grammaticality judgements

Wed Mar 8 17:03:55 UTC 2000

Debra Ziegeler and Spike Gildea have provided some intelligent comments on,
and questions about grammaticality judgments.  Having been concerned with
grammaticality and acceptability judgments for 30 years, I have a few more

First, when the reliance of formalists on grammaticality judgments is
questioned, formalists are apt to reply that work by formalists have
established the "robustness" of such judgments.  Works most often cited are

     Schutze, Carson T.  1996.  The empirical base of linguistics:
            judgments and linguistic methodology.  U Chicago.

     Cowart, Wayne.  1997.  Experimental syntax:  applying objective methods
            sentence judgements.  Sage.

These are fine books, as far as they go, but I would argue that the
robustness of grammaticality judgments that the authors see lies more in the
eyes of formalist linguists than in real judgments by real language users.

Part of the problem with grammaticality judgments stems from the fact that
formalists tend to read only other formalists.  In 1970 Thomas Bever
published an extensive, and as far as I know, unanswered critique of
grammaticality judgments.  My own work on grammaticality and acceptability
judgments began with my dissertation (1975), continued with a volume from
the Fourth Nordic Linguistics Conference (1978), and has appeared from time
to time in selected volumes of the Lacus Forum.  And of course, the master
Bolinger used to routinely give papers showing that sentences starred by
formalists could be perfectly acceptable if given the proper context.

But anyone looking at the indexes of Newmeyer's fine book, Language form and
language function, will note that there are no references to grammaticality
judgments, acceptability judgments, or the works of Cowert or Schutze.

If pressed, formalists tend to respond to problems with such judgments by
asserting (correctly) that "grammaticality" is not the same thing as
"acceptability."  Such defenses of grammaticality judgments then go on to
assert that "grammaticality" is a "theory internal" matter and not subject
to correction based on acceptability judgments.  What such a view means for
the philosophy of science is truly mind boggling.

Finally regarding Spike's calls for experiments:

        >It might be interesting to compose actual quantifiable experiments
to test
        >these anecdotal claims: Are there types of sentences that yield
        >reliable judgements?  Are there types of elicitation that yield
        >reliable databases of utterances?

I do not know about tests of elicitation procedures, but those of us who use
acceptability judgments have all noted quantitative evidence (distribution
of responses, for example) that the reliability of such judgments is rather

Carl Mills
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