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Review of  Understanding Syntax

Reviewer: Sabina Halupka-Resetar
Book Title: Understanding Syntax
Book Author: Maggie Tallerman
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Book Announcement: 23.1781

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AUTHOR: Maggie Tallerman
TITLE: Understanding Syntax
SERIES TITLE: Understanding Language Series
PUBLISHER: Hodder Education
YEAR: 2011

Sabina Halupka-Rešetar, Department of English, University of Novi Sad, Serbia

Tallerman’s “Understanding Syntax”, now in its third, revised, expanded and
improved edition, is a textbook aimed at students with no background in language
studies. It is a very accessible, step-by-step introduction to the scientific
study of syntax, which not only presents the major concepts and categories
associated with this branch of linguistics but also addresses some more advanced

Each of the nine chapters is organized into sections, which makes it easy for
readers to find specific material. Exercises are provided both within the body
of the text (separated from it by rows of arrows) and at the end of each
chapter. While answers to the first type of problems are discussed in the text
itself, so that it is easy for the readers to check their progress through and
understanding of the section, the exercises at the end of chapters are more
challenging. The extensive examples in the book come from a wide variety of
languages, (including English) and serve the purpose of providing the student
with a meaningful comparative understanding of syntax.

The textbook also features a glossary of the most important terms and concepts
introduced along the way with their brief definitions, often followed by
examples from English, as well as a language index, the aim of which is to give
genetic information about the languages used in the examples and where they are

The first chapter sets out to explain the basics of syntax as a science. Data
from various languages are used to acquaint readers with the concept of
knowledge of language and show how unrelated languages share many common
properties and constructions, suggesting that humans have an innate language
faculty. The reasoning behind using examples from different, often unrelated
languages is also explained, followed by a section on the layout of examples and
the types of information contained in them. The chapter closes with an
illustration of the typical syntactic constructions found in languages,
demonstrating that languages really do have syntactic structure.

Chapter 2 focuses on the major lexical word classes occurring
cross-linguistically, i.e. verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions,
along with their distribution, function and morphosyntactic properties, as well
as the typical set of grammatical categories they express. The author clearly
states that there are languages that do not distinguish all these word classes
and also languages in which not all of these parts of speech form an open class
(e.g. Jarawara of southern Amazonia with a closed class of only 14 adjectives or
the Yimas language of New Guinea with only three clear examples of words that
are unambiguously adjectives) but that all languages distinguish a class of
verbs from a class of nouns. This is a somewhat controversial claim. Haspelmath
(2001: 16543) points out that “[f]or a few languages, it has been claimed that
there is no (or only a very slight) distinction between nouns and verbs, for
instance for several North American languages of the Wakashan, Salishan, and
Iroquoian families, as well as for a number of Polynesian languages. For
instance, in Samoan (a Polynesian language), full words referring to events and
things show intriguingly similar behavior. Both thing (or person) words and
event words seem to occur in the same predication structures and in argument
positions”. In a similar vein, Croft (1991) notes that it is not possible to
define cross-linguistically applicable notions of noun, adjective, and verb on
the basis of semantic and/or formal criteria alone, but it is possible to define
nouns, adjectives, and verbs as cross-linguistic prototypes on the basis of the
universal markedness patterns, e.g. universally, object words are unmarked when
functioning as referring arguments, property words are unmarked when functioning
as nominal modifiers, and action words are unmarked when functioning as predicates.

Sentences and their internal structure are first tackled in Chapter 3, where a
distinction is made between simple sentences and complex sentences, root and
subordinate clauses and some of the main cross-linguistic variations in clause
types are examined, including coordination (e.g. in Kambera), nominalization (in
numerous South American and Austronesian languages) and serialization (e.g.
Chinese, many African languages, etc.).

The following chapter discusses heads and the role they play in determining the
properties of their dependents within a phrase and introduces the difference
between arguments and adjuncts. It then presents the two-way system of
classifying languages into head-initial or head-final, based on the position of
the head in relation to its complements, followed by the typological distinction
into head-marking and dependent-marking languages. Tallerman points out that
there are languages which rarely mark the syntactic relationships between head
and dependent at all (e.g. Chinese, English) but that among those that do mark
these relationships some languages exhibit both head- and dependent-marking
constructions (e.g. German).

Chapter 5 uses ambiguous phrases and sentences to demonstrate the existence of
syntactic structure and proceeds to show that strings of words can be tested for
constituency by applying some syntactic tests, such as the sentence fragment
test, the echo question test, the cleft test or the displacement (movement)
test. Although these are just some of the commonly used tests, they do show how
the intuitions of the native speakers can be captured. Next, the author
introduces the idea of representing the structure of sentences using tree
diagrams or bracketing and presents some key terms for describing the
relationships holding between nodes in a tree.
The three major ways in which grammatical relations may be represented
cross-linguistically, namely constituent order (basic and marked), case
(nominative/accusative vs. ergative/absolutive systems and split systems) and
agreement and cross-referencing are dealt with in Chapter 6, which investigates
the relationships between verbs and their noun phrase arguments within the
clause. The core relations of subject and object are also examined in an attempt
to determine whether there are any grammatical relations that could be
considered universal.

