Syntax, pt. 7: Recap

Since it’s been awhile, I thought I would recap, in part simply to regain my bearings.


First, I spelled out the basic principles of the syntactic enterprise: A syntax should be as general as possible, as economic as possible, and psychologically plausible:

a system which simply lists the grammatical sentences of English is not general, and will not handle new sentences.
a system which has more rules is less scientific than one with fewer.
a system which posited psychic understanding of language via intent would not be psychologically reasonable.

Finally, we posit this inherent grammar for two reasons: one, certain languages seem not to be possible. And while the evidence for these sorts of claims was once based on the lack of languages with these qualities, a recent study at Johns Hopkins suggests that hypothetical language that violate so-called language universals are actually significantly harder for people to learn. So at least at some level, it seems that the idea of an inherent grammar has some traction.

As for the syntax of English, we posited that sentences can be divided (rather intuitively) into constituents. For example, in the following sentence, we would want to say that ‘his’ and ‘teeth’ are connected in some way that ‘teeth’ and ‘in’ are not, despite their seeming proximity:

(11) The Duke of Earl will brush his teeth in the airplane.

We posit this for three reasons. First, as above, we feel that some constituents are more closely connected. Second, we can move constituents together in a way we cannot move non constituents. For example, (11c) is grammatical, albeit stilted, whereas (11d) is not a sentence. Third, constituents can be replaced by wh-phrases in ways non-constituents cannot. For the full explanation, see Syntax, pt. 1: Constituents.

From there, we concluded that (most) English sentences have some necessary constituents, namely a subject and an attached verb phrase (which may or may not have verb arguments). I stated earlier that I believed that the argument structure of verbs could be derived from their meanings, and at least in the case of ambitransitive verbs (verbs that can be either transitive or intransitive, such as eat or break):
I ate lutfisk. -> I ate
I broke the microwave. -> The microwave broke

I will reserve this explanation for a later post, as I cannot do it justice as a footnote.

In the remaining two posts, I showed that any account of language must be recursive. So for my next post, I will assume the following verb structure rules:

S -> NP VP
NP -> Det N’
N’ -> AP N’*
N’ -> N PP**
AP -> Adv A’
A’ -> A PP
PP -> P NP
VP -> Adv V’
V’ -> V’ PP*
V’ -> V PP/NP**


*The phrase rules marked with ‘*’ are Adjunct phrase rules; the modifiers added at this level adjoin to the phrase, but are not part of its inherent structure.
**The phrase rules marked with ‘**’ are Complement phrase rules; the modifiers added at this level are the complements of the head, and are part of its inherent structure.

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