surface structure (generative grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

surface structure (grammar)
Surface structure is "now called S-structure," says Steven Pinker, "because as a mere 'surface' representation it never used to get proper respect" (The Language Instinct,1994). (Nick Pedersen/Getty Images)


In transformational and generative grammar, surface structure is the outward form of a sentence. In contrast to deep structure (an abstract representation of a sentence), surface structure corresponds to the version of a sentence that can be spoken and heard. A modified version of the concept of surface structure is called S-structure.

In transformational grammar, deep structures are generated by phrase-structure rules, and surface structures are derived from deep structures by a series of transformations.

In The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (2014), Aarts et al. point out that, in a looser sense, "deep and surface structure are often used as terms in a simple binary opposition, with the deep structure representing meaning, and the surface structure being the actual sentence we see."

The terms deep structure and surface structure were popularized in the 1960s and '70s by American linguist Noam Chomsky. In recent years, notes Geoffrey Finch, "the terminology has changed: 'Deep' and 'surface' structure have become 'D' and 'S' structure, principally because the original terms seemed to imply some sort of qualitative evaluation; 'deep' suggested 'profound,' whilst 'surface' was too close to 'superficial.' Nevertheless, the principles of transformational grammar still remain very much alive in contemporary linguistics" (Linguistic Terms and Concepts, 2000).

See Examples and Observations, below.

Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "The surface structure of a sentence is the final stage in the syntactic representation of a sentence, which provides the input to the phonological component of the grammar, and which thus most closely corresponds to the structure of the sentence we articulate and hear. . . . This two-level conception of grammatical structure is still widely held, though it has been much criticized in recent generative studies. An alternative conception is to relate surface structure directly to a semantic level of representation, bypassing deep structure altogether. . . . The term 'surface grammar' is sometimes used as an informal term for the superficial properties of the sentence."
    (David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 6th ed. Wiley, 2011)

  • "A deep structure is . . . the underlying form of a sentence, before rules like auxiliary inversion and wh-fronting apply. After all raisings apply, plus relevant morphological and phonological rules (as for forms of do), the result . . . is the linear, concrete, surface structure of sentences, ready to be given phonetic form."
    (Grover Hudson, Essential Introductory Linguistics. Blackwell, 2000)
  • Surface Structure Cues and Strategies
    "The surface structure of the sentence often provides a number of obvious cues to the underlying syntactic representation. One obvious approach is to use these cues and a number of simple strategies that enable us to compute the syntactic structure. The earliest detailed expositions of this idea were by Bever (1970) and Fodor and Garrett (1967). These researchers detailed a number of parsing strategies that used only syntactic cues. Perhaps the simplest example is that when we see or hear a determiner such as 'the' or 'a,' we know a noun phrase has just started. A second example is based on the observation that although word order is variable in English, and transformations such as passivization can change it, the common structure noun-verb-noun often maps on to what is called the canonical sentence structure SVO (subject-verb-object). That is, in most sentences we hear or read, the first noun is the subject, and the second one the object. In fact, if we made use of this strategy we could get a long way in comprehension. We try the simpler strategies first, and if they do not work, we try other ones."
    (Trevor A. Harley, The Psychology of Language: From Data to Theory, 4th ed. Psychology Press, 2014)
  • Chomsky on Deep and Surface Structures
    "[T]he generative grammar of a language specifies an infinite set of structural descriptions, each of which contains a deep structure, a surface structure, a phonetic representation, a semantic representation, and other formal structures. The rules relating deep and surface structures--the so-called 'grammatical transformations'--have been investigated in some detail, and are fairly well understood. The rules that relate surface structures and phonetic representations are also reasonably well understood (though I do not want to imply that the matter is beyond dispute: far from it). It seems that both deep and surface structures enter into the determination of meaning. Deep structure provides the grammatical relations of predication, modification, and so on, that enter into the determination of meaning. On the other hand, it appears that matters of focus and presupposition, topic and comment, the scope of logical elements, and pronominal reference are determined, in part at least, by surface structure. The rules that relate syntactic structures to representations of meaning are not at all well understood. In fact, the notion of 'representation of meaning' or 'semantic representation' is itself highly controversial. It is not clear at all that it is possible to distinguish sharply between the contribution of grammar to the determination of meaning, and the contribution of so-called 'pragmatic considerations,' questions of fact and belief and context of utterance."
    (Noam Chomsky, lecture given in January 1969 at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Rpt. in Language and Mind, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "surface structure (generative grammar)." ThoughtCo, Dec. 15, 2016, Nordquist, Richard. (2016, December 15). surface structure (generative grammar). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "surface structure (generative grammar)." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 19, 2018).