HPSG 2013

Peter W. Culicover: Simpler Syntax and explanation

Simpler Syntax (Culicover and Jackendoff, 2005) takes seriously the idea that a grammar describes correspondences between syntactic form, meaning and phonological form; it instantiates Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture (Jackendoff, 2002:Chapter 5). It is a minimalist theory, in that it hypothesizes that the most explanatory theory is one that imputes the minimum syntactic structure necessary to mediate between phonology and meaning (the Simpler Syntax Hypothesis). In this paper, I consider the question of what an explanatory theory of grammar should explain, and how Simpler Syntax might form the basis for such a theory.

I build on some ideas raised in our earlier work.

  • In Syntactic Nuts (Culicover, 1999) and Grammar and Complexity (Culicover, 2013) I argue that an adequate theory of syntax should take into account the fact that human language comprises a significant amount of subregularity, variation and irregularity organized around broader regularities.
  • In Culicover, 1998 I suggest that linguistic performance and competence are coextensive in the mind, and that a grammar is a description of the mechanism that accounts for performance with significant abstraction from the full detail.
  • In Simpler Syntax we argue for a constructional theory, and in Grammar and Complexity I argue that constructions are the right level of description needed to explain change and variation.
In Simpler Syntax we also suggest that an adequate theory of syntax should connect in a natural way to an account of how humans produce and understand sentences. The classical difficulty in forming such a connection is the lack of a plausible bridging theory that links syntactic theory to the dynamical aspects of language, i.e. processing, acquisition, change and variation (Stokhof and van Lambalgen, 2011). I explore ways in which an approach based on Simpler Syntax may play a role in overcoming this obstacle.


  • Culicover, Peter W. 2013. Grammar and complexity: Language at the intersection of competence and performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Culicover, Peter W. 1998. The minimalist impulse. The limits of syntax, ed. by Peter W. Culicover and Louise McNally, 47-77. New York: Academic Press.
  • Culicover, Peter W. 1999. Syntactic nuts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Culicover, Peter W. and Ray Jackendoff. 2005. Simpler syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Jackendoff, Ray. 2002. Foundations of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stokhof, Martin and Michiel Van Lambalgen. 2011. Abstractions and idealisations: The construction of modern linguistics. Theoretical Linguistics 37.1-26.