By Kamil Wiśniewski July 12th, 2007

Syntax is a branch of linguistics that is concerned with the study of the structure of a sentence and ordering of its elements. The word syntax itself derives from Greek words meaning ‘together’ or ‘arrangement’, but also the modern syntactic tradition and investigations have their roots in the findings of ancient Greeks. One of such ‘traditional’ tasks of linguists dealing with syntax was to describe the organization of the parts of a sentence, however, with the development of this branch of linguistics, and especially in contemporary inquiries the scope of interest has widened.
Yet, before the most recent theories are presented the very concept of a ‘sentence’ needs clarification. As a general rule, a sentence is described as a full formulation of an idea, nevertheless, there are numerous examples of thoughts expressed in a language, and yet in not fully developed sentences, like: ‘Go!’, or ‘Coffee?’. That is why two different approaches to defining sentences have emerged: notional which characterizes a sentence as an expression of a single idea, and formal focusing on the manners of constructing sentences, and patterns within them.
As a consequence of the differences in the approaches a division of sentences on the basis of their complexity was created. And thus sentences are either major, or minor. Major sentences are those which can be modified or analyzed further into patterns of elements. They are further subdivided into simple sentences, which consist of only one clause, or multiple sentences consisting of two or more clauses. On the other hand, minor sentences cannot be broken down into patterns of elements, because they use ‘abnormal’ patterns, in that they do not follow the rules of grammar. Some types of minor sentences include: abbreviated forms, such as ‘wish you were here’; proverbs: ‘easy come, easy go’; emotional noises: ‘ouch!’, ‘ugh!’; formulae: ‘how do you do?’.
Seeing all those difficulties an American linguist Noam Chomsky came up with an idea of generative grammar, which was supposed to look at the grammar of language from the mathematical point of view, constructing a limited number of rules describing all the possible patterns of forming correct sentences. Moreover, what Chomsky showed was the difference between the deep and surface structure of a sentence. What he called the surface structure of a sentence was its grammatical form, and the deep structure was understood as the meaning of sentence. For example the two sentences: I know Mary. and Mary knows me. differ in their surface structure, but not in their deep structure. Still, it is the deep structure that might cause the biggest problems. Certain sentences, although easily understood, can be ambiguous because of their structure, like for instance He hit a guy with a car. This sentence can mean that he was driving a car and hit someone, or that he hit somebody who had a car.
All of the above mentioned issues are in the focus of attention of linguists dealing with syntax who in order to analyze various types of sentences had to introduce specific methods and symbols. Lets start with the symbols, and abbreviations:

With such symbols practically all sentences can be presented as a tree diagram. Such diagrams fulfill at least two roles: they show how sentences can be broken down to illustrate their structure, but what is more, it shows a general manner of creating sentences, which led to the idea that with one diagram like that a number of sentences can be created providing similar structures are used. Thus phrase structure rules were formulated in order to construct unlimited sentences with a small number of rules. However, sentences made with the use of such rules would always have similar word order, therefore another set of rules, called transformational rules, was introduced to enable more flexibility and to explain how statements can be transformed into questions, or negations.

Yule G. 1996. The study of language. Cambridge: CUP.
Brown K. (Editor) 2005. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics – 2nd Edition. Oxford: Elsevier.
Crystal D. 2005, The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language – 2nd edition. Cambridge: CUP.
Wilson R. A. (Editor) 1999. The MIT encyclopedia of cognitive sciences. London: The MIT Press.

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