o   The word syntax is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘arrangement’. It studies the ways in which words are arranged together in order to make larger units.

o   The sentence is normally taken as the largest unit amenable to useful linguistic analysis.

o   The main emphasis of this study will be on the level of language that examines how words combine into larger units, the phrase, the clause and the sentence.

o   Different linguists, however, often define terms differently.

Ø  Structuralists would label ‘sheep’, ‘that lovely sheep’ and ‘that sheep are unpredictable’ as:

sheep                                                   -word/free morpheme

that lovely sheep                                 -phrase

that sheep are unpredictable                -clause

Whereas transformationalists would call them all noun phrases.

There is a value in each approach. The structuralist one concentrates on the formal differences whereas transformationalists concentrate on the functional similarities in that all three can occur in the same slot:

Sheep                                                   can be seen clearly

That lovely sheep                                can be seen clearly

That sheep are unpredictable              can be seen clearly


For our purpose, we can define a phrase is a group of words which functions as a unit and, with the exception of the verb phrase itself, does not contain a finite verb. Consider this definition by examining a few sentences. In:

The little boy sat in the corner.

We can replace ‘the little boy’ by ‘He’ and ‘in the corner’ by ‘there’. Notice that in both examples we replace a number of words by one. Similarly, if we ask: ‘Who sat in the corner?’ the answer will be ‘The little boy’ or if we ask: ‘Where did he sit?’ we well be told ‘In the corner’. It is thus clear that certain groups of words have internal coherence in that they function as  a unit. We also said that a phrase does not contain a finite verb, so now we shall look at what  a finite verb is.

A finite verb is one that can take as its subject a pronoun such as ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘they’. Thus we can have:

I see

He sees

They saw

But not:

*I seeing

*He to see

*We seen

And we can say that the present participle (that is, forms such as ‘seeing’), the infinitive (that is, forms such as ‘to see’) and the past participle (that is, forms such as ‘seen’) are non-finite verb. Only non-finite verb forms can occur in phrases:

Bending low, he walked awkwardly into the small room.

Seen from this angle, the mountains look blue.

There are five commonly occurring types of phrases in English: noun phrases, adjective phrases, verb phrases, adverb phrases and preposition phrases.

  1. A NOUN PHRASE is a group of words with a noun as its headword. There can be up to three noun phrases in a simple sentence, as the underlined units in the following simple sentences below:

1                            2              3

The young man threw the old dog a bone.

1                                      2                           3

That rich man will build his eldest daughter a fine house

  1. AN ADJECTIVE PHRASE is a group of words which modifies a noun. Like adjectives, these words can be either attributive:

The child, laughing happily, ran out of the house.

That utterly fascinating novel has been banned.

or predicative (that is following a verb):

The letter was unbelievably rude.

He seemed extremely pleasant.

  1. A VERB PHRASE is a group of words with a verb as headword. Verb phrases can be either finite:

He has been singing

or non-finite verb:

to have sung

  1. AN ADVERB PHRASE is a group words which functions like an adverb; it often plays the role of telling us when, where, why or how an event occurred:

We are expecting him to come next year.

He almost always arrives on time.

He ran very quickly.

  1. A PREPOSITION PHRASE is a group of words that begins with a preposition:

He arrived by plane.

Do you know that man with the scar?

We are on very good terms.

A number of modern linguists use the term ‘phrase’ in a slightly different way to that described above. They compare such sentences as:

The young man has arrived.


He arrived.

pointing out that ‘he’ functions in exactly the same way as ‘has arrived’. Concentrating on the similarity of function, the define a noun phrase,  for example, as ‘a word or group of words which can function  as a subject, object or complement in a sentence’:

The young man came in/He came in.

The young man defended his motherHe defended her.

The answer was ‘400 hours’/ The answer was this.

Similarity, a verb phrase is a word or group of words which can function as a predicate in a sentence:

He arrived at two.                   He will arrive at two.


A clause is a group of words which contains a finite verb but which cannot occur in isolation, that is, a clause constitutes only part of a sentence. In each complex sentence, we have at least two clauses: a main clause (that is, a clause that is most like a simple sentence) and at least one subordinate or dependent clause. In the following examples, the main clauses are underlined.

He believed that the earth was round.

He arrived as the clock was striking.

The following types of subordinate clauses are found:

  1. A NOUN CLAUSE is a group of words containing  a finite verb and functioned like a noun:

He said that he was tired.

What you said was not true.

The fact that the earth moves round the sun is well known.

Noun clause can often be replaced by pronouns:

He said this.

