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The Grammar of NLP

As I reread The Structure of Magic recently, I was reminded that Transformational Grammar forms the core of the MetaModel and yet transformational grammar is generally considered by linguists to be out of date. Years ago, I studied transformational grammar as part of a language teaching Masters program, but my knowledge of later models is very incomplete and I started a discussion on an online forum about the underlying grammar of NLP and whether it has been updated in any way.
One reply correctly pointed out that this discussion could be considered dogma and has little impact on the ability of NLP to help people. This statement is congruent with the belief that NLP is what works.

… none of the changes in theory really alter the basics of what we do. We listen for places where peoples’ model of the world is underdefined (that is, where there are deep structure limitations that are causing them to have fewer choices then they would like), and we ask questions that cause them to define those areas. During the process, they wind up with more choices then they had before. Dogma like how language develops, how many unique language families there are, and how the deep structure of the brain functions to develop language (which is what changes the fashion in theory) is largely, at least in my opinion, not material to what we do.

While I agree that the practical implications of NLP are far more important than the theoretical bases, in the long-term, my concern is that claims for NLP will necessarily be weakened by continuing to tie it to a grammar model that is considered out-of-date. While the number of “unique language families” does indeed seem to be very peripheral to NLP, the ‘linguistic’ word that appears in the name of neuro-linguistic programming implies to me at least that within the NLP community there needs to be energy applied to questions such as “how the deep structure of the brain functions to develop language” and how this knowledge can be used to improve the efficacy of NLP and to move it in new directions.
Not all NLP commentors and writers agree that transformational grammar underlies NLP. For example, in an interview Charles Faulkener says:

That was 79′ and at that time the dominant model in linguistics was Chomsky, and Chomsky, not to go into transformational grammar, but that is also what Grinder claims is the basis of NLP. The uses to which Grinder was put in NLP were, in fact, not transmissional grammar, but in fact, were generative semantics.

The word ‘transmissional’ may be a mis-transcribed version of ‘transformational’ – the transcription of the interview has quite a few typos, but this use of ‘transmissional grammar’ appears several times. Although it is not completely clear in places, Faulkner seems to be indicating that he disagrees with Grinder’s strong emphasis on transformational grammar and is suggesting that generative semantics had a much bigger influence.
Note that Generative Semantics is not the same thing as General Sematics. General Sematics is a field started by Korzybski (“The Map is not the Territory”) and is also another acknowledged influence on NLP.
Wikipedia gives a good description of Generative Semantics, the first paragraph of which is quoted below to show its difference to Transformational Grammar.

Generative semantics is the name of a research program within linguistics, initiated by the work of various early students of Noam Chomsky: John R. Ross, Paul Postal and later James McCawley. George Lakoff was also instrumental in developing and advocating the theory. The approach developed out of transformational generative grammar in the mid 1960s, but stood largely in opposition to work by Noam Chomsky and his later students.

Generative Semantics may be contrasted with Interpretative Semantics. In Interpretative Semantics, the rules of syntax produced well-formed grammatical sentences, and these sentences were evaluated using a separate model of semantics (meaning). In contrast, Generative Semantics postalated that interpretations were generated directly by the grammar as deep structures, and were subsequently transformed into recognizable sentences by transformations.
Faulkner explains it as follows:

Chomsky’s work claims that changes of syntactic structure will not mean changes of meaning. In fact, what George Lakoff and Paul Postal and some others have figured out was, in fact changes of syntactic structure did make changes of meaning, and that was one of the big points in NLP, was that how you talk about things and the different kind of grammatical structures you use would imply or infer certain different kinds of thinking processes. That is fundamental to NLP. Where as in fact, Chomsky’s work did not support that.

Later in the interview, Faulkner suggests the idea more strongly that the resting of NLP upon transformational grammar could be reconsidered:

is it time, for example that we ditched transformational grammar, at least in our brochures, because Chomsky ditched transformational grammar in 1980. Maybe we want to update the epistemological basis of what we do. Maybe we want to support, by donation or effort, some serious jury research into the voracity, the viability of certain claims, either of distinction, like the eye movements of language, or actual interventions in protocols. Like the phobia process or the switch pattern or something. Without that kind of an effort, why would it be credible?

Faulkner has taken his own advice and is currently involved with NLP research at the University of Surrey. The website introduces itself with the following description:

This website is an information hub for people interested in research into Neuro-Linguistic Programming, especially in fields of management, coaching and adult learning. Its purpose is to link practitioner and academic researchers to relevant resources.

This posting is just a small beginning to my thoughts on this matter. I have started reading further in cognitive linguistics and other areas of grammar in an attempt to bring myself more up to date so that I can play a small part in that research-based approach being advocated by Faulkner and others such as Dr Paul Tosey and Dr Jane Mathison at the University of Surrey. If NLP is to truly reach its full potential in the future, I believe that it needs to build up a solid base of evidence as well as a robust yet flexible theoretical framework.


