Definitions and Discussion of English Syntax

syntax blackboard

 Charles C Thomas, 2008

In linguistics, syntax refers to the rules that govern the ways in which words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. It comes from Greek for "arrange together." The term is also used to mean the study of the syntactic properties of a language. Syntax is one of the major components of grammar

"It is syntax that gives the words the power to relate to each other in a sequence...to carry meaning—of whatever kind—as well as glow individually in just the right place," wrote Anthony Burgess in "Enderby Outside" (1968).

Andrew Radford elaborates,

"Within traditional grammar, the syntax of a language is described in terms of a taxonomy (i.e. the classificatory list) of the range of different types of syntactic structures found in the language. The central assumption underpinning syntactic analysis in traditional grammar is that phrases and sentences are built up of a series of constituents (i.e. syntactic units), each of which belongs to a specific grammatical category and serves a specific grammatical function. Given this assumption, the task of the linguist analysing the syntactic structure of any given type of sentence is to identify each of the constituents in the sentence, and (for each constituent) to say what category it belongs to and what function it serves." ("English Syntax: An Introduction." Cambridge University Press, 2004)

For example, English parts of speech often follow ordering patterns in sentences and clauses, such as prepositional phrases starting with a preposition, compound sentences being joined by conjunctions or multiple adjectives following a particular order according to their class (such as opinion-size-color).

Sentences often start with a subject, followed by a predicate (or just a verb as the entire predicate in the simplest of sentences) and contain an object or a complement (or both), which shows, for example, what's being acted upon. Analyze the syntax of "Beth slowly ran the race in wild, multicolored flip-flops." Adverbs and adjectives take their places in front of what they're modifying, and the sentence follows a subject-verb-object pattern.

Syntax Variations and Distinctions

Syntax has changed some over the development of English through the centuries. "Syntactic change—change in the form and order of words—is...sometimes described as 'an elusive process as compared to sound change,'" noted author Jean Atichison.

"Its apparently puzzling nature is partly due to its variety. Word endings can be modified. Chaucer's line And smale foweles maken melodye shows that English has changed several of them in the last 600 years. The behaviour of verbs can alter. Middle English I kan a noble tale 'I know a fine story' reveals that can could once be used as a main verb with a direct object. And word order may switch. The proverb Whoever loved that loved not at first sight? indicates that English negatives could once be placed after main verbs. These are just a random sample of syntactic changes which have occurred in English in the last half-millennium or so." ("Language Change: Progress or Decay?" 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Author Carl Lee Baker discusses variations in syntax that aren't necessarily mistakes, in the second edition of his book "English Syntax": 

"[I]t is a mistake to believe that some English speakers follow rules in their speech and others do not. Instead, it now appears that all English speakers are successful language learners: they all follow unconscious rules derived from their early language development, and the small differences in the sentences that they prefer are best understood as coming from small differences in these rules....The differences of the sort that we are looking at here follow lines of social class and ethnic group rather than geographical lines. Thus we can speak of social varieties or social dialects." (MIT Press, 1995)

Syntax rules between formal writing and speech also show some differences between them, even in the same language. Jim Miller explained,

"Many kinds of spoken language...have a syntax that is very different from the syntax of formal writing. It is essential to understand that the differences exist not because spoken language is a degradation of written language but because any written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users." ("An Introduction to English Syntax." Edinburgh University Press, 2002)  

For example, grammar rules are more flexible in spoken language than in formal written language, which is more strict. However, English is a bit of an odd duck, because it is such a flexible language. 

"[T]he odd thing about English is that no matter how much you screw sequences word up, you understood, still, like Yoda, will be," Douglas Coupland wrote in "Generation A." "Other languages don't work that way.

French? Dieu! Misplace a single le or la and an idea vaporizes into a sonic puff. English is flexible: you can jam it into a Cuisinart for an hour, remove it, and meaning will still emerge.” (Random House Canada, 2009)

Traditionally, linguists have recognized a basic distinction between syntax and morphology (which is primarily concerned with the internal structures of words). Linguist Noam Chomsky created the sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" to show that rules governing syntax are distinct from meanings that words convey. However, the distinction between grammar and syntax has been somewhat disrupted by recent research in lexicogrammar, which takes the words into account in grammar rules: For example, some verbs always take direct objects.