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AUTHOR: Nicholas Sobin TITLE: Syntactic Analysis SUBTITLE: The Basics PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell YEAR: 2011
Lorie Heggie, Department of Languages, Literatures, & Cultures, Illinois State University
As suggested by its title, in this book, the author seeks to initiate the reader to the basic, foundational ideas of generative syntax, beginning with philosophical concepts first described in Chomsky (1957) and proceeding by mirroring the development of the theory in an additive fashion, touching on concepts based on Ross (1967), Jackendoff (1977), Perlmutter (1978), Reinhart (1981), Larson (1988), Grimshaw (1990), and Chomsky (1995), among others. This relatively short book (165 pages) targets a quarter or trimester format, or half of a semester, for undergraduate and masters-level courses in syntax. The goals are fourfold: (1) introduce the reader to terms and concepts that are core to the field of syntax; (2) teach the reader to understand and operate various syntactic analyses using hypothesis formation and testing; (3) present the reasoning behind the choice of one analysis over another; and (4) prepare the reader for more advanced study in syntactic systems.
The book is divided into fourteen chapters. Each chapter discusses, in a concise and straightforward manner, a clearly defined concept crucial to the building of an analysis in generative syntax and ends with exercises to help assimilate and confirm the concepts introduced in that chapter. Each chapter is quite short, ranging from seven to seventeen pages. At the end are two appendices, one listing minor grammatical categories (e.g. negation, determiner, etc.) and the second giving a list of verbs with their argument structures.
In Chapter One, ‘Doing Science with Language: Introductory Concepts,’ Sobin provides a brief discussion of the term “theory” and the rationale for the Innateness Hypothesis and the Principles and Parameters model of grammar.
Chapter Two, ‘The Structure and Classification of Words,’ introduces morphological concepts such as lexicon and types of affixes. Sobin begins by starting with what students know, i.e., the more traditional definitions for verb, noun, etc. He then builds a more disciplined approach to the typology of words and the formation of words.
Chapter Three, ‘Determining the Structure of Sentences,’ introduces the concepts of linearity and hierarchy, and provides diagnostics for determining sentence structure and phrasehood (e.g. movement, coordination, sentence fragments in discourse, pronoun substitution, and omissibility).
Chapter Four, ‘Rules of Sentence Structure,’ takes the discussion of structure one step further by introducing phrase structure rules and concepts of infinity and recursion as they apply to a phrase structure grammar. A number of new terms are introduced as well as the role of acceptability as a methodology for accessing a grammar that is subconscious.
Chapter Five, ‘Assigning Meaning in Sentences,’ presents the concepts of grammatical function and theta roles. To give a flavor as to how Sobin introduces a concept, the following is a good example: “Let’s refer to the subjects and objects of a sentence as its arguments [boldface] (a term taken from predicate logic). Further, let’s refer to the specific meanings of the arguments such as agent, experiencer, goal, etc. as “thematic roles,” or better, theta roles [boldface].” (p. 54) He then moves from here to structurally define subjects, complements, and adjuncts within the theta grid, a construct that can then help in determining whether a given sentence is structurally ambiguous or not.
Chapter Six, ‘Some Category-Neutral Processes,’ considers coordination and Pro-form Insertion as examples of category-neutral rules, thus introducing the notion that rules may not necessarily be confined to only one category. This chapter is actually recapping hints given in earlier chapters, such that the student is slowly being led to accept the plausibility of category-neutral rules.
Chapter Seven, ‘How Structure Affects Pronoun Reference,’ introduces Binding Theory in a very careful, step-by-step fashion, concluding with a discussion of how these data provide important insights into language acquisition and the fact that children of different languages can know these principles without any negative data to draw from.
In Chapter Eight, ‘Complex Verb Forms,’ the discussion begins with the observation that the theory developed thus far handles an infinite number of sentences but still “massively undergenerates” sentences (p. 82). This observation leads to the presentation of complex auxiliaries and two competing analyses: the Complex Aux hypothesis and the Recursive Verb Phrase (VP) hypothesis. Sobin then uses empirical arguments with VP deletion to choose between the two analyses. Verb forms and affix hopping are also presented in this chapter, naturally leading to the introduction of deep structure and movement.
