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Review of  Theories of Syntax

Reviewer: Kariema El Touny
Book Title: Theories of Syntax
Book Author: Koenraad Kuiper Jacqui Noakes
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 25.2444

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Although there are many books on syntax and syntactic theories, it is interesting to read a new approach to the topic. The authors admit to this truth as early as in the preface. In it, their motives for writing the book and the route they take in presenting them are explained.

The book is divided into two major parts. Part I (three chapters) deals with the concepts of syntax to pave the way for Part II, which consists of five chapters listing four current theories of syntax. These four distinct theories are presented systematically through seven syntactic phenomena, which the authors use as case studies to show how each theory tries to explain them.

Part I: Concepts of Syntax

In chapter 1, the authors explain what syntax is, and why we would study it. One reason they bring up is the existence of some problematic structures, such as ambiguous sentences and various word orders. Another reason is the observation that there is a difference between what speakers of the same language understand/infer and what those who hear the language for the first time do. By doing so, the authors pose questions to advocate for the creation of a syntactic theory to answer them. Finally, after establishing the need for it, they give the methods by which to accomplish that.

Linguists are like scientists of any field in this respect. Studying a language is compared to studying animals or plants. Zoologists and botanists not only pick specimens, take samples, run tests, and obtain results, but also create taxonomic charts to find similarities and differences between species. The process they implement is called hypothetico-deductive methodology; where a hypothesis is proposed, followed by tests, if the results are unfavorable, the hypothesis is modified.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to listing the concepts that any model of syntax for any natural language should account for. These are: Adjacency, Domain, Constituency, Dependency, Function, Morpho-syntactic Form, and Inherent and Assigned Properties.

First, Adjacency requirements and restrictions should be explained. In a sentence, sometimes it is grammatical for some syntactic units to be adjacent to other specific units due to their relationship; otherwise the sentence would be marked as ungrammatical. For example (p. 16):

1.a Alice ate the cake.
1.b *Alice ate quickly the cake.

In (1), the verb ‘eat’ must be adjacent to ‘the cake’. The adverb ‘quickly’, describing the manner of eating, cannot come between the two words.

Second, Domain is another form of relationship between units. The authors use the analogy of a wedding photo to explain the concept. The bride and groom are a domain, the bride’s family is another domain, the groom’s family is another, the bride’s parents are a sub-domain, the groom’s sisters are a sub-domain, and so on. Each member of a specific family could not stand in the middle of the other; for example, a groom’s sister could not stand between the bride’s parents. The picture/sentence would not be symmetrical/grammatical.

Third, a significant concept of syntax is Constituency, the mechanism by which smaller units are combined with other units to form larger constituents. Constituency also deals with the reasoning behind choosing units to form a coherent constituent.

Dependency is the fourth concept. It occurs when a unit requires the presence, form, or certain properties of another unit in the sentence. For example (p. 17):

1.a Alice saw herself in the looking glass.

The antecedent ‘Alice’ determines the reflexive pronoun’s gender and number, thus, using ‘herself’ instead of ‘himself’ or ‘themselves’.

The fifth concept is Function. Each unit has its role to play. This role could be determining the category of a phrase; consequently, how and where the phrase is used. For example:

4.a The key opened the door.

The noun ‘key’ identifies ‘the key’ as a noun phrase. Hence, its grammatical/syntactic function is the head of the noun phrase. The location of the noun phrase at the beginning of the sentence is its semantic/logical function as the subject of the sentence. On the other hand, the semantic/logical function of ‘the door’, another noun phrase, is the object.

Sixth, the Morpho-syntactic Form of a word provides both syntactic and semantic information. For instance, the singular vs. plural forms affect the meaning conveyed by the sentence. Consider the examples in (5) (p. 27):

5.a My tooth fell out.
5.b My teeth fell out.

The seventh concept, Inherent and Assigned Properties, could be applied to many of the previous ones. Function is an example of both inherent and assigned/relational properties. The noun functions as the head of the noun phrase inherently, while its function in a sentence as either the subject or the object is assigned.

