Syntax is the study of grammatical relationships between words and how they are combined to form phrases and sentences. The word ‘syntax’ has its roots in the Greek word syntaxis, which means ‘arrangement’. Syntacticians study patterns of sentence formation in order to better understand universal principles (those that apply to all languages) and those that apply to specific languages (language-specific parameters).
So what is a sentence? There are several definitions in the literature; however, they all agree on the following basic concepts. Sentences communicate entire thoughts through combining words and morphemes into phrases. It is important to understand that sentences are not merely strings of words arranged in linear order, but that they are organized into phrases, some of which are contained, or embedded, within others in a hierarchical order.
Sentence formation rules are language-specific. At a basic level, all sentences consist of a subject and predicate. The subject can be overt or stated as in ‘Superman wore his red cape to the Commissioner’s dinner’. Pronominal subjects can be covert or implied as in commands such as ‘Look out!’ for ‘You look out!’, or dropped as in (1).
(1) Habl -o español for Yo habl -o español
speak-1p.s Spanish I speak-1p.s Spanish
I speak Spanish.
Language-specific rules also account for the way in which words may be ordered in a sentence. Languages such as English, adhere to the subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. This means that the subject will always precede the verb and the object will always follow the verb. Languages such as Modern Persian have the object preceding the verb (SOV).
(2) Mæn ketɒb mi xun æm
I (a)book pres. read 1p.s
I am reading a book.
Constituents – The Basics of Syntax
A sentence can be ‘simple,’ meaning it is composed of a subject and predicate as an independent clause.
(3) Superman loves his cape.
Compound sentences are composed of two simple sentences.
(4) Superman loved his cape so he decided to purchase another one.
Complex sentences are those in which a subordinate or dependent clause is embedded within a main or independent clause.
(5) Lois pressured Superman to purchase a purple cape.
Even though sentences appear to be composed of linear strings of words, they are actually combinations of constituents or syntactic units that are arranged in a hierarchical order. Consider a syntactically ambiguous phrase such as ‘The new shoes and socks were sitting by the front door’. We can parse the subject as either (6a) or (6b).
(6a) [the new shoes and socks] (both are new)
(6b) [the new shoes] and socks (only the shoes are new)
Constituents can be a single word, or a phrase built around a single word. We use constituency tests to determine which words belong to which phrases.