Syntax is the study of grammatical relationships between words and how they are combined to form phrases and sentences. The word ‘syntax’ has its roots in the Greek word syntaxis, which means ‘arrangement’. Syntacticians study patterns of sentence formation in order to better understand universal principles (those that apply to all languages) and those that apply to specific languages (language-specific parameters).
So what is a sentence? There are several definitions in the literature; however, they all agree on the following basic concepts. Sentences communicate entire thoughts through combining words and morphemes into phrases. It is important to understand that sentences are not merely strings of words arranged in linear order, but that they are organized into phrases, some of which are contained, or embedded, within others in a hierarchical order.
Sentence formation rules are language-specific. At a basic level, all sentences consist of a subject and predicate. The subject can be overt or stated as in ‘Superman wore his red cape to the Commissioner’s dinner’. Pronominal subjects can be covert or implied as in commands such as ‘Look out!’ for ‘You look out!’, or dropped as in (1).
(1) Habl -o español for Yo habl -o español
speak-1p.s Spanish I speak-1p.s Spanish
I speak Spanish.
Language-specific rules also account for the way in which words may be ordered in a sentence. Languages such as English, adhere to the subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. This means that the subject will always precede the verb and the object will always follow the verb. Languages such as Modern Persian have the object preceding the verb (SOV).
(2) Mæn ketɒb mi xun æm
I (a)book pres. read 1p.s
I am reading a book.
A sentence can be ‘simple,’ meaning it is composed of a subject and predicate as an independent clause.
(3) Superman loves his cape.
Compound sentences are composed of two simple sentences.
(4) Superman loved his cape so he decided to purchase another one.
Complex sentences are those in which a subordinate or dependent clause is embedded within a main or independent clause.
(5) Lois pressured Superman to purchase a purple cape.
Even though sentences appear to be composed of linear strings of words, they are actually combinations of constituents or syntactic units that are arranged in a hierarchical order. Consider a syntactically ambiguous phrase such as ‘The new shoes and socks were sitting by the front door’. We can parse the subject as either (6a) or (6b).
(6a) [the new shoes and socks] (both are new)
(6b) [the new shoes] and socks (only the shoes are new)
Constituents can be a single word, or a phrase built around a single word. We use constituency tests to determine which words belong to which phrases.
Substitution tests constituency by replacing a group of words with one word.
In (7) we see 2 constituents replaced with single words (a pronoun and an adverb).
(7) All the fishermen are going to Italy.
They are going there.
(8) shows that when a prepositional phrase (PP) on flight 10’ is embedded in the noun phrase (NP) all the fishermen it must be considered a part of that NP constituent since we cannot replace only the all the fisherman.
(8) All the fishermen on flight 101 are going to Italy.
* They on flight 101 are going to Italy.
They are going to Italy.
Movement of a group of words from one position in a sentence to another is a second constituency test. (9) shows that the prepositional phrase (PP) in the pantry can be fronted (moved to the head of thesentence).
(9) You can find the peanut butter in the pantry.
In the pantry you can find the peanut butter.
Other modifying phrases can also undergo movement.
(10) My cousin just returned from his vacation utterly rested and refreshed.
Utterly rested and refreshed, my cousin just returned from his vacation.
Deletion can be used to test constituency.
(12) Mary was hoping to see John at the football game tonight also.
Mary was hoping to, also.
Short answers to content questions can also be used as a constituency test.
(13) Superman decided to bring an orzo and cauliflower salad to the picnic.
Superman decided what? to bring an orzo and cauliflower salad to the picnic
Superman decided to bring what? an orzo and cauliflower salad to the picnic
Phrases and heads
Each constituent is minimally composed of a lexical item (a word belonging to a lexical category), but can include all required lexical/functional items, along with optional modifiers. The part of speech that is central in the phrase is referred to as the ‘head’. An XP can be so only if the head ‘X’ is present. Thus an NP must have a noun as its head.
(14a) [NP Kittens]
As mentioned, phrases may include modifiers.
(14b) [NP [D the N kittens]] (14c) [NP [D the [AP furry] [N kittens [PP with long whiskers] [CP who were sleeping [PP under the shed]]]]].
Likewise, a verb phrase (VP) must contain a verb and only those elements that are required, e.g. a NP object for a transitive verb, as well as optional embellishments, e.g., adverbs.
