Rule-List Fallacy

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at
Tue Jun 10 13:10:32 UTC 2008

It seems to me that Fritz Newmeyer's appeal to the Rule-List Fallacy in 
the context of the argument about formulaic language overlooks a crucial 
asymmetry between rules and lists:

While lists are a necessary component of all semiotic systems, rules are 
not. All languages must at least have lists of morphemes, and then in 
addition they may have rules. But the burden of proof is on those who 
want to claim that they have rules (or schemas, or constructions). In 
general, the evidence for rules has been considered overwhelming (in all 
languages), so almost everyone accepts them.

Now I think Fritz's argument doesn't go through: If one could show that 
it is in fact possible to explain speakers' behaviour by claiming that 
their knowledge of language consists of a simple list of morphemes (or 
formulas), then this would indeed be a powerful argument against the 
existence of rules. In other words, the null hypothesis should be that 
languages have no rules, and if not enough evidence can be found to 
reject this hypothesis, we should assume that they don't.

Notice that this doesn't work the other way round: The null hypothesis 
cannot be that languages have no lists, but only rules -- languages must 
have lists. So if one discovers rules, this does not mean that the same 
phenomena are not also stored as lists. The Rule-List Fallacy is 

But while I think that this particular argument is invalid, Sandy 
Thompson and Paul Hopper will need to do a lot more to convince 
linguists that no rules (or schemas, or constructions) are needed to 
explain speaker behaviour. Strictly speaking, they are defending the 
null hypothesis, but in actual practice, almost all linguists 
(regardless of their ideological preferences) find that they need rules 
for their work.

Martin Haspelmath

Frederick J Newmeyer wrote:
> Let me start by calling attention to what Ron Langacker has called the 
> 'Rule-List Fallacy'. Ron noted, completely correctly in my opinion, 
> that it was a fallacy to assume that lists have to be be excised from 
> the grammar of a language if rules that subsume them can be 
> established. The converse of this fallacy is equally fallacious: that 
> rules have to be be excised from the grammar of a language if lists 
> can be established. Even if it were the case that a huge percentage of 
> language users' output could be characterized by lists (formulas, 
> fragments, etc.), that would not exclude their also have a grammar 
> composed of rules (or their notional equivalents) that allow hearers 
> to analyze unfamiliar collocations and assign to them structure and 
> meaning.
Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6	
D-04103 Leipzig      
Tel. (MPI) +49-341-3550 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616

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