The next chapter shows that the grammatical relations between the verb and its
arguments are not static and presents the best-known processes of changing the
valency of a verb by promoting objects to become subjects or by demoting
subjects to an oblique phrase or even deleting them. Thus, the passive
construction and its ergative-system counterpart, the antipassive, involve a
decrease in the number of core arguments of the verb, while the applicative and
the causative are processes which result in an increase in the number of core

Chapter 8 focuses on operations which do not cause any change in the grammatical
function of the elements they affect, namely the possibility of moving phrases
around within a clause. Two such instances of movement are dealt with,
wh-questions (where languages differ with respect to whether they front the
wh-element(s) or not) and relative clauses (which may also take on different
forms and use various strategies cross-linguistically). The chapter closes with
a section on focus movement and scrambling, generally regarded as being related
to wh-constructions.

The book ends with the intentionally ambiguously titled chapter “Asking
questions about syntax”, which not only outlines the kinds of questions one
needs to ask in attempting to construct a basic syntactic description of a
language and gives an illustration of how these questions could be answered (by
providing a short case study of Welsh), but it also informs the reader of the
issues and questions currently widely debated in linguistics and points to
possible further directions of syntactic study.

On the whole, the textbook is self-explanatory, user-friendly and covers the
major topics in syntax, usually providing illustrative examples from a wide
range of languages. However, this truly comparative approach sometimes
unnecessarily complicates things (e.g. on p. 129, in the discussion of double
genitive marking, a Latin or German example would probably have been closer to
the readership than the Ayacucho construction cited). Also, the author does not
commit herself to a particular theoretical framework, which might be considered
advantageous for an introductory textbook. But it also runs the risk of giving
no more than a very broad and general overview and as such, making it most
appropriate for an undergraduate level general linguistics programme, or perhaps
as a supplementary reading for an introductory course in comparative syntax.
Related to this point is also the fact that Tallerman employs pre-GB-type
representation of sentence structure with the S label on top, suggesting that
sentences are exocentric (p. 149 and later). Also, ignoring X-bar theory fails
to stress the fact that all phrases appear to be structured in the same way
(although X-bar theory is referred to briefly and indirectly in Section 4.1.8).
On p. 118 the author acknowledges the view that a determiner is really the head
of the ‘noun phrase’ but she continues “to refer to a phrase like ‘this box of
dates’ as a ‘noun phrase’ without taking a stance on the DP hypothesis”, despite
the fact that the DP-hypothesis has generally been accepted (if questioned for
some article-less languages, see Bošković 2008, Corver 1992, Chierchia 1998,
Cheng and Sybesma 1999, Lyons 1999, Baker 2003, among others) since the late
1980s. Similarly, Tallerman claims (p. 165) that there is no VP in Hungarian but
the standard claim is that there is (see Kiefer 1992, É. Kiss 2002, among others).

On the other hand, the questions about syntax raised in the last chapter which
actually give the reader guidelines for constructing a basic syntactic
description of a language (as the author does for Welsh) are extremely helpful
and enlightening; no less exciting are the issues tackled in section 9.3. There
is a Further Reading section at the end of each chapter, which helps the keen
reader build on the knowledge gained through the text. Also, hints are often
provided for solving the exercises at the end of the chapters. The textbook has
a lengthy list of up-to-date references as is technically next to perfect (there
are virtually no typos except some inconsistencies in the References section).

As the author points out in the concluding section, “[h]aving completed this
introduction, you are now ready to further your study of syntax” (p. 285), which
she suggests might take various (overlapping) paths, one of which is by looking
at syntactic theory in order to explain the syntactic differences and
similarities between languages. It is exactly this path I had in mind when I
chose Understanding Syntax as required reading for a course in Comparative
Syntax and it has lived up to my expectations.

Baker, Mark. 2003. Lexical categories: Verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Bošković, Željko. 2008. What will you have, DP or NP? Proceedings of NELS 37.

Cheng, Lisa L.-S., Sybesma, Rint. 1999. Bare and not-so-bare nouns and the
structure of NP. Linguistic Inquiry 30. 509-542.

Chierchia, Gennaro. 1998. Reference to kinds across languages. Natural Language
Semantics 6. 339-405.

Corver, Norbert. 1992. Left branch extraction. Proceedings of the 22nd North
East Linguistic Society. 67-84. Amherst: GLSA, University of Massachusetts.

Croft, William. 1991. Syntactic Categories and Grammatical Relations: the
Cognitive Organization of Information. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

É. Kiss, Katalin. (2002). The syntax of Hungarian. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2001. Word classes and parts of speech: International
Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Amsterdam: Pergamon.

Kiefer, Ferenc (ed.). Strukturális magyar nyelvtan 1. kötet: Mondattan
[Structural Grammar of Hungarian. Vol. 1: Syntax]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.

Lyons, Christopher. 1999. Definiteness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sabina Halupka-Rešetar is an Assistant Professor of English language and linguistics at the Department of English, University of Novi Sad, Serbia. Her research interests include syntax and theoretical linguistics, and her current projects center around wh-elements and focusing at the syntax-discourse interface.

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