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In linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

, syntax (from Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...

  "arrangement" from syn, "together", and táxis, "an ordering") is the study of the principles and rules for constructing phrases and sentences
Sentence (linguistics)
In the field of linguistics, a sentence is an expression in natural language, and often defined to indicate a grammatical unit consisting of one or more words that generally bear minimal syntactic relation to the words that precede or follow it...

 in natural language
Natural language
In the philosophy of language, a natural language is any language which arises in an unpremeditated fashion as the result of the innate facility for language possessed by the human intellect. A natural language is typically used for communication, and may be spoken, signed, or written...


In addition to referring to the overarching discipline, the term syntax is also used to refer directly to the rules and principles that govern the sentence structure of any individual language, as in "the syntax of Modern Irish
Irish syntax
Irish syntax is rather different from that of most Indo-European languages, notably because of its VSO word order.-Normal word order:The normal word order in an Irish sentence is:#Preverbal particle#Verb#Subject#Direct object or predicate adjective...


Modern research in syntax attempts to describe languages in terms of such rules. Many professionals in this discipline attempt to find general rules
Universal grammar
Universal grammar is a theory in linguistics that suggests that there are properties that all possible natural human languages have.Usually credited to Noam Chomsky, the theory suggests that some rules of grammar are hard-wired into the brain, and manifest themselves without being taught...

 that apply to all natural languages.

The term syntax is also used to refer to the rules governing the behavior of mathematical systems, such as formal languages used in logic
In philosophy, Logic is the formal systematic study of the principles of valid inference and correct reasoning. Logic is used in most intellectual activities, but is studied primarily in the disciplines of philosophy, mathematics, semantics, and computer science...

. See Syntax (logic)
Syntax (logic)
In logic, syntax is anything having to do with formal languages or formal systems without regard to any interpretation or meaning given to them...

; Computer-programming
Computer programming
Computer programming is the process of designing, writing, testing, debugging, and maintaining the source code of computer programs. This source code is written in one or more programming languages. The purpose of programming is to create a program that performs specific operations or exhibits a...

 languages; Syntax (programming languages).

Though there has been an interplay in the development of the modern theoretical frameworks for the syntax of formal languages and natural languages, this article surveys only the latter.

Early history

Works on grammar were written long before modern syntax came about; the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini is often cited as an example of a premodern work that approaches the sophistication of a modern syntactic theory. In the West, the school of thought that came to be known as "traditional grammar" began with the work of Dionysius Thrax
Dionysius Thrax
Dionysius Thrax was a Hellenistic grammarian and a pupil of Aristarchus of Samothrace. His place of origin was not Thrace as the epithet Thrax denotes, but probably Alexandria...


For centuries, work in syntax was dominated by a framework known as , first expounded in 1660 by Antoine Arnauld
Antoine Arnauld
Antoine Arnauld — le Grand as contemporaries called him, to distinguish him from his father — was a French Roman Catholic theologian, philosopher, and mathematician...

 in a book of the same title. This system took as its basic premise the assumption that language is a direct reflection of thought processes and therefore there is a single, most natural way to express a thought. That way, coincidentally, was exactly the way it was expressed in French.

However, in the 19th century, with the development of historical-comparative linguistics, linguists began to realize the sheer diversity of human language, and to question fundamental assumptions about the relationship between language and logic. It became apparent that there was no such thing as the most natural way to express a thought, and therefore logic could no longer be relied upon as a basis for studying the structure of language.

The Port-Royal grammar modeled the study of syntax upon that of logic (indeed, large parts of the Port-Royal Logic
Port-Royal Logic
Port-Royal Logic, or Logique de Port-Royal, is the common name of La logique, ou l'art de penser, an important textbook on logic first published anonymously in 1662 by Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, two prominent members of the Jansenist movement, centered around Port-Royal. Blaise Pascal...

 were copied or adapted from the Grammaire générale). Syntactic categories were identified with logical ones, and all sentences were analyzed in terms of "Subject – Copula – Predicate". Initially, this view was adopted even by the early comparative linguists such as Franz Bopp
Franz Bopp
Franz Bopp was a German linguist known for extensive comparative work on Indo-European languages.-Biography:...


The central role of syntax within theoretical linguistics became clear only in the 20th century, which could reasonably be called the "century of syntactic theory" as far as linguistics is concerned. For a detailed and critical survey of the history of syntax in the last two centuries, see the monumental work by Graffi (2001).

