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Review of  Syntactic Analysis

Reviewer: Lorie Heggie
Book Title: Syntactic Analysis
Book Author: Nicholas Sobin
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.3578

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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


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:

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:

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.

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.

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