A new linguistics blog, The X-Bar, has an entry describing an odd reaction by students to the sentence “The man killed the boy mercilessly with the knife”: to wit, some found it ambiguous. What possible ambiguity is there, you ask? “The readings included one in which the man was the killer, and another in which the boy was.” Rosanne (the blogtender) ventures some suggestions to explain the latter, highly perverse, reading; my own (offered free, gratis, and at no additional cost) is that the study of Chomskyan linguistics can thoroughly pervert one’s sense of one’s native language. Give those students a few more years and they’ll be colorlessly green and sleeping furiously. (Of course, I’m so distant from Chomskyland that I have no idea what “The X-Bar” refers to, so take my obiter dicta cum grano salis.)
Addendum. Rosanne has edited her entry, and the ambiguity is not quite so crazed now, although still perverse: “That should be two readings varying as to who had the knife, the man or the boy.” Jim of UJG gestures toward an explanation of the x-bar thing (and asks “why don’t linguists say bar-x instead of x-bar?”); he also quotes another violent sample sentence. Pulp Linguistics!


  1. Agreed that the sentence is not ambiguous in the stated way; it is however a very awkward construction and difficult to read.

  2. Well, that’s par for the course for the field. Chomskyans love to stick unnecessary adverbs in, doubtless following the Master’s example.

  3. Greetings! What makes the reading even more perverse is that I was trying to write it up just before bedtime and managed to mangle it (it’s updated now).
    As for the master (kneels toward Cambridge), I’m starting to doubt the dogma on judgments (see today’s post at my place). The sentence in question from yesterday’s post, however, was submitted by one of the students (not yet trained the in generative/Chomskyan framework) — awkward, but definitely not ambiguous to me. Thanks for the post… I can’t believe I’ve gotten this wide in five days. Cheers!
    “The X-Bar” is stolen from 80’s phrase structure theories, though it will likely serve as the name of the establishment I open when I finally give up on the Ph.D.

  4. I’ll bring my crowd, but you’ll have to stock a good single-malt for me (Lagavulin by preference). Here’s to your going wider!

  5. Three points about Chomskyan grammaticality judgments. Although I tend to sympathize with Chomsky’s theories, I often disagree with his grammaticality judgments in his published works.
    Also, yes I would agree that studying Chomskyan syntax distorts your native intuitions. The first time I read the sentence “Who did the men expect to see them?” in a work by Chomsky (I forget which one), I judged it as ungrammatical. Of course it isn’t, but it took a lot of practice for me to not only judge it as grammatical, but to now find it natural-sounding. I often use such constructions in my own speech now. I get invited to fewer and fewer parties, but I doubt there’s a relationship.
    My last point is that grammaticality judgments by humans are very cognitively selective. We humans tend to focus on an interpretation of a sentence that is very natural from a world-knowledge or discourse perspective, to the exclusion of other syntactically valid interpretations. I have a friend who is involved in computer Natural Language Processing and who has written parsers, etc., for a living. He told me that he was often surprised how many times his computer programs picked up ambiguities in sentences he and his team never thought of.

  6. Yes! There’s a great and oft-discussed example of the ambiguities humans never recognize in language: a computer once (famously) recognized five different meanings for the phrase “Time flies like an arrow”. See how many you can come up with.

  7. 1) The ineluctable modality of the visible.
    2) Aaiiieee!
    3) Drink up, gentlemen.
    4) I think I winged the little bastard.
    5) Henry Luce is moldering in his grave.

  8. I would guess linguists say X-bar (written X’) instead of bar-X because they are following the practice of mathematicians in reading superscripts and subscripts after the name of a variable (e.g. f’=eff prime).

