Chapter 6: Syntax

6.12 Interim summary

In this chapter, we have so far covered some of the core concepts in syntactic theory, and seen how we can use them to reason about grammatical structures and relationships between classes of sentences.

These core concepts include the observation that natural languages are better described in terms of structural relations rather than just the linear order of words, that the properties of a phrase are determined by its head, and that we can use grammaticality judgements to investigate fine details about a language’s syntax. Beyond the structure of simple and complex clauses, we’ve also seen how we can usefully describe the properties of certain classes of clauses (questions and passives) by showing how they are systematically related to other clauses (statements and actives).

Beyond just the structure of English, we’ve discussed how these concepts can help give us a handle on languages that look very different on the surface. As just one example, the head direction parameter accounts for differences in word order between English and Japanese in all types of clauses.

Even though we have mostly focused on one language, we have still only scratched the surface of the language’s syntactic grammar. However, we now have tools we could apply either to other phenomena in English, or to the grammar of entirely unrelated languages.

In the remaining sections of this chapter we introduce a particular formal notation used to represent the syntactic structure of natural language: tree diagrams. In particular, we will introduce a derivational implementation of X-bar theory, where the grammatical sentences of a language are described in terms of constraints on a set of well-formed tree structures, and movement transformations that can be applied to those tree structures.

Many linguistics textbooks introduce trees at the outset, alongside the core concepts that they are meant to describe. However, when presented in that order it is easy to get caught up in the details of tree diagrams, and lose sight of what they are really meant to do, which is to make our claims about the basic structural relationships in a sentence clearer and more precise. For this reason, this chapter has lingered on basic syntactic analysis before introducing the notation of tree diagrams. However, you will have seen that sections in the first half of the chapter are linked to corresponding sections in the second half, and vice versa, so that the reader can easily switch back and forth between the two.

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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.

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