In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Movement

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Textbooks
  • Edited Collections
  • Unbounded Dependencies in Non-Transformational Frameworks

Linguistics Movement
Akira Omaki, Masaya Yoshida
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0114


Movement is an operation that was introduced by transformational theories of generative grammar to characterize so-called displacement phenomena, as seen in wh-questions like “Who will Mary kiss __ ?”, passive sentences like “John was kissed __ (by Mary).”, and subject-aux inversion sentences like “Will Mary __ kiss John?”. These constructions share an interesting property: the constituents at the beginning of these sentences are “displaced” from their original positions indicated by “__”, while the basic thematic relations between constituents (e.g., who did what to whom) remain the same. The long-distance dependencies formed by movement operations are of broad interest to linguistic theories; they not only constitute one of the most distinctive properties of natural language, but also provide a window into more general architectural constraints of the language faculty. The distribution of movement operations has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of fundamental grammatical concepts, such as case, theta roles, information structure, the argument/adjunct distinction, and perhaps most notably, locality constraints on grammatical operations. In the early 21st century, work on this topic has had broader impacts on psycholinguistics and child language research and has shed light on mechanisms of sentence processing and language acquisition.

Foundational Works

In order to account for the range of possible sentences in human language, the seminal works Chomsky 1955 and Chomsky 1957 proposed two classes of rules, namely, phrase structure rules that combine two constituents to create phrase markers and transformation rules that map one phrase marker to another. Some of these transformational operations included what became known as movement operations in later works, such as affix hopping (e.g., “Mary __ kiss-ed John.”), passivization (e.g., “John was kissed __ (by Mary).”), and subject-aux inversion (e.g., “Will Mary __ kiss John?”) (see Types of Movement Operations). These construction-specific rules were later replaced by a single general movement rule in Chomsky 1981, and subsequent works Chomsky 1995 and Chomsky 2001 treated movement as a feature-checking operation that eliminates uninterpretable features that cannot be interpreted at the interfaces with the auditory-perceptual system or the conceptual-intentional system. Since Ross 1967 identified “islands,” i.e., the structural environments that prohibit certain transformation operations, subsequent works Chomsky 1973, Chomsky 1977, Chomsky 1986, and Rizzi 1990 (cited under Constraints on Movement: Relativized Minimality) attempted to provide a unifying explanation for the island constraints (see Constraints on Movement).

  • Chomsky, N. 1955. The logical structure of linguistic theory. PhD diss., Univ. of Pennsylvania.

    This is a published version of Noam Chomsky’s PhD dissertation that lays out the foundational concepts and approaches to the study of language cognition.

  • Chomsky, N. 1957. Syntactic structures. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    This book is based on course lectures that Chomsky taught at MIT. This is a shorter and more accessible version of The logical structure of linguistic theory.

  • Chomsky, N. 1973. Conditions on transformations. In A Festschrift for Morris Halle. Edited by S. Anderson and P. Kiparsky, 232–286. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

    This work proposed that Ross’s island constraints can be subsumed under a more general Subjacency condition, which prohibits movement that crosses two bounding nodes that are considered to be S (IP) and NP.

  • Chomsky, N. 1977. On wh-movement. In Formal syntax. Edited by P. Culicover, T. Wasow, and A. Akmajian, 71–132. New York: Academic Press.

    A seminal work that shows common features of A-bar movement, and lends further support to the view that all (overt) movements are bounded and respect Subjacency.

  • Chomsky, N. 1981. Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Foris.

    Before this work, separate movement rules were proposed for different types of target constituents (e.g., Move-NP, Move-Wh) in order to capture their unique properties. However, Chomsky proposed to unify these separate operations as a single operation called Move α, which applies to any syntactic element to move it anywhere in the structure. Whether each movement is grammatical or not is determined by independently motivated principles (e.g., Case Theory).

  • Chomsky, N. 1986. Barriers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    This book proposes a novel explanation of bounding nodes; it is argued that bounding nodes are not fixed representational units, but rather can be derivationally created in the course of syntactic computation.

  • Chomsky, N. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    This work presents an extensive study of the derivational model of transformational syntax, in which movement operations are driven by the requirement to check formal features that would otherwise be uninterpretable at the PF or LF interfaces.

  • Chomsky, N. 2001. Derivation by phase. In Ken Hale: A life in language. Edited by M. Kenstowicz, 1–52. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    This paper discusses in detail how syntactic derivation proceeds in a series of smaller computational domains called phases. The phase system resembles some of the core features of barriers in Chomsky 1986.

  • Ross, J. 1967. Constraints on variables in syntax. PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    The first extensive study on the constraints on movement operations and variables in transformation rules. This work inspired subsequent works on many major topics on movement, such as island constraints, pied piping, resumption, rightward movement, and scrambling.

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