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Unformatted text preview: What is Syntax? Linguistics 101 P. & P. Houghton 1 Putting Words in Order We have seen the order and structure of the the tiny units of sound used in languages and their composition into morphemes and complex words. Now it is time to consider the structure imposed on strings of words. Note that I said strings of words and not sentences. The reason for this is that, for many people, the term sentence describes something a bit more complex than what we want to talk about here. Specifically, you might describe a sentence as something that conveys a complete thought, or a set of words, including a subject and a verb, and maybe an object, that have a meaning when put together. In certain contexts, both of these are reasonable definitions of sentence . But, neither of these definitions really captures what we will take as our object of study. For the current discussion, the first definition is obviously too broad, as it would include gestures and other types of signals that are not formally linguistic. The second definition is much closer, and is likely what you might learn in a grammar class. However, this description misses a vital point about the structure of natural language sentences. They dont have to mean anything! Noam Chomsky famously used the sentence in (1a) to illustrate this fact. Compare that sentence to (1b). Neither of these strings of words means anything, but one of them is clearly more acceptable than the other. This difference is called grammaticality , the unmarked sentence is grammatical and the sentence with a star (*) is ungrammati- cal . And when we decide whether a sentence is grammatical we make a grammaticality judgment . (1) a. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. b. *Green furiously sleep ideas colorless. The grammaticality judgment is the most important tool of the syntactician, as it is used to determine the boundaries of acceptable construction of sentences. The correctness of a proposed rule of syntax is tested by comparing its predictions to the grammaticality judgments of native speakers. For example, if I propose a rule that says subjects must come before the verb in canonical 1 English sentences, then I can consult the data paradigm in (2) to see that, indeed, my proposal holds true of the data. 1 The word canonical simply means typical or standard . This is an important but usually unmentioned caveat in all syntactic rules. The rules of a grammar describe the basic form of sentences, but recognize that stylistic choices and literary flair can be used to generate sentences that disobey those rules. For example, I can say Im not fond of scones. But bagels, I like. In an out-of-the-blue context, it is not usually okay to put the object (in this case, bagels ) at the beginning of a sentence. But, this structure is allowed when a certain focus is placed on that object. We will only be concerned with canonical constructions. Linguistics 101 What is Syntax?...
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- Fall '11