Chapter Nine, ‘Real vs. Apparent Sentence Structure,’ takes the natural step of exploring D(eep)-structure and its correlate, S(surface)-structure, in yes/no questions, negation, V(erb)-to-T(ense) movement and zero affixes. Sobin ends the chapter with a summary of the syntactic system built thus far.
In Chapter Ten, ‘Generalizing Syntactic Rules,’ Sobin takes the step of generalizing structural rules across lexical categories. He begins with a description of the architecture of Noun Phrase (NP), Verb Phrase (VP), Adjective Phrase (AjP), and Prepositional Phrase (PP), and then builds the X-bar system, introducing the prerequisite ideas of specifier, maximal phrase, economy, and the preference for generalizing structures.
Chapter Eleven, ‘Functional Categories,’ extends the X-bar analysis to C(omplementizer) and T(ense) and also explores the question of order within X-bar architecture. Drawing on Greenberg (1966), Sobin re-introduces the notion of parameter setting and the directionality of heads.
In Chapter Twelve, ‘Questions, Relative Clauses, Wh Movement,’ the student is introduced to feature-driven wh-movement, both long and cyclical, as well as islands. The observation is made that this type of movement is found in relative clauses, a fact that points towards a “constructionless” syntax (p. 139). The division between A- and A-bar movement is also created, which leads into the next chapter. This chapter concludes with another summary of the X-bar system built to this point.
Chapter Thirteen, ‘NP Movement,’ further explores the concept of feature-driven A-movement in the form of VP-internal subjects and quantifier float, passive sentences, and subject-to-subject raising. These types of sentences naturally introduce a discussion of morphological and abstract Case, the Case Filter, and theta roles. The chapter ends with a summary of the grammar built to this point.
Chapter Fourteen, ‘Things to Come: Various Aspects of “Current Theory,”’ as the final chapter, has a slightly different purpose from previous chapters. There is no problem set at the end. Instead, Sobin briefly introduces three important concepts that are regularly used in contemporary syntactic analysis: unaccusative verbs; VP shells and verb raising (ditransitive verbs); and Determiner Phrase (DP) vs. NP.
“Syntactic Analysis: The Basics” is about applying scientific methodology to language and presenting the evolution of thought in generative grammar over several decades. It is an excellent initiation to the generative framework and principles and parameters for those seeking a ''no frills'' approach to the logic of generative grammar. The presentation is pedagogically sound, carefully introducing concepts and terms and then returning to them repeatedly later in the text, while also providing sufficient summaries to help students keep the full model in mind at the appropriate moments. Trees and diagrams demonstrate concepts clearly and logically. Exercises at the end of chapters use primarily English data with some data sets for German, Spanish, and Quechua; they clearly work to reinforce the main concepts of the chapter and help students to integrate the material into their own understanding. This care results in a cohesive, coherent picture of syntactic analysis. The discussion is clear, concise, and streamlined, thus providing an excellent starting point for students to be introduced to the philosophy of generative syntactic inquiry.
Some teachers may find the book too succinct for their needs, but I do believe this book fills an important gap in the list of textbooks available for introductory syntax. Most textbooks target an entire semester’s content, and push much more deeply into a particular theoretical framework. This approach is entirely appropriate for programs in linguistics where students will have the opportunity to build on their knowledge and do research. But, even in this case, this textbook will work very well at the quarter/trimester level to start students on the right track in generative grammar. Another application is for programs with more limited resources in linguistics. At the master’s level in language departments, for example, where students may take a relatively small variety of linguistics courses, this textbook creates very interesting opportunities. In this situation, a teacher who is working in a generative framework will be searching for a way to introduce the theoretical framework, but not spend the entire semester doing it. This textbook fills that need. Moreover, it allows the teacher to augment the discussion as desired.
