’s last section on binding theory (BT) is more of the same. The account of principle C effects in cases like (4) relies on another pragmatic principle, viz. that it is “pragmatically anomalous to use a full lexical NP in part of the sentence that exists only to provide background information” (48). It is extremely unclear what this might mean. However, on at least the most obvious reading, it is either incorrect or much too weak to account for principle C effects. Thus, one can easily get full NPs within back-grounded structure (e.g. relative clauses like (4a)). But within the relative clause (i.e. within the domain of back-grounded information), we still find principle C effects (contrast (4a,b)).
(5) a. John met a woman who knows that Frank1 loves his1 mother
b. * John met a woman who knows that he1 loves Frank’s1 mother
The discussion of principles A and B are no better. APL does not explain how pragmatic principles explain why reflexives must be “close” to their antecedents (*John said that Mary loves himself or *John believes him/heself is tall), why they cannot be anteceded by John in structures like John’s mother upset himself (where the antecedent fails to c-command but is not in a clause), why they must be preceded by their antecedents (*Mary believes himself loves John) etc. In other words, APL does not discuss BT and that facts that have motivated it at all and so the paper provides no evidence for the conclusion that BT is redundant and hence without explanatory heft.
This has been a long post. I am sorry. Let me end. APL is a dreadful paper. There is nothing there. The question then is why did Perspectives accept it for publication? Why would a linguistics venue accept such a shoddy piece of work on linguistics for publication? It’s a paper that displays no knowledge of the relevant literature, and presents not a single argument (though assertions aplenty) for its conclusions. Why would a journal sponsored by the LSA allow the linguistic equivalent of flat-earthism to see the light of day under its imprimatur? I can only think of only one reasonable explanation for this: the editors of Language have decided to experiment with a journal that entirely does away with the review process. And I fear I am to blame. The moral: always listen to your mother.
 It’s currently the first entry on his Ambridge’s web page.
 There are a couple of other possibilities that I have dismissed out of hand: (i) that the editors thought that this paper had some value and (ii) linguistic self loathing has become so strong that anything that craps on our discipline is worthy of publication precisely because it dumps on us. As I said, I am putting these terrifying possibilities aside.
 Thus, when I say ‘UG’ I intend GB’s version thereof.
 Bounding theory cares too (NP is, but VP is not a bounding node). APL discusses island effects and I discuss their points below. However, suffice it to say, if we need something like a specification of bounding nodes that we need to know, among other things, which groups are Nish and which not.
 X’ theory will project the category of the head of a phrase to the whole phrase. But what makes something an NP requiring case is that N heads it.
 APL also seems to believe that unless the same categories obtain cross linguistically they cannot be innate (c.f. p. 11). This confuses Greenberg’s conception of universals with Chomsky’s, and so is irrelevant. Say that the following principle “words that denote events are grouped as V” is a prior that can be changed given enough data. This does not imply that the acquisition of linguistic categories can proceed in the absence of this prior. Such a prior would be part of UG on Chomsky’s conception, even if not on Greenberg’s.
 It’s a little like saying that you can get to New York using a good compass without specifying any starting point. Compass readings are great, but not if you don’t know where you are starting from.
 Just to further back-ground the info (4) embeds the relative clause within know, which treats the embedded information as pre-supposed.