Linguistics 250, F17, Introduction to syntactic theory

Course description

Goal of class

Linguistics 250 is an introduction to basic principles of generative syntactic theory, focusing on phrase structure (the composition of phrases and sentences out of smaller units) and movement (dependencies between syntactic constituents). Much of the evidence discussed in the class comes from English, but other languages are discussed, in keeping with the comparative and universalist perspective of modern syntactic theory. The class also attempts to introduce you to the practice of syntactic argumentation.


The textbook for the class is a web textbook developed specifically for this course.

Other reading (optional)

Grammatical terminology. Although syntax in its modern form has developed only in the last 50 years, its descriptive vocabulary is based on the concepts and terms of traditional school grammar. Some of these are explained in the supplementary material to the chapters of the web textbook (accessible through the table of contents or the syllabus). If your acquaintance with these concepts and terms is limited, you may find the following links helpful.

Also, the references in the textbook contain some relevant literature under Traditional grammatical terminology.

Background reading in linguistics. If you have little experience with linguistics, Pinker 1994 is an introduction that is at once sound and entertaining. His Chapter 4 goes over material that is covered in the first few chapters of the web textbook for this class. Though Pinker's and our treatments differ in detail, they are similar in spirit. Particularly relevant as background for this course are Chapter 9 on language acquisition and Chapter 12 on the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive grammar.

Place of linguistics in the information sciences. Campbell 1982 gives a panoramic view of the emergence and development of the information sciences and of the central role of generative linguistics within that development. Unfortunately, the book is out of print, but Van Pelt has at least one copy (Q360 .C33 1982), and it regularly shows up in the local used-book stores (Book Corner, Book Trader, Last Word). Highly recommended.

Another highly recommended reading is Richard Feynman's The character of physical law, Chapters 1-4. Feynman was a physicist, not a linguist, but his remarks are a lively and enjoyable guide to the scientific worldview.


The course requirements consist of (roughly) ten assignments and two exams. The assignments account for 10% of your grade, and the remaining 90% is divided equally between the exams.


The difference between reading about syntax and doing it is like the difference between listening to a piece of music and playing it on an instrument yourself. To pursue the metaphor, taking a syntax exam is like performing at a recital. Even if you're a musical genius, you probably wouldn't think of appearing in a recital without putting in some regular practice on scales and études somewhere along the line. Similarly, even if you're a linguistic genius, you probably won't do well on the exams without working on the assignments.

The assignments that you hand in will be reviewed (but not normally graded). You receive one point for each assignment that you hand in. However, if an assignment is badly incomplete, I reserve the right to give you less than full credit for it.

The assignments consist of exercises and sometimes problems. Exercises require the straightforward application of the concepts introduced in the course, notably those in the current chapter. Problems are more open-ended and might require you to integrate material from previous chapters or to exercise your analytical imagination in some other way.

The due date for the assignments is posted on the syllabus. The due time is 11:59 p.m. of the due date. As a matter of practice, I accept assignments until I post the solution (generally the morning of the day after the due date). Caveat submittor! Once the solution is posted, you will not receive credit for the assignment (though I may review it at my discretion to provide you with feedback).

If an emergency prevents you from submitting an assignment on time, please get in touch with me as soon as you can.


There will be two exams: one midterm and one final. See the syllabus for the scheduled dates. Both exams are open book, open notes and in class.

The exercises and problems for the chapters should give you a good idea of what to expect in the exams.

If an emergency prevents you from taking an exam, please get in touch with me as soon as you can, so that we can discuss the situation.

Electronic submission

Please submit all written assignments and exams electronically, either as a Word document or as a pdf file.

To facilitate bookkeeping, the subject line of your email messages as well as the names of the attachments that you submit in them should contain "Ling 250," your last name, and the assignment or exam number. For example: "Ling 250 Chomsky Assignment 1."

Extra credit

There is none. It makes extra work for the instructors, and it's unfair to the other students in the class.

The Trees program

Many of the assignments make use of the Trees program, developed here at Penn by Tony Kroch and Sean Christ. The download instructions are here.

Academic integrity

If you find it helpful to collaborate on assignments, please do so. However, you should write up and hand in your answers individually. Otherwise, neither you nor I can reliably gauge your understanding of the material.

If you work with other students, please indicate at the top of your assignment who you worked with.

On the exams, you should work independently in accordance with Penn's Code of Academic Integrity.

If I have reason to believe that your behavior is violating this code, I will contact the Office of Student Conduct (OSC) to initiate an investigation. I have contacted the OSC a few times in the past, and in all but one case, the OSC found that the code had indeed been violated.

If the OSC finds that you have violated the Code of Academic Integrity, you will fail the class.