C. George Boeree
The syntax of a language is
the set of rules that language uses to combine words and morphemes to
create sentences. For example, in some languages adjectives come before
the noun, and in others after the noun. Some languages use
prepositions, others use postpositions. In some, the verb is at the
beginning of the sentence, in others it is at the end, and in others
still it is somewhere in the middle. But rules such as these only
scrape the surface!
We start with a basic classification of words, the parts of speech (aka
lexical categories): Nouns,
verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and so forth. These then
combine into phrases.
A noun phrase consists of a
noun and all its modifiers - i.e. determinants, adjectives, and any
clauses or prepositional phrases that modify the noun. (We will get to
clauses in a bit.) Traditionally, the noun is called the head of the noun phrase,
because it determines the syntactic function of the phrase - that is,
the phrase acts as if it were a noun. Examples: "Bob", "the cat
in the hat", "a whole other problem", "the man who came to dinner", etc.
Some linguists use the term argument
to refer to noun phrases, especially to the subject and the object in a sentence.
A verb phrase consists of a
verb and all its modifiers - i.e. adverbs, auxiliary verbs,
prepositional phrases, and adverbial clauses. Most linguists
would also include noun phrases such as the object and complements, in
the definition of a verb phrase. The verb is, of course, the head of
the verb phrase. Examples: "stop!", "walk carefully", "will soon
greatly regret", "came in the middle of the night", "hurt his pride",
"put out the cat", etc.
Just to make things more complicated, some linguists use the term predicate, which overlaps with "verb
A prepositional phrase
consists of a preposition (which is the head of the prepositional
phrase, of course) and a noun phrase. If the language uses
postpositions, we call it a postpositional
phrase. Together, they are called adpositional phrases.
Finally, there are adjectival phrases
and adverbial phrases. If you
say "that man is full of bull", "full of bull" (an adjective "full"
followed by a prepositional phrase "of bull") is an adjective phrase.
Similarly, in "he walked very slowly", "very slowly" (an adverb
"slowly" preceded by a modifier "very") is an adverbial phrase.
Complements are words or
phrases (and sometimes even clauses) that tell us more about a noun or
a noun phrase, but do so by means of a verb. For example, in the
sentence "he looks sick", "sick" modifies "he", but uses the verb
"looks" to make the connection. In "we painted the town red",
"red" modifies "town" by means of the verb "painted". In "I am in a
good mood", "in a good mood" modifies "I", by means of the verb "am".
As you can see by the examples, the most common verb used to link a
complement to a noun is the verb "to be" - known in linguistics as a copula. Other copulas include
"become", "seems", "turned", "appears", etc. The copula with a noun
complement ("he is the king") is sometimes called a predicate nominal. The copula
with an adjective ("he is stupid") is sometimes called a predicate adjective.
A clause is a set of words
that includes at least a verb and probably a subject noun. In some
cases and languages, the subject may be implied. A sentence is actually a clause.
But a sentence can have more than one clause: There may be a main clause (or independent clause) and one or more subordinate clauses. This kind
of sentence is called a complex
Subordinate clauses come in several forms:
An adverbial clause is one
which modifies the main clause in the manner of an adverb. They are
typically introduced by subordinating
conjunctions. For example:
I am not afraid of the dog, because
it is very small.
they lose weight too quickly, they will regain it afterwards.
I'm running so that the rhinos don't catch me.
He wrote when his mother asked.
He is happy where he lives.
I wasn't allowed to do things as I wanted.
An adjectival clause (or relative clause) is one that
modifies a noun phrase. They typically are introduced by a relative pronoun. For example:
The man who
lived here went to New York.
The car that came from Italy is very
The apple which fell from my
is now inedible.
The noun phrase can also be the object of the adjectival clause, or
even the object of a preposition. Notice how, in English, we often drop
the relative pronoun:
The woman (whom)
I love comes from France.
The robot (that) I built doesn't work.
Let's go to my house, which is nearby.
The woman, of whom
we speak, works at my office.
Your book, in which I wrote her name, is
on the table.
Finally, adjectival clauses are sometimes introduced by a relative adverb. Notice how, if you
drop the noun, the clause becomes an adverbial clause:
I eat in Paris, where
I live. (I eat where I live.)
He will visit in July, when the weather is good. (He
will visit when the weather is good.)
That's the reason why Juan left. (That's the
reason Juan left; That's why
A noun clause is one
which plays the part of a noun in the larger sentence. They too
are typically introduced by relative pronouns or adverbs. If you want
to figure out if you are looking at a noun clause, substitute him, her,
it, or them for relative word. If you still have a meaningful sentence,
then the clause was a noun clause. Notice also
that, if you were to add a noun before the relative pronoun or adverb,
you change the clause into an adjectival clause:
I see where you are. (I see the
place where you are.)
I will depart, I just don't know. (The time when I will depart, I just don't
I know who said that. (I know the
person who said that.)
I heard what you said. (I heard the
thing you said.)
I can guess which he's reading. (I can
guess which book he's reading.)
There are also noun clauses that are introduced by a subordinating
conjunction such as the English "that":
I know that
you don't like me.
She thinks (that) I'm silly.
They were surprised that he could jump that high.
Finally, a sentence can have two or more main (independent) clauses,
coordinating conjuntions. This
kind of sentence is called a compound
I want to sing and I want to dance, but I have no talent.
Either he goes or I go.
Kinds of sentences
Most sentences are simple statements about the world or one's
thoughts or feelings. These are called declarative
sentences or just
declarations. Most of the
examples above a declarations.
