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surface structure


surface structure

Language and Mind, 3rd ed., by Noam Chomsky (Cambridge University Press, 2006)


In transformational grammar, the outward form of a sentence. In contrast to deep structure (an abstract representation of a sentence), surface structure corresponds to the version of a sentence that can be spoken and heard.

In transformational grammar, deep structures are generated by phrase-structure rules, and surface structures are derived from deep structures by a series of transformations.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "The surface structure of a sentence is the final stage in the syntactic representation of a sentence, which provides the input to the phonological component of the grammar, and which thus most closely corresponds to the structure of the sentence we articulate and hear. . . . This two-level conception of grammatical structure is still widely held, though it has been much criticized in recent generative studies. An alternative conception is to relate surface structure directly to a semantic level of representation, bypassing deep structure altogether. . . . The term 'surface grammar' is sometimes used as an informal term for the superficial properties of the sentence."
    (David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 4th ed. Blackwell, 1997)

  • "[T]he generative grammar of a language specifies an infinite set of structural descriptions, each of which contains a deep structure, a surface structure, a phonetic representation, a semantic representation, and other formal structures. The rules relating deep and surface structures--the so-called 'grammatical transformations'--have been investigated in some detail, and are fairly well understood. The rules that relate surface structures and phonetic representations are also reasonably well understood (though I do not want to imply that the matter is beyond dispute: far from it). It seems that both deep and surface structures enter into the determination of meaning. Deep structure provides the grammatical relations of predication, modification, and so on, that enter into the determination of meaning. On the other hand, it appears that matters of focus and presupposition, topic and comment, the scope of logical elements, and pronominal reference are determined, in part at least, by surface structure. The rules that relate syntactic structures to representations of meaning are not at all well understood. In fact, the notion of 'representation of meaning' or 'semantic representation' is itself highly controversial. It is not clear at all that it is possible to distinguish sharply between the contribution of grammar to the determination of meaning, and the contribution of so-called 'pragmatic considerations,' questions of fact and belief and context of utterance."
    (Noam Chomsky, lecture given in January 1969 at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Rpt. in Language and Mind, 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006)

  • "A deep structure is . . . the underlying form of a sentence, before rules like auxiliary inversion and wh-fronting apply. After all raisings apply, plus relevant morphological and phonological rules (as for forms of do), the result . . . is the linear, concrete, surface structure of sentences, ready to be given phonetic form."
    (Grover Hudson, Essential Introductory Linguistics. Blackwell, 2000)
Also Known As: S-structure
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