Chapter 6: Syntax

In Chapter 5 we looked at the internal structure of words (morphology). In this chapter we look at how words are organized into phrases and sentences, which in linguistics is called syntax.

In linguistics, syntax is the study of how words are organized into phrases and sentences. Just as the morphemes in a word are organized into structures, the words in a sentence are also best viewed not just as a string of words, but instead as having a hierarchical structure. And just as words contain a head morpheme, we’ll see that every phrase has an element that is its syntactic head.

When you’ve completed this chapter, you’ll be able to:

  • Use the evidence of constituency tests to identify the phrases within a sentence
  • Categorize words into lexical and functional categories based on their distribution
  • Identify relationships between grammatically related sentences (active and passive, statements and questions)
  • Draw tree diagrams to represent the structural analysis of sentences in English

Alternative paths through this chapter

The first half of this chapter (6.1 to 6.12) introduces core concepts and argumentation in syntax, while tree diagrams and X-bar theory are covered in the second half (6.13 to 6.21). This structure has been chosen to emphasize core concepts over the details of tree structure.

Many introductory courses in linguistics instead interleave core concepts and their formalization in tree diagrams, however. For such courses—or for independent learners who prefer to follow such a structure—we recommend reading sections in the following order:

Each section ends with a “Navigation” section with links that can be used to follow this interleaved path.

Appendix 1 introduces trees using phrase structure rules instead of X-bar theory. Courses adopting that formalization should continue with Appendix 1 after 6.13 From constituency to tree diagrams.


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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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