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Descriptive Grammar of English II: Morphology & Syntax WSJO 2006-07 Handout 1

What is syntax? Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism and theories of grammar.

1. What is syntax? Why is it good to study it?

In general, syntax is a branch of linguistics that investigates the structure of sentences, phrases
and relations between words. In particular, it investigates the following (which are the basic
issues in syntactic analysis at the same time):

(1) Phrase structure:

[S [NP Sigmund][VP dislikes [NP his mother-in-law]]]

(2) Sentence structure and word order:

a. Mr. Jones gave [Mary][a present]
b. Mr. Jones gave [a present][to Mary]

(3) Sentence structure and word order again – movement (some examples):
a. S: Donca is leaving next week.
Q: Is Donca leaving next week?
b. S: I bought a book yesterday.
Q: What did you buy ____ yesterday?
Q: When did you buy that book ____ ?

(4) Relation between the words – agreement:

a. He likes heavy metal.
3SG -s
b. They like heavy metal.
3PL ø
c. *They likes heavy metal.

(5) Function:
a. We believe [Betty] Betty – the object of believe
b. We believe [Betty is a heavy smoker] Betty – the subject of the clause

As a starting point, we may tentatively define the subject as the performer of an action
expressed by the predicate, which in turn can be easily defined as a verb or other grammatical
category that refers to an action. We can define the object as an element in a clause that refers
to an entity towards which the action expressed by the predicate/verb was performed.

(6) Government (an element α imposes a certain form on an element β):

a. Sigmund hates him-ACC.

b. * Sigmund hates he-NOM.

Lexical system vs. grammatical system = word choice vs. syntax.

Just as all languages have phonetics, all languages have their syntax. Languages differ in the
word order or other things, but they share universal principles that underlie them. Also, the
lexical categories are universal to all languages, just like all languages have vowels and
consonants, despite the fact that they may differ in quality; e.g.:

(7) The pronunciation of ‘flea’ in:

a. Watjarri is [kulu] = CVCV
b. English is [fli:] = CCV
c. Polish is [pxua] = CCVV

The lexical categories are: N, V, A, Adv, P.

2. Morphology

Morphology is a study a words and their structure. As we can see in (8) and (9), words are
separable units of language.

(8) Donca hate-s Sigmund. 2 morphemes (meaningful units)

(9) It is un-believ-able. 3 morphemes

Inflectional (8) and derivational (9) morphology.

3. Semantics.

Semantics is the study of meaning in natural language: both the meaning of smaller linguistic
units (e.g., morphemes or words), and those larger ones (e.g., phrases or sentences) are under

4. Phonology.

Phonology is the study of sound structure of languages and the system that underlies sound

5. The two understandings of grammar.

In the broad sense, syntax, morphology, semantics, phonology (and also lexicon) constitute
the grammar of language. In the narrow sense, grammar can be understood as syntax and
inflectional morphology.

6. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG).

UG is the innate mechanism that makes language acquisition possible. For example, it is
responsible for the acquisition of grammatical principles that are unanimous in every natural

7. Prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar.

Prescriptive approach to grammar aims at providing sets of rules of linguistic correctness,

often making recourse to the so-called language culture. Descriptive approach to grammar
does not do that. It rather describes linguistic structures as they are produced by its users and
aims at analyzing its structures.

8. External language (E-language) vs. Internal language (I-language).

Answer those two simple questions:

• Which approach to syntax and language in general concentrates on I-language?

• Provide examples of some basic universal principles.

Wardhaugh, Ronald. 1995. Understanding English Grammar. A Linguistic Approach.
Oxford: Blackwell. Ch. 1