Structure Dependency and Linguistics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

English grammar
(kaan tanman/Getty Images)

The linguistic principle that grammatical processes function primarily on structures in sentences, not on single words or sequences of words is termed structure-dependency. Many linguists view structure-dependency as a principle of universal grammar.

The Structure Of Language

  • "The principle of structure-dependency compels all languages to move parts of the sentence around in accordance with its structure rather than just the sheer order of words. . . .
    "Structure-dependency could not be acquired by children from hearing sentences of the language; rather, it imposes itself on whatever language they encounter, just as in a sense the pitch range of the human ear restricts the sounds we can hear. Children do not have to learn these principles but apply them to any language they hear." (Michael Byram, Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning. Routledge, 2000)
  • "All speakers of English know structure-dependency without having given it a moment's thought; they automatically reject *Is Sam is the the cat that black? even if they have never encountered its like before. How do they have this instant response? They would accept many sentences that they have never previously encountered, so it is not just that they have never heard it before. Nor is structure-dependency transparent from the normal language they have encountered--only by concocting sentences that deliberately breach it can linguists show its very existence. Structure-dependency is, then, a principle of language knowledge built-in to the human mind. It becomes part of any language that is learned, not just of English. Principles and parameters theory claims that an important component of the speaker's knowledge of any language such as English is made up of a handful of general language principles such as structure-dependency." (Vivian Cook, "Universal Grammar and the Learning and Teaching of Second Languages." Perspectives On Pedagogical Grammar, ed. by Terence Odlin. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Interrogative Structures

  • ​"One example of a universal principle is structure-dependency. When a child learns interrogative sentences, it learns to place the finite verb in sentence initial position:
(9a.) The doll is pretty
(9b.) Is the doll pretty?
(10a.) The doll is gone
(10b.) Is the doll gone?

If children lacked insight into structure-dependency, it should follow that they make errors such as (11b), since they would not know that the doll is pretty is the sentence to be put in the interrogative form:

(11a.) The doll that is gone, is pretty.
(11b.) *Is the doll that (0) gone, is pretty?
(11c.) Is the doll that is gone (0) pretty?

But children do not seem to produce incorrect sentences such as (11b), and nativist linguists therefore conclude that insight into structure-dependency must be innate." (Josine A. Lalleman, "The State of the Art in Second Language Acquisition Research." Investigating Second Language Acquisition, ed. by Peter Jordens and Josine Lalleman. Mouton de Gruyter, 1996)

The Genitive Construction

  • ​"The genitive construction in English can . . . help us illustrate the concept of structure- dependency. In (8) we see how the genitive attaches to the noun student:
(8) The student's essay is very good.

If we construct a longer noun phrase, the genitive 's will come at the very end, or edge, of the NP, independently of the category of the word:

(9) [That young student from Germany]'s essay is very good.
(10) [The student you were talking to]'s essay is very good.

The rule that determines the genitive's construction is based on the Noun Phrase: 's is attached to the edge of the NP." (Mireia Llinàs et al., Basic Concepts for the Analysis of English Sentences. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, 2008)

Also Known As: syntactic structure-dependency

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Structure Dependency and Linguistics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). Structure Dependency and Linguistics. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Structure Dependency and Linguistics." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).