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{{Other uses}}{{redirect|Sentence structure|sentence types in traditional grammar|Sentence clause structure}}{{Linguistics|Subfields}}In linguistics, syntax ({{IPAc-en|ˈ|s|ɪ|n|t|æ|k|s}}{{refn|{{|accessdate=2016-01-22|syntax}}}}{{refn|{{MerriamWebsterDictionary|=2016-01-22|syntax}}}}) is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences (sentence structure) in a given language, usually including word order. The term syntax is also used to refer to the study of such principles and processes.BOOK, Chomsky, Noam, 2002, 1957, Syntactic Structures, 11, The goal of many syntacticians is to discover the syntactic rules common to all languages.


The word syntax comes from Ancient Greek: {{wikt-lang|grc|σύνταξις}} "coordination", which consists of syn, "together", and táxis, "an ordering".

Sequencing of subject, verb, and object

One basic description of a language's syntax is the sequence in which the subject (S), verb (V), and object (O) usually appear in sentences. Over 85% of languages usually place the subject first, either in the sequence SVO or the sequence SOV. The other possible sequences are VSO, VOS, OVS, and OSV, the last three of which are rare. In most generative theories of syntax, these surface differences arise from a more complex clausal phrase structure, and each order may be compatible with multiple derivations.

Early history

The Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini (c. 4th century BC in Ancient India), is often cited as an example of a premodern work that approaches the sophistication of a modern syntactic theory (as works on grammar were written long before modern syntax came about).BOOK, Fortson IV, Benjamin W., Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, Blackwell, 2004, 978-1405188968, 186, [The Aṣṭādhyāyī] is a highly precise and thorough description of the structure of Sanskrit somewhat resembling modern generative grammar...[it] remained the most advanced linguistic analysis of any kind until the twentieth century., In the West, the school of thought that came to be known as "traditional grammar" began with the work of Dionysius Thrax.For centuries, a framework known as (first expounded in 1660 by Antoine Arnauld in a book of the same title) dominated work in syntax: as its basic premise the assumption that language is a direct reflection of thought processes and therefore there is a single, most natural way to express a thought.{{citation needed|date=October 2015}}However, in the 19th century, with the development of historical-comparative linguistics, linguists began to realize the sheer diversity of human language and to question fundamental assumptions about the relationship between language and logic. It became apparent that there was no such thing as the most natural way to express a thought, and therefore logic could no longer be relied upon as a basis for studying the structure of language.{{citation needed|date=October 2015}}The Port-Royal grammar modeled the study of syntax upon that of logic. (Indeed, large parts of the Port-Royal Logic were copied or adapted from the Grammaire générale.BOOK, Arnauld, Antoine, La logique, 1683, 5th, Paris, G. Desprez,weblink 137, ) Syntactic categories were identified with logical ones, and all sentences were analyzed in terms of "subject – copula – predicate". Initially, this view was adopted even by the early comparative linguists such as Franz Bopp.The central role of syntax within theoretical linguistics became clear only in the 20th century, which could reasonably be called the "century of syntactic theory" as far as linguistics is concerned. (For a detailed and critical survey of the history of syntax in the last two centuries, see the monumental work by Giorgio Graffi (2001)BOOK, Giorgio, Graffi, 2001,weblink 200 Years of Syntax: A Critical Survey, googlebook preview, John Benjamins Publishing, 9789027284570, .)


There are a number of theoretical approaches to the discipline of syntax. One school of thought, founded in the works of Derek Bickerton,See BOOK, Language and Species, Bickerton, Derek, 1990, University of Chicago Press, 0-226-04610-9, and, for more recent advances, BOOK, Biological foundations and origin of syntax, Derek Bickerton, Eörs Szathmáry, 2009, MIT Press, 978-0-262-01356-7, sees syntax as a branch of biology, since it conceives of syntax as the study of linguistic knowledge as embodied in the human mind. Other linguists (e.g., Gerald Gazdar) take a more Platonistic view, since they regard syntax to be the study of an abstract formal system.Ted Briscoe, 2 May 2001, Interview with Gerald Gazdar {{webarchive|url= |date=2005-11-22 }}. Retrieved 2008-06-04. Yet others (e.g., Joseph Greenberg) consider syntax a taxonomical device to reach broad generalizations across languages.

Generative grammar

The hypothesis of generative grammar is that language is a structure of the human mind. The goal of generative grammar is to make a complete model of this inner language (known as i-language). This model could be used to describe all human language and to predict whether any given utterance in a hypothetical language would sound correct to a speaker of that language (versus constructions which no human language would use). This approach to language was pioneered by Noam Chomsky. Most generative theories (although not all of them) assume that syntax is based upon the constituent structure of sentences. Generative grammars are among the theories that focus primarily on the form of a sentence, rather than its communicative function.Among the many generative theories of linguistics, the Chomskyan theories are:
  • Transformational grammar (TG) (Original theory of generative syntax laid out by Chomsky in Syntactic Structures in 1957)Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague/Paris: Mouton, p. 15.
  • Government and binding theory (GB) (revised theory in the tradition of TG developed mainly by Chomsky in the 1970s and 1980s)Chomsky, Noam (1981/1993). Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures. Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Minimalist program (MP) (a reworking of the theory out of the GB framework published by Chomsky in 1995)Chomsky, Noam (1995). The Minimalist Program. MIT Press.
Other theories that find their origin in the generative paradigm are:

