Syntactic Structures is an influential work in linguistics by American linguist Noam Chomsky, originally published in 1957. It is an elaboration of his teacher Zellig Harris’s model of transformational generative grammar. A short monograph of about a hundred pages, Chomsky’s presentation is recognized as one of the most significant studies of the 20th century. It contains the now-famous sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously“, which Chomsky offered as an example of a grammatically correct sentence that has no discernible meaning. Thus, Chomsky argued for the independence of syntax (the study of sentence structures) from semantics (the study of meaning).[note 1]
Based on lecture notes he had prepared for his students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,[note 2] Chomsky’s first book presented contemporary developments in early generative grammar. The approach to syntax is fully formal (based on symbols and rules). At its base, Chomsky uses phrase structure rules,[note 3] which break down sentences into smaller parts. These are combined with a new kind of rules which Chomsky called “transformations“. This procedure gives rise to different sentence structures
. Reiterating notions introduced to linguistics by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, Chomsky stated that this limited set of rules “generates”
[note 4] all and only the grammatical sentences of a given language, which are infinite in number.[10
] It was later interpreted that this way of study valued language’s innate place in the mind over language as learned behavior,[note 5] although such ideas are not explicitly stated in the book
. Hjelmslev and other European linguists, in contrast, had considered the generative calculus as perfectly non-psychological.