Generative Grammar is a branch of theoretical linguistics that tries to provide a set of rules that can accurately predict which combinations of words are able to make grammatically correct sentences. Generally speaking it suggests that humans have the ability to learn language built in and just by exposure to language they can learn it.
In basic terms it looks at the way English is put together and tries to discover an underlying system which makes it work. In doing this, it will analyze the way in which grammatically correct sentences are put together and try to work out why one sentence can be grammatical, but a very similar sentence is not:
I woke up this morning and had a cup of coffee.
* I woke up this morning and had coffee a cup of.
* an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence marks it as ungrammatical
Generative grammar tries to explain why one of these sentences is fine and the other is not.
More on Generative Grammar
The study of generative grammar began in the 1950s as the result of work performed by Noam Chomsky, who took a naturalistic approach to the study of language.
A key component of his work was the theory that the properties of generative grammar come from a universal grammar that is common among all spoken and written language forms.
The primary components studied by experts in generative grammar include syntax (structure of sentences), semantics (linguistic meaning), phonology (sound patterns of language), and morphology (structure and meaning of words).
Linguists working in this field rely on “derivation trees”. These are diagrams that help view a sentence as a tree with connected subordinate and superordinate branches as opposed to a simple string of words.
Generative grammar theories are based upon the belief that humans have an innate language faculty that allows children to learn to speak their native language in little or no time with a very minimal amount of conscious effort.
While generative grammar may first appear to have very limited practical applications outside language studies, it is interesting to note that the ideas behind this particular branch of theoretical linguistics have also been used to advance the study of music. Schenkerian analysis helps define tonality in music by apply the principles of generative grammar. Notable composer Fred Lerdahl has also used generative grammar to advance his musical studies.