Modern theories

There are a number of theoretical approaches to the discipline of syntax. One school of thought, founded in the works of Derek Bickerton
Derek Bickerton
Derek Bickerton is a linguist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Based on his work in creole languages in Guyana and Hawaii, he has proposed that the features of creole languages provide powerful insights into the development of language both by individuals and as a...

, sees syntax as a branch of biology, since it conceives of syntax as the study of linguistic knowledge as embodied in the human mind
The concept of mind is understood in many different ways by many different traditions, ranging from panpsychism and animism to traditional and organized religious views, as well as secular and materialist philosophies. Most agree that minds are constituted by conscious experience and intelligent...

. Other linguists (e.g. Gerald Gazdar
Gerald Gazdar
Gerald James Michael Gazdar is a linguist and computer scientist.He was educated at Bradfield College and subsequently graduated from the University of East Anglia with a BA in 1970, and from the University of Reading where he completed his master's degree in 1972 and his PhD in 1976...

) take a more Platonistic view, since they regard syntax to be the study of an abstract formal system
Formal system
In formal logic, a formal system consists of a formal language and a set of inference rules, used to derive an expression from one or more other premises that are antecedently supposed or derived . The axioms and rules may be called a deductive apparatus...

. Yet others (e.g. Joseph Greenberg
Joseph Greenberg
Joseph Harold Greenberg was a prominent and controversial American linguist, principally known for his work in two areas, linguistic typology and the genetic classification of languages.- Early life and career :...

) consider grammar a taxonomical device to reach broad generalizations across languages.
Andrey Korsakov
Andrey Korsakov
Andrey Konstantinovich Korsakov was an eminent Russian and Ukrainian linguist and language philosopher who specialised in the grammar of the English language and is considered a father of Grammar School in Ukraine. Having organised the Chair of English Grammar at Odessa National Mechnikov...

's school of thought suggests philosophic understanding of morphological
Morphology (linguistics)
In linguistics, morphology is the identification, analysis and description, in a language, of the structure of morphemes and other linguistic units, such as words, affixes, parts of speech, intonation/stress, or implied context...

 and syntactic phenomena. At foundations of their linguistic ideas, lies classical philosophy which treats reality
In philosophy, reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. In a wider definition, reality includes everything that is and has been, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible...

 as consisting of things
Object (philosophy)
An object in philosophy is a technical term often used in contrast to the term subject. Consciousness is a state of cognition that includes the subject, which can never be doubted as only it can be the one who doubts, and some object or objects that may or may not have real existence without...

, their qualities
Quality (philosophy)
A quality is an attribute or a property. Attributes are ascribable, by a subject, whereas properties are possessible. In contemporary philosophy, the idea of qualities and especially how to distinguish certain kinds of qualities from one another remains controversial.-Background:Aristotle analyzed...

 and relationship
Relationship or relationships may refer to:* Interpersonal relationship* Intimate relationship* In mathematics and statistics:** Binary relation** Causal relationship** Correlation and dependence** Direct relationship** Inverse relationship...

s. From here the followers of Korsakov's school assert the subdivision of words by the parts of speech. Syntactic problems also get their enlightenment in the terms of philosophic process
Process (philosophy)
In philosophy and systems theory, basic processes, or logical homologies as they were termed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, are unifying principles which operate in many different systemic contexts. For example, feedback is a principle that figures prominently in the science of cybernetics...

Some more approaches to the discipline are listed below.

Generative grammar

The hypothesis of generative grammar is that language is a structure of the human mind. The goal of generative grammar is to make a complete model of this inner language (known as i-language). This model could be used to describe all human language and to predict the grammaticality
In theoretical linguistics, grammaticality is the quality of a linguistic utterance of being grammatically well-formed. An * before a form is a mark that the cited form is ungrammatical....

 of any given utterance (that is, to predict whether the utterance would sound correct to native speakers of the language). This approach to language was pioneered by Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and...

. Most generative theories (although not all of them) assume that syntax is based upon the constituent structure of sentences. Generative grammars are among the theories that focus primarily on the form of a sentence, rather than its communicative function.

Among the many generative theories of linguistics, the Chomskyan theories are:
  • Transformational Grammar
    Transformational grammar
    In linguistics, a transformational grammar or transformational-generative grammar is a generative grammar, especially of a natural language, that has been developed in the Chomskyan tradition of phrase structure grammars...

     (TG) (Original theory of generative syntax laid out by Chomsky in Syntactic Structures in 1957)
  • Government and binding theory
    Government and binding theory
    Government and binding is a theory of syntax and a phrase structure grammar in the tradition of transformational grammar developed principally by Noam Chomsky in the 1980s...