When you are in doubt about how a clause functions in a sentence, you should see what can be substituted for it. All the following possibilities are acceptable:

I shall always remember                      John.


his kindness.

what John has done.

Thus, pronoun, nouns and noun phrases can usually be substituted for noun clauses.

  1. AN ADJECTIVE CLAUSE is often called a ‘relative clause’ because it usually relates back to a noun whose meaning it modifies:

The dog which won the competition is an Alsatian

The man who taught my brother French is now the headmaster.

The girl whom we met on holiday is coming to see us next week.

When an adjective/relative clause begins with ‘that/which/whom’ and is followed by a subject, the subordinator can be omitted:

The book (thatJohn bought is missing.

The coat (whichshe wore is red.

The man (whomwe met was my uncle.

There is virtually no difference in meaning between:

The book which I bought …..


The book that I bought …..


The book I bought …..

although the third is the least formal and so the most likely to occur in spontaneous speech.

Occasionally an adjective clause can begin with ‘when’:

I remember the day when we won the cup


or ‘where’:

the town where they met was called Scarborough.

It is usually easy to decide whether a ‘when/where’ clause is adjectival or adverbial. If the ‘when’ can be replaced by ‘on which’ and the ‘where’ by ‘in which/at which’ we are dealing with adjective clauses.

  1. AN ADVERIAL CLAUSEfunctions like an adverb in giving information about when, where, , how, or if an action occurred:

When he arrived we were all sleeping.

Put it where we can all see it.

They won the match because they were the best players.

He put it away as quietly as he could.

If you want any more you’ll have to get it yourself.

Adverbial clauses are perhaps the most frequently used clauses in the language and, like adverbs, they are often mobile:

When he arrived we were all sleeping.

We were all sleeping when he arrived.

A number of modern linguists use the term ‘clause’ somewhat differently to the above classification. They call units containing a finite verb ‘finite clauses’ and units containing non-finite verb forms such as ‘to see’, seeing’ and ‘seen’, ‘non-finite-clauses’. A few examples will illustrate her usage. In the following sentences:

He went to Paris because he wanted a rest.

He went to Paris to have a rest.


If it is looked at from this angle the colors seem to change.

Looked at from this angle the colors seem to change.

the underlined units function in similar ways, being distinguished mainly by the fact that the first examples contain finite verbs and the second examples non-finite verbs.


A sentence is a group of words that can exist independently. An even simpler categorization of ‘sentence’ can be applied to the written medium in that we can define a sentence as ‘that linguistic unit which begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop’.

Sentences can be divided into four sub types:

1   DECLARATIVE SENTENCES make statements or assertions:

I shall arrive at three.

You are not the only applicant

Peace has its victories.

We must not forget that date.

2   IMPERATIVE SENTENCES give orders, make requests and usually have no overt subject:

Come here.

Don’t do that.

Try to help.

Don’t walk on the grass.


Did you see your brother yesterday?

Can you hear that awful noise?

When did he arrive?

Why don’t they play cricket here?

You will notice that there are two types of interrogative question, those which expect the answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’:

Can you sing?

Are you going to the wedding?

and those which begin with question words what?, where?, which?, who?, whom?, or how? and which expect an answer other than yes or no.

  1. 4.  EXCLAMATORY SENTENCESare use to express surprise, alarm, indignation or a strong opinion.

He’s going to win!

You can’t be serious!

What a fool I was!

Sentences can also be classified as being either major (that can contain a finite verbs) or minor (which do not contain finite verbs). Minor sentences are frequently found in colloquial speech:

Got a match?

Not likely!

Just a minute!

in proverbial utterances:

Out of sight, out of mind.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

and in advertising:

Always ahead of the times.

The cheapest and the best.

A part from the above categorizations of sentences, we often find it useful to distinguish between sentences which are ‘simple’, ‘compound’ or ‘complex’.

SIMPLE SENTENCES contain only one finite verb:

Water boils at 100º  centigrade.

You must not say such things.

The finite verb may be composed of up to four  auxiliaries plus a head verb:

He may have been being followed all the time.

and may be interrupted by a negative or an adverb:

He was never seen again.

We can hardly ask them for any more.

The term ‘simple’ refers to the fact that the sentence contains only one finite verb.

COMPOUND SENTENCES consists of two or more simple sentences linked by the co-ordinating conjunctions and, but, so, either …or, neither … nor, or and then:

He ran out and (he) fell over the suitcase.

She arrived at nine, went up to the room and did not come down until noon.

He could neither eat nor sleep.

