A Report on EN 200
RENE A. VILLAREAL
26 August 2012
Morphology and Syntax
Geoffrey Leech in the book English Language:
Description, Variation and Context cited the difference between
the two major subdivisions of grammar:
• Morphology (more particularly inflectional morphology) deals
with grammar within the scope of words.
• Syntax, on the other hand, deals with grammar outside the
word: that is, with how words behave in larger units
(phrases, clauses and sentences).
What is syntax?
• Allan, et. al. in the book The English Language and
Linguistics Companion “syntax (from Ancient Greek
“arrangement”) describes the part of linguistics that examines
the way words go together to form sentences.”
• Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia “the study of the
principles and processes by which sentences are constructed
in particular languages.”
• The Free Online Dictionary “the study of the rules whereby
words or other elements of sentence structure are combined
to form grammatical sentences.” and stated further as “the
branch of linguistics that deals with the grammatical
arrangement of words and morphemes in the sentences of a
language or of languages in general.”
• They describe the
governing how speakers
actually use languages.
• They differ from
• Listing value statements
about how language
ought to be used.
• Based on behavior in the
speech community and
not on structures that
individual prefers on
grounds of aesthetics of
Linguistic Competence – what
• The main goal of a grammatical theory is to capture what it is
that all native speakers know about their language structure;
in other words, their competence.
• Grammaticality judgments
• The Order of Words and Morphemes
• Word Classes (Parts of Speech)
• Functions (or grammatical relations)
• The ability to understand and produce sentences never before
encountered, such as:
• The druids cooked those large quiches.
• Cooked those large quiches the druids.*
Though seen for the first time:
• You have no trouble comprehending it.
• This has nothing to do with the memory, but must come from the
system of rules that underlies this competence.
• Due to human language’s ‘open-endedness’; speakers can
understand and produce an infinite number of sentences.
• Speakers can also distinguish between grammatical and
The Order of Words and
• Words and morphemes must occur in a special order. When
this ordering is not followed, ungrammaticality results, as in
Cooked those large quiches the druids.*
Word Classes (Parts of Speech)
• Words belong to morphosyntactic classes or what
traditionally have been described as ‘parts of speech’.
Such notional definitions come from traditional grammar and are
helpful in identifying word classes across languages, but they
cannot always be relied on.
• All human languages have a characteristic hierarchical
structure. Sentences don’t just consist of words, but groups of
words that act as units which are called constituents.
• Constituents are strings of words that function as a group at
some level; they work like linguistic building blocks that
combine to make larger and larger constituents.
• At the top is the highest level of structure, the sentence.
• The next layer is the clause, which is equivalent to a simple
• Between the level of clause and word we have intermediate
constituents known as phrases. These phrases are always
named after the word that is the most important in the string.
• This word, the core of the phrase, is called the head.
Tree Diagram Showing
• S – Sentence
• N – Noun
• NP – Noun Phrase
• Det – Determiner
• Adj – Adjective
• VP – Verb Phrase
• and others.
Bracketing – analternativetotreediagram
[S [NP [Det the] [N druids] NP] [VP [V cooked] [NP [Det those]
[Adj large] [N quiches] NP] VP] S]
The tree diagram provides the same sort of information as the
bracketing, but shows more clearly the hierarchical
arrangements of constituents, which (for most people) makes it
easier to understand.
Functions (or grammatical
• Constituents are members of morphosyntactic classes;
functions like ‘subject’ or ‘object’ are what constituents do.
Grammatical relations can sometimes be very subtle.
Compare the constituent the druid in the following two
(a) The druid is easy to please.
= The druid is easy for anyone to please
(b) The druid is eager to please.
= The druid is eager to please everyone
• Grammatical functions will also account for the fact that
examples like the following are ungrammatical.
* The druids disappeared the quiches.
* The druids chased.
Members of the same morphosyntactic class show similar
distributional properties and are mutually substitutable, but
only up to a point – the verb disappear cannot take an object (it
is intransitive); the verb chase requires an object (it is transitive).
• Speakers recognize that a constituent may have more than
one meaning, that is be ambiguous. For example, the
following two sentences is at least two ways ambiguous:
The druids decided on the village green.
• The ambiguity here is structural and we can represent it with
partial brackets (or trees).
(a) The druids [decided on] [the village green]
(b) The druids [decided] [on the village green]
• Those sentences have more than one syntactic analysis, which
can be captured with paraphrase (i.e. we can restate them
using different words):
The druids chose the village green.
The druids came to a decision on the village green.
• Part of our competence is, therefore, that we can recognize
sentences that mean the same thing, i.e. where there is a
relationship of paraphrase. Here are other examples:
The druids ate the quiche.
The quiche was eaten by the druids.
I gave the druids the quiche.
I gave the quiche to the druids.
I ate up my quiche.
I ate my quiche up.
Baking quiches is fun.
It’s fun to bake quiches.
Language is full of this kind of grammatical richness, and
linguists have to be able to capture this feature of grammar in
an analytical and rigorous way.
