This description is adapted, with permission, from Zanuttini, Raffaella, Jim Wood, Jason Zentz & Laurence Horn. 2018. The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: Morphosyntactic variation in North American English. Linguistics Vanguard 4(1): 20160070. The full paper and its supplementary materials are freely available at https://doi.org/10.1515/lingvan-2016-0070.
The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project (YGDP) approaches the empirical domain of North American English from the perspective of generative microcomparative syntax.
Our approach to the study of morphosyntactic variation
Generative linguists are primarily interested in the mental grammar of individual speakers, modeled as a system of rules that can form some linguistic units (syllables, words, sentences, etc.) but not others. While it is obvious that there are systematic grammatical differences across speakers of different languages or dialects, differences also exist among people within their speech communities (see Trousdale and Adger  and Cornips  for some interesting perspectives on this issue). If every individual has a mental grammar, we might expect that what it means to “speak the same language” is to have mental grammars that are similar but not necessarily identical (and, of course, to share a significant proportion of the lexicon).
Generative microcomparative syntax, then, is the study of the differences between similar mental grammars, with the goal of furthering our broader understanding of the human language faculty. As Kayne (2005: 283) points out, “microcomparative syntax work provides us with a new kind of microscope with which to look into the workings of syntax.” Several projects conducted within this paradigm are listed at www.dialectsyntax.org, including ASIS (Poletto and Benincà 2007), SAND (Barbiers et al. 2005, Barbiers et al. 2008), and ScanDiaSyn, in Italy, the Netherlands/Belgium, and Scandinavia, respectively.
For our project, we recruit (and in some cases develop) methodologies especially suited to the kinds of questions we are interested in asking. We collect data in the form of acceptability judgments in order to determine which kinds of sentences can be generated by individual speakers’ mental grammars and which cannot. In addition to eliciting judgments from speakers of particular varieties, we also conduct large-scale surveys, map the results of those surveys geographically, conduct statistical tests taking geography and other social variables into account, and look for theoretically significant linguistic correlations. In all cases, we do this with the primary goal of understanding variation between speakers at the individual level. While our goals and methodologies are informed by our theoretical perspective, we expect that our work and results will be of interest to linguists working in other frameworks and even to the public more generally. Therefore, in addition to our technical theoretical work, we are committed to highlighting our descriptive findings and providing freely accessible resources intended for a broader audience.
Situating the YGDP within the study of variation in English
From an empirical perspective, we are interested in morphosyntactic variation across the varieties of English spoken across North America. Interspeaker variation within North American English has long been an object of linguistic investigation (see Schneider  and Wolfram and Schilling  for useful overviews). However, most studies of morphosyntactic variation, as noted by Kortmann (2003), have focused on particular phenomena such as negative concord, positive anymore, subject–verb agreement, and multiple modals (Reed and Montgomery 2016), or on particular varieties such as Alabama English (Feagin 1979), Appalachian English (Wolfram and Christian 1976; Montgomery and Hall 2004b; Hazen et al. 2013), African American English (Labov et al. 1968; Baugh 1983; Rickford 1999; Green 2002; Lanehart 2015), and Canadian English (Tagliamonte 2006).
When it comes to large-scale investigations (considering multiple phenomena across multiple varieties), researchers of North American English have conducted surveys, compiled corpora, or collected data from a variety of resources and expert contributors. The most prominent nationwide surveys of individual speakers of American English have focused on phonology (Labov et al. 2006), the lexicon (Carver 1987; Hall 2013), or both (Kurath et al. 1939–1943 and subsequent work on the Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada [see Grieve (2016: ch. 1) for a comprehensive history of this project]; Vaux and Golder 2003). Grieve (2009, 2016) has created a large corpus of letters to the editor from regional newspapers all over the country, which he uses to conduct statistical and geographical analyses of lexical variation.
Perhaps most comparable to our project in empirical focus and scope is a large body of work by Bernd Kortmann and colleagues that considers questions of morphosyntactic variation in English within a research paradigm that integrates functional typology with dialectology. This approach is sometimes called variationist typology or sociolinguistic typology (Siemund 2013: 283). These researchers provide systematic overviews of the features attested (along with the degree of attestation) in particular varieties of English and useful summaries of existing literature on these topics. In many cases, they utilize quantitative techniques to reveal generalizations that illuminate how different varieties of English reflect crosslinguistic tendencies. Moreover, Kortmann and Lunkenheimer (2013) (eWAVE) provides an interactive interface to explore, compare, and geographically visualize the presence of certain features across varieties of English worldwide. Our project differs from this work in several respects, which are outlined in detail in Zanuttini et al. (2018). Both lines of research seek to explore morphosyntactic variation in English, but our scope, methods, and goals are complementary.