Questions are a kind of sentence that often involves
complications of syntax in many languages. First, there are three kinds
of questions. The first is the yes/no
question. In these examples, you can see some of the syntactical
techniques we use in English, such adding "do", moving the verb, or
adding a tag such as "did you?"
Are you going to town?
Do they like it?
You didn't forget, did you?
There are also choice questions,
which require a simple answer selected
from the options given in the question:
Do you want broccoli or cauliflower?
Should I wear my jacket or a sweater?
The final kind is the wh- question,
which involves the use of interrogative words (pronouns and adverbs)
such as who, what, which, when,
where, how, how many, and why.
These require a fuller answer:
are you going to town?
How many are going with you?
And when do you leave?
Another kind of sentence is the command.
The usual kind involves the speaker telling someone else to do
something, such as "pick up your clothes!". Commands may also involve
exhortations to one's own group, such as in the sentence "let's go!"
And commands can also blend into the question category of sentences
when we make polite requests, such as "would you pass the tea, please?"
One common syntactic "trick" for commands is to drop the subject, which
is understood. In English, most commands are directed at "you",
so why bother including that pronoun? If the command is directed
at "us", then we use "let us" before the verb. Other languages have
other techniques, of course.
The last kind of sentence is the exclamation.
This kind of sentence expresses an emotional reaction to the
situation. For example, "what a lovely day!" tells us not only
that it's a lovely day, but that I am exceedingly pleased by it. Notice
that this particular sentence does not contain a verb, and that is
quite common in exclamations. In fact, many exclamations are single
words: "crap!" "oy!" "weeee!" "hello!" etc. These are called word-sentences, and the words are
called sentence words.
Traditionally, linguists have several ways of diagramming the structure
of a sentence. One way is called phrase
S -> NP VP
"A sentence is made up of a noun phrase
and a verb phrase."
NP -> (Det) (AP) N (PP)
"A noun phrase is composed of a
noun plus optional determinantes, adjective phrases, and prepositional
VP -> (Aux) V (NP) (PP) (AdvP)
"A verb phrase is composed of a verb
plus optional auxiliary verbs, object noun phrases, prepositional
phrases, and adverbial phrases."
AP -> (AdvP) A
"An adjective phrase is composed of an
adjective and optional adverbial phrases."
PP -> Prep NP
"A prepositional phrase is composed of
a preposition and a noun phrase."
AdvP -> (Adv) Adv
"An adverbial phrase is composed of an
adverb and optional modifying adverbs."
These phrase structure rules can then be used to construct phrase trees. Here's one of
the most famous of these trees, concerning the famous linguist
Chomsky's famous meaningless (but grammatical!) sentence
"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously":
In Chomsky's original theory, each
language has a basic syntax - set of rules for the construction of
basic sentences - and another set of rules for altering those basic
sentences to fit particular uses. That second set of rules are called transformation rules
, and they look
a lot like the phrase structure rules we just discussed. For
example, in English, we can take a basic sentence like "He likes
apples" and turn it into the question "does he like apples?" via
certain rules. In English, we would take the auxiliary verb and move it
to the beginning of the sentence. This is called subject-auxiliary reversal
. If there
is no auxiliary verb, we have to insert a "dummy" verb "do" and move
that to the beginning of the sentence:
N1 V N2 => N1 Aux V N2
"Insert the auxiliary do in front of the verb."
N1 Aux V N2 => Aux N1 V N2
"Move the auxiliary do to the front of the
To turn that same sentence into "what does he like?" we start with "he
likes X". We perform the subject-auxiliary reversal to turn it into a
question ("he does like X" followed by "does he like X?"). We
substitute the interrogative pronoun "what" for X, then move it to the
front of the sentence ("does he like what?" followed by "what does he
like?"). This last step is
called wh- movement
N1 V N2 => N1 Aux V N2
"Add the auxiliary do in front of the verb."
N1 Aux V N2 => Aux N1 V N2
"Move the auxiliary do to the front of the sentence."
Aux N1 V N2 > Aux N1 V Pn
"Place the interrogative pronoun what where the answer would
Aux N1 V Pn > Pn Aux N1 V
"Move the interrogative pronoun what to the front of the
For obvious reasons, this theory was called transformational grammar. Since
Chomsky, theories of syntax have been either (1) elaborations of
transformational grammar or (2) alternatives to transformational
One interesting offshoot of Chomsky's original theories is the idea of universal grammar. This is the idea
that all language begins with a single deep structure, the structure
from which the transformations proceed. Furthermore, that deep
structure is innate to the human brain in the form of a language acquisition device or LAD. The fact that other intelligent
animals, such as the great apes, whales, dolphins, and elephants don't
have anything close to the language capabilities of humans is said to
be because they lack this evolutionary development. On the other hand,
nothing quite as fully organized as the hypothetical LAD has been found
in the human brain.
One family of alternative theories is called construction
grammar (or CxG), which
is strongly linked to developments in cognitive and cognitive
developmental psychology. The basic
idea here is that each language has a number of constructions a bit like Piaget's
schemas. In fact, it postulates a whole taxonomy of these constructions
- one for yes-no questions, one for simple commands, one for talking
about how you feel about something, etc. etc. etc. So, instead of
learning a list of transformations, we learn a list of
constructions. At the same time, when you learn a word, you also
learn the kinds of constructions that word can fit in, in very much the
same way that you learn implicitly that "cat" is a noun which therefore
can be modified by adjectives and be the subject or object of a
verb, and so on. As a psychologist, I find
construction grammar more appealing than transformational grammar.
© Copyright 2010, C. George