Research in Syntax

Find out more about how linguists research Syntax through looking at some example research.


Dixon (1999)

example researcj

Syntax – The pillar of human language

What separates us from the animals? Why have humans been able to conquer the planet whereas no other animal hasn’t? The answer is of course language! “But hold on!” I hear you say, “We’re not the only animals with language, whales sing to each other, dogs bark, hyenas laugh, and they all appear to understand one another.” That is true, but these methods of communication are heavily simplified. An animal call may mean ‘There is food here‘ or ‘Danger!’ but what they lack is the ability to put these sounds together to form complicated meanings.

Even if animals were able to do this, we would encounter another problem as to how to interpret these new complicated meanings. What would the sounds for ‘food here‘ and ‘danger‘ together mean? Dangerous food? Food is here but there is also a leopard in the bushes? This is where syntax comes in.

Syntax essentially categorises words, fills in the gaps and makes a group of words make sense. Every human in the world uses the same syntactic structure to communicate with other humans, the only difference is the sounds that are produced. This isn’t to be confused with the order of where words appear such as Subject-Verb-Object compared to Subject-Object-Verb in Japanese for example, as all languages contain nouns, verbs, prepositions, inflections etc. no matter where they come in the sentence, they are still present. So, there is clearly an underlying system that all humans can understand and acquire.

So where is this steppingstone between one sound calls and a complex sentence? How did humans get here? Bickerton refers to the case of Genie, a girl who had had no communication with anyone due to her father imprisoning her from the age of 18 months until she was found years later at the age of 13. She had missed the critical age of of between 18 months and 3 years where she children usually acquire an adult language (see language acquisition). When she was found she didn’t know how to speak English at all. Even after a long time of treatment from speech therapists and linguistic experts, she only managed to gain a very simple version of English. Her sentence’s consisted of noun and verb or adjective and noun, occasional strung together and even more rarely with adverbs and certain prepositions.

Here’s an example:

G: Genie have yellow material at school.
M: What are you using it for?
G: Paint. Paint picture. Take home. Ask teacher yellow material. Blue paint. Yellow green paint. Genie have blue material. Teacher said no. Genie use material paint. I want use material at school.

He had expected her to either fully learn human language as someone might learn a 2nd language, or not be able to learn one at all. Bickerton found it strange that the girl had developed a kind of proto, or base language. This form of speaking is actually more common than you might think. If you’ve ever been on holiday to a country whose language you can’t speak, you may have found yourself trying to talk like this to get your point across. Protolanguage is the most basic form of language, where the mere sounds of words begin to form meanings when combined together.

There is still the issue of how language moved from the protolanguage structure to the syntactical structure. The answer lies in explicitly, or being as clear as possible. If a child were to say to you ‘no socks!’ how would you interpret it? That the child isn’t wearing socks? They do not own any socks? They don’t want to wear socks? They don’t want you to wear socks? There are too many ways for the sentence to be interpreted. By adding new phrases to the sentence, the meaning becomes narrowed down. The actual meaning in this instance is ‘I don’t want to wear socks’. If we are to break it down, you can see it is rather difficult to not understand. The noun phrase I refers to the speaker, don’t is a combination of the verb to do and a negative, want to tie to don’t to form the negative of want, wear shows what not/to do with the object, and finally socks the object of the sentence. Everything from don’t to wear tells us something about the socks in relation to the child. A lot better and surprisingly, easier to understand than simply ‘no socks!’!

  • Adapted from: Bickerton D., (1990) Language and Species. The University of Chicago Press.

One of the most interesting aspects of the English language is the ability to change the order of words and still end up with the same meaning such as ‘John bought a book’ and ‘A book was bought by John’. You may recognise these as the active and the passive forms of a sentence, the passive sentence being the one where the object is given more emphasis than the subject as opposed to the standard subject-verb-object. But if we can easily shift the object and subject around, how do we recognise which one is which in any given sentence?

