Rule-List Fallacy

Edith Moravcsik edith at
Wed Jun 18 17:49:11 UTC 2008

Matthew's interesting observation of people holistically memorizing 
expressions that are usually analyzed as adpositional phrases points up, to 
my mind, the need for simple, phenomenological, psychologically uninformed 
descriptions of grammars that analyze these expressions as having parts. If 
we did not know that these expressions might be analyzed by linguists as 
multi-part phrases, there would be nothing suprising about how people treat 
them; and we would lose the interesting question of why linguists' analyses 
and people's ways of processing these expressions parted ways.

The same holds for formulaic expressions in general. The reason it is 
interesting that people treat them as atomic wholes is that we linguists can 
analyze them as having parts.

Edith Moravcsik

----- Original Message ----- 
From: <dryer at>
To: "Frederick J Newmeyer" <fjn at>; "Martin Haspelmath" 
<haspelmath at>
Cc: "Funknet" <funknet at>
Sent: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 3:05 PM
Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] Rule-List Fallacy

> I'm joining this discussion late, after being off of email for over a 
> week.
> I want to remark on Fritz's comment
> "I would think that for any semiotic system involving discrete infinity, 
> the existence of rules (schemas, constructions) would be the null 
> hypothesis."
> I would agree with this argument (though I recognize that not all would) 
> to the extent that it means that there must exist SOME rules.  But a 
> variation of Martin's claim that lists are the null hypothesis is to take 
> it as a claim not in general but in any particular instance.  For example, 
> I have argued in a talk I have given in a number of places that in many if 
> not most languages, there is no word class of prepositions or 
> postpositions, but just a set of separate constructions that speakers 
> store separately without generalizing across them.  In other words, in 
> this particular instance, the null hypothesis is that there is just a 
> list, and the burden of proof is on anyone who wishes to claim that 
> speakers recognize them as a class.  But the general assumption of 
> linguists of various stripes has usually been that they form a class, i.e. 
> that there are rules across them, and the idea that there might be a need 
> to justify that assumption rarely arises.
> I was persuaded many years ago that lists are the null hypothesis by Bruce 
> Derwing's 1973 book "Transformational grammar as a theory of language 
> acquisition: A study in the empirical, conceptual and methodological 
> foundations of contemporary linguistics".  The first half of the title is 
> somewhat misleading.  I would say that the idea that lists are the null 
> hypothesis was one of its main themes.
> Matthew Dryer
> --On Tuesday, June 10, 2008 12:24 PM -0700 Frederick J Newmeyer 
> <fjn at> wrote:
>> 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
>>> (

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