LINGUIST List 23.3578

Mon Aug 27 2012

Review: Applied Linguistics; Syntax: Sobin (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 27-Aug-2012
From: Lorie Heggie <>
Subject: Syntactic Analysis
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AUTHOR: Nicholas SobinTITLE: Syntactic AnalysisSUBTITLE: The BasicsPUBLISHER: Wiley-BlackwellYEAR: 2011

Lorie Heggie, Department of Languages, Literatures, & Cultures, Illinois StateUniversity


As suggested by its title, in this book, the author seeks to initiate the readerto the basic, foundational ideas of generative syntax, beginning withphilosophical concepts first described in Chomsky (1957) and proceeding bymirroring the development of the theory in an additive fashion, touching onconcepts based on Ross (1967), Jackendoff (1977), Perlmutter (1978), Reinhart(1981), Larson (1988), Grimshaw (1990), and Chomsky (1995), among others. Thisrelatively short book (165 pages) targets a quarter or trimester format, or halfof a semester, for undergraduate and masters-level courses in syntax. The goalsare fourfold: (1) introduce the reader to terms and concepts that are core tothe field of syntax; (2) teach the reader to understand and operate varioussyntactic analyses using hypothesis formation and testing; (3) present thereasoning behind the choice of one analysis over another; and (4) prepare thereader for more advanced study in syntactic systems.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters. Each chapter discusses, in a conciseand straightforward manner, a clearly defined concept crucial to the building ofan analysis in generative syntax and ends with exercises to help assimilate andconfirm the concepts introduced in that chapter. Each chapter is quite short,ranging from seven to seventeen pages. At the end are two appendices, onelisting minor grammatical categories (e.g. negation, determiner, etc.) and thesecond giving a list of verbs with their argument structures.

In Chapter One, ‘Doing Science with Language: Introductory Concepts,’ Sobinprovides a brief discussion of the term “theory” and the rationale for theInnateness Hypothesis and the Principles and Parameters model of grammar.

Chapter Two, ‘The Structure and Classification of Words,’ introducesmorphological concepts such as lexicon and types of affixes. Sobin begins bystarting with what students know, i.e., the more traditional definitions forverb, noun, etc. He then builds a more disciplined approach to the typology ofwords and the formation of words.

Chapter Three, ‘Determining the Structure of Sentences,’ introduces the conceptsof linearity and hierarchy, and provides diagnostics for determining sentencestructure and phrasehood (e.g. movement, coordination, sentence fragments indiscourse, pronoun substitution, and omissibility).

Chapter Four, ‘Rules of Sentence Structure,’ takes the discussion of structureone step further by introducing phrase structure rules and concepts of infinityand recursion as they apply to a phrase structure grammar. A number of new termsare introduced as well as the role of acceptability as a methodology foraccessing a grammar that is subconscious.

Chapter Five, ‘Assigning Meaning in Sentences,’ presents the concepts ofgrammatical function and theta roles. To give a flavor as to how Sobinintroduces a concept, the following is a good example: “Let’s refer to thesubjects and objects of a sentence as its arguments [boldface] (a term takenfrom predicate logic). Further, let’s refer to the specific meanings of thearguments such as agent, experiencer, goal, etc. as “thematic roles,” or better,theta roles [boldface].” (p. 54) He then moves from here to structurally definesubjects, complements, and adjuncts within the theta grid, a construct that canthen help in determining whether a given sentence is structurally ambiguous or not.

Chapter Six, ‘Some Category-Neutral Processes,’ considers coordination andPro-form Insertion as examples of category-neutral rules, thus introducing thenotion that rules may not necessarily be confined to only one category. Thischapter is actually recapping hints given in earlier chapters, such that thestudent is slowly being led to accept the plausibility of category-neutral rules.

Chapter Seven, ‘How Structure Affects Pronoun Reference,’ introduces BindingTheory in a very careful, step-by-step fashion, concluding with a discussion ofhow these data provide important insights into language acquisition and the factthat children of different languages can know these principles without anynegative data to draw from.

In Chapter Eight, ‘Complex Verb Forms,’ the discussion begins with theobservation that the theory developed thus far handles an infinite number ofsentences but still “massively undergenerates” sentences (p. 82). Thisobservation leads to the presentation of complex auxiliaries and two competinganalyses: the Complex Aux hypothesis and the Recursive Verb Phrase (VP)hypothesis. Sobin then uses empirical arguments with VP deletion to choosebetween the two analyses. Verb forms and affix hopping are also presented inthis chapter, naturally leading to the introduction of deep structure and movement.

Chapter Nine, ‘Real vs. Apparent Sentence Structure,’ takes the natural step ofexploring D(eep)-structure and its correlate, S(surface)-structure, in yes/noquestions, negation, V(erb)-to-T(ense) movement and zero affixes. Sobin ends thechapter with a summary of the syntactic system built thus far.

In Chapter Ten, ‘Generalizing Syntactic Rules,’ Sobin takes the step ofgeneralizing structural rules across lexical categories. He begins with adescription of the architecture of Noun Phrase (NP), Verb Phrase (VP), AdjectivePhrase (AjP), and Prepositional Phrase (PP), and then builds the X-bar system,introducing the prerequisite ideas of specifier, maximal phrase, economy, andthe preference for generalizing structures.

Chapter Eleven, ‘Functional Categories,’ extends the X-bar analysis toC(omplementizer) and T(ense) and also explores the question of order withinX-bar architecture. Drawing on Greenberg (1966), Sobin re-introduces the notionof parameter setting and the directionality of heads.