     (GB) (revised theory in the tradition of TG developed mainly by Chomsky in the 1970s and 1980s)
  • Minimalist program
    Minimalist program
    In linguistics, the Minimalist Program is a major line of inquiry that has been developing inside generative grammar since the early nineties. It started with a 1993 paper by Noam Chomsky....

     (MP) (a reworking of the theory out of the GB framework published by Chomsky in 1995)

Other theories that find their origin in the generative paradigm are:
  • Generative semantics
    Generative semantics
    Generative semantics is the name of a research program within linguistics, initiated by the work of various early students of Noam Chomsky: John R. Ross, Paul Postal and later James McCawley...

     (now largely out of date)
  • Relational grammar
    Relational grammar
    In linguistics, Relational Grammar is a syntactic theory which argues that primitive grammatical relations provide the ideal means to state syntactic rules in universal terms. Relational grammar began as an alternative to transformational grammar....

     (RG) (now largely out of date)
  • Arc Pair grammar
    Arc pair grammar
    In linguistics, Arc Pair grammar is a syntactic theory developed by David E. Johnson and Paul Postal which is a formalized continuation of relational grammar developed by David M. Perlmutter and Paul M...

  • Generalized phrase structure grammar
    Generalised phrase structure grammar
    Generalised phrase structure grammar is a framework for describing the syntax and semantics of natural languages. It is a type of phrase structure grammar, as opposed to a dependency grammar. GPSG was initially developed in the late 1970s by Gerald Gazdar. Other contributors include Ewan Klein,...

     (GPSG; now largely out of date)
  • Head-driven phrase structure grammar
    Head-driven phrase structure grammar
    Head-driven phrase structure grammar is a highly lexicalized, non-derivational generative grammar theory developed by Carl Pollard and Ivan Sag. It is the immediate successor to generalized phrase structure grammar. HPSG draws from other fields such as computer science and uses Ferdinand de...

  • Lexical-functional grammar (LFG)

  • Nanosyntax
    Nanosyntax is an approach to syntax in which syntactic parse trees are built up out of a large number of syntactic constituents. Each morpheme may correspond to several such elements, which do not have to form a "subtree"....

Categorial grammar

Categorial grammar
Categorial grammar
Categorial grammar is a term used for a family of formalisms in natural language syntax motivated by the principle of compositionality and organized according to the view that syntactic constituents should generally combine as functions or according to a function-argument relationship...

 is an approach that attributes the syntactic structure not to rules of grammar, but to the properties of the syntactic categories themselves. For example, rather than asserting that sentences are constructed by a rule that combines a noun phrase (NP) and a verb phrase (VP) (e.g. the phrase structure rule S → NP VP), in categorial grammar, such principles are embedded in the category of the head
Head (linguistics)
In linguistics, the head is the word that determines the syntactic type of the phrase of which it is a member, or analogously the stem that determines the semantic category of a compound of which it is a component. The other elements modify the head....

 word itself. So the syntactic category for an intransitive verb is a complex formula representing the fact that the verb acts as a functor
In category theory, a branch of mathematics, a functor is a special type of mapping between categories. Functors can be thought of as homomorphisms between categories, or morphisms when in the category of small categories....

 which requires an NP as an input and produces a sentence level structure as an output. This complex category is notated as (NP\S) instead of V. NP\S is read as " a category that searches to the left (indicated by \) for a NP (the element on the left) and outputs a sentence (the element on the right)". The category of transitive verb
Transitive verb
In syntax, a transitive verb is a verb that requires both a direct subject and one or more objects. The term is used to contrast intransitive verbs, which do not have objects.-Examples:Some examples of sentences with transitive verbs:...

 is defined as an element that requires two NPs (its subject and its direct object) to form a sentence. This is notated as (NP/(NP\S)) which means "a category that searches to the right (indicated by /) for an NP (the object), and generates a function (equivalent to the VP) which is (NP\S), which in turn represents a function that searches to the left for an NP and produces a sentence).

Tree-adjoining grammar
Tree-adjoining grammar
Tree-adjoining grammar is a grammar formalism defined by Aravind Joshi. Tree-adjoining grammars are somewhat similar to context-free grammars, but the elementary unit of rewriting is the tree rather than the symbol...

 is a categorial grammar that adds in partial tree structure
Tree structure
A tree structure is a way of representing the hierarchical nature of a structure in a graphical form. It is named a "tree structure" because the classic representation resembles a tree, even though the chart is generally upside down compared to an actual tree, with the "root" at the top and the...

s to the categories.

