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Review of  Understanding Sentence Structure

Reviewer: Hassan Makhad
Book Title: Understanding Sentence Structure
Book Author: Christina Tortora
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 30.2945

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This is a review of Tortora (2018), Understanding Sentence Structure: An Introduction to English Syntax, Wiley & Sons, Inc. NJ, USA. The work is intended as an introductory Syntax book. Its primary goal is to get readers familiar with syntactic analysis and terminology. It consists of a preface, acknowledgment, eleven chapters and an index. Each chapter has its own title with detailed subsections.

Chapter One deals with the identification of the detailed aspects of structures and how the human mind organizes speech into structured segments. It attempts to account for the mental mechanisms which allow native speakers to assign structures to sequences of speech parts. It shows how these unconscious rules enable speakers to produce and understand sentences out of word combinations. This intuitive ability is accordingly intertwined with a biological specification of humans to learn their native languages. It thus introduces the notion of phrase structure Rules and trees to demonstrate how people have intuitions to associate structure with strings of words. This proves that native speakers consider groups of words to constitute meaningful units rather than arbitrary groupings.

Chapter Two provides a comprehensive understanding of the concepts introduced in Chapter One. It mainly deals with the detailed internal structure of the Noun Phrase (NP). It offers a preliminary examination of constituent relations between a noun and its modifiers: determiners, adjectives and prepositional phrases. It formulates the difference between complements and adjuncts in a very illustrative way. It maps Phrase Structure Rules into tree structures to reflect how the human brain assembles sentential constituents. It also addresses the notion of recursion in natural languages.

Chapter Three examines the structure of the Verb Phrase (VP). It shows that there are many verb types. Some verbs occur with one or two objects, prepositional phrases, or predicative adjectives. It introduces constituency tests to demonstrate which elements form a constituent and which do not. In addition, it addresses structural ambiguity in terms of structural hierarchy and representations. The chapter also introduces the notion of syntactic movement. It shows that passivization involves raising of object NPs to the subject position.

Chapter Four studies different prepositions and types of preposition Phrases (PP) to establish their autonomy and particularities as a distinct category. It maintains that a PP must be headed by a P. Moreover it makes a distinction between Phrasal Verbs (verbs followed with a preposition) and PP complements. In the former, P is part of the verb. In the latter, it is not. The writer uses the particle shift test to distinguish the two constituents.

Chapter Five intends to strengthen readers’ understanding of VPs. It establishes the concept of subcategorization. It also introduces deep-structure and surface-structure. The chapter introduces the complementizer category (subordinating conjunction) and its phrase structure representation: Complementizer Phrase (CP). It distinguishes diverse verb types on the basis of their distinct selectional requirements. Intransitive verbs do not select complements. Transitive verbs require one complement. Ditransitive verbs subcategorize for two complements: a direct and an indirect complement. It also addresses the notion of recursion in terms of copying. When a verb selects a complement sentence, the embedded complement is a full sentence just like the matrix sentence itself. In terms of embedding, the embedded clause could be declarative or interrogative. In case of a wh-construction, the wh-object raises from its deep-structure complement position to CP. This information is part of the human linguistic knowledge of the lexicon.

Chapter Six turns back to NPs to deepen readers’ familiarity with complex NPs. It shows that, similar to verbs, nouns can take sentential complements. This similarity stems from the fact that a large number of nouns derive from verbs on the basis of morpho-semantic operations: she claims their claim, She believed in his belief. Actually, this derivation does not affect the subcategorization frame of the original word. Moreover, NPs with relative clauses have an interesting property. The head noun of such complex NP is the complement of the verb: I ate [the sandwichj that my mother made tj]. In the case of the relative wh-element, it shows raising to CP: the thief [whoj tj stole the computer]. Examination of complex NPs has introduced traces of movements to capture deep-structure properties of nouns.

Chapter Seven mainly deals with empty categories. These elements play significant roles in syntax. They systematize the conceptualization of structures in our minds. When elements move from their deep-structure positions to their surface-structure, they leave traces behind. Co-indexation takes care of the representation of the connection between traces and their antecedents. In addition, the reality of empty elements is proved by wanna-contraction. Whoj do you want tj to answer? *Who do you wanna answer? The ungrammaticality results as the trace of the moved element prevents wanna contraction to operate. Another example of empty elements is the subject of imperatives: Go there. Go there yourself. Don’t you go there. The presence of the reflexive, yourself, indicates that there is an empty “you” in the first sentence. This claim is proved by the existence of the same pronoun in the negative construction. Null elements are also shown to exist in embedded infinitives: Johnj wants proj to sing. Accordingly, the theory of silent elements allows readers to understand the intricacies of the existence of elements even if they are not realized phonetically.