  9. I am not especially Chomskyan (I am instead devoutly Jakobsonian) but the Wikipedia
    article on the subject is perfectly readable. It actually looks to my aging and debauched eyes like a formalisation of something that you would do without thinking in pre-Chomsky Intermediate Constituent analysis (which surely even our beloved behatted host can’t predate). In “a student studies linguistics at the university” the chunk “studies linguistics at the university” all partakes of Verbaliciousness and “the student” joins cheerfully on to it to Sententiate, while in “the student of the university” we have merely a specimen of Nounicity. X-bar theory amounts to noticing that otherwise these constructions have much in common.
    Some will object to Chomsky’s attempt to formalise this observation because they don’t hold with formalisation in the first place (I take this to be our host’s line) and some will oject because in their view all the formality leached out of Chomsky sometime in the late 60’s, and he now cultivates rebarbative bafflegab either as an end in itself or as a political weapon in maintaining his despotic reign of terror over the alleged discipline (Geoff Pullum is cheerleader-in-chief of this party, I would say, but he has plenty of competition.)
    (Persons not familiar with standard linguistics terminology are warned that mine very definitely isn’t.)

  10. That’s odd….I interpreted it to mean, “Colonel Mustard, in the study, with the knife.”

  11. des: I like your terminology much better than the standard. And if the Languagehat brand weren’t already firmly established in the consciousness of the teeming millions, I’d immeditately change the name of this site to Rebarbative Bafflegab; I envy the bloguista who snatches it up.
    I don’t object to formalization as such, as long as it remains properly submissive to the Facts of the Case. Those who peer at a new language that comes sniffing inquisitively at their trouser cuffs through the prism of their Forms shall be cast out into Outer Darkness.
    Nick: I think you’ve got it!

  12. Des: Rebarbative bafflegab? Yes! Yes! No wonder I’ve gone through so much hell reading Chomsky’s Minimalist Program… drives me to tears, though I may have found a trick.
    Hat:I don’t object to formalization as such, as long as it remains properly submissive to the Facts of the Case. Beautifully said. I’m learning to remove the filters and just see the forest for the phrase structure trees.

  13. A violent example sentence in linguistics? No way! 😉
    Back in highschool a friend and I were designing a graphic adventure game. In one time-travel scene, you were blocked by a swarm of time flies. The only way to get rid of them was to offer them an arrow. It’s a shame we never managed to finish that game.

  14. Quoth my husband: “I wouldn’t recommend going into a Chomskyan bar unless you’re really into binding and domination.”

  15. Everyone here hating on Chomsky sounds like a starving dog, who will never again have so much as a morsel to eat

  16. You mean… Chomsky will rule forever?
    *shoots self*

  17. Philip Warman says:

    My mother was a summa cum laude graduate in Greek, Latin, and English and taught the latter two along with Russian for several years before she became one of the first female attorneys in Pennsylvania. She, having passed on, cannot enlighten me but I am sure that she would have said that the proper title of this entry would have been, “Who killed whom?” Having read all the comments with no such observation from obviously learned language scholars, I am interested in some explanation. Hopefully you will not be too severe with my dear mother! I came over to this site from the Pepys Diary where I have appreciated Languagehat’s enlightening comments, and I congratulate you, Languagehat, on a very rewarding and hospitable venue.

  18. Big-Jay Jim: You forgot the period at the end of your post. (Thought you’d like to know.) I think Noam can stand up for himself.
    Philip Warman: A pragmatic answer to your rhetorical question: most of the linguists here-abouts know that the em in whom is silent when your tongue is firmly placed in your cheek.

  19. Philip: Thanks for the kind words! I of course considered the “whom” alternative, but since the entire thrust of this blog is against traditional “proper” grammar and in favor of the way people actually speak, I chose the more current form. My mother would have agreed with yours, and I apologize to both of them.

  20. Would AC/DC have been better for “Who made whom?”
    One double Lagavullin, straight up, for the Hat…

  21. The fact is that people can’t make grammaticality judgments unless they happen to be grammarians, and not always even then. What people *can* make is acceptability and intelligibility judgements. No theory of English calls “Me see she” grammatical, and few native speakers would call it acceptable, but most would call it intelligible. (Yeah, there are always lamers who read it as “She sees me.”)
    On the other hand, “There exists an X such that for every Y, X holds of Y by subinfeudation” is certainly grammatical, but most people would judge it neither acceptable nor intelligible. (The X in question, at least in England, is Elizabeth II.)

  22. Arrgh. That should be “Y holds of X”, of course. Pollock and Maitland are now face-down….

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