English Syntax Explained

  • April 17, 2018

If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that English Syntax can definitely get interesting. Syntax is the branch of linguistics that deals with sentences and their structures.

In case you’re wondering, Syntax is different from grammar, because Syntax explains things such as how words work together to form a sentence, while grammar includes the study of topics such as Syntax and Morphology (the study of word formation.)

It is important to know the general structure that English uses for forming sentences before going any further. English uses the SVO, or subject-verb-object structure. An example of this structure can be seen in this sentence: The girl eats the apple.

This example sentence is what is known as a clausal sentence, which is a sentence that has one form of a clause. A clause is a smallest possible grammatical unit that expresses a complete preposition. In the majority of cases, a clause will have a predicate and a subject.

There is also a second type of sentence that is recognized in English Syntax, which is known as a compound sentence. Compound sentences have two or more clauses which are usually brought together by a coordinator, such as and or but.

What makes Syntax especially intriguing is the fact that it varies from language to language, and comparisons between languages will show this. For example, Syntax used in German, Mandarin, and Spanish is different from the Syntax used in English. An example of Syntax will be provided below for the languages mentioned.

German Syntax is slightly different from English Syntax in some ways. German uses the SVO structure, but this can vary and also be the SOV structure, depending on the sentence. If you wanted to write the example sentence “The girl eats the apple.” in German, you would write “Das Mӓdchen isst den Apfel.” Seems simple, right? But if you wanted to say “The girl wants to eat the apple”, you would have to say “Das Mädchen will den Apfel essen.” Literally translated, that sentence means “The girl wants the apple to eat.”

Mandarin Syntax also follows the SVO structure, but it can also follow the SOV structure, and there is even a special kind of structure that is used to form the SOV structure. I will not be writing out the following words with tones, so I apologize in advance for any confusion. If you wanted to say “The girl eats the apple.” in Mandarin, you would say “Na ge (the) nu (girl) chi (eats) pingguo (apple).” 

Spanish Syntax is fairly similar to English, as it also uses SVO, but word order can be changed to VSO as well, which can be seen in the sentence “Comiendo la chica la manzana.” Literally translated, this sentence means “Eating is the girl the apple.” One thing that makes Spanish Syntax interesting is how it orders adjectives and phrases in general. Usually, an adjective will come after the noun it describes. So instead of saying “La verde calculadora” (the green calculator), I would have to say “La calculadora verde” (the calculator green). Spanish will also use the word “de” to phrase something. So instead of saying “The potato game”, “La patata devaneo”, I would say “La devaneo de patata”, which literally translates to “The game of potatoes”.

At times, English Syntax is arguably more challenging than the Syntax that is used for the three languages mentioned above. This is because sometimes English Syntax uses one set of rules, and then has another set of exceptions to those said rules. Maybe it just seems challenging because I’m a native speaker that likes to look at the bits and pieces of the language, but I think there are others out there that would agree with that point.

But what is even more interesting (at least to me) is the thought of just possibly having one language at one point in time, and imagining that all of the languages existing today came from this one language, which linguists call Proto-Human Language. Proto-Human Language is a complete speculation, and it will probably be a work in progress for a very long time. It is interesting to wonder about the Syntax that Proto-Human Language might have used and how this may have affected the Syntax of other languages as they changed.

This is just the basics of English Syntax. There is so much more that I haven’t covered, but I hope this answered some questions or gave more insight into one part of the English language (or other languages, for that matter) and linguistics.

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