I am Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary University of London. I am primarily interested in the human capacity for syntax, the cognitive system that underlies the patterns found in the grammar of human languages. The core questions are: what creates the patterns? how do they relate to meaning on the one hand, and sound, on the other? What governs the range of variation in the patterns? Answering these questions allows us to tackle the issue of what the nature of the syntactic system is.
My work involves developing generative theories of syntactic patterns, and investigating the consequences of these theories, both for particular languages and across genetically unrelated languages. I’ve worked on Scottish Gaelic and other Celtic languages, but have used data from many other languages to test theoretical proposals about the syntax of human language. My new book Language Unlimited tries to explain the kind of linguistics I do in a popular science type format.
I’m fundamentally interested in how syntactic patterns relate to meanings: at its simplest, why does Lilly bit Anson mean something different from Anson bit Lilly? Obviously, order of words matters, but how is the connection between order, structure and meaning negotiated?
My other main interest is how theories of syntax can be used to handle the variable use of different syntactic patterns by a single individual, and whether these theories have anything to contribute to explaining probabilistic patterns we see in the use of different syntactic forms.
For my attempt to explain my work using just the most common 1000 words of English, see here. The Linguist List has a short Life in Linguistics piece, where I try to explain how I ended up becoming a syntactician.
I am currently President of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (the LAGB).