Chapter 6: Syntax

6.4 Identifying phrases: Constituency tests

By identifying certain parts of sentences as phrases, we are making a claim that it’s represented in the mental grammar of speakers as a unit. The technical term for units inside a sentence is constituent: a constituent is a group of words that act together within a sentence.

Along with headedness, constituency is one of the central concepts in syntax. Both of these are highlighted when we represent the structure of language using tree diagrams, as we’ll see beginning in Section 6.13, but they’re fundamental to understanding the organization of sentences with or without trees.

When we encounter a new sentence, how do we identify the phrases inside of it? We want to find evidence that certain groups of words do actually act together within the sentence. To find that evidence, we use grammaticality judgements, and a few simple tests.

The tests that identify constituents (often called constituency tests) that we’ll review in this chapter come in four basic types:

  • Replacement tests
  • Movement tests
  • Answers to questions
  • It-clefts

Many textbooks also introduce a coordination test, but it is not always reliable, so we’ll discuss it briefly at the end of this section but won’t rely on it.

REPLACEMENT TEST

Here are two sentences to start with.

(1) The students saw a movie after class.
(2) The students saw a movie about dinosaurs.

Let’s consider the string of words a movie. Based on discussion so far in this chapter, you might have the idea that this is a noun phrase—or at least that it could be a noun phrase. But whether or not you have that idea, we need evidence to decide one way or the other.

One piece of evidence that something is a noun phrase is that you can replace it with a pronoun, and get a sentence with the same meaning (in a context where the meaning of the pronoun is made clear). In (3) we take the pronoun it and replace the string of words we’re interested in, then ask if the new sentence is grammatical or not.

(3) The students saw a movie after class. The students saw it after class.

Replacing a movie with it in (3) does give us a new grammatical sentence, so we have evidence not only that a movie is a constituent in (1), but also that that constituent is a noun phrase.

What about a movie in (2)? Let’s run the same test there:

(4) The students saw a movie about dinosaurs. *The students saw it about dinosaurs.

This time the result of replacing a movie with it is an ungrammatical sentence, so in (2) a movie is not a complete noun phrase. We might be surprised about this—we expect a noun like movie to be inside a noun phrase—but if we test other possible constituents we see that it’s not that there’s no noun phrase here, it’s just that it’s a bit bigger:

(5) The students saw a movie about dinosaurs. The students saw it.

Based on comparing the results of our replacement tests in (4) and (5), we can conclude that in (2) a movie is not a complete noun phrase, but a movie about dinosaurs is both a constituent and a noun phrase.

We can do the same pronoun replacement test with the string the students in (1). Because students is plural, the relevant pronoun is they:

(6) The students saw a movie after class. They saw a movie after class.

The result of this replacement is grammatical, so we conclude that the students is also a constituent, and also a noun phrase.

Replacement tests don’t have to involve pronouns. Verb phrases can be replaced with do (or do too), but seeing this usually requires setting up two sentences with different subjects or with a contrast in time like yesterday vs. today. Since we have just seen that the students in (1) is a noun phrase subject (because it comes at the beginning of a simple declarative sentence, before the verb), let’s set up a replacement test for verb phrase with a preceding sentence with a different subject:

(7) a. The teachers saw a movie after class, and… The students did too.
b. The teachers saw a movie after class, and… *The students did too before class.

What we see in (7) is that did too can replace saw a movie after class, but can’t replace saw a movie alone. This tells us that saw a movie after class is a constituent, and it’s a verb phrase (because do (too) replaces verb phrases).

What about the string after class? This string expresses a time, and we can replace it with the word then:

(8) The students saw a movie after class. The students saw a movie then.

This shows that after class is a constituent; in fact, it’s a prepositional phrase. Not all prepositional phrases can be replaced by then, however—about dinosaurs is also a prepositional phrase, but can’t be replaced.

(8) The students saw a movie about dinosaurs. *The students saw a movie then.

Here the result of doing replacement would be grammatical in other contexts, but it isn’t another way to say that the students saw a movie about dinosaurs—this is why it’s marked ungrammatical here, it’s ungrammatical on the intended meaning. You have to pay attention to both grammaticality and meaning when you do replacement tests.

At this point, you’re probably wondering how you know what you can use as a replacement. Here are some handy tips:

  • Noun Phrases can be replaced with Pronouns (it, them, they).
  • Verb Phrases can be replaced with do or do so (or did, does, doing).
  • Some Prepositional Phrases (but not all) can be replaced with then or there.
  • Adjective Phrases can be replaced with something that you know to be an adjective, such as happy.

Because replacement is category-specific, you can use the evidence of replacement tests both to identify constituents and to figure out what category a certain phrase is: If you can replace it with a pronoun, then you’ve got a noun phrase and you can look for the noun as the head. If you can replace it with do or do so, then you’ve got a verb phrase which will have a verb as its head. Then and there are a little less reliable because they sometimes replace PPs or APs, but you’ll be able to tell the difference between prepositions and adjectives because prepositions usually have complements and adjectives almost never do.

