Michael Swan

Syntax – an indepth look

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Human communication in all its forms almost always uses words. We could say that communication is essentially the expression of thought. Every time we speak or write we are faced with a myriad of choices to explain ourselves. Within this information transmission that uses thought, we use words to express our beliefs and judgments, intentions and desires, etc. The words are used in a combination to make others understand our desired thoughts. Human languages are among several systems of human communication (some others such as gestures, symbol systems), but language has immeasurably greater communicative power than the others. The grammar we use to communicate, the context, the people with whom we are communicating with and whether we are writing or speaking have 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 Syntax that this paper is concerned with. In this paper, I will take a deeper look at how English language syntax helps us form the complete understandable sentences that help us communicate so well.

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 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. I will try to show in this paper syntax as comprehensively as possible while recognizing that the coverage of all the details is impossible.

 The English language holds rules that can create larger more complex structures. It is by learning phrase and clause structures that give 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. Communication is grounded on getting our point across. The study of language is of the formal interrelations that exist between the elements of a language (i.e., sounds, words) themselves. Syntax is the system that speakers and writers use when they combine words into phrases and clauses, ultimately creating meaning in their structures. Thus, the point of us using words is to be comprehended. English speakers show this in their syntax that is used by every English-speaking person.  The old definition of a sentence was ‘a complete expression of thought’, although today this may seem a bit vague to be helpful. An English-speaking person may say ‘beautiful day!’ which is not a grammatically complete sentence, but it is our knowledge of the sentence ‘it is a beautiful day!’ that we are able to understand the utterance. So, although a person takes the language and uses it to different extremes it is our fundamental knowledge of the original grammar that allows us to comprehend incomplete sentences.

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