Compound sentences can be formed by:

  1. conjunction:   I agreed and I joined.
  2. semi-colon:   I agreed; I joined; my friend was pleased.
  3. transition words:   I agreed; I joined; however, my friend did not.

In compound sentences, the shared elements in the conjoined simple sentences can be elided:

You may go in and (you may) talk to him for five minutes.


The most common way of combining sentences is to make one a main clause and the other a subordinate clause. A subordinate clause does not normally stand alone as a sentence. There are several common types:

COMPLEX SENTENCES consists of one simple sentence and one or more subordinate (or dependent) clauses. In the following sentence:

            She became queen when her father died because she was the eldest child.

we have one main clause:

            She became queen

and two subordinate clauses:

            when her father died


            because she was the eldest child.

COMPOUND-COMPLEX SENTENCES are, as their name suggests, a combination of complex sentences joined by co-ordinating conjunctions:

            I saw him when he arrived the first time but I didn’t see him when he came again.

We have looked at the types of sentences that can occur and will now focus on the internal structure of a sentence. The basic pattern of the simple English sentence is:

            (Adjunct) (Subject) Predicate (Object) (Complement) (Adjunct)

usually given as:

            (A) (S) P (O) (C) (A)

where only the predicate is essential and where the adjunct is mobile  A few simple examples will show how the formula works.

Such sentences as:

            The man disappeared/

            The poor young woman died.

divide into two parts, an noun part:

            The man

            The poor young woman

and a verb part:



We call the noun part a ‘subject’ and the verb part a ‘predicate’. We know that the subject is a unit because we can substitute ‘he’ for ‘the man’ and ‘she’ for ‘the poor young woman’.  The verb part can usually be retrieved by asking such questions as ‘what did he do?. what has he done?’ and omitting the pronoun in the answer. Notice that if our first sentences had been:

            The man has disappeared.

Our question would retrieve the whole predicate, in this case ‘has disappeared’.

In the sentences:

            The man disappeared yesterday.

            Quite suddenly the man disappeared.

The underlined segments are called ‘adjuncts’ because they can usually be deleted without causing grammatical loss. (Their removal would, of course, result in loss of information.) These adjuncts are usually quite mobile:

            Suddenly the man disappeared.

            The man suddenly disappeared.

            The man disappeared suddenly.

If we take a different type of sentence:

            John won’t eat his breakfast.

we see that it splits up into  three: the subject ‘John’, the predicate ‘won’t eat’ and the object ‘his breakfast’. The object resembles the subject in that it is noun-like, but there are three main differences:

(1)   The subject normally precedes the predicate. The object normally follows the predicate.

(2)   The subject can usually be retrieved by putting who or what before the predicate, ‘who won’t eat his  breakfast?’ produces the answer ‘his breakfast’, the object.

(3)   When subjects and objects are replaced by pronouns, there is often a difference pronoun for the two positions:

            John hit Peter.                                                 He hit him.

            Mary hit Betty.                                                            She hit her.

            John and Mary hit Peter and Betty.                 They hit them.

Adjuncts can occur in most sentences:

            Usually John won’t eat his breakfast.

            John won’t eat his breakfast usually.

Looking now at such sentences as:

            John is a fine teacher.

Mary is becoming an excellent athlete.

we see that we again have three parts, but there is a fundamental difference between these sentences and sentences of the type Subject Predicate Object in that ‘John’ = ‘a fine teacher’ and ‘Mary’ = ‘an excellent athlete’. Such sentences always involve such verbs as BE, BECOME, SEEM, and APPEAR, and GROW when they are used in such constructions as:

            He appeared the best choice.              He grew weary.

These verbs take ‘complements’ and the complements can be a noun phrase:

            He was a first-class sportsman.

an adjective:

            She is becoming insolent.

a preposition + a noun phrase:

            He was in the bus.

and occasionally an adverb:

            The fire is out.

The complements above are called ‘subject complements’ because they provide information on the subjects. We can also have ‘object complements’ as in:

            They elected John President.

            John his son Peter.

Again, you will notice that the object ‘John’ is the same as ‘President’ and ‘his son’ as ‘Peter’. Sentences involving complements can also have adjuncts:

            John was a candidate yesterday

            They elected John President yesterday.

We can summarize the above data with examples as follows:

            P                      Go

            PA                   Go quietly.

            SP                    John slept.

            SPA                 John slept quietly.

            PO                   Eat your breakfast.

            SPO                 John ate his breakfast.

            SPOA              John ate his breakfast quietly

            SPC                 John is a fool.

            ASPC               At times John is a fool.

            SPOC              John called his brother a fool.

