Module 7

Welcome to the seventh module!


What is a sentence? How do we combine words and phrases to communicate? How do these processes differ among various languages?

In this module, you will learn about syntactical properties and categories!

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Syntax: What You Already Know

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


Basically, syntax refers to the study of the rules of word order in sentences. This is area of study differs from morphology, which analyzes the makeup of words and parts of speech (a.k.a. lexical categories).

While syntax deals with groups of words in clauses, phrases, and sentences, the two topics are not completely separate. An intermediary field called morphosyntax also exists to examine linguistic units which have both sentence-level and word-level properties.

In English, a lot of the same words can be used in different ways to mean different things. And so, the knowledge of syntax allows us to communicate clearly. As you can see, changing the word order of the following sentence changes the meaning of it:

Is syntax important?

Syntax is important!

Syntax is also concerned with the patterns of these structures across different languages. Not every language conceives the order of words in the same way!

For this reason, translation is much more than just substituting words from one language to another. Check out the example with English and German below!

Using another language you know, how would you say the statement above? Can you spot any similarities or differences?

An Important Note on Grammar

From a linguistic perspective, the standard grammatical rules are not what matters in terms of syntax. What matters are the actual structures that people use and how such structures are used to communicate different ideas (not what they are “supposed” to do).

Standard grammar is prescriptive, abiding by a set of rules that speakers of a language are supposed to follow in order to be correct.

Syntax is descriptive and tells us about what speakers do in practice without the judgement of “correct”or “incorrect”. Therefore, when a sentence is described as “ungrammatical”, the sentence is not following the traditional rules of grammar, not that it is syntactically “wrong”.

With this said, it is imperative to note that linguists encourage the practice of descriptivism.

Syntax and Semantics

As you may guess, there is a strong interdependent link between the study of syntax and the study of semantics (meaning). The placement of words in a sentence is often what gives them meaning, and likewise, the meaning of words may determine where they are placed in sentences in turn.

While both are separate areas of study, it is useful to acknowledge the link between the two fields in order to better understand them both.

In fact, syntax is very much interlinked with many other aspects of linguistics, so it is a very important to learn. As you continue through this module, you will explore:

  • Basics of word order of different languages
  • Building blocks of sentences: how words and phrases are sorted into syntactic categories
  • Examples of different types of sentences and gaps in language that can lead to ambiguity.

Just for Fun!

English has a number of syntactical rules that native speakers know instinctively but probably couldn’t explain. Take the ordering of adjectives in the following sentences as an example:

I have two lovely, little, fluffy, white kittens!

She’ll be wearing a pretty, long, red, silk dress.

We met on a horrible, rainy, work day.

What trends do you notice? Can you of examples that follow a similar order? How about ones that don’t?

So, when there is no intention to highlight any of the adjectives, the most common sequence (from first to last) is described in the picture below.

Defining Grammaticality: Word Order & Co-occurrence

Word Order

In English, we say sentences like The cat sees the ball. The boy eats soup. The woman grabs the hammer. Even though these sentences are vastly different in many ways, they all have the same underlying word order. In each sentence, the “thing” doing the action, known as the subject, comes first. The cat is the one seeing; the boy is the one eating; the woman is the one grabbing. We then find the action, or the verb, which is then followed by the object, or the “thing” that’s being acted upon. The ball is being seen; the soup is being eaten; the hammer is being grabbed.

English generally follows this pattern: subject, verb, object. We call this a subject-verb-object word order, or SVO in short. It may seem intuitive, that is this order is the right way to do things, but not all languages follow the same order. In fact, most languages aren’t SVO. We will look into this a bit deeper, but first, try out this little experiment.

Without speaking, try to describe what’s happening below with only gestures.
In what order did you describe events in?

When shown a similar image, most English speakers first gesture some sort of cross and headscarf to denote the nun. Then, they perform some sort of peeling motion to represent the banana. Finally, they wind up and snap their arms forward for the throwing motion… wait a minute — something’s off about this rendition with respect to English word order!

We have (1) nun who was doing the throwing action, then (2) the banana, the thing being thrown, and finally (3) the representation of the act of throwing itself. Well, in that case, we see a subject-object-verb order! In fact, subject-object-verb, or SOV, is the most common word order in the world and according to some experiments like the one you participated in above, seems to be the innate human tendency. While there isn’t a solid understanding of why that’s the case, it is widely regarded that the SOV order much more common than SVO.

Subjects, Objects, Verbs

With some permutation, we find that there’s a total of 6 possibilities for overarching word order in languages. Typically, deviating from a language’s pattern leads to ungrammaticality.

  • Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), which accounts for about 44.8% of languages
  • Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), about 41.8%
  • Verb-Subject-Object (VSO), about 9.2%
  • Verb-Object-Subject (VOS), about 3%
  • Object-Verb-Subject (OVS), about 1.2%
  • Object-Subject-Verb (OSV), about < 1%

To clarify any