©Copyright 2010 by Dr. Brian Cullen

Blog Reviews

Review: The Structure of Magic Volume I

The Structure of Magic (Volume I) is a remarkable book and one that should certainly be read by anyone interested in NLP. It forms the basis of most of the ideas underpinning NLP and explains them much better than many of the books that came after. Like experience and our representation of experience in ‘deep structure’, many of the ideas have gone through a little too much generalization, distortion, and deletion 🙂
The book is dated, but still highly valuable in its insights. I read it years ago and then came back to it again recently and gained a lot more out of the second reading. The descriptions of the metamodel and the examples of actual therepeutic interventions were much richer for me this time around, probably because the metamodel has become a much more hard-wired resource for my behaviour. It takes a long time to internalize these powerful ideas and revisiting the originals from time to time always gives a useful new perspective both on the original ideas and on your personal progression over time.
Chapter 3 and 4 are very practical, and Chapter 6 gives an excellent (if rather dated) description of the Metamodel’s usage within other therapeutic systems.
The Structure of Magic emerged out of Richard Bandler’s thesis and is a fine blend of theory and practice.

Blog Music

iPods, Attention, and Value

I was teaching a class on Acoustic Design this morning and I asked the students how many of them were carrying iPods. 6 out of the 15 students had Apple iPods. All of the others had a portable music player of some kind. These are truly amazing inventions that allow us to carry a whole world of music or audio books around in our pocket. It is truly the stuff of science fiction and although we may not have flying cars in 2010, we have a high fidelity theatre capable of playing thousands of songs right in our own pocket.
And it is thousands of songs. Even the lowly iPod Nano which one of my students has can store 8Gb which is enough for about 3000 songs. That is twice the capacity of the original iPod which I bought when it came out first, and at about one quarter of the cost and one eight of the size. Within a few short years, technology has vastly changed the number of songs that a person can carry around and listen to.
When I started listening to music as a child, cassette tapes were the primary medium in my house. Some houses used LPs, but at one time at least, many people believed that cassette tapes were superior and that they would replace CDs. Cassettes had the advantage that you could record on them and drop them without seeing them shatter into hundreds of expensive pieces. They were also relevant immune to scratches and mishandling. In my class today, however, three of the students had never used a cassette tape at all. LPs have made a slight comeback, but most of my students had never touched a record. Technology has definitely moved on.
In the days of cassettes at my house, we had perhaps 60 or 70 cassette tapes that we could listen to. If each cassette had 10 songs on it, then we had a total of perhaps 700 songs that we could listen to. And we did listen to them – again and again and again – often until the tape was stretched and the singer began to sing in a much lower voice.
Whereas we had 700 songs to listen to, my students have 3,000 in their pockets and usually many more on their home computers. A simple calculation shows that listening to 3,000 songs could take 6 days even in continuous listening. One student admitted that there were many songs on his iPod that he had never listened to and probably more than a thousand that he had listened to only once.
It is clear that technology has given us more choices in our listening, and in NLP terms greater choice is a good thing, but the downside is that our attention is now much lessened, and NLP reminds us that where our attention goes, there energy flows.  Because our attention has become much more scattered over a larger number of songs, and consequently become much less focused, the amount of listening energy that we give to each song has fallen. Along with the easy copying of music from friends or downloading ‘free’ music from the Internet, this fall in attention has led to a corresponding fall in the perceived value of music. It is simple supply and demand. When there is such an enormous supply of music, easily available on our iPods, the price (or in this case – the perceived value) falls.
And as the perceived value falls, so does our listening ability because we do not put as much effort (or energy) into listening to something when we see it as having less value. As both a musician and a teacher of acoustic design, this bothers me because it is yet another sign that the human interface with the enviroment (the ears and the psychological mechanisms of listening) are weakening, and the tolerance of the deterioration in the external sound environment as evidenced by the noise of our cities is one result.
In previous articles, I have written about simple earcleaning activities that can help to bring back some energy to listening to the environment. I provide another simple example below of an earcleaning exercise for music listening.
1. Choose a song or piece of music that you like.
2. Import the song into Audacity or another sound editor.
3. Using labels, divide the song into intro, verse, chorus, bridge etc.
4. List all of the instruments used in the order that they appear.
5. Examine the dynamic range of each instrument. Is it louder at some points in the song?
6. Determine the spatial location of each instrument. Is it on the left or right or center? Or is it moving?
7. Identify the effects used in the song, for example, reverb, delay, distortion, and so on.
Have fun listening to a song closely. As you give more attention in your listening to a single song, you might just find that your enjoyment of all songs rises.


Copyright 2010 by Brian Cullen

Blog Other

Review: Cards for Learning Language Patterns

Over the last few years, one of the greatest tools that I have found for learning NLP is the series of card decks from Salad Ltd. The founder of Salad, Jamie Smart, is not the first to put out cards which practice language patterns, but he has taken the idea much further than anyone else, and he now offers six different sets of cards.
At this very moment (early-December 2010), they are offering a very good value offer on all six packs. I have no connection with the company at all, but I have a lot of respect for the work that Jamie Smart has done in putting together this amazing resource.
If you are serious about practicing NLP language patterns until they are truly “in the muscle” or “wired in” or whatever your favourite expression for mastery is, then I highly recommend these cards, especially the sets:


©2010 by Brian Cullen

Blog Other

Conversational Hypnosis in the Classroom

I was listening to an audio program about conversational hypnosis in which the trainer was talking about the use of embedded suggestions. While the audio program was discussing one-to-one interactions, embedded suggestions are also potentially useful in educational settings. Two common ways of using these suggestions are given below.

