Understanding the Basics of Syntax

Understanding the Basics of Glossary Link Syntax

Syntax is the study of the relationships between words and how they are put together to construct phrases and sentences. It is important to understand that sentences are not merely strings of words arranged in linear order, but also that they are organized into phrases, some of which are contained, or embedded, in others. Linguists look for structures which capture general sentence formation rules common to all languages (universal principles) and then specify rules that apply to individual languages (language specific parameters). Topics within syntax include lexical categories, Glossary Link phrase structure rules, Glossary Link movement, and tree structures.

Lexical categories fall into two groups: open (content words) and closed (function words). 

The parts of speech that make up open categories are:

nouns (N), verbs (V), adjectives (Adj), and adverbs (Adv).

These categories can have new words added to them in any langauge.  Some examples in English are 'infomercial' (a Glossary Link noun), 'texting' (a Glossary Link verb), 'ginormous' (an Glossary Link adjective), and 'way' meaning 'very' (an Glossary Link adverb). 

The parts of speech that make up closed categories are:

Auxiliary and modal verbs ( Glossary Link aux), determiners (Det), prepositions (P), pronouns (pron), and conjunctions (conj). 

It generally is not possible to add any new words to these categories.

It is interesting to note that the parts of speech that are closed categories are most often final nodes on syntactic trees.  This demonstrates that their function is to show grammatical relationships between the parts of a sentence rather than bringing lexical content or meaning. 

Phrases are formed around a word called its phrase Glossary Link headThe head determines the Glossary Link lexical category of that phrase. All words in the phrase must have some type of grammatical relationship to the head. 

Phrase structure rules show which elements are permitted in different phrases and in what order they must be arranged. Heads are always obligatory.  Elements which are optional are in parentheses. (Adjective and Adverb phrases will not be discussed here.)

English examples:

Sentences containing a noun phrase, an aux, and a verb phrase.

S → NP (aux) VP  (Mary is calling John)

Noun phrases (NP): contain a noun and some type of modifier.  

NP → (Det) N  (the example)

NP → (Q) N  (some examples)

NP → (Adj) N  (excellent examples)

Glossary Link Prepositional phrase (PP) contain a Glossary Link preposition followed by an NP.

PP → P NP (in the book)

Glossary Link Complementizer phrase (CP) are complements to an NP or a VP and begin a new sentence or a relative clause. They are headed by a complementizer such as 'that'

CP → C S  (that Peter did not understand)

Verb phrases (VP) contain a verb and may contain the elements in the examples below. 

VP → (Aux) V (is seeing; will see; can see)

VP → V (NP) (see a play)

VP → V (NP) (PP) (see the play on Broadway)

VP → V (CP) (see the play that you recommended)

VP → (Adv) V (rarely see the play)

VP --> (Adv) (aux) V (NP) (PP) (CP)


Another way of naming a phrase, whether a single word or a group of words, is a constituency.  Constituents function as a unit. There are three tests that we can perform in order to determine what is and is not a constituency.


A constituency can be replaced. often by a shorter segment. The following sentence show how various constituents can be replaced with pronouns and adverbs.

All the students in the class are going on a field trip.  >   They are going on a field trip. 

All the students in the class are going on a field trip.  >   All the students in the class are going there.

*All the students in the class are going on a field trip.  >  They in the class are going on a field trip. 

The last sentence shows us that the PP in the clause is embedded in the NP and cannot be separated from it. (Note: syntacticians use * to indicate that a sentence or phrase is ungrammatical.)


A constituency can be moved to another position within the sentence. 

You can find the peanut butter in the pantry.  > In the pantry you can find the peanut butter.

You can find the peanut butter in the pantry. > *The pantry you can find the peanut butter in. 

Glossary Link Deletion

Certain constituents of a sentence can be left out of a sentence.

Mary was hoping to see John at the football game tonight also. --> Mary was hoping to, also.

Rules of Movement

Rules of movement show that sentences can have two distinct structures: Glossary Link deep structure (D-structure) and surface structure (S-structure). Sentence formations such as questions, passives, and sentences beginning with prepositional phrases undergo a movement rule, transforming them to a corresponding S-structure. 

Yes/no questions are formed by fronting an auxiliary or modal verb.

(1)   Peter is having a lot of difficulty communicating. → Is Peter having a lot of difficulty communicating?

Wh questions involve moving a Wh element to the head of a phrase, after moving aux.

(2)   Maria has seen which movie? → Which movie has Maria seen?

In passive sentences, the Glossary Link subject is either removed from the sentence or ‘demoted’ to a prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence. The object moves to subject position, and the verb takes on a past Glossary Link participle Glossary Link form.

(3)   The gardener trimmed the trees. → The trees were trimmed by the gardener.

Tree Structures

Tree structures provide a graphic representation of the  hierarchical nature of phrases and the relationships between words. They show D-structure, the application of movement rules, and the corresponding S-structure. In syntactic trees, the lexical category is represented by phrase (XP) as the dominating Glossary Link node. A noun phrase will be an NP, a verb phrase, a VP, etc. These phrasal nodes can dominate a single node (non-branching (5)), two nodes (binary branching (6)), or three nodes (ternary branching (7)). In each Glossary Link case, one of the dominated nodes must share the part of speech of the dominating node.


(5)   VP                   (6) VP                             (7)   VP

        |                        /     \                               /    |     \

        V                      V      NP                         V     NP      PP

      sleep               reads    books              gave   books    to Martha                                                                     

Intermediate nodes are used to attach complements (8), and final nodes show that nothing more can be added to the phrase (9).

(8)    NP                             (9)  NP

      /     \                                   |

     Det    N’                                N

    the  /       \                        Josephine

        Adj        N

       ugly     duckling


These are very basic tree formations. For more information on tree structures, click here .

Studying syntax can be very rewarding if you master one step before moving on to another.  Work slowly and systematically and you will see how fun the process can be.