Features: More trouble than they’re worth?

Thomas Graf, Stony Brook University

Do contemporary syntactic theories rely on too many features? Decades of computational research have culminated in two contradictory answers:

  • Yes, there are too many features because having at least two features is already one too many and brings in undesirable overgeneration.
  • No, the number of features is irrelevant because a grammar with no features can be just as powerful as one with thousands of features.

The source of this confusing state of affairs is the intimate relation between features and constraints. Features can be replaced by constraints, to a point where the grammar is completely feature-free. And constraints can be compiled down into the feature system until no constraints are left and everything is done by feature checking.

Proposition 1: Features and constraints are interchangeable.

The power to express arbitrary constraints causes massive overgeneration, which must be curtailed. There is a substantive body of computational work on how constraints can be limited in a linguistically natural fashion, whereas it is largely unclear how the same can be achieved with restrictions on feature systems. I will sketch what options have been explored so far and why constraints are easier to rein in than features.

Proposition 2: The power of constraints is easy to restrict, that of features is not.

In the absence of meaningful restrictions on features, then, constraint-based accounts should be preferred. I present small case studies on successive-cyclic movement, selection, and morphosyntax that illustrate what this approach looks like in practice and how it can yield new theoretical and empirical insights.