What Is Syntax in Linguistics? - Definition & Overview

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  • 0:03 Syntax & English…
  • 0:41 English Sentence Structure
  • 2:05 Simple & Compound Sentences
  • 3:31 Complex & Compound-Complex
  • 4:38 Verbal & Written Expressions
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ralica Rangelova

Rali has taught Public Speaking to college students and English as a Second Language; She has a master's degree in communication.

In this lesson, you'll find a brief definition of syntax, followed by a guide for arranging words in sentences and combining clauses correctly, with examples and explanations. You'll learn how syntax affects both verbal and written expression skills.

Syntax & English Sentence Structure

Syntax is the part of linguistics that studies the structure and formation of sentences. It explains how words and phrases are arranged to form correct sentences. A sentence could make no sense and still be correct from the syntax point of view as long as words are in their appropriate spots and agree with each other. Here is a classic example by Noam Chomsky, a linguist, that illustrates a case in which a sentence is correct but does not make sense:

  • Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

To create grammatically correct and acceptable English sentences, we have to follow the English rules for syntax.

English Sentence Structure

Every word in a sentence plays a specific role within the sentence. Every sentence consists of a subject and a verb at the very least. Simple sentences follow a basic Subject-Verb-Object format. For example:

  • The girl bought a book.

The subject may be combined with adjectives or descriptive phrases that add detail. For example:

  • The man who stole the car.

A sentence can contain a direct and an indirect object. In that case, the word order will be Subject-Verb-Direct Object-Indirect Object. For example:

  • The mother gave an apple to the child.

To add where, how, and when details, follow the order: Subject-Verb-Object-Manner-Place-Time. For example:

  • She handed the book to him quietly in class yesterday.

Structurally, sentences can be organized into four groups: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences. What classifies each sentence is the number of main ideas or complete thoughts they contain. A complete thought is also called an independent clause. It's a sentence with at least one subject and one verb that can exist on its own and conveys a clear message. If a sentence sounds unfinished and unclear, then it's a dependent clause: it has a subject and a verb but does not express a complete thought. In this case, it needs to be combined with an independent clause to create a clear sentence.

Simple & Compound Sentences

Simple sentences consist of one Independent clause and express only one main idea. For example:

  • We received the letter.

While it has to contain at least one subject and one verb to stand alone, it can have more than one of each. However, both subjects have to be related to the same action or actions. For example:

  • My wife and I work and study.

Note that these sentences are not simple just because they're short. In fact, they can include more information and still be simple. The use of prepositions, prepositional phrases, compound words, or phrases will make a sentence look complicated but they simply add description to it. For example:

  • My wife and I bought a brand new car for just $50,000 two weeks ago.

Compound sentences consist of two or more simple sentences joined together and express more than two main ideas at once. They're connected with a semicolon (;) or comma (,) and followed by a coordinating conjunction: and, or, but, so, for, yet, nor; or a conjunctive adverb: however, instead, therefore. Each subject is in charge of a different action. For example:

  • Sue painted the house gray and blue, and Tom moved the boxes from the truck to the rooms.

Sometimes, it's acceptable to omit the comma, especially if the independent clauses are simplistic and short. For example:

  • She smiled and I laughed.

Complex & Compound-Complex

Complex sentences contain an independent clause and a dependent clause. Dependent and independent clauses are joined together with a subordinate conjunction: after, although, because, before, since, until, when, where. For example:

  • Even though I was angry with him, I answered his call.

The dependent clause can serve as an adjective, a noun, or an adverb:

  • Tony bought the house that we showed him.

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