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?

Instead of recommending a specific book, I chose to describe a few that I think a syntax self-learner might want to take into consideration. That might be information overload, but this way they’ll hopefully be able to find the book that’s the best match for them. Here’s a long-ish excerpt from the even long-ish-er-ish email I wrote. Feel free to peruse the comments section to inform the world that I’m completely clueless about what makes a good syntax textbook because I didn’t include your favorite.

Basic Intros

Larson; Grammar as Science

This is probably the most accessible textbook for syntax. It emphasizes the basics but does not sacrifice rigor. Rather than teaching students the latest and greatest theories, it focuses on how to think like a syntactician and how to carefully express your insights in terms of grammatical machinery. For instance, it uses a very specific mechanism for subcategorization, whereas most other textbooks tend to handwave that.

Carnie; Syntax: A Generative Introduction

This has quickly become the standard at the UG level. I like that the first four chapters are fairly theory-neutral, after that the book becomes more grindy and focuses a lot on technical idiosyncrasies. I think a lot of its success is a “supply side” effect: for instructors, it’s a lot easier to use than its competitors.

Sportiche, Koopman, Stabler; An Introduction to Syntactic Analysis

This book is a nice supplement to whatever you’re using. On its own, it’s not the greatest introduction, but Stabler adds a computational view to the book. At the very least, check out the last chapter, which dives deeper into the computational view of syntax.


Hornstein, Nunes, Grohmann; Understanding Minimalism

This is an advanced textbook for a 2nd or 3rd semester graduate course. I found it very helpful as a student myself. The focus is less on Minimalist machinery (it’s quite outdated in that respect) but rather on thinking like a Minimalist. So the title is indeed appropriate, it’s less about doing Minimalism and more about understanding Minimalism.

Uriagereka; Rhyme and Reason

This book is… quite something. It looks at syntax with a biolinguistics angle, so expect to see philosophical discussions of spandrels, exaptations, and things like that. The book is emphatically not where anyone should go to learn the technical stuff, but Chapter 1 is a good litmus test as to whether you have a taste for the biolinguistic/philosophical side of Minimalism. You’ll either love it or hate it, and both reactions are okay.

van Riemsdijk & Williams; Introduction to the Theory of Grammar

Unfortunately out of print, but still the best way to learn how the theory has developed from the late 50s to the early 80s. It shows why certain proposals where abandoned while others were tweaked and refined over the years. The feedback loop between data and theory is in full display here.

Sag et al; Syntactic Theory

Strictly speaking a beginner intro, but ludicrously comprehensive. While all the textbooks above use some incarnation of Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar, this one goes with HPSG instead. This mostly means that the formalism has a lot more nitty-gritty, fewer things are factored out or put aside. That has advantages and disadvantages. You always have 100% solid ground under your feet, everything’s written down, nothing’s left implicit or unspecified. But it’s very easy to miss the forest for the trees, and you might find yourself wondering what it is you’re actually trying to accomplish when you write down those giant feature matrices. Some students love the rigorous scaffolding, others find it dull and limiting. But either way it is instructive for a beginner to see a more fine-grained approach so that they can be more aware of where Transformational accounts tend to abstract away details in service of the big picture.

Kayne et al; An Annotated Syntax Reader

Not a textbook but an annotated collection of highly influential papers. The step from a textbook to the primary literature can be difficult, and this book acts as a bit of a bridge. That said, the papers tend to be on the older side, so the technical formalism will be unfamiliar. But anybody who’s read van Riemsdijk & Williams will have a blast.


Radford; Minimalist Syntax

Radford’s Transformational Syntax from 1981 is a classic, whereas I’m not much of a fan of his 1988 follow-up Transformational Grammar. It gets too bogged down in technical arcana that have a half-life of 5 years at best. Minimalist syntax has the same problem. It also makes things appear more complicated than they are. I can’t think of a reason to pick this one over one of the alternatives.

Adger; Core Syntax

I have a love-hate relationship with this book. On the one hand it’s one of the few textbooks on Minimalist syntax that tries to make sure that all the ts are crossed and all the is are dotted. Parts that are usually glossed over in the formalism are worked out in full detail here, and that’s commendable. But it also means that the version of Minimalism taught here looks very different from what one finds in the literature. A student who had this as their only introduction to Minimalism and then tried to read a paper would be thoroughly confused why the authors aren’t using that lovely, explicit machinery that Adger has in his book. Overall, it’s a very unique book, and I like that — each textbook should strive to do something unique rather than covering the same stuff with some presentational tweaks. But it’s so unique that it is actively misleading without a teacher to tell you what parts are from Minimalism and which are Adger’s. Hence not the greatest choice for self study.


In hindsight, I should have reread my reply before mailing it out to make it more newbie-friendly. As is, it presupposes a fair bit of syntax knowledge (e.g. that Minimalism is the currently dominant framework, and that there is a thing called biolinguistics). There’s also two notable omissions. The first one is Liliane Haegeman’s Introduction to Government and Binding Theory, which should have been included for pretty obvious reasons. The other one is Ian Roberts’ Comparative Syntax, for purely personal reasons:

Comparative Syntax introduced me to syntax in my freshman year at the University of Vienna. Since my monthly budget was 150 Euros (excluding rent), I had to buy a used copy via Amazon. It might have been my very first Amazon purchase, followed soon by a mint copy of Kayne’s antisymmetry book. I remember being outraged that somebody could seriously charge over 30€ for such a slim book. Anyways, the previous owner of my copy of Comparative Syntax had apparently bought it at UCLA’s book store and never bothered to remove the UCLA sticker. I take that as some strange kind of cosmic foreshadowing of my grad school years at UCLA. The book also made the trip with me from Vienna to LA and from there to Long Island. An odd travel companion.

Well, whatever, I could keep waxing poetic, but that’s of little interest to anyone but myself. I really have very little of substance to say about the book as I haven’t looked at it in 15 years. It has some legacy stuff like the SplitInf approach with AgrS and AgrO, and I have to admit I’m not quite sure if there’s an empirical difference between that and the TP-vP setup we got in Categories & Transformations. If I recall correctly it was mostly a parsimony argument to reduce the number of projections. As for the book itself, I rarely hear anybody mention it. It probably does not warrant inclusion in the list above. But we all have our personal treasures…