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syntax

Charles H. Hargis, English Syntax: An Outline for Teachers of English Language Learners, 3rd ed. (Charles C Thomas, 2008)

Definition:

(1) In linguistics, the study of the rules that govern the ways in which words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. Syntax is one of the major components of grammar.

(2) The arrangement of words in a sentence. Adjective: syntactic.

Traditionally, linguists have recognized a basic distinction between syntax (which is primarily concerned with the ways in which words are put together in sentences) and morphology (which is primarily concerned with the internal structures of words). However, this distinction has been somewhat disrupted by recent research in lexicogrammar.

See also:

Etymology:

From the Greek, "arrange together"

Examples and Observations:

  • "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."
    (Linguist Noam Chomsky created this sentence--which is grammatically correct but incomprehensible--to demonstrate that the rules governing syntax are distinct from the meanings words convey.)


  • "Syntax is the study of the principles and processes by which sentences are constructed in particular languages. Syntactic investigation of a given language has as its goal the construction of a grammar that can be viewed as a device of some sort for producing the sentences of the language under analysis."
    (Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures, 1971)


  • "And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning. . . .

    "It is syntax that gives the words the power to relate to each other in a sequence . . . to carry meaning--of whatever kind--as well as glow individually in just the right place."
    (Anthony Burgess, Enderby Outside, 1968)


  • Rules of Syntax
    "[I]t is a mistake to believe that some English speakers follow rules in their speech and others do not. Instead, it now appears that all English speakers are successful language learners: they all follow unconscious rules derived from their early language development, and the small differences in the sentences that they prefer are best understood as coming from small differences in these rules. . . . The differences of the sort that we are looking at here follow lines of social class and ethnic group rather than geographical lines. Thus we can speak of social varieties or social dialects."
    (Carl Lee Baker, English Syntax, 2nd ed. MIT Press, 1995)


  • Speech and Writing
    "Many kinds of spoken language . . . have a syntax that is very different from the syntax of formal writing. It is essential to understand that the differences exist not because spoken language is a degradation of written language but because any written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users . . .. In spite of the huge prestige enjoyed by written language in any literate society, spoken language is primary in several major respects."
    (Jim Miller, An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh University Press, 2002)


  • Taxonomic and Cognitive Approaches to Syntax
    "Within traditional grammar, the syntax of a language is described in terms of a taxonomy (i.e. the classificatory list) of the range of different types of syntactic structures found in the language. The central assumption underpinning syntactic analysis in traditional grammar is that phrases and sentences are built up of a series of constituents (i.e. syntactic units), each of which belongs to a specific grammatical category and serves a specific grammatical function. Given this assumption, the task of the linguist analysing the syntactic structure of any given type of sentence is to identify each of the constituents in the sentence, and (for each constituent) to say what category it belongs to and what function it serves. . . .

    "In contrast to the taxonomic approach adopted in traditional grammar, [Noam] Chomsky takes a cognitive approach to the study of grammar. For Chomsky, the goal of the linguist is to determine what it is that native speakers know about their native language which enables them to speak and understand the language fluently: hence, the study of language is part of the wider study of cognition (i.e. what human beings know). In a fairly obvious sense, any native speaker of a language can be said to know the grammar of his or her native language."
    (Andrew Radford, English Syntax: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2004)


  • Syntactic Changes in English
    "Syntactic change--change in the form and order of words--is . . . sometimes described as 'an elusive process as compared to sound change.' Its apparently puzzling nature is partly due to its variety. Word endings can be modified. Chaucer's line And smale foweles maken melodye shows that English has changed several of them in the last 600 years. The behaviour of verbs can alter. Middle English I kan a noble tale 'I know a fine story' reveals that can could once be used as a main verb with a direct object. And word order may switch. The proverb Whoever loved that loved not at first sight? indicates that English negatives could once be placed after main verbs. These are just a random sample of syntactic changes which have occurred in English in the last half-millennium or so."
    (Jean Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay? 3rd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001)


  • William Cobbett on Syntax (1818)
    "Syntax is a word which comes from the Greek. It means, in that language, the joining of several things together; and, as used by grammarians, it means those principles and rules which teach us how to put words together so as to form sentences. It means, in short, sentence-making. Having been taught by the rules of Etymology what are the relationships of words, how words grow out of each other, how they are varied in their letters in order to correspond with the variation in the circumstances to which they apply, Syntax will teach you how to give all your words their proper situations or places, when you come to put them together into sentences."
    (William Cobbett, A Grammar of the English Language in a Series of Letters: Intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in General, but More Especially for the Use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-Boys, 1818)


  • The Lighter Side of Syntax
    "In a second-class car, along with some abandoned homework, [Trevor] found a much-disintegrated copy of Finnegans Wake (James Joyce; 1939), a novel that, when he opened it and selected a random paragraph, made him feel like he'd just had a stroke. He spoke English, but this didn't feel like English--it felt like sound effects. Still, the paragraph burned itself into his brain.
    Sian is too tall for Shemus as Airdie is fiery for Joachem. Two toughnecks still act gettable, and feign that as an embryo he was worthy of starving (he was an outlier straddling the walls of Donegal and Sligo, and a vassal to Corporal. Mr. Llyrfoxh Cleath was among his savoured invitations) but every fair thee well to night blindness came uninvited. He was in the wilds of the city of today; coals that his night-embered life will not beg being anthologized in black and white. Adding lies and jest together, two toughneck shots may be made at what this abundant wallflower. Sian's nighttime wardrobe, we believe, a handful of ring fingers, a callow stomach, a heart of tea and cakes, a goose liver, three-fourths of a buttock, a black adder truncated--as young Master Johnny on his first louche moment at the birth of prethinking, seeing himself Lord this and Lord that, playing with thistlecracks in the hedgerow.
    "He sat down and went through the paragraph over and over. It could have said"
    . . . Whaam! Smash! Ahooogah! Ding! Grunt! Sploosh! Doinggg! Thud! Bamm! Shazaam! Glub! Zing! Blbbbtt! Thump! Gonggg! Boom! Kapow!
    "Joyce's paragraph made no sense, and yet it made a kind of sense. Trevor realized that the odd thing about English is that no matter how much you screw sequences word up, you understood, still, like Yoda, will be. Other languages don't work that way. French? Dieu! Misplace a single le or la and an idea vaporizes into a sonic puff. English is flexible: you can jam it into a Cuisinart for an hour, remove it, and meaning will still emerge.”
    (Douglas Coupland, Generation A. Random House Canada, 2009)
Pronunciation: SIN-taks
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