The key actually lies with the verb. If we want to say that a hearty chuckle was let out by John at someone called Mary (in far less words of course!) we might say ‘John laughed at Mary’. Here, laughed acts as a bridge between Mary and John indicating that what comes before the verb acts on what comes after the verb. This is called a transitive verb. If we were to swap the subject and verb however, we come up with ‘at Mary laughed John’ we have a sentence which kind of makes sense but doesn’t seem to sit right on the tongue.

Another form of verb is the intransitive verb which does not need an object to function so we can say things like ‘John laughed’. Intransitive verbs are used extensively in the passive tense so we can use an intransitive from of the verb laughed to move around the subject and object, so we end up with ‘Mary was laughed at by John’.

So, there you have it, a very brief look at how subject and object can be defined and the links they have to the different types of verbs.

  • Adapted from: R.M.W. Dixon (1989) Subject and Object in Universal Grammar Clarendon Paperbacks

Where to next?

Why not check out how syntax is studied to take a closer look at what other researchers are doing.

Bruening (2013)

We will now talk you through a journal article written by Benjamin Bruening. We understand that this article is rather overwhelming so we will try and summarise it for you! If there are any words that you don’t understand please refer to the glossary at the bottom of the page.

By Phrases in Passives and Nominals
March 2013
Volume 16, Issue 1
Pages 1-41
Benjamin Bruening

By Phrases in Passives and Nominals” is a recent article related to syntax. It’s about by-phrases (exactly what they sound like; phrases beginning with by), and how they assign theta roles in sentences.

Theta roles simply describe what a word does in a sentence. There are many different theta roles; for example agentgoal and theme. If a word has been assigned the role of agent, then it is likely to be the subject of the sentence and is performing the action described.

For example, in the sentence:

My mother-in-law received the present

Mother-in-law has the agent role, which has been assigned to it by the verb.

Passive sentences, such as this one, do not always have agent roles:

The present was received

Here, the agent is not specified, but if we want to say who received the present while keeping the sentence in the passive, we can add a by-phrase like this:

The present was received by my mother-in-law

Here the by-phrase is assigning the agent role to mother-in-law.

Theta roles can be a bit overwhelming, and we understand that! So don’t worry! If you want to know more about theta roles, look here.

There is a long-standing claim that by-phrases can assign certain theta roles in passive sentences that they cannot in other types of sentences, such as nominalisations. In a nominalisation, a word that is not usually a noun is used as a noun, for example:

The receipt of the present (*by my mother-in-law)

Here, the verb receive has been nominalised. 

Bruening disagrees with the idea that by-phrases in passives behave differently to by-phrases in nominals. So, to start, he uses some examples to show how they do appear to behave differently.

The present was received by my mother-in-law” and “The receipt of the present (*by my mother-in-law)” are two of these examples. In the first sentence, which is a passive, the agent role is assigned by the word “by”. But when we try to use the by-phrase in the same way in the second sentence, a nominal, the result is ungrammatical.

Another pair of examples:

Harry is feared by John
*The fear of Harry by John

These show the same pattern – the by-phrase is fine in the passive but becomes ungrammatical in the nominal. (A * before a phrase or sentence means that is is ungrammatical.)

However, in Bruening’s judgement “The receipt of the present by my mother-in-law” is perfectly acceptable, so he argues that in some nominals, by-phrases are allowed. Here are some examples he uses to back up his argument:

 after the date of receipt of the letter by the GDS
The start date must be at least ten days after the receipt of the form by Gift Processing.

These examples were found using Google searches and show by-phrases in nominals which are grammatical. However, there are still some nominals which don’t allow by-phrases, such as “*The fear of Harry by John” from the previous example. So, we need to look at the differences between the nominals which do allow by-phrases and those that don’t, to find out why this is!

Bruening also argues that a rule explaining why only certain nominals allow by-phrases should not be a rule just about by-phrases, because two other types of adjuncts follow the same pattern as by-phrases (so they are not allowed in the same types of nominals that by-phrases are barred from). This means that a single, general rule can cover all three of these adjuncts.