Dependency grammar

Dependency grammar
Dependency grammar
Dependency grammar is a class of modern syntactic theories that are all based on the dependency relation and that can be traced back primarily to the work of Lucien Tesnière. Dependency grammars are distinct from phrase structure grammars , since they lack phrasal nodes. Structure is determined by...

 is a different type of approach in which structure is determined by the dependency relation, as opposed to the constituency relation of phrase structure grammars
Phrase structure grammar
The term phrase structure grammar was originally introduced by Noam Chomsky as the term for grammars as defined by phrase structure rules, i.e. rewrite rules of the type studied previously by Emil Post and Axel Thue...

. The grammatical relations) between a word (a head
Head (linguistics)
In linguistics, the head is the word that determines the syntactic type of the phrase of which it is a member, or analogously the stem that determines the semantic category of a compound of which it is a component. The other elements modify the head....

) and its dependents is important. For example, syntactic structure is described in terms of whether a particular noun
In linguistics, a noun is a member of a large, open lexical category whose members can occur as the main word in the subject of a clause, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition .Lexical categories are defined in terms of how their members combine with other kinds of...

 is the subject
Subject (grammar)
The subject is one of the two main constituents of a clause, according to a tradition that can be tracked back to Aristotle and that is associated with phrase structure grammars; the other constituent is the predicate. According to another tradition, i.e...

 or agent
Agent (grammar)
In linguistics, a grammatical agent is the cause or initiator of an event. Agent is the name of the thematic role...

 of the verb
A verb, from the Latin verbum meaning word, is a word that in syntax conveys an action , or a state of being . In the usual description of English, the basic form, with or without the particle to, is the infinitive...

, rather than describing the relations in terms of the phrases of phrase structure grammars.

Some dependency-based theories of syntax:
  • Algebraic syntax
    Algebraic syntax
    Recursive categorical syntax, also sometimes called algebraic syntax, is an algebraic theory of syntax developed by Michael Brame as an alternative to transformational-generative grammar.-References:...

  • Word grammar
    Word grammar
    Word grammar has been developed by Richard Hudson since the 1980s. It started as a model of syntax, whose most distinctive characteristic is its use of dependency grammar, an approach to syntax in which the sentence's structure is almost entirely contained in the information about individual words,...

  • Operator Grammar
    Operator Grammar
    Operator Grammar is a mathematical theory of human language that explains how language carries information. This theory is the culmination of the life work of Zellig Harris, with major publications toward the end of the last century...

  • Meaning-Text Theory
    Meaning-Text Theory
    Meaning–text theory is a theoretical linguistic framework, first put forward in Moscow by Aleksandr Žolkovskij and Igor Mel’čuk, for the construction of models of natural language...

  • Functional Generative Description
    Functional Generative Description
    Functional Generative Description is a linguistic framework developed at Charles University in Prague since the 1960s by a team led by Petr Sgall...

Stochastic/probabilistic grammars/network theories

Theoretical approaches to syntax that are based upon probability theory
Probability theory
Probability theory is the branch of mathematics concerned with analysis of random phenomena. The central objects of probability theory are random variables, stochastic processes, and events: mathematical abstractions of non-deterministic events or measured quantities that may either be single...

 are known as stochastic grammar
Stochastic grammar
A stochastic grammar is a grammar framework with a probabilistic notion of grammaticality:*Stochastic context-free grammar*Statistical parsing*Data-oriented parsing*Hidden Markov model*Estimation theory...

s. One common implementation of such an approach makes use of a neural network
Neural network
The term neural network was traditionally used to refer to a network or circuit of biological neurons. The modern usage of the term often refers to artificial neural networks, which are composed of artificial neurons or nodes...

 or connectionism
Connectionism is a set of approaches in the fields of artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience and philosophy of mind, that models mental or behavioral phenomena as the emergent processes of interconnected networks of simple units...

. Some theories based within this approach are:
  • Optimality theory
    Optimality theory
    Optimality theory is a linguistic model proposing that the observed forms of language arise from the interaction between conflicting constraints. OT models grammars as systems that provide mappings from inputs to outputs; typically, the inputs are conceived of as underlying representations, and...

  • Stochastic context-free grammar
    Stochastic context-free grammar
    A stochastic context-free grammar is a context-free grammar in which each production is augmented with a probability...

