Syntax as branch of grammar: General remarks

July 26th, 20128:24 pm


Syntax as branch of grammar: General remarks

The term syntax, originating from the Greek words syn, meaning “co-” or “together”, and taxis, meaning “sequence, order, arrangement”, is the branch of grammar dealing with the ways in which words are arranged to show connections of meaning within a sentence. It concerns how different words (which, going back to Dionysius Thrax, are categorized into parts of speech) are combined into clauses, which, in turn, are combined into sentenc­es. For example, in It smells nice, there are connections of meaning among it, smells and nice which are shown by the order of words (it+smells+nice, not nice+smells+it) and also, in part, by inflectional agreement between the verb and pronoun (it smells, not it smell). Similar connections are found in other combinations: for example, in They taste salty and It felt stronger or, as parts of larger sentences, among he, was and cleverer in They said he was cleverer, or among which, smell and spicy in She likes perfumes which smell spicy.

For the syntactic characterization of a sentence, or of any smaller unit distinguishable within it, grammarians use the equivalent Latin term con­struction. In They said he was cleverer, the last three words have a con­struction of their own (some grammarians use the term syntagm to refer to such syntactic units). We can then talk of a larger construction in which this unit as a whole (he was cleverer) is related to said, which in turn is related to /. Such relations may be called constructional relations. For example, in She likes perfumes which smell spicy, there is a syntactic unit, which smell spicy, where spicy and which stand in constructional relations to smell. This forms part of a larger unit, perfumes which smell spicy, in which the whole of which smell spicy stands in constructional relations with perfumes, that in turn construes with likes within the sentence as a whole.

Any syntactic unit can now be looked at from two angles. First we can consider it as a whole, for it functions either in isolation or as part of a larger unit. In perfumes which smell spicy the last three words form what gram­marians call a relative clause – a clause whose function is “in relation to” an antecedent noun. In It smells nice, we have a main (or principal) clause which in addition is declarative (having the form appropriate to a statement) as opposed to interrogative (having the form appropriate to a question), and so on. Therefore, we may conclude that any unit can be characterized on more than one dimension. Thus, It smells nice is at once a clause and not a word combination, declarative and not interrogative, main and not (for example) relative, and so on.

The second characterization is in terms of a unit’s internal connections. In It smells nice, the relationship of it to smells nice is that of a subject to a predicate, where the predicate, in its turn, consists of the predicator smells and the predicative nice. The unit can then be said to have a “subject -predicator – predicative” pattern. Likewise, in the construction of the word combination perfumes which smell spicy, there are two elements which are represented by the noun perfumes, on the one hand, and the relative clause, on the other. This is one type of the head – modifier construction, with the clause as a modifier of the head perfumes.

The roots of all this lie in the grammatical tradition. What seems impor­tant is, firstly, that constructions are to be described in terms of functions and relations, and not simply in terms of parts of speech and their sequential distribution. In It smells nice, the first word is a subject related to a predica­tor smells; it is not simply a pronoun which is immediately followed by a verb. Secondly, constructional relations are at bottom relationship of mean­ing. Patterns of arrangement are important. But that is because they are the means by which constructions are shown, not because constructions ARE arrangements.

A difference of construction can now be seen as a difference of meaning, either of the whole or in at least one relationship between elements. But not every difference of meaning is relevant. He sounded a fool means that, from what one heard, it seems that he is foolish; He sounded a trumpet means that he held the instrument and blew it. For grammarians, that is a difference of construction as well as simply a difference of words, a fool having the function of predicative (like nice in It smells nice) and a trumpet that of an object. We will start our analysis of the main syntactic theories and notions from the smallest unit – a word combination. It should be noted in passing that the term “word combination” is used by some grammarians as synonym to the terms “phrase” and “group of words” (or “word group”). Here, we will stick to the terms “word combination” and – sometimes to avoid tau­tology – “group of words”. Having discussed the problems of the theory of the word combination, we will move on to considering larger units such as simple and composite sentences.

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