Unboundedness is a red herring

🕑 13 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 February 20, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 syntax, methodology, competence, performance

Jon’s post on the overappreciated Marr argument reminded me that it’s been a while since the last entry in the Underappreciated arguments series. And seeing how the competence-performance distinction showed up in the comments section of my post about why semantics should be like parsing, this might be a good time to talk one of the central tenets of this distinction: unboundedness. Unboundedness, and the corollary that natural languages are infinite, is one of the first things that we teach students in a linguistics intro, and it is one of the first things that psychologists and other non-linguists will object to. But the dirty secret is that nothing really hinges on it.


Continue reading

Hey syntax, where's my carrot?

🕑 5 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 January 31, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 syntax, textbooks, teaching

Last week I blogged a bit about syntax textbooks. One question I didn’t ask there, for fear of completely derailing the post, is what should actually be in a syntax textbook. There’s a common complaint I hear from students about syntax classes, and it’s that syntax courses are one giant bait-and-switch. They’re right, and it’s also true for syntax textbooks.


Continue reading

Syntax textbook recommendations

🕑 6 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 January 22, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 syntax, textbooks, teaching

Recently I found in my inbox an inquiry from a student who wants to pick up syntax on their own and would like to get some textbook recommendations. I happily complied, but I’m actually not all that qualified to give such recommendations. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a syntax textbook. I have never taught a grad-level syntax introduction. At the undergraduate level I got to teach syntax twice at the very beginning of my Stony Brook career, and never again since then — I can only surmise that what I did in those courses was too radical for the linguistic deep state to tolerate. But the prestigious Outdex readership includes at least some syntacticians, so why not crowdsource the recommendations?


Continue reading

Physics cranks = syntax cranks?

🕑 2 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 January 15, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 physics, syntax, Minimalism

Congratulations, you’re reading the shortest Outdex post yet! Peter Woit of Not Even Wrong, reacting to Sabine Hossenfelder of Lost in Math fame, has another post on the lack of progress in high-energy particle physics. If you’ve been following the debate about string theory and super symmetry in recent years, nothing in the post will shock you. What I find fascinating is that you could replace “particle physics” by “Minimalism” in this debate and the whole thing all of a sudden looks very familiar.


Continue reading

Overappreciated arguments: Marr's three levels

🕑 11 min • 👤 Jon Rawski • 📆 January 12, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 neuroscience, representations, Marr

<TG soapbox> The following is a guest post by Jon Rawski. I’m ruthlessly abusing my editorial powers to insert this reminder that the Outdex welcomes guest posts. Maybe you’d like to start a discussion on a topic that’s dear to your heart? Or maybe you have something to add to an ongoing discussion that can’t be fit in the comments section because it’s too long and involves multiple pictures and figures? Just send me your post in some editable format (not PDF) and I’ll try to post it asap. If you want to reduce the time from sending to posting, check the instructions on how to reduce the editorial load for me. Anyways, enough of my blabbering, let’s hear what Jon has to say… <TG soapbox/>

To spice up the Underappreciated Arguments series, I thought I’d describe a rhetorical chestnut beloved by many a linguist: Marr’s Three Levels. Anyone who has taken a linguistics class that dips a toe into the cognitive pool has heard of the Three Levels argument. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s been memed by grad students.


Continue reading

Semantics: Corrections and further thoughts

🕑 6 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 January 08, 2020 in Discussions • 🏷 semantics, donkey sentences, parsing

This is a follow-up to my previous post on semantics. It has been pointed out to me that this post contains several inaccuracies and grave omissions. Some of them are in the summary of Lucas’ talk, and that would probably have been noticed earlier if I had provided a link to the slides or the paper. Thanks to Lucas for sending me those by email and for walking me through the account again. I’ll briefly explain some of the misleading points later on in this post.

But the much bigger issue is that I failed to point out that Lucas wasn’t just presenting his own work. He made it very, very clear that this was joint work with Dylan Blumford (UCLA) and Robert Henderson (UArizona). I’m really upset with myself about that one, in some sense giving partial credit is even worse than giving no credit at all, and the latter is already a dick move. My sincerest apologies to Dylan and Robert.

If I had run the post past Lucas before publishing it, a lot of this could have been avoided, so I’ll make that a priority for future posts that talk about work that I’m not well-acquainted with. Alright, so let’s talk a bit what I got wrong and how that affects the central message of the previous post.


Continue reading

Semantics should be like parsing

🕑 5 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 December 28, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 semantics, donkey sentences, parsing

I spent a few days before Christmas at the Amsterdam colloquium, which exposed me to a much heavier dose of semantics than I’m used to. I’ve always had a difficult relation with semantics. On the one hand I like that it has its fair share of KISS theories, and generalized quantifier theory is aesthetically very pleasing to me. On the other hand most of semantics is pretty dull, and I think that’s because semanticists put way too much stuff in their theories that has nothing to do with natural language semantics. I’ve previously had a hard time putting this into concrete terms, but Lucas Champollion’s invited talk on donkey sentences finally presented me with a specific example.


Continue reading

To slide or not to slide?

🕑 7 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 November 21, 2019 in Tutorials • 🏷 talks, student advice

Even though I’m slowly growing into my role as tenured professor, I still haven’t developed a taste for saying the same thing over and over again — at least not when I’m aware it’s the same thing over and over again. One thing that comes up a lot is questions by new students about their presentations, be it in class or at a conference. So I figured I might actually be able to save everybody some time by just posting my standard remarks on the Outdex, preserved for eternity. Who knows, it might even be hilarious 30 years from now to read about how we did things in the academic stone age. Just like it’s hard to talk about mimeographs nowadays without a smirk on your face.

Okay, then let’s tackle the very first issue, one that is still so contentious in some parts of the field that it might rip asunder the fabric of space and time: slides or handouts?


Continue reading

More circumambience in syntax

🕑 2 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 November 14, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 subregular, syntax, movement, complementizer agreement, relative clauses, English, French

This is a very short follow-up to my previous post on circumambient patterns in syntax. I just realized that there’s another, very robust example that makes all the cases look even more mundane: complementizer alternations in English relative clauses.


Continue reading

Circumambient patterns in syntax

🕑 12 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 November 11, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 subregular, syntax, phonology, tone plateauing, movement, complementizer agreement

Last week I gave an invited talk at UMass on the subregular program and the computational parallels it reveals between syntax and phonology. If you’re curious, the slides are on my website. The talk went over a lot better than I expected, and there were lots of great questions. UMass has a tradition of letting students ask questions first before the faculty get to chime in, and the students were relentless in a good way. I think there was only 5 minutes left for faculty questions at the end. It was a great experience, and probably the best question period I’ve ever been on the receiving end of.

Anyways, after the colloquium Brian Dillon asked a few questions about more complex movement cases, and those are very interesting because they’re yet another instance of computational parallelism between phonology and syntax: tone plateauing = movement-driven complementizer agreement.


Continue reading