Sunday, October 20, 2019

Syntactic Tip of the Day

April 1, 2021
The specific technical proposals in Chomsky's thesis, LSLT and Syntactic Structures are far less important than the kinds of questions that Chomsky started to ask that led him to those proposals. Those questions where roughly: What is the generative system that we need to postulate to account for the data? How can we argue for one generative system over another? What is the relation of this generative system to the speakers's ability to use language? These were completely new questions (as I understand it). The analysis of the auxiliary system in Syntactic Structures was a kind of proof of concept showing the value of this shift in research questions, but the shift itself was the most important thing. And of course, the important discoveries of the subsequent years were a direct consequence of the shift in the questions asked.

March 31, 2021
If you cite a reference in the text, use page numbers (e.g., Clements 1975: 140). Doing so helps the reader look up the information that you cite. If the whole book or paper is relevant, the page number can be omitted (e.g., “Chomsky 1957 marks the beginning of generative syntax.”).

December 12, 2020
Get your hands dirty! When faced with a syntactic problem, turn it inside out. 
Generate a large number of sentences and test them for acceptability. 
Be adventurous, and you might discover something really interesting.

November 13, 2020
Don't be afraid to say "I don't know." These words will liberate you,
and pretending you know something when you don't will imprison you.

October 26, 2020
Be prepared to be perplexed by simple and obvious facts.
Be willing to admit that you do not have an explanation for those facts.

September 8, 2020
Writing syntax papers takes lots of practice. It may take you four or five attempts (in trying to write different papers) to catch on, and even then there will be lots of room for improvement.

April 23, 2020
The secret to getting grants in linguistics: If you apply for four grants (including reapplications), then on average three will be declined and one awarded.

April 7, 2020
Here is a skill syntax students should know: Suppose there is an analysis involving A'-movement of an empty operator. Show that the proposed A'-movement is subject to island constraints.

December 29, 2019
If you are looking for a syntax topic, go to the border wars. For example, there are many interesting problems at the syntax-semantics interface (implicit arguments, anaphora, negation), that have alternative syntactic and semantic analyses. And the other borders are just as volatile: syntax-morphology, syntax-phonology and syntax-pragmatics.

December 25, 2019
Grammaticality judgments should be given in context. A sentence judged as marginal or ungrammatical out of context (out of the blue) might seem better in context. A skill that syntacticians develop is to find contexts that render a sentence grammatical, if there are any.

November 2, 2019
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.,_everything_looks_like_a_nail

In the context of this blog, I take this quote to mean the following: Think syntactically! Try to get into the frame of mind of solving problems syntactically. What would a syntactic solution look like? In other words, before trying to solve your problem with Grice, lambdas, post-syntactic operations and prosodic phrases, try solve it syntactically.

November 2, 2019
A quote from Andrew Wiles on mathematical research that captures the spirit of work on syntax: 
 "Perhaps I can best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of a journey through a dark unexplored mansion. You enter the first room of the mansion and it's completely dark. You stumble around bumping into the furniture, but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on, and suddenly it's all illuminated. You can see exactly where you were. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months in the dark. So each of these breakthroughs, while sometimes they're momentary, sometimes over a period of a day or two, they are the culmination of—and couldn't exist without—the many months of stumbling around in the dark that proceed them."

October 26, 2019
Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out (paraphrased, first heard from Morris Halle when I was a graduate student). See also:

October 23, 2019
Be willing to develop an idea, only to find out later that  that it does not work out . The insights that you gain from this effort (e.g., generalizations you discover, data that you become familiar with, papers you study, connections to other phenomena) be useful later on. No effort is wasted.

October 21, 2019
When people speak, pay close attention to syntax. You will find interesting constructions, some of which you can write papers about.

October 20, 2019
Master the fundamentals. By fundamentals, I mean things like constituent structure tests, the definition and range of islands, Binding Theory and use of idiom chunks in syntactic argumentation (amongst others). A good introductory text (e.g., Sportiche, Koopman and Stabler 2013) will cover these topics, and you should know them backwards and forwards. If your native language is not English, then master the fundamentals as they apply to your language. Unless you have a solid foundation, you cannot really understand and make contributions to cutting edge developments.

October 16, 2019
Figure out the natural combinatorial possibilities of a system, then find an example of each possibility or explain why no such example exists.

October 15, 2019
The truth is hidden in the cracks in the logic of today's syntactic theories.

April 11, 2019
You can challenge an editorial decision. In particular, you can ask for arbitration on the decision. Be ready to do the necessary work. You need to justify your request, and to respond to reviewer comments.

February 15, 2019
In reading a grant application, one can always find a list missing details. There are only so many pages in the application, so it is bound to have missing details, and these can be interpreted as defects or problems. The grant application cannot be judged on the basis of a list of missing details, since it is always possible (for any application) to enumerate these. One needs to have a general sense of how important the application is and how likely it is to succeed, and trust the PI to fill in those details.

