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Why Do We Study Syntax and What Is It Good for?

There are many reasons for studying syntax, from general humanistic or behavioral motivations
to much more specic goals such as those in the following:

. To help us to illustrate the patterns of English more effectively and clearly.

. To enable us to analyze the structure of English sentences in a systematic and explicit way.
For example, let us consider how we could use the syntactic notion of head, which refers
to the essential element within a phrase. The following is a short and informal rule for English
subject-verb agreement.
(27) In English, the main verb agrees with the head element of the subject.
This informal rule can pinpoint what is wrong with the following two examples:
(28) a. *The recent strike by pilots have cost the country a great deal of money from tourism
b. *The average age at which people begin to need eyeglasses vary considerably.
Once we have structural knowledge of such sentences, it is easy to see that the essential element
of the subject in (28a) is not pilots but strike. This is why the main verb should be has but not
have to observe the basic agreement rule in (27). Meanwhile, in (28b), the head is the noun age,
and thus the main verb vary needs to agree with this singular noun. It would not do to simply talk about the
noun in the subject in the examples in (28), as there is more than one. We need

to be able to talk about the one which gives its character to the phrase, and this is the head. If

the head is singular, so is the whole phrase, and similarly for plural. The head of the subject and

the verb (in the incorrect form) are indicated in (29):

(29) a. *[The recent strike by pilots] have cost the country a great deal of money from

tourism and so on.

b. *[The average age at which people begin to need eyeglasses] vary considerably.

Either example can be made into a grammatical version by pluralizing the head noun of the


Nowlet us look at some slightly different cases. Can you explain why the following examples

are unacceptable?

(30) a. *Despite of his limited educational opportunities, Abraham Lincoln became one of

the greatest intellectuals in the world.

b. *A pastor was executed, notwithstanding on many applications in favor of him.

To understand these examples, we rst need to recognize that the words despite and notwithstanding

are prepositions, and further that canonical English prepositions combine only with

noun phrases. In (30), these prepositions combine with prepositional phrases again (headed by

of and on respectively), violating this rule.

A more subtle instance can be found in the following:

(31) a. Visiting relatives can be boring.

b. I saw that gas can explode.

These examples each have more than one interpretation. The rst one can mean either that the

event of seeing our relatives is a boring activity, or that the relatives visiting us are themselves

boring. The second example can either mean that a specic can containing gas exploded, which

I saw, or it can mean that I observed that gas has a possibility of exploding. If one knows English

syntax, that is, if one understands the syntactic structure of these English sentences, it is easy to

identify these different meanings.

Here is another example which requires certain syntactic knowledge:

(32) He said that that that that that man used was wrong.

This is the kind of sentence one can play with when starting to learn English grammar. Can you

analyze it? What are the differences among these ve thats? Structural (or syntactic) knowledge

can be used to diagnose the differences. Part of our study of syntax involves making clear exactly

how each word is categorized, and how it contributes to a whole sentence.

When it comes to understanding a rather complex sentence, knowledge of English syntax

can be a great help. Syntactic or structural knowledge helps us to understand simple as well as

complex English sentences in a systematic way. There is no difference in principle between the

kinds of examples we have presented above and (33):