I was going to write something long and pointed in response to this new piece by Vyvyan Evans (VE). I was going to analyze the article noting its inflated combination of self-pity (those “Chomsky disciples” are saying that my work is junk) and self-aggrandizement (I am the leader of a Kuhnian paradigm shift that will overthrow the Chomskyan orthodoxy that, prior to the heroic efforts of people like me, who are now being viciously pilloried by the intellectually enervated Generative establishment, has had a stranglehold on linguistic pedagogy). I was going to note that VE has yet to address a single criticism leveled against his work, preferring instead to personalize the disagreement in a two fold manner; first by noting his personal travails in fighting the Chomskyan dragon and second by citing the approval of various authorities and luminaries that think him and his work wonderful. However, despite the obvious temptations that VE’s public demeanor make almost irresistible, his latest piece has convinced me that nothing much will be gained by doing this (fun as it may be). The reason is that so far VE has provided every kind of reply to the criticisms leveled against his work except one that addresses the identified problems with his chief “arguments” (and yes, these are scare quotes). These number three.
1. VE’s work fails to grasp the difference between a Greenberg and a Chomsky Universal. As such its putative arguments against UG are logically insufficient to get to their desired conclusions (see here and here).
2. The positions VE’s work identifies and argues against are (regularly and repeatedly) caricatures based on egregious serial misquotation. In particular, the texts that VE’s work cites are very selectively quoted from and when the originals are consulted it is clear that the quoted authors are making the exact opposite points from the ones that VE’s work attributes to them (see here and links therein).
3. The detailed linguistic arguments VE delivers are inadequate. Not only does the work evidence no understanding of the larger conceptual issues like those in (1) above, it even screws up the technical analytic details (see here for one example examined in detail).
Let’s review these three points again one last time.
First, VE really does not understand what is logically necessary to make his case. This is because VE (still) does not understand how the ‘Universal’ in ‘Universal Grammar’ means. Let me elaborate.
There are two basic conceptions of universal in the linguistics literature. Let’s call them Greenberg Universals (GU) and Chomsky Universals (CU). GUs aim to describe surface patterns common to all languages. GUs thus focus on word order patterns (both prevalent and absent, absolute and statistical) such as the rarity of OVS patterns across the world’s languages and the prevalence of SVO and SOV. GET THE NUMBER OF THESE There are other GUs as well, and some have been the focus of some interesting discussion in the Generative literature in the last several years. However, whatever the theoretical and empirical interest of such GUs, they are different from what Generativists of the Chomsky stripe have meant by ‘universal.’ How so?
Well, CUs do note refer to surface linguistic patterns but to properties of the Faculty of Language (FL) and the formal and substantive restrictions FL imposes on competence grammars (G). Let’s unpack this a bit by taking an example or two of a proposed CU.
A popular CU is the principle that restricts G rules to structure dependent operations (i.e. the G rules are stated in terms of structural features of phrase markers rather than linear properties of strings). Another popular one restricts “movement rules” from applying across islands. A third example is the principle that restricts anaphoric elements from c-commanding their antecedents. These have been proposed as candidate Universals (i.e. principles that delimit the range of possible grammatical operations and relations, thereby restricting the class of admissible generative procedures available to humans). Note, that CUs refer not to surface outputs like GUs do but to the properties of the Gs that generate a given linguistic object’s meaning-sound outputs. As such, CUs are only indirectly related to surface patterns.
So UG on a CU conception is a description of the restrictions that FL places on the kinds of Gs that human natural languages allow. Thus, on a CU conception, UG describes the general characteristics of human Gs and also thereby limns (some of) the fine structure of the higher-level capacity that humans have which undergirds their capacity to acquire the kinds of Gs that they in fact acquire. Note that empirically investigating CUs logically requires going beyond the inspection of surface distributions (in contrast to GUs). It logically requires investigating the features of Gs. And this requires moving beyond observed surface patterns to the underlying Gs that generates them.
So, say you think that this CU conception of UG and FL is hogwash, how do you argue against it? Well, you need to show (most ambitiously) that Gs can have arbitrary structure (i.e. there is no limit to the kinds of rules, operations and structures that human Gs can have) or (more modestly) you must demonstrate that the universals that GGers have actually proposed are wrong. VE’s work does neither, or does neither competently (see below). Why not? Well here is my diagnosis: VE’s arguments completely fail because VE does not understand the difference between a GU and a CU. How would this explain VE’s practice? It would explain why VE’s main argument against UG has the structure it does. What is that structure? It amounts to the assertion (i) that natural languages display a very wide variety of surface variations and (ii) that this attested variation in the world’s languages implies (or, more modestly, strongly suggests) that there are no CUs. But this, to repeat, is a non-sequitur, unless, of course one takes CUs to be GUs, which, to repeat, they are not!
