What is Surface Structure? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Surface Structure Defined
  • 2:13 Example of Surface Structure
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You can do a lot more than just scratch the surface in this lesson on surface structure. Learn more about this feature of a sentence and see it in action with a few examples!

What You See: Surface Structure Defined

Many of us might've hated talking about grammatical rules or concepts in English class. If you're one of those people, you should definitely be glad your teacher never quizzed you on transformational grammar, which is a mode of linguistic analysis that identifies the relationships between sentence elements through processes or rules of gradual cognitive recognition, i.e., transformations. One of these sentence elements is the topic of this lesson and is known as surface structure, or the form of a sentence that's seen or heard.

The concept of surface structure and many other aspects of transformational grammar were popularized by Noam Chomsky, an American philosopher, cognitive scientist, and linguistics professor at MIT. In Syntactic Structures from 1957, Chomsky basically said that a sentence's surface structure is exactly what we read on the page or hear a person say.

To get a better idea of exactly what surface structure is, let's compare it to another sentence element Chomsky identified as deep structure, which represents a sentence's most basic units of meaning. For instance, these units might be 'I (tell) you' and 'you (no) (go).' Obviously, you wouldn't want to write 'you no go' on a school assignment, so this deep structure has to undergo some transformations to make a surface structure we can make more sense of.

Some of these transformations might include conjugating verbs, inflecting nouns or pronouns, i.e., who, whom, whose, or altering word order. They might also involve adding auxiliaries, i.e., would, should, or other framing elements, such as conjunctions, prepositions, or other parts of speech. So, if we were to put the units of the deep structure we saw earlier together and transformed them, we could come up with a surface structure that looks something like: 'I told you that you shouldn't go.'

Now that we've seen how deep and surface structures relate to one another, let's take a look at some different surface structures to see how they're related!

Examples of Surface Structure

Just like we can wear many different outfits and still be the same person underneath, many different surface structures can be made from a single deep one. In fact, this is one of the fundamental ideas behind transformational grammar: that since there are so many types of transformations a deep structure can go through, there are almost endless possibilities for the number of surface structures they can produce.

Let's look at some varying surface structures to see if we can trace them back to the same deep structure. Take for instance this surface structure: 'Jim's going to smash that mailbox with his dirt bike.' Now, let's take a look at this one: 'The red mailbox was smashed by Jim on his dirt bike.'

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