Rule-List Fallacy

GP Argyropoulos giorgos at
Tue Jun 10 20:24:24 UTC 2008

Hi all,

I know it's the time the great ones are talking, but allow me a minor  
contribution here:

While it's certainly the case that studies on formulaic language  
almost exclusively emphasize language production (like Prof. Newmeyer  
suggested), this does not mean that sentence comprehension involves to  
any lesser extent such associative (rote learning, formulaic, etc)  
computations (yet sure, on its own at least that's no evidence for a  
"rote learning"-only explanation).

See for example Townsend and Bever's (2001) LAST model for sentence  
comprehension, where an associative habit-based pseudosyntax preempts  
the categorical syntactic computations. So, preemption of rule  
processing can be found not only in phylogeny and ontogeny, but also  
in online language processing, be it in comprehension or production.

What I strongly believe is that if we introduce a dynamic perspective  
to such distinctions, we will need to acknowledge "usage-induced"  
demotions from stage 2 to stage 1 in processing, which are very  
promising for explaining grammaticalization operations.

Plus, if you ask me at least, this "yin-yang" distinction could also  
be found in the one between cortico-cortical and cortico-cerebellar  
processing (Terry Deacon has already suggested such role for the  
subcortical structures in general). But that's another story  



Quoting Frederick J Newmeyer <fjn at>:

> 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).
> --fritz
> 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
>> (

Giorgos P. Argyropoulos
PhD student
Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit
Linguistics and English Language
School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences
University of Edinburgh
Room 323, Adam Ferguson Building,
40 George Square,
Edinburgh EH8 9LL,

The University of Edinburgh is a charitable body, registered in
Scotland, with registration number SC005336.

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