Steven Pinker

Syntax – a Reflective Essay

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I see syntax as an important part of language study and reading books like The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker has inspired me to take a closer look at how we use our language and how a sentence is formed. I hope with this essay I can give a little insight into how syntax is used.

Words are used in a combination to make others understand our desired thoughts. The grammar we use to communicate, the context, the people with whom we are communicating with and whether we are writing or speaking has to be in a form that is fully recognized. Sentences are not unordered strings of words; rather the words and morphemes are grouped into functional constituents such as subject, predicate, direct object, noun phrase, verb phrase and so on. It means that we take a finite number of discrete elements (words) and combine them to create larger structures that are different in meaning from the original words themselves. The choices for expression make use of many patterns in the English language. All human languages have very similar underlying structures; they all have phrase structure rules and transformational rules. The use of these words is systematized according to syntax.

It is clear to see that the sentence ‘Man hits animal’ is not the same as ‘Animal hits man’.  We know this because we use a code, or set of rules, to translate between orders of words and combinations of thoughts. Generally speaking, this set of rules is called a generative grammar. Syntax works on a prescriptive use of grammar although spoken English is not as formal as we think and works along the lines of a more descriptive method. Descriptive syntax is about understanding the rules that a speech community employs by examining the way that the members of that community actually do talk.

English language holds rules that can create larger more complex structures. It is by learning phrase and clause structures that gives us a clearer picture of syntax. These structures are what make the syntax rules. We find that it is possible to create an infinite number of sentences, all of which can express meaningful thought. Thus it is possible to construct sentences that the speaker has never used before. It can be said that English has a finite number of rules which facilitate an infinite number of sentences. Syntax shows that sentences and the relationship of their component parts works in English. To understand a sentence one cannot merely pay attention to the order of words. For example, in the class we learnt about complex, compound and simple sentences and components in them.

1. They were the boys who arrived to see and I knew all of them who came.

And = FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So)

Independent Clause (x2) = They were the boys / I know all of them

Dependent Clause (x2) = who arrived to see / who came

Who arrived = the WHO is subjective case

Infinitive phrase = to see

Sentence type = compound complex

As above, syntax is the system that speakers and writers use when they combine words into phrases and clauses, ultimately creating meaning in their structures.

To conclude I have noticed that all sentences have basic patterns. I can now say that in many respects there is a mechanical basis in the brain, and all thought has a syntax, or code. So, we see that our utterances represent this internal coding by way of our common syntax.