What is Syntax in linguistics?

In this lesson, you will know about the etymology of the word syntax, definition of syntax in general and definition by renowned linguists and major English dictionaries. You will also find here examples of syntax in sentences.

What is syntax?

Syntax is one of the main areas of linguistic research developed in recent decades. Generally, it encompasses the entire study of how words are ordered in any language to produce a meaningful sentence. It studies the structure and formation of sentences and explains how words and phrases are arranged to form correct sentences. It deals with all rules that are necessary to form up a particular language e.g. English, and how can these rules differ across different languages?

In syntax, we study the arrangement of words in clauses, phrases and different sentences. It also deals with the formation of sentences and relationship between different sentences.

Generally, syntax refers to the rules that deals with words to form up phrases, clauses, and sentences. After 1957, syntax became popular subjects for linguists and anthropologists when Noam Chomsky, an American linguist, proposed transformational grammar theory.

The Etymology of word Syntax

The word “syntax” came from the Greek language which means: “arrange together”. The term, syntax, is also used for the study of the syntactic properties of a human language.

In programming and computer contexts, the word syntax refers to the proper ordering of codes so that the machine processor can understand proper instructions.

Examples of Syntax in a Sentence

Sentences and phrases are formed up by a group of words and words have a closer relationship to each other. Syntax deals with this relation of words and formation of words in a sentence to vary the meaning of the sentence.

Let’s look at an example of how meaning of a sentence can be varied.

  • Emma ate mangos hurriedly.
  • Emma hurriedly ate mangos.
  • Hurriedly, Emma ate mangoes.

Now you have seen that by rearranging just one word ‘hurriedly’ in the above sentence, we got varied syntax. All sentences are grammatically correct with comprehensible meaning and acceptable in English language.

It depends on the writer’s choice to choose word according to his desire to form up a sentence. English language is very flexible compared to other languages. Some of the languages are very rigid and a writer has to follow multiple words to arrange words, but it is not so in |English case. In English, a writer has multiple options to arrange a sentence with same meaning. All this is the job of syntax.

Definition of Syntax in Oxford English Dictionary

The definition of Syntax according to OED is “syntax is concerned with ‘the set of rules and principles in a language’, which relate to how ‘words and phrases are arranged to create well-formed sentences’.” (Oxford English Dictionary: 2015)

Definition of Syntax in Oxford English Dictionary

Full Definition of syntax according to Merriam Webster Dictionary

The way in which linguistic elements (such as words) are put together to form constituents (such as phrases or clauses).”

Syntax according to renowned linguists

“It is syntax that gives the words the power to relate to each other in a sequence…to carry meaning—of whatever kind—as well as glow individually in just the right place”

(Burgess 1968)

“…the odd thing about English is that no matter how much you screw sequences word up, you understood, still, like Yoda, will be. Other languages don’t work that way. French? Dieu! Misplace a single le or la and an idea vaporizes into a sonic puff. English is flexible: you can jam it into a Cuisinart for an hour, remove it, and meaning will still emerge.”

(Copeland, 2009)

Leave a Reply