(An adjunct is an optional addition to a sentence and can be omitted without making the sentence ungrammatical. For example, “by John” is an adjunct to the sentence “Harry was feared by John”. Removing it leaves “Harry was feared”, which is a grammatical sentence by itself.)

The other adjuncts which behave in the same way as by-phrases are comitatives and instrumentals.

Comitatives show accompaniment, for example:

The ushers seated 50,000 ticket holders with the security guards

Here, the meaning is that the ushers and the security guards were both seating ticket holders – so “with the security guards” is comitative.

Instrumentals show what was used to do something, for example:

The enemy sank the ship with a torpedo

Here, “with a torpedo” is instrumental, as the torpedo was used to sink the ship.

So, what is it that makes all three types of adjunct ungrammatical in certain nominals? According to Bruening, these adjuncts need there to be an agent role. Some examples might help you to understand:

The ship was sunk
The ship sank

Can you see the difference between these two sentences? Let’s try adding a by-phrase to each of them:

The ship was sunk by a torpedo
*The ship sank by a torpedo

The first sentence makes perfect sense, but the second is ungrammatical. This is because the verb in the second sentence doesn’t have an agent role, while the first does. If a by-phrase assigned agent roles by itself, we would expect to be able to add them even to verbs which wouldn’t otherwise have an agent, like “sank” from the second example.

Instead, Bruening suggests they fill the agent roles, rather than adding them. “The ship sank” doesn’t imply that something caused the ship to sink – it just sank. So, it doesn’t make sense to add a by-phrase to this sentence. In the sentence “The ship was sunk“, however, we expect that something caused the ship to sink. A by-phrase can therefore be used to show what it was.

This article shows that by-phrases are interesting in their functions- they can be added to passives but adding them to certain nominals makes them ungrammatical. By-phrases are just one specific type of phrase, but Bruening saw something that interested him about their rules and structure and decided to investigate them further. This is part of the ever-growing and evolving research into syntax, phrases, adjuncts and sentence structure that is going on even today- there are always new things to research and discover about syntax!

If you’re interested in the ideas brought up by this article, why not look at some related areas of linguistics – such as semantics!

Getting a bit lost in terminology? Don’t worry! We’ll guide you through it.


  • Agent – This theta role is usually given to the subject of a sentence. The agent does the action described by the verb (For example, in the sentence “Mary gave the cake to John”, Mary has the agent role as she is performing the action of giving.)
  • Adjunct-A thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part
    Comitative – shows accompaniment
  • Goal– This theta role is assigned to a word or phrase that shows where or who the action is directed towards (For example, in the sentence “Mary gave the cake to John”, John has the goal role as he is the person Mary’s action of giving is directed towards.)
  • Hypothesis– A supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.
  • Instrumental – Shows what was used to do something
  • Intransitive verbs– A verb (or verb construction) that does not take an object
  • Morpheme-A meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided
  • Nominalisations– The use of a verb, an adjective, or an adverb as the head of a noun phrase
  • Noun-A word used to identify any of a class of people, places, or things
  • Passive sentences– When the grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient (not the source) of the action denoted by the verb
  • Preposition-A word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause
  • Semantic Roles– The underlying relation that a constituent has with the main verb in a clause.
  • Subject-A person or thing that is being discussed, described, or dealt with.
  • Theme– This theta role is given to the object that undergoes the action that the agent is performing, but does not change its state (For example, in the sentence “Mary gave the cake to John”, ‘cake’ has the theme role as it is the thing that is being given.)
  • Unaccusatives– An unaccusative verb is an intransitive verb (one that does not need to take a complement) that does not assign any external theta roles, and in which the subject does not appear to deliberately initiate the action of the verb. Examples include ‘fall’, ‘die’ and ‘melt’.
  • Verb-A word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, and forming the main part of the predicate of a sentence
  • Voice– A sentence can either be in the active voice- “Mary baked a cake”, or the passive voice- “A cake was baked” (Notice that in the passive, you can avoid stating who performed the action- the adjunct “by Mary” is an optional add-on to the sentence.)

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