"What Is Syntax in Grammar?": Oregon State Guide to Grammar

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What is Syntax? - Transcript

Written and Performed by Dr. Tekla Bude, Oregon State University Assistant Professor of English Literature

I’m about to read you two sentences, and I’d like you to tell me which one makes sense: “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” or “furiously sleep ideas green colorless”? If you said “neither,” well, you’d be right. Neither of these sentences make semantic sense. That is, if you think about the ideas that are being represented in these sentences, both are totally ridiculous. Ideas can’t be green. And even if they could, then they by definition couldn’t be “colorless” (unless we’re using some poetic definition of “green,” like “new or inexperienced.”)

Ideas definitely don’t sleep, and even things that do sleep don’t sleep furiously unless they have some sort of horrible stomach bug. But what if I asked you to tell me which of these two sentences were constructed sensibly – made grammatical sense? 

This famous example comes from Noam Chomsky, and you’ve probably seen it before. It’s a perfect example of the idea of syntax: that is, how we put words together in a sentence in order to make that sentence make sense. Importantly, when we talk about syntax, we’re not talking, at least not immediately, about the ideas inside a sentence, but instead about how we organize different classes of words (like nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives) and put them in position around each other like puzzle pieces so that we fulfill our readers’ and listeners’ expectations: that is, so we make the most sense possible.  

Most simple modern English sentences follow a subject-verb-object syntax. That is: “The child kicked the ball” (subject-verb-object)[BJT2] . But not every language uses this arrangement of subject, verb, and object for its simplest sentences. Some languages, like modern standard Arabic, use verb-subject-object, and a whole host of languages, including Hindi and Japanese, prefer to put the verb at the end, subject-object-verb. While those syntaxes are expected and normal in Arabic, Hindi, and Japanese, they aren’t in English. So “kicked the child the ball” (verb-subject-object) and “the child the ball kicked” (subject-object-verb) are a little awkward. We can still understand them, but they don’t work quite right in English.

Things get even wonkier if we try some other syntactical arrangements, like object-verb-subject. In an everyday context, “the ball kicked the child” doesn’t just sound awkward, it literally changes the meaning of the sentence because our expectations about the arrangement of grammatical features in English—that is, our expectations of syntax—are so strong. Syntax helps us parse language meaning quickly and easily. Because speakers of a given language share expectations about which types of words go in what part of a sentence, we can usually figure out the semantic meaning of a sentence using our experience of its grammar. 

But this isn’t always the case! Sometimes we rearrange expected word order in order to stress a certain idea, highlight certain words, fit a rhythmic or rhyme scheme in poetry, or simply for creativity’s sake. Take this line that Richard, the Duke of York, speaks at the beginning of Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, by drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, to set my brother Clarence and the King in deadly hate, the one against the other.”

“Plots have I laid” inverts the normal subject-verb-object word order of English to object-verb-subject, and “inductions dangerous” breaks the rule of normative English word order that requires that adjectives be before the noun they modify, not after. This isn’t a simple sentence like “the child kicked the ball,” and some of it doesn’t use normative syntax, but we can still parse it because the way it flexes and bends our expectations about language fit within a range of normal that is context dependent. When we read and hear poetry, we expect our expectations to be challenged. 

These are just a couple examples of how syntax works in English. What other syntactical norms do you notice in your written and spoken English? What other features of word order help to clue you and your listeners and readers into the meaning of your language?



The Oregon State Guide to Grammar