Names are important for what you call something can affect how people understand it, no matter how many times you clarify your intentions. Chomsky has been the unfortunate recipient of considerable “criticism” launched against positions that he does not hold. I have discussed this elsewhere but it is worth reiterating for when it comes to criticizing his ideas, it appears, that understanding them is hardly a prerequisite. The most insistent zombie criticism comes in frantic popular pieces that regularly announce that Universal Grammar has failed because language X doesn’t have property Y (Piraha and recursion fit this template to a T). The fact that Chomsky’s conception of Universal Grammar is not about languages but about the Faculty of Language (viz. humans have a species specific capacity to acquire languages and Universal Grammar is a specification of the mental powers on which this capacity supervenes) and that it does not require that every language exhibit the same properties seems irrelevant to these critics and the secondary market in Chomsky criticism (you know who you are!). However, satisfying it is to reiterate this simple but important point (and please feel free to join me in making it at every available opportunity (Tip: it makes a nice part of any wedding or bar mitzvah speech)) let me leave it aside for now and let me instead continue my program of ling-speak reform. In earlier posts, I (and Paul) suggested that we drop ‘learning’ for the more generic ‘acquisition’ in describing what kids do and reserve the former term for a particular kind of data driven acquisition. Here I want to consider the use of another term: ‘grammaticality’ as used to describe speakers’ judgments, as in ‘sentence (1a) is grammatical and sentence (1b) is ungrammatical.’
(1) a. John likes Mary
b. *John like Mary
My proposal is that we swap ‘acceptable’ for ‘grammatical,’ that we use the latter as a predicate of analyses and use the former to describe the data. This terminological proposal amounts to treating ‘grammatical’ as a theoretical term, whereas ‘acceptable’ describes the empirical lay of the land.
This would have several prophylactic advantages.
First, it makes an important distinction between data and what the data is used to probe. We have reliable intuitions of unacceptability but not intuitions of what causes unacceptability. Utterances of sentences can be more or less acceptable. Only sentences can be grammatical and ungrammatical. And, though unacceptability is a prima facie reason for suspecting ungrammaticality, ungrammaticality is neither necessary nor sufficient for the perception of unacceptability. Grammaticality is a theoretical notion, acceptability an observational one.
So acceptability is a predicate of our linguistic data. At bottom, a big part of that data is judgments of the acceptability of an utterance of a sentence in a specified context (e.g. we ask “could you say BLAH BLAH BLAH in coxtext C to express M?”). Often, a used sentence token can be judged unacceptable without much specification of context of use (e.g. island violations), but often not (e.g. scope ambiguities). Thus, low acceptability can be traced to a variety of reasons, only one of which concerns the utterance’s grammatical status. Indeed, all the four possible relations between +/- acceptability (+/-A) and +/- Grammaticality (+/-G) exist. Let’s consider some examples.
An uttered sentence can be unacceptable yet grammatical, –A/+G, the unacceptability attributed to parsing difficulty of some kind. Canonical examples include:
(2) a. That that that Bill left Mary amused Sam is interesting is sad
b. Dogs dogs dog dog dogs dogs dog
c. The horse raced past the barn fell
(2a) is a case of self embedding (c.f. Chomsky and Miller 1963), (2c) a garden path and (2b), though it has no name is great for parties (other variants include ‘buffalo buffalo buffalo bufalo buffalo buffalo bufalo’ and ‘skunks skunks skunk skunk skunks skunk’). We have pretty good stories about why these sentences are hard to deal with. For (2a) see Lewis and Vasisth 2005, for (2b) Barton, Berwick and Ristad 1987, and (2c) virtually anybody working on language processing.
Jon Sprouse discusses other examples of the disconnect between grammaticality and acceptability. For example, it is well known that length alone affects acceptability ratings. For example, when uttered, a long sentence like (3a) is judged superior to a short one like (3b) though every theory of grammar will treat them as equally grammatical:
(3) a. Who did Bill see
b. Who did Frank say that Bill saw
Interestingly, the contrast goes in the other direction as well. There are sentences that sound really very good when uttered, but are nonetheless clearly ungrammatical. Examples like (4) were first discussed, I believe, by Montalbetti, and recently Alexis Wellwood, Roumi Pancehva and Colin Philips have been investigating them as examples of grammatical illusions.
(4) More people visited Rome last year than I did
Such sentences when uttered “sound” really good and garner high judgment ratings. In particular, if a native speaker is asked to judge their acceptability, especially if asked to do so quickly, they will rate them very high. Ask them what the uttered sentence means (or could mean) and they are stumped. Consider (5a). They can be paraphrased as (5b). On this model (4) should be understood as (6). But (6) is incomprehensible, true word salad.
(5) a. More people visited Rome last year than visited Venice
b. The number of people who visited Rome last year is greater than the
number of people who visited Venice last year.
(6) The number of people who visited Rome last year is greater than …the number that I did?/greater than the number of I that did?
You should appreciate that the incomprehensibility of (4) is quite an accomplishment. It is not actually that easy to construct sentences whose utterance are truly meaningless. Many of our standard “bad” examples are semantically quite transparent. Thus (7a) means (7b) and (8a) has the paraphrase (8b).
(7) a. *who did you meet a woman who loved
b. Which person is it that you met a woman who loved him
(8) a. *John seems sleeping
b. John seems to be sleeping
Real semantic mish mash exists, (9a) is word salad and cannot be pretzled into meaning (9b) (it is a well known minimality or PIC (phase impenetrability condition) violation).
(9) a. *John seems that it was told that Frank left
b. it seems that John was told that Frank left
Note, however, that the semantic incomprehensibility correlates with strong unacceptability. What makes examples like (4) so interesting is that they are judged quite acceptable despite their incoherence.
The other two combinations are the standard cases, +G leading to +A and –G being –A, the ones that make it reasonable to treat (un)acceptability as a leading indicator of (un)grammaticality. But, as the +G/-A and –G/+A cases show, even generally reliable symptoms can mislead.
There is one other upside to adopting this terminological distinction. When theory changes, we often reassess the import of the facts. This is in and of itself not a bad thing. Facts don’t come marked with their significance and a fact’s import might change as theory does. However, though what we make of facts might change, the facts themselves do not (at least not by and large). It is useful to have neutral terminology for describing the explanada and whereas a sentence that is ungrammatical in one theoretical venue might be grammatical in another, an utterable sentence that is unacceptable given one set of theoretical assumptions does not generally become acceptable given another. Grammaticality shifts. Unacceptability is relatively fixed. This is useful to recall when the excitement of theoretical innovation leads us to set aside heretofore central data points. There is nothing wrong in my view in setting recalcitrant facts to one side, at least temporarily, there is a lot wrong in forgetting that these facts exist. Not confusing acceptability with grammaticality might help restrain this otherwise enticing move.
However, the real benefit of making this change is that it will remind us that imputations of grammaticality involve dipping one’s toes into the deep seas of theory (they are part of explaining) while noting differences in acceptability belong to the realm of description. Being careful not to confuse description with explanation is a worthwhile precept of methodological hygiene. Incorporating the distinction between acceptability and grammaticality into our ling-speak is a small inoculation against self-confusion.