In Chapter Twelve, ‘Questions, Relative Clauses, Wh Movement,’ the student isintroduced to feature-driven wh-movement, both long and cyclical, as well asislands. The observation is made that this type of movement is found in relativeclauses, a fact that points towards a “constructionless” syntax (p. 139). Thedivision between A- and A-bar movement is also created, which leads into thenext chapter. This chapter concludes with another summary of the X-bar systembuilt to this point.

Chapter Thirteen, ‘NP Movement,’ further explores the concept of feature-drivenA-movement in the form of VP-internal subjects and quantifier float, passivesentences, and subject-to-subject raising. These types of sentences naturallyintroduce a discussion of morphological and abstract Case, the Case Filter, andtheta 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 thefinal chapter, has a slightly different purpose from previous chapters. There isno problem set at the end. Instead, Sobin briefly introduces three importantconcepts that are regularly used in contemporary syntactic analysis:unaccusative verbs; VP shells and verb raising (ditransitive verbs); andDeterminer Phrase (DP) vs. NP.


“Syntactic Analysis: The Basics” is about applying scientific methodology tolanguage and presenting the evolution of thought in generative grammar overseveral decades. It is an excellent initiation to the generative framework andprinciples and parameters for those seeking a ''no frills'' approach to the logicof generative grammar. The presentation is pedagogically sound, carefullyintroducing concepts and terms and then returning to them repeatedly later inthe text, while also providing sufficient summaries to help students keep thefull model in mind at the appropriate moments. Trees and diagrams demonstrateconcepts clearly and logically. Exercises at the end of chapters use primarilyEnglish data with some data sets for German, Spanish, and Quechua; they clearlywork to reinforce the main concepts of the chapter and help students tointegrate the material into their own understanding. This care results in acohesive, coherent picture of syntactic analysis. The discussion is clear,concise, and streamlined, thus providing an excellent starting point forstudents to be introduced to the philosophy of generative syntactic inquiry.

Some teachers may find the book too succinct for their needs, but I do believethis book fills an important gap in the list of textbooks available forintroductory syntax. Most textbooks target an entire semester’s content, andpush much more deeply into a particular theoretical framework. This approach isentirely appropriate for programs in linguistics where students will have theopportunity 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 startstudents on the right track in generative grammar. Another application is forprograms with more limited resources in linguistics. At the master’s level inlanguage departments, for example, where students may take a relatively smallvariety of linguistics courses, this textbook creates very interestingopportunities. In this situation, a teacher who is working in a generativeframework 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 andlanguage, is exceptionally succinct. It introduces questions related to languageacquisition and the Innateness Hypothesis and why a generative grammar approachhas been pursued over the decades. These arguments are presented in astraightforward and balanced manner. There is ample room for the teacher toaugment the discussion depending on the objectives of the class. In amaster's-level graduate seminar, this augmentation is probably needed; possiblecandidates might be Chomsky (1959) or Chomsky (1988).

Each chapter thereafter provides an empirically-based presentation of a new stepin the logic of the argument, starting with morphology in Chapter Two. Onechapter that is especially strong is Chapter Ten, ‘Generalizing SyntacticRules.’ This is the chapter where Sobin introduces the specifier-head-complementstructure for NP, VP, and AjP, giving clear examples of the differentconstituencies and then generalizing these structures to the X-bar system. Thischapter builds on prior chapters where Phrase Structure Rules are introduced forvarious constructions and the Phrase Structure Grammar is being built. What Iespecially appreciate is the last paragraph of the chapter: “The ability of thistheory to deal successfully with such additional and otherwise hard-to-explainfacts is strong evidence for its correctness relative to the structural theoriesthat were considered earlier. That does not mean that this theory is ultimatelycorrect, but that it is the best one considered so far. That is the nature ofscientific inquiry. (p. 113)

The exercises for this chapter then ask students to identify category-neutralstructures for various sentences and then summarize, in their own words, variousof the specific arguments given in the chapter. The last three exercises providean opportunity for students to test their skill with new data.

One potential criticism of the book might be that Sobin does not dwell onvarious concepts that carry importance to this day, such as merge or fullinterpretation. Other major concepts, such as attraction, are only brieflymentioned, and minimalism is completely absent. Moreover, the full complexity ofthe syntactic enterprise is ignored by not exploring weaknesses of the syntacticmodel provided or questioning the methodology. In this case, it is important toremember the objectives of this book, which are sharply limited to introducingthe basics. The teacher then may augment or not, as desired.

One idiosyncrasy of this book that needs to be mentioned is that there is noauthor index. Instead, Sobin chose to place the list of references at the endof ‘Introductory Notes and References’ on pp. 3-4. Since there are very fewreferences to individual work in the body of the text, this placement does notseem to pose any problems, as long as one knows where the list of references islocated. However, a subject index would be useful for students and could pick upthe stray authors mentioned in the body of the text, such as Greenberg (1966) onp. 122.

Ultimately, I would argue that this book succeeds with its goals by laying abroad, basic, and clear foundation in the philosophy of generative syntax, thusallowing undergraduates to learn the nature of scientific inquiry with languagesin a trimester/quarter system or supporting graduate students with little ordistant background to read and respond to primary literature with moreconfidence and understanding. At the graduate level, select readings can be usedto augment, illustrate, and question concepts introduced in the text, and bymid-semester, students should be ready to explore current debate on a selectedtopic 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,” LinguisticInquiry 12:605-635.

Ross, J. (1967) Constraints on Variables in Syntax. Ph.D. dissertation, MIT,Cambridge, MA.


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.

Page Updated: 27-Aug-2012