The YGDP has a number of aims, which can be grouped under two overarching goals:
- to collect and make available information about morphosyntactic variation found across speakers of English in North America;
- to conduct and foster new research on morphosyntactic variation that can broaden our knowledge at both the empirical and theoretical levels.
To reach our first goal, we have been gathering information about syntactic variation in North American English from a number of different sources. We make it publicly available on this website, which is organized in a series of pages, each devoted to a particular aspect of the syntax of English that varies across native speakers. These pages are intended to be useful to scholars and at the same time accessible to anyone who is not an academic but is interested in language for professional or personal reasons. For the linguist, this website is a repository of information concerning minimal differences in the syntax of North American English. For non-linguists (teachers, journalists, people who are curious about the way we speak, etc.), it is a place to find a detailed yet accessible description of aspects of the syntax of English that might have attracted interest because they differ across speakers (often raising the questions of who’s right and who’s wrong), or because they are associated (often pejoratively) with a certain group of people. For more information about this site, see the Using This Site page.
We strive to reach our second goal by conducting research on some of the microvariation we find, and by encouraging other linguists (regardless of theoretical framework or level of expertise) to do the same. Recently, with funding from NSF Grant BCS-1423872, we have focused on pronouns, specifically examining phenomena such as Southern Dative Presentatives (Wood, Horn et al. 2015; Wood and Zanuttini 2016, forthcoming; Wood, Zanuttini et al. submitted), Personal Datives (Horn 2013; Wood and Zanuttini forthcoming), Extended Benefactives (Wood and Zanuttini forthcoming; Wood et al. submitted), and Split Subjects (Zanuttini and Bernstein 2014; Wood, Sigurðsson et al. 2015). Outside the area of pronouns, we have investigated phenomena such as verbal rather (Wood 2013), so don't I (Wood 2014), negative auxiliary inversion (Matyiku 2016), and have yet to (Tyler and Wood forthcoming). We have also edited a volume (Zanuttini and Horn 2014) that brings together work from our project and related work from researchers outside the project.
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Kortmann, Bernd. 2005. Freiburg English dialect corpus (FRED). Freiburg, Germany: University of Freiburg. http://www2.anglistik.uni-freiburg.de/institut/lskortmann/FRED/http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/ (21 October, 2016).
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Kortmann, Bernd & Christoph Wolk. 2012. Morphosyntactic variation in the anglophone world: A global perspective. In Bernd Kortmann & Kerstin Lunkenheimer (eds.), The Mouton world atlas of variation in English, 906–936. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
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Wood, Jim. 2014. Affirmative semantics with negative morphosyntax: Negative exclamatives and the New England So AUXn’t NP/DP construction. In Raffaella Zanuttini & Laurence R. Horn (eds.), Micro-syntactic variation in North American English, 71–114. (Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wood, Jim, Laurence Horn, Raffaella Zanuttini & Luke Lindemann. 2015. The Southern dative presentative meets Mechanical Turk. American Speech 90(3). 291–320. doi:10.1215/00031283-3324487.
Wood, Jim, Einar Freyr Sigurðsson & Raffaella Zanuttini. 2015. Partitive doubling in Icelandic and Appalachian English. North East Linguistic Society (NELS) 45(3). 217–226.
Wood, Jim & Raffaella Zanuttini. forthcoming. Datives, data, and dialect syntax in American English. Glossa.
Wood, Jim & Raffaella Zanuttini. 2016. Microvariation in American English applicative structures.
Wood, Jim, Raffaella Zanuttini, Laurence Horn & Jason Zentz. submitted. Dative country: Markedness and geographical variation in Southern dative constructions. American Speech.
Zanuttini, Raffaella & Laurence R. Horn (eds.). 2014. Micro-syntactic variation in North American English. (Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zanuttini, Raffaella, Jim Wood, Jason Zentz & Laurence Horn. 2018. The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: Morphosyntactic variation in North American English. Linguistics Vanguard 4(1). 20160070. doi:10.1515/lingvan-2016-0070.