Rule-List Fallacy

Frederick J Newmeyer fjn at
Tue Jun 10 19:24:14 UTC 2008

I would think that for any semiotic system involving discrete infinity, the existence of rules (schemas, constructions) would be the null hypothesis.

I don't pretend to have read all of the literature on formulaic language. But my impression is that those who put such language on centre stage (1) focus almost exclusively on language production and all but ignore comprehension and (2) show no interest at all in language users' ability to make judgments of well-formedness of sentences that they have never heard. It seems self-evident to me that once comprehension and judgment data are brought into the picture, the need for rules (schemas, constructions) becomes indispensable.

Let me stress that I am NOT offering an argument for 'innateness' here. I am not even offering an argument for generative grammar, as opposed to, say, cognitive grammar or construction grammar. Just an argument for rules (schemas, constructions).


Frederick J. Newmeyer
Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University
[for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]

On Tue, 10 Jun 2008, Martin Haspelmath wrote:

> 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 unidirectional.
> 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
> Glottopedia - the free encyclopedia of linguistics
> (

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