• Noam Chomsky popularized generative grammar – so called
because it uses a system of rules that aims to (potentially)
generate all possible sentences of a language (much like
mathematical rules generate endless sets of values).
• These are phrase structure rules (or PS-rules). The following
simple PS-rules for English will illustrate.
• All sentences of English need an NP (the subject) and a
following VP (the verb and potentially other constituents like
the object). We can capture this fact in shorthand via the
following rule in which the arrow is understood as meaning
“consists of” or “expands into”.
S NP VP
• There are various rules possible for creating NPs: druids, the
druids, the large druids, the large druids in the picture and so
• NP N
• NP Det N
• NP Det Adj N
• NP Det Adj N PP
We can use an abbreviation convention of parentheses (rounded
brackets) to collapse all these rules into one neat NP rule. Whatever
appears in ( ) is optional; only the noun (as head of the NP) is
NP (Det) (Adj) N (PP)
• So far we have assigned constituency of sentences purely on
the basis of intuition. But how can we be sure that words
pattern in this way?
• There are a number of different constituency tests that can be
used to decide whether a particular string (sequence of
constituents) forms a (larger) constituent. We will mention
just three of these tests.
• One thing we can be sure of is that a string of only one word
forms a constituent – a word acts as a unit in terms of
sentence structure; i.e. in terms of the syntax. This means that
if the string of words we are investigating can be replaced by a
single word (such as a pronoun) , this is an indication that the
string is a constituent. Let’s take our original sentence and
apply the substitution test:
The druids cooked those large quiches.
Those large quiches can be replaced by the pronoun them and
therefore must form a constituent.
• Constituents behave distributionally as single units of
structure – and as single units they may have the ability to
appear in a variety of sentence positions. In short, we can
move constituents around in a sentence, but we can’t move
strings that do not form constituents. We can shunt elements
to the first position in the sentence for special emphasis or
focus. Only constituents can be fronted this way.
Those large quiches the druids cooked. (not the flans)
*Such sentences often sound odd out of context but are
• Movement of one constituent will involve changes in the
• It has the effect of cleaving an original sentence into two
• Here is a clefted version of our original sentence.
It was those large quiches that the druids cooked.
(not the flans)
Chomsky (1965; 1972; 1986) believes there is a part of the brain that
contains innate knowledge of what is a possible language and what is
not a possible language. Speakers are said to be born with an innate
grammar and a task for linguistics is to find out more about this innate
grammar. Chomsky and his followers assume the innate grammar is
the same for every language, hence there is a universal grammar. One
goal is therefore to find out more about universal grammar. There is no
obvious direct way studying universal grammar – there is (as yet) no
brain scanner that can be used to study it. What linguists who pursue
this line of research do is study in great depth the grammars of
individual languages. Some people believe that an in-depth study of
one language should be enough to discover the abstract structures
that make up innate grammar. Others, however, think that a more
fruitful way forward is to make in-depth studies of many different
languages and compare the results.
If you study the syntax of a language then you have two tasks:
you need to break sentences down into their component parts
and you need to be able to describe these component parts
The prescriptive approach is one that tells you how you ought
to speak and write. The descriptive approach describes how
people actually do speak and write.
Linguistic science must remain objectively descriptive and
avoid moral and aesthetic judgment. (But it is appropriate for
linguists to focus critically on the particular standards and
values being invoked in the prescriptive debates.)
The following eight features form part of a speaker’s linguistic
• Grammaticality judgments
• Ordering of words and morphemes
• Morphosyntactic classes (Parts of Speech)
• Constituency (the way words group together – there are
intervening levels of organization between words and sentences)
• Grammatical relations (how words are related – who’s doing what
• Elements that are either obligatory or prohibited in a sentence
• Structural ambiguity
• The ability to paraphrase
Linguists aim to produce a descriptive grammar (a finite set of
rules) that will describe a native speaker’s syntactic
competence. These rules must:
• Generate all grammatical sentences
• Not produce any ungrammatical sentences
• Account for linguistic knowledge of morphosyntactic classes (like
noun and preposition), grammatical relations (like subject and
object), paraphrase, ambiguity, and so on.
There is no limit to the creativity of people’s competence. For
example, there is theoretically no such thing as the longest
sentence, and we can capture this with recursive rules. The
limitation on the length of a sentence is imposed by
performance constraints on usage, not competence.
Phrase Structure (PS) rules specify constituent structure and
can be represented by a labelled tree. PS-rules captures four
types of information:
Hierarchical order (words grouped into constituents)
Intransitive verbs can’t be followed by an object NP; transitive
verbs must be followed by an object NP.
We can justify whether or not a string is a constituent by tests
such as substitution (by one word) and movement (whether
the string can appear in different sentence positions).
Many linguists believe that grammar is innate and is the same
for any language; hence that there exists a universal grammar.
Additional information can be found in Borjars and Burridge 2001; Brown and
Miller 1991; Halliday and Matthiessen 2004; Van Valin 2001; Van Valin and