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The Chomsky Challenge By: John Williamson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 17, 2004

Which of the following statements best describes the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky?

A.      Ground-breaking discoveries which rank with the greatest discoveries of science?

B.       Solid scholarship and the precise cataloguing of important human knowledge?

C.       The source of much unintended hilarity?

Note: You do not have to possess any knowledge of theoretical linguistics in order to follow this essay. If you passed high school English, that’ll do.


I refer you to the latest (Winter 2004) issue of Linguistic Inquiry, which is a publication of the MIT department of linguistics, and which heavily promotes Chomskyan theory. (When he is not busy trashing his country, Chomsky is employed by MIT as a professor of linguistics.)


At any rate, there is an article in this issue which discusses, among other sentences, this one:


Sentence1: Who will be easy for us to get his mother to talk to?


This sentence, among others, has been studied for decades by the Chomskyans, in an attempt to formulate its grammatical structure which is, admittedly, somewhat complex. I list below just a few of the terms and concepts which are bandied about in this particular article which discusses this sentence, among others. Please do not trouble yourself to try to make sense of these terms. For now, just glance over them so that you will get a sense of the variety and extent of the terms employed in an attempt to solve this momentous problem:


linking theory…the anti-c-command requirement…A-positions…the Bijection Principle…weakest crossover configurations…bound variable anaphora…asymmetric linking…licensing conditions…the index of a pronoun…null operator analysis…variable binding…configurational conditions…inappropriate and appropriate antecedents…etc….etc….


I should note that Chomsky is cited numerous times in the article, as are other scholars but, more importantly, the entire framework of discussion is Chomskyan linguistics.


You’ll notice that Sentence 1 is a question structure. Let’s do this: let’s convert it into an alternate and perfectly standard form of the same question:


Sentence 2: It will be easy for us to get his mother to talk to whom?


Now let’s look at a couple of differences between Sentences 1 and 2:


In both sentences, the object of the preposition to is whom. I show it as whom in Sentence 2, but when whom comes at the beginning of the sentence, as in Sentence 1, it is acceptable common usage to show it as who. As another illustration of this point, both of the sentences below are interpreted exactly the same way:


Who did you talk to?   Whom did you talk to?


In both cases, who and whom are both objects of the preposition to.


Sentence 1 could actually be shown as below, to illustrate the point that who is really whom:


Who(m) will be easy for us to get his mother to talk to?


Now that we understand the fact that, in Sentence 1, who is really whom, the question must be raised:


If, in Sentence 1, who(m) is not a subject, where is the subject of the verb phrase will be easy?


Notice that in Sentence 2, the subject of the verb phrase will be easy is the pronoun it:


Sentence 2: It will be easy for us to get his mother to talk to whom?


And so what happened to it in Sentence 1? Shouldn’t Sentence 1 instead read like this:


Sentence 3: Who(m) will it be easy for us to get his mother to talk to?


Of course it should. Sentence 3 is grammatical. Sentence 1, the subject of so much scrutiny and theoretical discussion by the Chomskyans over a period of decades, is in fact ungrammatical.


Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with the study of ungrammatical structures. It’s a perfectly legitimate subject of inquiry. However, it seems as though the Chomskyans have charted hitherto unimagined territory: the attempt to create grammatical formulations of sentences which they do not realize to be ungrammatical.


This would be like an astronomer training his telescope on a large luminous object and studying it for years, not realizing that he is studying a street lamp.


Now I certainly wouldn’t expect a ninth grader to know that Sentence 1 is wrong and Sentence 3 is right, but certainly a good newspaper copy editor would know it, as would many college English instructors.


The Chomskyans, on the other hand, are theoretical linguists working in syntax - a rarified world far, far above the concerns of ordinary mortals. The ability to be able to piece together the structural underpinnings of Sentence 1 ought to start with two basic first steps: the recognition that if the verb phrase will be easy requires a subject in Sentence 2, it requires one in Sentence 1; and the recognition that who is an alternate form of whom.


It would be unfair, I think, to disparage in any way the graduate students and assistant professors who seem to be trying so hard to make sense out of Chomsky’s theoretical musings. Clearly, they are acting out of a sense of conviction that he is leading them in the right direction. But I think it says a lot when someone of Chomsky’s stature is so clearly ignorant of the workings of his own language that he allows not just one but several elementary mistakes to go uncorrected for years and years – mistakes which, if corrected, could allow his acolytes to make strides in solving this and other problems.

John Williamson is a contributor to The Anti-Chomsky Reader.

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