Syntax – It’s not another tax on beer?

September 16, 2010 / by Kimberly Cortes

logo-sentence-bckgrnd-hiIf you follow my blog you will know that I briefly touched on syntax once before. The Linguistic Elephant in the Room: Syntax (contrary to what it sounds like, it is not an increase in the price of beer or gambling) is a subfield of linguistics which focuses mainly on the grammar of language. This blog is just a brief introduction to some syntactic concepts. I will follow up with additional blogs to build and expand on the concepts presented here and /or introduce additional ones.

An important concept to understand in the beginning of a look at syntax is the idea of “the sentence.” You may think that a complete uttered or written thought is a sentence. In part you are correct. However, in the field of syntax the complete thought is given the term proposition, the written or spoken sentence is referred to as “the utterance.” The actual sentence is a bit more abstract. The “sentence” is the linguistic form of the utterance. For example, I can say on Tuesday, “It’s a nice day today.” And, you may use the same utterance on Wednesday. Therefore, these two utterances have different propositional meanings; one being that Tuesday is a nice day, and the other, that Wednesday is a nice day. However, both propositions used the same sentence or linguistic form. However, what if we both utter the same propositional meaning, i.e., “Today is a nice day” (today being Tuesday), but you utter this in English and I utter the same proposition but in Spanish? Clearly, the form of these utterances will be different. Therefore, we are using different sentences to express the same propositional meaning.

So the form we give to propositions is important, but what about the form? What makes one form acceptable and another not in a given language? You may think of word order. And, again this is partly correct. See the examples below:

(1) I picked up the mess Erik made with the cookies and juice you put out.
(2) I picked the mess Erik made with the cookies and juice you put out up.
Example (2) sounds awkward. This may lead you to say, that the words ‘pick’ and ‘up’ seem to belong together. However, now look at the following example:
(3) I picked the mess up.

And what about the following:
(4) I picked up the mess.
(5) I picked it up.
(6) *I picked up it.

So, it’s more than just whether ‘pick’ and ‘up’ come together in the sentence. Can you think of any other examples similar to the ones above?

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Kimberly Cortes

Written by Kimberly Cortes

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