Thursday, May 11, 2006

Competence and performance

There is an old distinction in syntax (dating back to at least Chomsky's Aspects) between competence and performance. Competnece is the theory of what an idealized speaker would say is grammatical. This includes sentences that are too long to ever be spoken and sentences whose modifiers are so confusing that it would take too much processing power for us to understand them. These are things that shouldn't be ruled out because their faults are not grammatical. intuitively, they are things that a grammar shouldn't account for because they are, at root, dependent on non-grammatical aspects of the speakers and interpreters. Performance deals with sentences that speakers and interlocutors actually produce and deem grammatical or not. This can be a little messy since sleepiness, alertness, and intoxicatoin can inluence performance, and those things are not grammatical. This distinction bites both ways however. It allows syntacticians to say that certain sentences that are either ruled in or out by their grammar are okay by shifting the focus more to the performance side or more to the competence side. They can lean a little one way or the other to bolster their theories. Leaning too much to the competence side threatens to divorce the theory from empirical matters completely. Facts about speakers do seem to matter some to how syntax is processed. However, leaning too much towards performance results in sentences becoming ungrammatical according to the theory even though they are grammatical. (As an aside, I'm not sure whether there is a theoretical account of grammaticality. I've only seen it presented as an intuitive concept). I wonder if there is a similar competence-performance distinction for semantics. Such a distinction might help clarify what should be accounted for by a semantic theory and what should not be. Sometimes I think that the pragmatics-semantics distinction covers this, although pragmatics accounts for a lot more. It isn't a perfect analogy, but it seems to get something right.

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