Method 1

Create an embedded suggestion in three or less words and insert it into a phrase that is not conveyed directly as a command or instruction to the students. For example, if the suggestion is “Do homework”, you can embed it in an anecdote or class reading like the example below:

Research has shown that students who always do homework are also the same students who achieve well in other areas of their life. In contrast, students who do not always do homework are less likely to be successful in other areas of life.

Here, the embedded suggestion do homework was repeated twice within the natural flow of a story about other people, but at an unconscious level the students in your own classroom will hear the suggestion.
The effect of embedding suggestions is vastly increased by using analogue markers. By this, I am referring to changes in your voice tone, gestures, or other changes at the point where the embedded suggestion occurs. For example, you could raise the volume of your voice very slightly as you say the words do homework. Or you could make a unique gesture such as raising one hand slightly as you say that phrase. Or you could combine the raise in volume with the raising hand.
If you are presenting the embedded suggestion in a text, you have various options for analogue markers. The least subtle is to emphasize the embedded suggestion by putting it in capital letters (DO HOMEWORK). However, this is equivalent to shouting in a conversation and you may achieve better results if you use a more subtle analogue marker. For example, you can capitalize the first letter of each word of the embedded suggestion (Do Homework), or you could italicize the words (do homework) or italicize the first letter of each word (do homework). You could even send a subtle signal to the unconscious mind by using a different font for one letter in each word.
Analogue markers can be very subtle and yet still have a powerful effect. The unconscious mind is always on the lookout for changes because it is changes in the current situation that provide the most interest. So a slight change in volume or a subtle gesture may not even be noticed by the conscious  mind and yet is enough to allow the unconscious mind to recognize the marked phrase as important in some way–especially if the phrase is associated with the analogue marker several times.

Method 2

An additional method of using embedded suggestions in your teaching or training involves all of the suggestions above, but is based on the idea that the words of the embedded suggestion do not need to all come together, but instead can be spread out over a longer phrase. An example is given below for the suggestion do your homework:

If you decide to do something, then it is good to think of your reasons carefully, so whether it is at home or at work, you can really check if it is worth doing.

As in Method 1 described above, apply analogue markers to the words of the embedded suggestion. Be careful not to apply those analogue markers to any other part of the communication, so that the unconscious mind can combine the marked words into a single coherent phrase.


Students are bombarded with teachers giving them instructions and can happily let those direct commands to go in one ear and out the other without having any real effect, and embedded suggestions offer a powerful and subtle way to help your students to learn more effectively. Try experimenting with some embedded suggestions in your classes and let me know how you get on!
©2010 by Brian Cullen

Blog Other


NLP values multiple perspectives because each perspective can enrich our map of the world. Within any NLP training, the trainer will certainly offer different tools and perspectives, but one of the most valuable things for any NLP trainer or practitioner is to examine how other trainers present the tools of NLP. One very interesting perspective is provided by Steve G. Jones, an American hypnotherapist. I purchased some of Steve’s hypnotherapy audio programs long before I realized that he was also an NLP trainer, and when I watched his NLP training videos, I saw that his long experience as an hypnotherapist has given him a valuable perspective on NLP.
Steve suggests that only 10% of our brain is under conscious control and that the other 90% is unconscious (he uses the equivalent term subconscious). When we try to make a change in our lives, we generally attempt to make that change using the tools of the conscious mind, what he describes as:

But these tools of the conscious mind only make up 10% of the brain’s operation and they run up against defenses. Our brains create these defenses because even unwanted behaviours such as smoking, gambling, and alcohol abuse may have some benefit or what is generally called secondary gain. For example, smoking may provide a social circle or gambling may form a kind of stress relief. Because of these defenses, the tools of the conscious mind (Willpower, Analytical, and Rational) very often fail to help us change the habits that we consciously want to change. In particular, impulses originating in the unconscious brain can act to deter the conscious. These include impulses such as being:
These impulses hijack the intended change, and the power of NLP lies in its ability to put a person more directly in communication with the unconscious mind. Steve describes the unconscious mind as including:
Physiological Control
It is this SHIP that is really in control and it is only when we get on the SHIP that we can truly gain control over our unwanted behaviours and direct our lives in the most optimal way. Steve believes that NLP puts you in contact with the SHIP.

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Website problems ;(

Anyone who has been trying to access through the URL has probably not been able to read the website. Then again – you probably won’t be able to read this post either!
DNS, Nameservers, and similar website backend stuff always confuse me enormously.
I hope to get the URL working again very soon. In the meantime, if you’re reading this, you have no problem. If you’re not reading this, you also have no problem. It’s just me and the webserver folks who have the problem 🙂