            SAPOC           John often called his brother a fool.

In our examination of sentence patterns, four operations will prove useful. They are insertion, deletion, substitution and transposition (also called permutation). We can illustrate these operations as follows:

Insertion:   This would involve changing such a sentence as:

            The child is clever.


            The little child is exceptionally clever.

Deletion:   In the sentence:

            The tall man saw him last Friday.

we can delete the adjective ‘tall’ and the adjunct ‘last Friday’ leaving the grammatically acceptable:

            The man saw him.

Substitution:   In such sentences as:

            The young man visited his mother.

we can substitute pronouns for both subject and object:

            He visited her.

Often too, auxiliary verbs can replace verb phrases:

            He might have come, mightn’t he?

where ‘mightn’t he’ substitutes for ‘might he not have come’.

Transposition:   This involves the mobility of sentences constituents and we have already seen how adjuncts can be transposed/ moved from one part of a sentence to another. Other sentence constituents are less mobile, but occasionally, for effect, an object may precede both subject and predicate:

            Three men I saw.

However, such a sentence is much less usual than ‘I saw three men’.


Syntactic rules determine the order of words in a sentence, and how the words are grouped. The words in the sentence,

            (1)        The child found the puppy

May be grouped into (the child) and (found the puppy), corresponding to the subject and predicate of the sentence. It is easier to see the parts and subparts of the sentence in a tree diagram:


Other sentences with the same meaning as the original sentence can be formed; for example:

            It was the puppy the child found

            The puppy was found by the child

and in all such arrangements the puppy remains intact. Found the does not remain intact, nor can the sentence be changed by moving found the around. All these facts show that the puppy is a natural structure whereas found the is not.

Only one tree representation consistent with an English speaker’s syntactic knowledge can be drawn for the sentence the child found the puppy. But the phrase synthetic buffalo hides has two such trees, one for each of its two meanings:


Part of the syntactic component of a grammar is the specification of the syntactic categories in the language, since this constitutes part of speaker’s knowledge. That is, speaker’s of English know that item a, b, c, f, g and i in (2) are Noun Phrases even if they have never heard the term before.

(2)          (a)    bird

(b)           the red banjo

(c)            have a nice day

(d)           with a balloon

(e)            the woman who was laughing

(f)            it

(g)            John

(h)           Went

(i)            That the earth is round

You can test this claim by inserting each expression into the context Who discovered ________ ?” and “ _______ was seen by everyone.”

Only those sentences in which NPs are inserted are grammatical, because only NPs can function as subjects or objects.

There are other syntactic categories. The expression found the puppy is a verb Phrase (VP). In (3), the Verb Phrases are those that can complete the sentence “The child ________ “

(3) (a)   saw a clown

(b)       a bird

(c)        slept

(d)       smart

(e)        smart

(f)        found the cake

(g)        found the cake in the cupboard

(h)       realized that the earth was round

Inserting a, c, e, f, g and will produce grammatical sentences whereas the insertion of b or d would result in an ungrammatical string. Thus a, c, e, f, g and h are Verb Phrase.

Other syntactic categories are Sentence (S), Determiner (Det), Adjective (Adj), Noun (N), Pronoun (Pro), Preposition (P), Prepositional Phrase (PP), Adverb (Adv), Auxiliary (Aux), and Verb (V). some of these categories have been traditionally called “parts of speech


The fact that The child found the puppy belongs to the syntactic category of Sentence, that the child and the puppy are Noun Phrases, that found the puppy is a Verb Phrase,, and so on, can be illustrated in a tree diagram by supplying the name of the syntactic category of each word grouping. These names are often referred to as syntactic labels.


A tree diagram with syntactic category information provided is called a phrase structure tree. Three aspects of speakers’ syntactic knowledge of sentence structure are disclosed in phrase structure trees:

  1. the linear order of the words in the sentence,
  2. the grouping of words into particular syntactic categories,
  3. the hierarchical structure of the syntactic categories (e.g. a Sentence is composed of a Noun Phrase followed by a Noun Phrase followed by a Verb Phrase, a Verb Phrase is composed  of a Verb that may be followed by a Noun Phrase, and do on).

The phrase structure tree above is correct, but it is redundant. The word child is repeated three times in the tree, puppy is repeated four times, and so on. We can stream line the tree by writing the words only once at the bottom of the diagram.



We have now looked at the syntax of the language and seen the flexibility that can be exploited by users of English. It is worth remembering that complex structures are not necessarily a feature of good style and also that effective communication relies on a structure being grammatical, acceptable and interpretable.