Dependency grammar

Dependency grammar is an approach to sentence structure where syntactic units are arranged according to the dependency relation, as opposed to the constituency relation of phrase structure grammars. Dependencies are directed links between words. The (finite) verb is seen as the root of all clause structure and all the other words in the clause are either directly or indirectly dependent on this root. Some prominent dependency-based theories of syntax are: Lucien Tesnière (1893–1954) is widely seen as the father of modern dependency-based theories of syntax and grammar. He argued vehemently against the binary division of the clause into subject and predicate that is associated with the grammars of his day (S → NP VP) and which remains at the core of most phrase structure grammars. In the place of this division, he positioned the verb as the root of all clause structure.Concerning Tesnière's rejection of the binary division of the clause into subject and predicate and in favor of the verb as the root of all structure, see Tesnière (1969:103–105).

Categorial grammar

Categorial grammar is an approach that attributes the syntactic structure not to rules of grammar, but to the properties of the syntactic categories themselves. For example, rather than asserting that sentences are constructed by a rule that combines a noun phrase (NP) and a verb phrase (VP) (e.g., the phrase structure rule S → NP VP), in categorial grammar, such principles are embedded in the category of the head word itself. So the syntactic category for an intransitive verb is a complex formula representing the fact that the verb acts as a function word requiring an NP as an input and produces a sentence level structure as an output. This complex category is notated as (NPS) instead of V. NPS is read as "a category that searches to the left (indicated by ) for an NP (the element on the left) and outputs a sentence (the element on the right)." The category of transitive verb is defined as an element that requires two NPs (its subject and its direct object) to form a sentence. This is notated as (NP/(NPS)) which means "a category that searches to the right (indicated by /) for an NP (the object), and generates a function (equivalent to the VP) which is (NPS), which in turn represents a function that searches to the left for an NP and produces a sentence."Tree-adjoining grammar is a categorial grammar that adds in partial tree structures to the categories.

Stochastic/probabilistic grammars/network theories

Theoretical approaches to syntax that are based upon probability theory are known as stochastic grammars. One common implementation of such an approach makes use of a neural network or connectionism.

Functionalist grammars

Functionalist theories, although focused upon form, are driven by explanation based upon the function of a sentence (i.e., its communicative function). Some typical functionalist theories include:

See also

Syntactic terms

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  • BOOK, Brown, Keith, Jim, Miller, Concise Encyclopedia of Syntactic Theories, Elsevier Science, New York, 1996, 0-08-042711-1,
  • BOOK, Carnie, Andrew, 2006, Syntax: A Generative Introduction, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 1-4051-3384-8, 2nd, registration,weblink
  • BOOK, Freidin, Robert, Howard, Lasnik, Syntax, Critical Concepts in Linguistics, Routledge, New York, 2006, 0-415-24672-5,
  • BOOK, Graffi, Giorgio, 2001, 200 Years of Syntax. A Critical Survey, Amsterdam, Benjamins, Studies in the History of the Language Sciences 98, 90-272-4587-8,
  • BOOK, Mieszko, Talasiewicz, Philosophy of Syntax—Foundational Topics, 2009, Springer, 978-90-481-3287-4, An interdisciplinary essay on the interplay between logic and linguistics on syntactic theories.
  • Tesnière, Lucien 1969. Éleménts de syntaxe structurale. 2nd edition. Paris: Klincksieck.

Further reading

  • BOOK, Martin Everaert, Henk Van Riemsdijk, Rob Goedemans, Bart Hollebrandse, The Blackwell companion to syntax, 2006, Blackwell, 978-1-4051-1485-1, 5 Volumes; 77 case studies of syntactic phenomena.
  • BOOK, Daniela, Isac, Charles Reiss, I-language: An Introduction to Linguistics as Cognitive Science, 2nd edition,weblink 2013, Oxford University Press, 978-0199660179,
  • BOOK, Edith A., Moravcsik, An introduction to syntax: fundamentals of syntactic analysis, 2006, Continuum International Publishing Group, 978-0-8264-8945-6, Attempts to be a theory-neutral introduction. The companion BOOK, Edith A. Moravcsik, An introduction to syntactic theory, 2006, Continuum International Publishing Group, 978-0-8264-8943-2, surveys the major theories. Jointly reviewed in The Canadian Journal of Linguistics 54(1), March 2009, pp. 172–175
  • BOOK, Stefan, Müller, Grammatical theory: From transformational grammar to constraint-based approaches, 2016, Berlin, Language Science Press,weblink 978-3-944675-21-3,
  • BOOK, Brian Roark, Richard William Sproat, Computational approaches to morphology and syntax, 2007, Oxford University Press, 978-0-19-927477-2, part II: Computational approaches to syntax.

External links

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