(15a) [VP bought [NP a book]] (15b) [VP bought [NP a book [PP for her best friend]]]
Phrase Structure Rules
Any given language has its own phrase structure rules, which govern how syntactic structures are formed. They show which words/phrases are required, those that are optional, and they stipulate a word order. In (16) we see that the phrase structure rules for NPs in English include the following:
(16) NP à (Det) (AP) N (PP) (CP)
Parentheses denote optionality.
For more material on this subject, go to our tutorial on phrase structure rules.
Embedding occurs when sentence A is found within a sentence B as a dependent or subordinate clause. This is the case in (14c) where the relative clause ‘ who were sleeping under the shed’ is attached to the NP as a modifier. We say that this clause is embedded in the NP since it is a constituent within the NP.
This is also the case when certain verbs select sentences as complements. Consider (17).
(17) Harry decided that he really needed a motorcycle.
The verb ‘decided’ has as its complement the sentence that he really needed a motorcycle. This complement sentence is embedded since it is generated within the VP. The ability to embed sentences within sentences gives us the ability for infinite creativity.
Tree structures provide a graphic representation of the hierarchical nature of constituents and relationships between words. They show the deep (D) structure, the application of movement rules, and the corresponding surface (S) structure. In syntactic trees, the lexical category is represented by phrase (XP) as the dominating node. A noun phrase will be an NP, a verb phrase, a VP, etc. These simple phrasal nodes may dominate a single node (non-branching (18a)), two nodes (binary branching (18b)), or three nodes (ternary branching (18c)). In each case, one of the dominated nodes must share the part of speech of the dominating node.
Intermediate nodes are used to attach complements (19a), and final nodes show that nothing more can be added to the phrase (19b).
These are very basic tree formations. For more information on tree structures, click here.
Rules of Movement/Transformations
Many sentences you utter throughout the day undergo a change in the word order that may or may not alter meaning. Note that (20a,b) have the same meaning although in (20b), the PP in the morning has been fronted.
(20a) Harriet runs 10 miles in the morning before going to work.
(20b) In the morning, Harriet runs 10 miles before going to work.
Meaning is changed, however, when the auxiliary verb is in the declarative sentence (21a) is raised above the subject in (21b), forming a yes/no question.
(21a) Peter is having a lot of difficulty communicating.
(21b) Is Peter having a lot of difficulty communicating?
Rules of movement show that sentences can have two distinct structures, the D-structure where all grammatical requirements are met, and S-structure, which is the form that actually comes out of your mouth. Additional sentence types that undergo transformations include Wh questions, in which a Wh word is raised above the subject (22) and passives, in which the subject is either omitted or ‘demoted’ to a prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence, the object moves to subject position, and the verb takes on a past participle form(23).
(22) D-structure: Maria has seen which movie?
S-structure: Which movie has Maria seen ___?
(23) Active: The gardener trimmed the trees.
Passive: The trees were trimmed by the gardener.
Syntactic ambiguity occurs when the meaning of a sentence is not clear due to structural factors. Consider (24).
(24) The superhero captured the criminal with a large red net.
The obscurity here is due to the fact that the PP with a large red net could modify the verb captured by specifying the item that was used to carry out the action, or could describe which criminal was captured, i.e., the criminal ‘with the large red net’.
Ambiguity also occurs when a sentence is incorrectly analyzed. In (25), the initial parsing assumes that is introducing the embedded sentence that her neighbor met. However when the NP the lie is encountered, a re-analysis must take place due to the semantic constraints of what may be selected as the object of the verb met. One cannot meet a lie. A second reading will show that the relative clause that her neighbor met modifies the NP the banker and that the kernel sentence is “Harriet told the banker a lie.”
(25) Harriet told the banker that her neighbor met the lie.
Another source of syntactic ambiguity is misreading the role of an NP in relation to local verbs. In (26), the NP the bookcase is initially understood to be the object of the first verb dusting until the lower verb, fell is encountered. Since there is no subject for fell, the sentence will be re-analyzed such that the bookcase will be understood as being found in subject position of fell and dusting will be understood to have a covert object.
(26) While Superman was dusting the bookcase fell over.
Studying syntax can be very rewarding if you master one step before moving on to another. Work slowly and systematically and you will see how rewarding the process can be.
Evans, Nicholas; Sasse, Hans-Jürgen (2002). Problems of polysynthesis. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. ISBN 3-05-003732-6.
Haegeman, L. Introduction to Government and Binding Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.