More specifically, the confusion between GUs and CUs vitiates VE’s arguments as follows: though surface variation directly bears on GU claims, it has an indirect relation to whether there are CUs. To demonstrate that surface variation undermines UG in the CU sense requires showing that surface variation implies unbounded G variation. But nobody’s work has ever shown that, and certainly not VE’s. Indeed, VE’s work has not even tried to show this. Rather it has simply asserted (and asserted and asserted and…) that the evident linguistic surface variation found among the world’s languages (which, btw, is not really news to GGers, at least not for the last 40 years) undermines claims for UG.
In sum, VE’s work has not demonstrated that surface variation requires different kinds of G rules, nor has it discussed the rather extensive empirical literature that aims to show how very different surface patterns can all be generated using the same basic kinds of Gs. As this has been one of the mainstays of GG research over the last 40 years (and there are literally thousands of pages that have been written on tupological variation by GGers), this means that VE’s work has not discussed the empirical literature relevant to making even the modest claim against UG noted above. Rather, VE’s work reduces to the assertion of a logical non-sequitur (incessantly repeated as if repeating the same thing again and again and again and… boosts its verisimilitude); because languages display a very large variety of distinct surface patterns therefore the Gs that generate these patterns cannot have common properties.
Let me note, in a charitable vein, that the confusion between GUs and CUs is understandable. Undergrads confuse them all the time. VE’s work does too. Consequently, VE’s arguments are based on a pun (i.e. confusing two uses of the concept ‘universal’) and hence cannot hope to show what they intend. In other words, VE’s arguments are prime examples of the fallacy of equivocation. This is one very important reason why these arguments are worthless (dare I say junk!).
So the first problem with EV’s criticism of Chomskyan GG is that it is based on an equivocation and is thus without intellectual interest (though sociologically, well, that’s another matter). However, this is not the worst thing about VE’s critique, for one might argue that this is a rather subtle mistake (though, it really isn’t). The two other problems with his work are that it is both dishonest and incompetent. Let’s take these in turn.
First the dishonesty. It has been amply demonstrated that VE’s work has troubles with quotation. David Pesetsky deserves credit for making this point repeatedly in e-discussions with VE. The same point has also been made by others (see here and links therein for a particularly clear set of detailed examples). This egregious misquotation alone should have made the work unpublishable. It certainly suggests that the “review” process that CUP conducted was far from thorough. I strongly urge those skeptical of my claims to take a careful look at the relevant discussions linked to above. The misquotation is really appalling given that it consistently attributes to people the opposite positions to the ones that they are actually offering and then criticizing them on the basis of the severely distorted misquoted passages.
Last but not least, VE’s work is technically incompetent. VE appears not to know his way around a syntactic argument, at least as regards the work he criticizes. This further vitiates VE’s work. After all, one very good rule of critical thumb is that one know something about what one is criticizing. So if you want to criticize the Chomskyan view of universals then you should know a lot about the arguments for and against them. VE’s work is sadly lacking in this respect. I have gone over one example in detail here. EV’s discussion here gets everything wrong; from the description of the relevant data to be explained to the typological contrast at issue to the sentences relevant to adjudicating the claims. In other words, it is technically wrong in every possible way. An undergrad that submitted this as a homework would not have been happy with the resulting grade. Once again, this suggests that the six who reviewed VE’s work for CUP were either not expert in the relevant fields or, just as likely, did not read the book carefully before pronouncing on its merits. These are intro to syntax errors. CUP clearly needs a better vetting process.
As noted at the outset, I intend this to be my last post on VE’s work. I know that I have sounded harsh, but that’s because I wanted to sound harsh as the work VE has produced is really very bad. It is confused, incompetent and more than a tad dishonest. IMO, this makes it junk in the sense that it teaches us nothing about the vices or virtues of the Chomskyan Generative program. In fact, it’s worse than that: it cannot teach us anything, as the arguments are based on misquotation, equivocation and technical incompetence. This is why I have repeatedly called it ‘junk.’
However, the fact that this work has been published, and apparently endorsed by many luminaries, is insightful. It tells us a lot about the intellectual atmosphere that surrounds us. IMO, most of this junk stems from a resurgent Empiricism, a particularly crude version in fact. For reasons I actually do not well understand, the idea that humans are built to speak is considered provocative. The further possibility that this native capacity is in some ways domain specific is considered by many to be absurd. Both of these reactions to linguistic nativism are, to my mind, nutty. Here’s why.
That we are biologically built for language is a truism. After all, name another physical object or biological being that does what we do linguistically? There are none, or at least none that we know of. In short, the claim that we are biologically “language ready” is about as exciting as noting that the sun rises in the East, unless, of course, you don’t believe that our mental capacities are biologically grounded. And nobody believes that! Hence, that we are “language ready,” biologically built for language, is a truism.
