Language as conceived of by Chomsky is “a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements” (Chomsky 1957:13). As he further claims, this holds true for all natural languages since they have “a finite number of phonemes (or letters in its alphabet) and each sentence is representable as a finite sequence of these phonemes (or letters)” (Chomsky 1957:13). Thus, a grammar of a language should be thought of as “a device of some sort for producing the sentences of the language under analysis” (Chomsky 1957:13). Such a linguistic analysis of a language should attempt to sort out the grammatical sentences from the ungrammatical ones and study the structure of the grammatical sentences. Furthermore, the grammar of a language will generate all the grammatical sentences of a language and none of the ungrammatical ones. There comes, however, the question of what constitutes a sentence or a string of grammatically-arranged words. Chomsky accounts, in this respect, on a native speaker’s intuition. Hence, once a particular string of words or a sentence causes a feeling of wrongness in a native speaker, then it can be classified as ungrammatical. Such an approach to grammaticality enabled syntactitians to study language and its grammatical properties on the basis of devised sentences and not through a corpus of observed speech as it was the case in the past. As put forward by Chomsky (1957), grammar of a language should be considered autonomous of meaning since it is likely for a sentence to be grammatical on the one hand, and meaningless on the other, as in Chomsky’s famous example ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’. The opposite is possible as well, thus, a sentence or a string of words may be both ungrammatical and meaningful, to cite yet another Chomsky’s example ‘read you a book on modern music’. Therefore, a well formulated grammar of a language should produce all and only grammatical sentences of a language, regardless of their meaning.
Chomsky, N. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.
Chomsky, N. 1975. Reflections on Language. New York: Pantheon