Chapter Eight introduces the notion of tense. This concept is relevant in the interpretation of the grammatical meanings verbs indicate according to the suffixes they inflect for. Tense thus specifies the location of the verb on the timeline axis. The past denotes occurrence before the moment of speech. The present overlaps with the utterance time. The future takes place after the speech time. Moreover, main verbs attract tense unless they are preceded by modals or auxiliaries. The chapter also addresses semantic and pragmatic issues related to the interpretation of tenses and verb types. These facts point to the human ability to use language to exactly express what they intend to.

Chapter Nine investigates details of verbal constructions, especially the auxiliary verb system and its interaction with main verbs. It illustrates that modals are distinguished from auxiliaries (be, have and do). The latter can act either as auxiliaries or main verbs. Modals do not have main verb counterparts. They do not inflect for person and number and do not have infinitival form. Their past form is ambiguous: it may express past, a conditional or a past habitual. In addition to the main tenses (Past-Present-Future), it discusses perfect tenses (Past perfect, present perfect and future perfect).

Chapter Ten explores the syntax of verbs and negations. It shows that tense is syntactically active. It is headed with tense ([±tns]) feature. It proves that each sentence contains one single tense feature regardless of the number of verbs it includes. It is thus associated with the leftmost verb in the structure. In nonfinite sentence, the infinitival “to” encodes [-tns] features. Modals are base generated in T, hence their presence denotes a tensed sentence. Unlike modals, auxiliaries move to T across negation. Negation is generated to the right of tense. Main verbs do not move to T in Modern English. The tense inflections lower to them within VP. When the tense inflection is unable to attach to a verb, do-support insertion takes place. Its role is to grammaticalize tense and save the sentence.

Chapter Eleven examines some impending questions and provides some attainable answers. It introduces X-bar Theory. This Model generalizes the structure of phrases. The sentence is accordingly a Tense Phrase (TP) projection. The model imposes a binary branching organization with optional multiple bar-levels which can accommodate various adverb modifiers. It also investigates matrix questions that require T-to-C movement. It shows that Wh-movement involves rising to Spec. CP. Finally, it recommends readers to follow advanced syntax studies so as to better understand the syntactic-semantic behavior and theoretic rules of native speakers’ linguistic knowledge.


This book is a wealthy source of information about language and grammar as well as linguistic variations among speakers of English. It begins with basic information about sentence structure, namely that a sentence is composed of an NP-subject and a VP-predicate. Throughout the chapters, this idea develops and provides in-depth explorations of the internal complexities of sentential constituents and their syntactic behaviors.

The book is written in a simple and accessible style. This property keeps the reader interested in exploring the complex nature of human language. The approach makes one feel as if they are following lectures in a classroom. I suppose this is the main strength of the work, as it keeps the reader interested in what comes next. In addition, it provides some interesting characteristics in book-writing/edition. First, it gives frequent practice exercises to make sure the studied concepts are understood. It also makes use of “side notes” and “term boxes” to offer readers more information and additional related knowledge with guided elaborations.

In terms of structure, the book contains two table of content pages: a brief one and a detailed one. The first is not probably needed. Similarly, it lacks a page of references. Of course, the writer has provided a few references at the end of Chapter One, Chapter eight, Chapter Ten and Chapter Eleven. However, it is conventional to have a bibliography at the end of the book. In addition, there are a few inaccuracies. For example, in the preface chapter, exercises section, line 6, the word “paragraph” could be replaced by “section.” In page 7, paragraph 2, line 2, “ This a direct result…” the verb form “is” is missing after the demonstrative “This”. In page 25, exercise 4, line 8, (1) must be (1b). In page 38, paragraph 2, line 5, “…as syntactic…” should be “…a syntactic…” In page 60, exercise 5, e.g. 9, “ These students gave her homework to the professor”. I think “ These students gave their homework to the professor”, or “ These students gave the professor her homework”. Could be better. In page 66, paragraph 1, line 6, “… into related (but different structures)..” should be “… into related (but different) structures.” In page 236, paragraph 5, line 7, “ …we use past tense have.” Should be “ …we use past tense had.” In page 342, paragraph 2, line 11-12, “what will go with V” is repeated twice.

Despite these minor typing errors, the book remains an insightful and a very useful reference on the study of English sentence structure both for beginners and advanced readers. The book is very informative and it is highly recommended for instructors who teach Introduction to Syntax. I hope the writer will produce a similar document for advanced syntax.
H. Makhad is a professor at Cadi Ayyad University.

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