MOVEMENT TEST

Replacement is not the only tool we have for checking if a set of words is a constituent. Some constituents can be moved to somewhere else in the sentence without changing the sentence’s meaning or its grammaticality. Prepositional phrases are especially good at being moved. Consider this sentence:

(9) Nimra bought a scarf at that strange little shop.

Let’s start by targeting the last string of words by moving it to the beginning. Move the string of words then ask yourself whether the resulting sentence is grammatical.

(10) Nimra bought a scarf at that strange little shop. At that strange little shop Nimra bought a scarf.

Yes, it is. In isolation the sentence might sound a little unnatural, but we can imagine a context where it would be fine, such as, “At the department store she bought socks, at the pharmacy she bought some toothpaste, and at that strange little shop, she bought a scarf.”

On the other hand, if we target a smaller string of words, as in (11), we get a different result.

(11) Nimra bought a scarf at that strange little shop. *At that strange Nimra bought a scarf little shop.

The result of moving the string at that strange to the beginning of the sentence is a total disaster. The fact that the resulting sentence is totally ungrammatical gives us evidence that the string of words at that strange is not a constituent in this sentence.

CLEFT TEST

A cleft construction is one where you take two parts of a sentence and divide them from each other. (A cleft is a split or gap.)

In English, a cleft is a sentence with the form:

It is/was _ that _.To use the cleft test, we take the string of words that we’re investigating and put it after the words It was (or it is/it’s), then put the remaining parts of the sentence after the word that. Let’s try this for phrases that we’ve already shown to be constituents with our other tests.

(12) The students saw a movie after class.
It was a movie that the students saw _ after class.
It was after class that the students saw a movie _.
(13) The students saw a movie about dinosaurs.
It was a movie about dinosaurs that the students saw _.
(14) Nimra bought a scarf at that strange little shop.
It was at that strange little shop that Nimra bought a scarf _.

Clefting a verb phrase doesn’t always sound entirely natural, but to the extent that it’s good, in English you need to put a present or past tense form of do in the remaining parts of the sentence:

(15) The students saw a movie after class.
(?)It was see a movie after class that the students did.

And things that our tests showed were not constituents cannot be put into the first position of a cleft sentence:

(16) *It was a movie that the students saw _ about dinosaurs.
(17) *It was at the strange that Nimra bought a scarf _ little shop/em>.

Now let’s try the cleft test on a new sentence:

(18) Rathna’s brother baked these delicious cookies.
It was these delicious cookies that Rathna’s brother baked _.
It was Rathna’s brother that _ baked these delicious cookies.

The cleft test shows us that the string of words these delicious cookies is a constituent, and that the words Rathna’s brother are a constituent. But look what happens if we apply the cleft test to another string of words:

(19) Rathna’s brother baked these delicious cookies.
*It was Rathna’s brother baked that _ these delicious cookies.
(20) Rathna’s brother baked these delicious cookies.
*It was these delicious that Rathna’s brother baked _ cookies.
(21) Rathna’s brother baked these delicious cookies.
*It was cookies that Rathna’s brother baked these delicious _.

All of these applications of the cleft test result in totally ungrammatical sentences, which gives us evidence that those underlined strings of words are not constituents in this sentence. Remember, though, just because a certain string of words isn’t a constituent in one sentence, doesn’t mean it’s not a constituent in any sentence—the result of a constituency test only applies to the specific sentence you’re testing.

ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS

If a string of words is a constituent, it’s usually grammatical for it to stand alone as the answer to a question based on the sentence.

(22) Rathna’s brother baked these delicious cookies.
a. What did Rathna’s brother bake? These delicious cookies.
a. Who baked these delicious cookies? Rathna’s brother.

Answers to questions can also help us identify a verb phrase, because they’re a good context for do-replacement (as a replacement test):

(23) Who baked these delicious cookies? Rathna’s brother did.

(R’)

Notice that in the answer, “Rathna’s brother did”, the word did replaces the verb phrase baked these delicious cookies.

Again, if a string of words is not a constituent, then it is unlikely to be grammatical as the answer to a question. In fact, it’s difficult to even form the right kind of question:

(23) a. What did Rathna’s brother bake cookies? *These delicious.
b. Who of Rathna’s these delicious cookies? *Brother baked.

SUMMARY

Results of tests like these are how we investigate the structure of the mental grammar that underlies how people use the languages they know. We can’t observe mental grammar directly, so observing how words behave is how we make inferences about how it must work. These four tests are tools that we have for observing how words behave in sentences. If we discover a string of words that passes these tests, then we know that the phrase is a constituent, and that tells us something about the organization of the sentence as a whole.

Not every constituent will pass every test, but if you’ve found that it passes two of the four tests, then you can be confident that the string is actually a constituent.

After reading this section, you could proceed with the introduction to X-bar theory in Section 6.14, to see how we represent constituency in tree diagrams.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book