Human language is not a list of millions of sentences which people just have to pick from whenever they speak! Rather, we choose the words we need to put together to express concepts and ideas. There are hundreds of thousands of words to choose from, and an infinite number of possible sentences, but there are only a small number of ways in which words can be combined.
This is because sentences have a certain structures. There is a fixed order of word categories, rather than a fixed order for particular words themselves. For instance:
Every word in language belongs to a category, including the ones above. We can slot different words in these categories, but the categories remain relatively fixed. How do we know what types of word categories there are in human language and what words belong to each one? If you have those sorts of questions, review the Morphology section before continuing on.
Now, let’s take the categories in the sentence structure from before one by one:
- For the DETERMINER slot we could choose, for instance, ‘A,’ ‘THE,’ or another from a small set of options. The word we choose here will depend upon the meaning we want to express. Is it a specific entity we want to talk about, or an abstract one?
- For the NOUN we could choose, say, ‘MAN’, or ‘DOG’, or ‘PAVEMENT’, or any other from an enormous list. Any of these words would work within the sentence, it just depends on what idea the speaker wants to convey.
- The TENSE describes when an event is happening: now, in the past, or in the future? Words like future tense ‘WILL,’ or the modals ‘CAN’ and ‘SHOULD’ are all related in some way to when an action occurs, so they are all instances of TENSE.
- For the VERB we choose a word that describes an event. What do we want the noun to be doing? We could choose ‘RUN’, or ‘SING’ or ‘REMEMBER’ or a different event-related word.
- The PREPOSITION will tell us where or when the action is taking place, so ‘IN’ or ‘AT’ are two of a set of options here.
We then just repeat the same choice for DETERMINER and NOUN again, from the list of words in both of those categories.
Now we slot our chosen words in to those categories:
The study of syntax therefore looks at the ways in which the word categories can be ordered and combined. This means that we look at the order, or distribution, of those categories. For instance, we can see that DETERMINER, NOUN, VERB (THE DOG RUNS) is a sentence that a speaker of English could produce, so we call this grammatical.
However, we could not put these in the order NOUN, DETERMINER, VERB (DOG THE RUNS)* because this is not a sentence that can be produced by the rules of English, so this is called ungrammatical (and is marked with a *)
So why is it that in English we cannot put these word categories in this order? Why does this phrase no longer make sense? These are the sorts of questions syntacticians try to answer.
Syntacticians are not here to say what is stylistically right or wrong, but to describe how people do use language. Has anybody ever told you not to end a sentence with a preposition (1)? This prescriptive rule, which comes from Latin, is not actually how people speak English today.
- Who did you talk to?
- To whom did you talk?
Instead of focusing on ‘right’ versus ‘wrong,’ syntax uses ‘grammatical’ and ‘ungrammatical’ as a way to show that a particular word combination is possible or impossible for speakers of a language. Looked at this way, (2) is less ‘grammatical’ than (1), even though we’re taught that it’s the ‘right’ way to speak!