Functionalist grammars

Functionalist theories, although focused upon form, are driven by explanation based upon the function of a sentence (i.e. its communicative function). Some typical functionalist theories include:
  • Functional discourse grammar
    Functional discourse grammar
    Functional grammar and functional discourse grammar are grammar models and theories motivated by functional theories of grammar. These theories explain how linguistic utterances are shaped, based on the goals and knowledge of natural language users. In doing so, it contrasts with Chomskyan...

  • Prague Linguistic Circle
    Prague linguistic circle
    The Prague school or the Prague linguistic circle was an influential group of literary critics and linguists in Prague. Its proponents developed methods of structuralist literary analysis during the years 1928–1939. It has had significant continuing influence on linguistics and semiotics...

  • Systemic functional grammar
    Systemic functional grammar
    Systemic functional grammar , a component of systemic functional linguistics , is a form of grammatical description originally developed by Michael Halliday in a career spanning more than 50 years. It is part of a social semiotic approach to language called systemic-functional linguistics...

  • Cognitive grammar
    Cognitive grammar
    Cognitive grammar is a cognitive approach to language developed by Ronald Langacker, which considers the basic units of language to be symbols or conventional pairings of a semantic structure with a phonological label. Grammar consists of constraints on how these units can be combined to generate...

  • Construction grammar
    Construction grammar
    The term construction grammar covers a family of theories, or models, of grammar that are based on the idea that the primary unit of grammar is the grammatical construction rather than the atomic syntactic unit and the rule that combines atomic units, and that the grammar of a language is made up...

  • Role and reference grammar
    Role and reference grammar
    Role and Reference Grammar is a model of grammar developed by William Foley and Robert Van Valin, Jr. in the 1980s, which incorporates many of the points of view of current functional grammar theories....

  • Emergent grammar
    Emergent grammar
    Emergent grammar is an approach to the study of syntax, originally proposed by Paul Hopper, which postulates that rules for grammar and syntactic structure emerge as language is used...

See also

  • Algebraic syntax
    Algebraic syntax
    Recursive categorical syntax, also sometimes called algebraic syntax, is an algebraic theory of syntax developed by Michael Brame as an alternative to transformational-generative grammar.-References:...

  • Grammar
    In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics,...

  • List of syntactic phenomena
  • Musical syntax
    Musical syntax
    When analysing the regularities and structure of music as well as the processing of music in the brain, certain findings lead to the question, if music is based on a syntax which could be compared with linguistic syntax. To get closer to this question it is necessary to have a look at the basic...

  • Phrase
    In everyday speech, a phrase may refer to any group of words. In linguistics, a phrase is a group of words which form a constituent and so function as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence. A phrase is lower on the grammatical hierarchy than a clause....

  • Phrase structure rules
    Phrase structure rules
    Phrase-structure rules are a way to describe a given language's syntax. They are used to break down a natural language sentence into its constituent parts namely phrasal categories and lexical categories...

  • Simpler Syntax
    Simpler Syntax
    Simpler Syntax is the title of a 2005 book by Peter Culicover and Ray Jackendoff. The authors argue that modern minimalist syntax is going in the wrong direction, adopting ever more complex structures and derivations, and making overly strong assumptions about linguistic universals. Richard Kayne's...

  • Syntax
    Syntax (journal)
    Syntax is a peer-reviewed academic journal in the field of syntax of natural languages, established in 1998 and published by Wiley-Blackwell...

     (academic journal
    Academic journal
    An academic journal is a peer-reviewed periodical in which scholarship relating to a particular academic discipline is published. Academic journals serve as forums for the introduction and presentation for scrutiny of new research, and the critique of existing research...

  • Syntactic category
    Syntactic category
    A syntactic category is either a phrasal category, such as noun phrase or verb phrase, which can be decomposed into smaller syntactic categories, or a lexical category, such as noun or verb, which cannot be further decomposed....

  • Syntax (programming languages)
  • Usage
    Usage is the manner in which written and spoken language is used. H. W. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage "defines usage as 'points of grammar, syntax, style, and the choice of words'". The Oxford Dictionary of English defines usage as "the way in which a word or phrase is normally and...

  • X-bar theory
    X-bar theory
    X-bar theory is a component of linguistic theory which attempts to identify syntactic features presumably common to all those human languages that fit in a presupposed framework...

Further reading

5 Volumes; 77 case studies of syntactic phenomena. part II: Computational approaches to syntax. Attempts to be a theory-neutral introduction. The companion surveys the major theories. Jointly reviewed in The Canadian Journal of Linguistics 54(1), March 2009, pp. 172-175

External links