• Syntax: rules governing the sequences and combinations of words in the formation of phrases and sentences
o Syntactic rules determine whether a sequence of words is grammatical – that is, conform to the patterns
acceptable within the language.
• Syntax specifies the structure of the sentence and, with that, specifies the role of each word within the sentence.
• Phrase-structure rules: rules that identify the patterns within each of the sentence’s main components
o One phrase-structure rule stipulates that a sentence (S) always consists of a noun phrase (NP) followed by a
verb phrase (VP)
Often diagrammed as an (upside-down) “tree structure”
o Another phrase-structure rule is the one defining how a noun phrase can be expanded:
NP (det) A*N
This means that a noun phrase consists of a determiner (“a”, “or” or “the”), followed by an adjective
(A), followed by a noun (N)
The symbol “det” is in parentheses, indicating that this term is optional
There can be any number of adjectives, including none; this is indicated by the asterisk.
o Figure 10.6: The syntax of a sentence is often depicted via a “tree” diagram. The diagram shows that the
overall sentence itself (S) consists of a noun phrase (NP) followed by a very phrase (VP). The noun phrase is
composed of a determiner followed by an adjective and a noun. The verb phrase is composed of a verb
followed by a noun phrase.
• The phrase-structure rules have an important feature called recursion.
o A rule system is recursive if a symbol can appear both on the left side of a definition (the part being defined)
and on the right side (the part providing the definition)
o Thus, a sentence always includes a noun phrase and a verb phrase
S NPVP; here it is the S that is being defined
The verb phrase can be unpacked in several different ways, including
• VP V NP
• VP V S (S appears as part of the definition; there is a sentence within a sentence)
o Example: “I believe she is the thief”
The Function of Phrase Structure
• Phrase-structure rules provide part of our account for why some sequences of words are rejected as ungrammatical. o They specify what must be included within a sentence, and they often specify an order for the sentence.
o Sequences of words that break these rules can’t be sentences
• Phrase-structure rules capture the “natural” groupings of words within each sentence: Groups of words identified by
the rules really do seem to hang together.
• Phrase-structure rules also seem to guide our interpretation of a sentence
• The role of phrase-structure in guiding interpretation is particularly clear in cases of phrase-structure ambiguity.
o Sometimes two different phrase structures can lead to the same sequence of words, so that, if you encounter
those words, you may not know which phrase structure is intended.
• Figure 10.10: One can understand the first sentence as describing a discussion with Cavett, or as describing sex with
• Phrase-structure rules allow us to “grow” a sentence tree, but then the movement rules allow us to “reshape” the tree
by exchanging the position of some of the tree’s branches.
• This reshaping allows us to shift the “focus” of a sentence.
o “The ball was hit by the boy” focusing on the ball
o “The boy hit the ball” focusing on the boy
• The phrase-structure rules allow us to generate the sentence’s underlying structure, or d-structure.
• Then the movement rules allow us to change the positions of various elements within the sentence, in order to create
the sentence’s surface structure, or s-structure.
o It is the d-structure that provides the starting point for semantic analysis, since it is this structure that makes
clear who did what to whom.
o It is the s-structure that is expressed in speech.
• Linguistic universals: principles applicable to every human language
o The subject of a sentence tends to precede the object in roughly 98% of the world’s languages. The
sequence of subject before verb is preferred in roughly 80% of the world’s languages.
• A number of scholars have argued that language learning is possible only because the child enters this process with
an enormous head start: a biological heritage that stipulates the broad outline of human language.
o The child must begin the process already knowing the universal rules of language.
o The process of language learning would therefore be a process of figuring out exactly how the rules are
realized within the language community in which the child is raised.
The child needs to learn whether she lives in a community that prefers the subject-verb-object
sequence or the subject-object-verb order.
o Having learned that, the child can then set the “switches” properly on the “language machinery” that she was
born with and, in that way, be well on her way to speaking in the fashion that’s appropriate for her language
community. Sentence Parsing
• How do you parse a sentence – that is, figure out each word’s syntactic role?
1. You wait until the sentence’s end, and only then go to work on figuring out the sentence’s structure
Comprehension might be slowed a little
But avoid errors
2. You parse the sentence as you are hearing it, trying to figure out the role of each word the moment you hear the
More efficient (no waiting)
But may lead to error
• Garden-path sentences: You are initially led to one interpretation, but this interpretation then turns out to be wrong.
Hence, you need to reject your initial construal and seek an alternative.
o Example: “The old man the ships”, “The secretary applauded for his efforts was soon promoted”
• Garden-path sentences highlight the fact that there’s some risk attached to the strategy of interpreting a sentence as it
• You commit yourself fairly early to one interpretation and then try to “fit” subsequent words, as they arrive, into that
interpretation. This strategy is probably efficient more often than not, but it does lead to the “double-take” reaction
when late-arriving information forces you to abandon your interpretative efforts so far.
Syntax as a Guide to Parsing
• People use different strategies in parsing the sentences they encounter.
o They tend to assume that they will be hearing (or reading) active sentences rather than passive, and so they
generally interpret a sentence’s initial noun phrase as the “doer” of the action, and not the recipient.
• Parsing seems to be guided by an assumption of so-called minimal attachment.
o The listener or reader proceeds through a sentence seeking the simplest possible phrase structure that will
accommodate the words heard so far.
Semantics as a Guide to Parsing
• It is easier to understand an active sentence than it is to understand the corresponding passive sentence. This is true
only if the sentence is “reversible”.
• If a word has several meanings, you tend to assume its most frequent meaning whenever you encounter the word.
o Our reliance on frequent meanings is part of our problem in understanding sentences like, “The old man
ships,” or “The new train quickly, but the old train more slowly.”
The Extralinguistic Context • The extralinguistic context (factors outside of the language itself) is also important for sentence parsing and sentence
• Figure 10.11: “Put the apple on the towel into the box.”
o When the sentence is simultaneously presented with this picture, the listener finds “on the towel” useful in
clearing up the ambiguity of “the apple.”
The Use of Language: What is Left Unsaid
• The rise and fall of speech intonation and the pattern of pauses are useful in parsing.
• These rhythm and pitch cues are together called prosody and play an important role in speech perception.
• Prosody can reveal the mood of a speaker; it can also direct the listener’s attention by, in effect, specifying the focus
or theme of a sentence.
• Prosody can also render unambiguous a sentence that w