Chapter 6: Syntax

6.1 Syntactic knowledge and grammaticality judgements

What kind of knowledge do we have about the syntax of language? Let’s start by considering the sentence in (1):

(1) All grypnos are tichek.

You might not know what a grypno is, or what it means to be tichek (because these are made-up words!), but you can tell that this sentence is still the right kind of “shape” for English. In other words, (1) is consistent with the way English speakers put words together into sentences.

Compare this with the sentence in (2):

(1) *Grypnos tichek all are.

Unlike (1), (2) isn’t the right shape for a sentence in English. Even if you did know what a grypno was, or what it meant to be tichek, this still wouldn’t be the way to put those words together into a sentence in English.

Something we can be pretty confident about is that you’ve never heard or read either of these sentences before encountering them in this chapter. In fact, most of the sentences you encounter in this textbook are likely to be ones you haven’t heard or read in exactly that order before. So that means that your internal grammar of English must be able to generalize to new cases—this, again, is the infinite generative capacity of language, something introduced back in Chaper 1.

As someone who uses language—in the case of (1) and (2), as someone who speaks and reads English—you can identify sentences that do or do not fit the patterns required by your internal grammar. In syntax we describe sentences that do match those patterns as grammatical for a given language user, and sentences that do not match required patterns as ungrammatical.

Grammaticality judgements in syntax

In syntax when we say something is ungrammatical we don’t mean that it’s “bad grammar” in the sense that it doesn’t follow the type of grammatical rules you might have learned in school. Instead, we call things ungrammatical when they are inconsistent with the grammatical system of language user.

The evaluation of a sentence by a language user is called a grammaticality judgement. Grammaticality judgements as a tool for investigating the linguistic system of an individual language user—there is no way to get a grammaticality judgement for “English” as a whole, for example, only grammaticality judgements from individual English speakers. Sometimes you will see a sentence described as grammatical or ungrammatical “in English” or another language; technically this is a shorthand for saying that users of the language generally agree about whether it is grammatical or not. In many cases different users of a language disagree about the status of a particular example, and that can tell us something about syntactic variation in that language!

We are often most interested in examples that are ungrammatical, because they tell us about the limits on building sentences in a language. The convention in linguistics is to mark ungrammatical examples with an asterisk (*) at the beginning of the sentence, sometimes called a star (slightly easier to say). Whenever you see that symbol in front of an example in this textbook, it indicates that the example is ungrammatical in the linguistic sense.

Sometimes we want to indicate that a sentences is weird because of its meaning, rather than its syntax. In these cases we use a hashmark (#) instead of a star.

For example, consider an example like (3):

(3) #The book pedalled the bicycle harmoniously.

This sentence is the right shape for English, it just doesn’t make any sense. So we would say that it’s grammatical but semantically odd, and that’s what the hashmark indicates.

Most of the sentences we will consider in this chapter are ones that many English speakers (but not all) share similar judgements about. If you disagree with any of the judgements reported here, you can take the opportunity to think about what that tells you about your own grammar, and whether the difference could be explained using the tools we develop here, or if it shows that we would need to revise our theory of syntax in other ways!

The goals of syntactic theory

Our goal in syntax is to develop a theory that does two things:

  1. predicts which sentences are grammatical and which ones are ungrammatical, and
  2. explains observed properties of grammatical sentences.

But we also want to build a theory that can be used to explain not just properties of English, but properties of all human languages. In much of this chapter we’ll be focusing on the syntax of varieties of English, because that’s a language that’s common to everyone who reads this textbook, but we will often have opportunities to see how other languages show us the scope of variation for syntax in human languages.

What kind of theory do we need to make these kinds of predictions? If languages were finite we could simply list all the good sentences and be done. But any language user can generate sentences that no one has ever encountered before, and other people can understand those sentences, so what we “know” when we know the syntax of a language must be more than just a list of grammatical sentences. In the next section of this chapter, we’ll see that what we know about syntax can’t be just about the order of words, it has to be something about their grouping (**constituency*) as well.

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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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