December 23, 2018
Talk to the program director before you submit a grant. They want you to succeed.

December 22, 2018
You have to be willing to cut sections. Not everything you write is right.

December 13, 2019
If you are bored of reading your paper, read it backwards (paragraph by paragraph). This will help you proof it, and also surprisingly help you check the argumentation.

December 19, 2017
In a paper, if you give some data, and then present a condition to account for the data, show concretely how the condition accounts for the data. Walk through an example explicitly. Do not assume your reader is a mind reader and that the analysis is obvious. 

December 19, 2017
If you present a paradigm or minimal pair in a paper, walk the reader through what the sentences show. Use phrases like "In (10a), ...." and "(10a) shows....". Don't expect your reader to be a mind reader

November 28, 2017
If you submit an abstract for a conference don't try to jam every thought you have had on a subject into the abstract. Believe it or not, that makes the abstract less likely to be accepted. The reason is that a packed abstract is almost impossible to evaluate, and so it becomes easy to decline.

November 26, 2017
Sometimes when you are working on a linguistics (syntax) problem, it takes a long time just to get clarity on what the problem is. That step is sometimes just as important as the ultimate solution.

November 14, 2017
Formalization is a tool of syntactic research, not an end in and of itself.

November 14, 2017
Use minimal pairs in presenting your data. If you are trying to establish some syntactic fact, you want to reduce the variation in your sentences as much as possible. Here is an example:
I saw those cows.
b. *All that cows is really interesting.

In example (1a), we have a plural noun and a plural demonstrative. In (1b), that does not agree with cows, and the sentence is bad. However, there are so many differences between (1a) and (1b) that it is impossible to know what is going on exactly. A better pair of sentences would be:
I saw those cows.
*I saw that cows.

There is only one difference between these sentences, and so it is plausible to attribute the ungrammaticality of (2b) to the non-agreeing distal demonstrative. Similar remarks hold for the construction of whole paradigms (lists of several sentences illustrating some point about syntax).

November 12, 2017
Idiom chunks (nouns such as 'advantage', 'tabs', 'headway') are chunks of idiomatic expressions. They have a highly restricted syntactic distribution in the sense that they only occur in a particular position (e.g., object position) with a particular verb (Radford 1981: 161). They are one of the most important tools of the syntactician's toolkit.

November 11, 2017
Suppose you have a principle/condition/constraint P that rules out sentence S, but S is grammatical. Then P does not work. P needs to be rejected (or at least modified to allow in S). On the other hand, suppose that P rules in sentence S, but S is ungrammatical. Then no conclusion can be drawn, since some other principle Q might be at work which rules out S. I call this the logic of grammaticality judgments. It is a source of confusion for many a syntactician.

November 11, 2017
Google can be used in various ways as a tool for syntactic research. For example, suppose you are investigating a construction. You can search the internet using Google to get spontaneous examples. For each example, verify it with a native speaker. The examples can be used in a paper to strengthen your claims.

November 10, 2017
"Precisely constructed models for linguistic structure can play an important role, both negative and positive, in the process of discovery itself. By pushing a precise but inadequate formulation to an unacceptable conclusion, we can often expose the exact source of this inadequacy and, consequently, gain a deeper understanding of the linguistic data. More positively, a formalized theory may automatically provide solutions for many problems other than those for which it was explicitly designed. Obscure and intuition-bound notions can neither lead to absurd conclusions nor provide new and correct ones, and hence they fail to be useful in two important respects. I think that some of those linguists who have questioned the value of precise and technical development of linguistic theory may have failed to recognize the productive potential in the method of rigorously stating a proposed theory and applying it strictly to linguistic material with no attempt to avoid unacceptable conclusions by ad hoc adjustments or loose formulation." (Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures, pg. 5)

November 9, 2017
A discovery about the syntax of a particular language can have consequences for the analysis of all languages.

November 8, 2017
Try to explain typological gaps as theorems of the principles of UG.

November 7, 2017
If you have not read Syntactic Structures, then you are not a syntactician yet.

November 6, 2017
Today's obscure unexplained fact may become tomorrow's research agenda.

November 4, 2017
Never dismiss somebody's grammaticality judgments. You might be missing something really interesting. 

November 3, 2017
Any syntactic phenomenon in any language is full of wonder and unanswered questions, as long as you take the time to look at it hard enough.

October 31, 2017
You can increase the depth and strength of your paper by looking at how your tests interact. Suppose you have two tests X and Y for something (e.g., movement), then how do X and Y interact? Can the two tests be applied at the same time? If the tests are contradictory, does applying them at the same time lead to ungrammaticality?

October 30, 2017
Don't automatically accept a semantic analysis as simpler or better. In lots of domains, syntactic and semantic analyses are in competition, and it is quite difficult to establish which is correct.

October 27, 2017
Beware of movement not leaving a trace/copy.

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