Chapter 3 starts with a brief summary of some discourse functions, like presupposition, and a few semantic concepts, such as reference, that play a role in syntax. Then, the authors list the case studies and their different interpretations by each theory. These phenomena are: Phrase Structure and Complementation, Grammatical Relations, Case, Passive Constructions, WH Questions, Pronominals, and Phonologically Null Syntactic Elements. The authors draw on several of the syntactic concepts mentioned in Chapter 2 to present these case studies:

1) Phrase Structure and Complementation relies on Constituency, Domain, Dependency, and Adjacency, in the formation of phrases, the choice of complements, and the relationship between these elements.
2) Grammatical Relations is presented using Function.
3) Case involves Constituency, Domain, Dependency, and Function.
4) Passive Constructions include Dependency and Function, and fall under Domain constraints.
5) WH Questions rely on Domain, Dependency, and Function.
6) Pronominals or Pro-forms involve Dependency and have Domain restrictions.
7) Phonologically Null Syntactic Elements rely on Dependency and are subject to Domain constraints.

Depending on the particular theory of syntax, each of these case studies is presented and explained within that theory.

Part II Theories of Syntax

Each chapter, 4-7, is dedicated to one theory. These are: Systematic Functional Grammar, the Principles and Parameters Framework, Lexical Functional Grammar, and the Minimalist Program. They are presented in chronological order, 1960s to 1990s, to provide the reader with a panoramic view of the on-going change within the field. The authors start with a brief history of each theory; then, they outline each using the concepts and case studies, while mentioning a few of the controversies within it.

In chapter 8, the authors re-examine the problematic structures they previously mentioned in chapter 1 and state whether each theory could explain them or not. They conclude that some questions are never answered; and if they are, some answers are better than others. In addition, syntactic theories are not the sole criterion by which a language should be studied. There are many factors involved in its study, such as biology and psychology.

Comparing the four theories could be achieved by taking four factors into consideration. One is the aims of each theory. A second is the generality of these aims. A third is whether the theory utilizes the hypothetico-deductive methodology or not. Last is the explicit nature of the theory and its terminology.

The authors end the book by describing how syntactic theories are locally-based depending on the theorists working on them. Hallidayan approaches are mainly in Australia, where Michael Halliday works; Lexical Functional Grammar is based at Stanford University, where Joan Bresnan is; and Linguistic Inquiry, published by MIT, where Noam Chomsky teaches, is mainly dedicated to Chomskian framework. Unlike Physics, for instance, these varied disciplines rarely mingle and collaborations are very few. This is attributed to the relatively young age of syntactic theories, where many are still developing.


The book is easy to read and flows logically. In it, the authors give the reader a fresh view on the study of syntax; the reasons for studying it, and the methods to accomplish that. They maintain that the book will not delve into any controversies surrounding any particular theory nor will it offer solutions to any supposed weaknesses. They use examples solely from English to generalize the concepts and the case studies. Their proposed blueprint could be applied to any language. The structure of the middle chapters, 4-7, is unique. Each chapter is repetitive in nature to give the reader the prerogative to choose specific chapters to read as stand-alones.

The book is not for a true beginner, someone who does not know the basic concepts and common definitions of syntax. To best use this book, the reader needs to be familiar with basic grammatical functions like subject, predicate, and object; grammatical categories like noun, verb, and preposition; phrase structures like noun phrase and verb phrase; and the difference between a main and a subordinate clause. In addition, the book makes use of tree diagrams; hence the ability to reading them is required.

The book suffers from many typos and mis-numbered examples, which may cause some confusion. For example, p3, 2nd line from the bottom; p12, 9th line from the bottom; p26, 1st line in 2.7; p33, 4th line in 3.2; the numbers of examples 1, 2, and 3 in chapter 2 are repeated.

Nevertheless, the book has many redeeming features. One is providing the reader, at the end of each chapter including the preface, with questions for revision, reflection, and discussion, plus a list of books for further reading and the references used. Another is using one source for the examples, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” This way, the reader gets unified material for the diverse theories to explain, which makes comparing and contrasting them easier.


Carroll, L., Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (retrieved from (original publication date 1865).
Kariema El Touny has an MA from Women’s College, Ain Shams University. Her interests include (but are not limited to) Syntax, Arabic Dialectology, Typology, and Theory Construction. She has presented and published her research on Cairene Arabic syntax within the frameworks of the Minimalist Program and Optimality Theory.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0230216935
ISBN-13: 9780230216938
Pages: 256
Prices: U.K. £ 20.99