How about the second claim; that what makes us language ready relies on language specific powers and capacities rather than more general cognitive wherewithal? This is not a truism if true. But nor is it absurd. It is what we call in the trade “an empirical issue.” If true, then it argues against simplistic tabula rasa theories of mind. This makes it a favorite target of the Empiricistically inclined. However, one of the glories of GG has been to show how this question can be made empirical rather than philosophical. GG has shown how to argue for and against the language specificity of our linguistic powers. Should linguistic competence be reducible to other more general non-linguistic competences, that would be a fascinating discovery. IMO, this prospect is currently very unlikely (though being a card carrying minimalist I hope (and I know that hoping is one thing and showing another) that many linguistic specific FL/UG details can be off-loaded to more general cognitive operations of other third factors). However, I can see how this might be accomplished in principle. This said, I also know what needs to be done to show this; people who think that linguistic competence does not involve a language specific FL need to show how to explain the mass of data that GGers have discovered and analyzed over the last 60 years without invoking language specific concepts and mechanisms. Nothing short of this will serve. The problem with VE’s work (and that of many others who have preached the same sermon about the demise of GG) is that it completely fails to engage with this work. That’s why it’s intellectual junk, albeit sociologically very revealing.
 I will even refrain from commenting on VE’s most impressive riposte, namely his threat to sue critics (see here). This indiscrete polemical feint was quietly withdrawn and expunged from the record by VE, sans apology. Given the alternatives, I prefer VE’s current less bellicose strategy of simply avoiding discussion of the main issues.
 At least these are the major problems. There are a host of lesser ones that the posts linked to above also review.
 VE’s latest post linked to above seems to have trouble with many other conceptual distinctions. For example, VE has a problem distinguishing a program from a theory. Chomsky has always been careful to distinguish the two notions. For example, GB theory was part of the P&P program. At this moment, there are many minimalist theories animated by the leading ideas of the Minimalist Program. Thus, Chomsky’s distinction between program and theory is in no way an empirical retreat in the face of empirical findings, as VE suggests. It’s just the normal way of conducting scientific business.
 Sadly, it does boost its truthiness, which is precisely what the agnotologically inclined count on. Repetition can serve to provide the appearance of controversiality (i.e. the idea that there are two sides to a question) even when one of the sides is based on equivocation, as in this case where GUs are confused for CUs.
 It is worth adding that VE’s work does not discuss the now substantial literature that analyzes GUs from a GG perspective. It appears that some GUs are well grounded empirically. Further, there are some interesting attempts to explain their properties using standard arguments based on UG (and other) principles. It is unclear why EV’s work does not discuss these given their obvious relevance to his basic claims.
 I leave as an exercise for the reader the application of the GU/CU equivocation as applied to Everett’s Piraha discussion. This is the poster child against CUs that is endlessly trotted out. It too suffers from the confusion endemic to VE’s oeuvre. See here and here for more detailed discussion.
 I mention this because VE seems to point to the fact that six “world leading experts” blessed the book for CUP before publication. They may have blessed it, but it seems that they didn’t read it, at least not carefully.
 Let me mention one more confusion that VE seems to have fallen into. Chomsky has conjectured that most of what earlier theories postulated as linguistic specific features of UG could and should be reinterpreted in less linguistically parochial terms. He as further conjectured that the only linguistically specific operation (and even this may not be proprietary to FL he has at times surmised) is Merge. It is important to note that this is a conjecture, and that’s what makes the Minimalist Program a program. Whether Chomsky is right, is currently being aggressively investigated. For what it is worth, IMO, we are still far from grounding this conjecture empirically, though we have made some very interesting analytic connections in trying to realize it. Importantly, for Chomsky to be right requires deriving earlier GG results using these less linguistically specific notions. This has not yet been done. In other words, no current minimalist theory has yet realized the ambitions of the program. Is this a problem? Not obviously. Why not? Because this is just how science works. Let me explain.
Programs are not true or false but fecund or sterile. They are judged fecund to the degree that they engender theories that can be empirically evaluated as true and false. In other words, good science attempts to realize fecund programs in various explanatory empirically grounded theories. Theories are constantly proposed, elaborated, and rejiggered in face of puzzles. This is normal science. VE does not seem to appreciate this (could it be because he is not actually a practitioner?).
Nor does he seem to understand what Kuhn intended by an anomaly. Anomalies are problems that current theory cannot accommodate given its current conceptual apparatus (e.g. black body radiation given classical mechanics) not things that theory appropriately revamped doesn’t happen to cover. The former require deep conceptual revisions (hence the revolution) the former require revamping the details of the current conceptions (hence their being normal science). At any rate, this confusion between program and theory leads VE to say, not surprisingly, several odd things and to misrepresent the state of play in current GG.