For example, Chapter One, which introduces the notion of scientific inquiry and language, is exceptionally succinct. It introduces questions related to language acquisition and the Innateness Hypothesis and why a generative grammar approach has been pursued over the decades. These arguments are presented in a straightforward and balanced manner. There is ample room for the teacher to augment the discussion depending on the objectives of the class. In a master's-level graduate seminar, this augmentation is probably needed; possible candidates might be Chomsky (1959) or Chomsky (1988).
Each chapter thereafter provides an empirically-based presentation of a new step in the logic of the argument, starting with morphology in Chapter Two. One chapter that is especially strong is Chapter Ten, ‘Generalizing Syntactic Rules.’ This is the chapter where Sobin introduces the specifier-head-complement structure for NP, VP, and AjP, giving clear examples of the different constituencies and then generalizing these structures to the X-bar system. This chapter builds on prior chapters where Phrase Structure Rules are introduced for various constructions and the Phrase Structure Grammar is being built. What I especially appreciate is the last paragraph of the chapter: “The ability of this theory to deal successfully with such additional and otherwise hard-to-explain facts is strong evidence for its correctness relative to the structural theories that were considered earlier. That does not mean that this theory is ultimately correct, but that it is the best one considered so far. That is the nature of scientific inquiry. (p. 113)
The exercises for this chapter then ask students to identify category-neutral structures for various sentences and then summarize, in their own words, various of the specific arguments given in the chapter. The last three exercises provide an opportunity for students to test their skill with new data.
One potential criticism of the book might be that Sobin does not dwell on various concepts that carry importance to this day, such as merge or full interpretation. Other major concepts, such as attraction, are only briefly mentioned, and minimalism is completely absent. Moreover, the full complexity of the syntactic enterprise is ignored by not exploring weaknesses of the syntactic model provided or questioning the methodology. In this case, it is important to remember the objectives of this book, which are sharply limited to introducing the basics. The teacher then may augment or not, as desired.
One idiosyncrasy of this book that needs to be mentioned is that there is no author index. Instead, Sobin chose to place the list of references at the end of ‘Introductory Notes and References’ on pp. 3-4. Since there are very few references to individual work in the body of the text, this placement does not seem to pose any problems, as long as one knows where the list of references is located. However, a subject index would be useful for students and could pick up the stray authors mentioned in the body of the text, such as Greenberg (1966) on p. 122.
Ultimately, I would argue that this book succeeds with its goals by laying a broad, basic, and clear foundation in the philosophy of generative syntax, thus allowing undergraduates to learn the nature of scientific inquiry with languages in a trimester/quarter system or supporting graduate students with little or distant background to read and respond to primary literature with more confidence and understanding. At the graduate level, select readings can be used to augment, illustrate, and question concepts introduced in the text, and by mid-semester, students should be ready to explore current debate on a selected topic in syntax.
Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.
Chomsky, N. (1959) ''A Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior,'' Language 35, 1: 26-58.
Chomsky, N. (1988) Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, N. (1995) The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Greenberg, J. (ed.) (1966) Universals of Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Grimshaw, J. (1990) Argument Structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Jackendoff, R. (1977) X-Bar Syntax: A Study of Phrase Structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Larson, R. (1988) “On the Double Object Construction,” Linguistic Inquiry 19: 335-391.
Perlmutter, D. (1978) “Impersonal Passives and the Unaccusative Hypothesis.” Proceedings of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 4:157-189.
Reinhart, T. (1981) “Definite NP-anaphora and C-command Domains,” Linguistic Inquiry 12:605-635.
Ross, J. (1967) Constraints on Variables in Syntax. Ph.D. dissertation, MIT, Cambridge, MA.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Lorie Heggie is an Associate Professor of French and Linguistics at
Illinois State University in the Department of Languages, Literatures, &
Cultures, where she teaches undergraduate- and graduate-level courses in
French language and Linguistics. Her doctorate is from the University of
Southern California, where she developed a unified analysis for copular
sentences. Her interests include topic-focus phenomena in syntax and the
relation between relative pronouns and complementizers.