Minimalism and Lexical Functional Grammar are two very different approaches to the same linguistic data.

The Minimalist Program is the latest in a string of incarnations of Noam Chomsky’s original theory, which was set forth in his 1957 book, Syntactic Structures, and his 1965 book, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. This framework, known as transformational generative grammar, is based explicitly on two ideas. First, transformations (movement of pieces) account for the differences we see in the surface structures of the languages of the world. Transformations account for things like wh-question formation, as well as word order cross-linguistically. Second, the framework seeks to generate the linguistic structures we see occur in actual language, by the application of rules to underlying linguistic structure. Chomsky’s ideas have been very influential in linguistics for the past 70 years, and today, Minimalism can be seen as being the most mainstream approach to syntax.

Lexical Functional Grammar (like many other approaches which have been suggested since generative grammar came about) came in response to the Chomskyan thread, and was developed in the 1970s by Joan Bresnan and Ronald Kaplan. The earliest treatments of this new perspective are Bresnan (1978) and Bresnan (1982). Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG) seeks to offer a model of grammar that is psychologically more realistic, among other things; the most important point of departure (especially at the time of its development) from the Chomskyan model is that it eschews the concept of transformations in grammar. This came in response to work at the time that had shown that the presence of transformations in language use were not consistent with psychological evidence. In many ways, LFG is opposed to Chomskyan theory (and, hence, its newest iterations, the Minimalist Program and the Cartographic approach). This was the backdrop to a discussion about syntax that I attended not long ago.

This particular string of sessions was organized in order to bring adherents of different approaches together to discuss certain phenomena, and the topic at this session had to do with the aforementioned wh-question formation. The most important difference to note is that Minimalism suggests that movement is not only involved in such structuring, but that it happens more than once, whereas LFG sees a structure not as being derived from some other (underlying) structure, but rather as coming about as a representation of the semantic form of the utterance.

As the conversation wore on, one of the participants found it difficult to discuss the problem from such disparate viewpoints, and voiced a complaint that many have with Minimalism and the Chomskyan approach generally: Those who adhere to it have a complete disregard for the extreme improbability of movement having any role in human language production. In response, another participant said, first, that she thought that accusation was unfair; but she then conceded that we all have our ‘red lines’ as far as our theoretical approach is concerned. And that was it; though time was also running short, it was clear that the discussion could go no further. And that’s the issue with red lines.

Linguistics and Dogma

In this field, it’s easy to feel like you’re in a bitter war being fought among idealistically opposed religions. People often believe so strongly in the approach they take, that all other approaches are invalid; this, I think, is the red line we see being drawn above: it’s drawn, it won’t move, no matter what evidence comes about to cast doubt on it. It is evident from such a position that what matters most to the person who takes it is their opinion of empirical findings, not the findings themselves. It suggests that whatever comes from scientific research – which, by definition, seeks out answers by continual hypothesis testing and disposal of ideas which do not fit the data – will not really matter, unless it conforms to one’s a priori approach. Where a red line is set, it will not move; no evidence will be able to change that person’s mind. This is incongruent with any scientific research, and in a field which has sought systematization and formalization over the past century, it is conspicuously out of place.

On top of this, specialization makes for minds that know very little about the perspectives others come from. To follow one school of thought is to make oneself practically oblivious to the inner workings of any other. From what I’ve seen, this can act both to protect one’s red lines from outside attack, as well as to fortify these same lines. If you’re a Minimalist, you can easily do away with a critique from an HPSG (Head-drive Phrase Structure Grammar) adherent simply by saying that you aren’t familiar with that framework, and so are unable to comment. And this, far from being unacceptable for a scholar in the field, is seen as the only way to be do any meaningful work. The idea is that if you want to know enough in any one area to be able to contribute something, you must focus on that one area only. While this may seem a reasonable approach, what it actually does is handicap linguists and make broad debate untenable. This is the mechanism at work that allows so many distinct theories to exist simultaneously in modern linguistics.

Linguistics is unbelievably dogmatic. And this does not serve to further the discipline, nor to advance our knowledge of the human capacity for language. By clinging to a theory beyond reason, the theories produced can only be ignorant or twisted around new evidence to the point that the elegance and explanatory power of the theories is lost. If we are dogmatic about our views – if we draw red lines we are unwilling to cross for any reason – then our views cease to be scientific or systematic, and instead turn into what systematic investigation is supposed to overcome: folk theories, uninformed ideas about what is really going on; deeply held beliefs based not on evidence, but on appeal to authority, ideological inertia, or simply our own closed-mindedness.

Linguistics and Openness

What science – and life beyond science, if we want it to function optimally – really needs is openness. Anyone who seeks to find truth – or the closest thing to it that we can get our hands on – needs to be objective enough about their own ideas to recognize that they might be wrong. In linguistics specifically, this means giving up on theories that obviously fail to explain human language.

Most importantly, we can’t draw red lines. This goes for linguists and everyone else. If we want to arrive at truly optimal solutions, we will listen to each other and consider what other viewpoints have to contribute. We must be invested not in our own way of getting to the truth, but in getting to the truth by the best possible route. This takes a fair amount of humility; it also takes a commitment to something outside ourselves. For linguists, this is a commitment to (really) understanding language; for our political lives, this is a commitment to increase the good while reducing the bad (and understanding that the way we think it should be done may not be as effective as some alternative). Red lines have no place in linguistics, no place in academia, and no place in life generally. When we get rid of them, we’ll find ourselves again able to move forward.


Bresnan, J. 1978. A realistic transformational grammar. In Linguistic Theory and Psychological Reality. M. Halle, J. Bresnan, and G.A. Miller (eds.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bresnan, J., ed. 1982. The Mental Representation of Grammatical Relations. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

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