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Syntax and Semantics

syntax, semantics, components, sentence, phrase structure rules


Syntax can be defined as the arrangement of words to show their relationship tone another in a sentence. Syntax rules govern proper sentences structure. Psycholinguists analyze syntax at the descriptive level:
a) James asked the woman about her car.
b) About the James car woman her asked.

Same lexical items in a sentence yet we prefer the structure in (a).
Chomsky developed transformational grammar to replace the ‘the left-to-right grammar’.

Major factors of transformational grammar

Every sentence exists in two levels: surface structure (the actual spoken sentence); and Deep structure (underlying meaning of the sentence). A single deep structure idea can be analyzed in many different ways.

Deep structure:
a)Boy kisses girl

Surface structure:
a)The boy kissed the girl.
b)The boy was kissing the girl.
c)The girl was kissed by the boy.

The deep structure gives the semantic component of a sentence while the surface structure gives the proper phonological information to express the thought.

How do we develop these two levels of sentence construction?
Chomsky proposed two sets of rules:

1)Phrase structure grammar: these rules dictate the form of deep structure. Phrase structure rules specify the necessary phrases for proper sentence construction, and the specific word ordering that should be followed within these sentence phrases. Phrase structure grammar forces a hierarchical arrangement among different parts of sentences. These rules cannot be used to explain language on their own because they cannot help to distinguish among ambiguous sentences:
a.Visiting relatives can be a nuisance.
b.The shooting of the hunters was horrible.

To account for these shortcomings in phrase structure grammar, Chomsky proposed another level of rules which assist in translating deep structures to surface structure sentences.

2)Transformational rules: these rules help transform the deep structure into the surface structure. The manipulation of verb tenses is one of these rules. Present tense, subjunctive, past perfect, future tense are all derived through transformational rules.

What is the difference between syntax and semantics?
This question could be answered merely by taking a definition out of any dictionary or cognitive psychology text book. John R. Anderson defines the two in his book “Cognitive psychology and its implications” (1995) as,
Semantics- Grammatical rules for assigning meaning to a sentence.
Syntax- Grammatical rules for specifying correct word order and inflectional structure in a sentence.

Doing this does not really give a clear explanation of the differences between the two. It is better explained if the features of the two are explored more thoroughly. Word order is the basic principal of syntax; those trying to understand what is written use the syntactic cues of word order to help give the sentence structure and meaning. Word order gives a sentence the correct intonation especially with the use of function words such as, ‘a’ and ‘who’, due to this it’s meaning becomes much clearer. If the words of a sentence were not in the correct order there would be no syntactic cues as to the meaning of the sentence. This point leads on to the difference between syntax and semantics.

Semantics are an individuals’ own interpretation of the meaning of a “sentence” based on their prior knowledge. Therefore a sentence that seemingly makes no syntactic sense can have meaning when using semantic cues. The sentence “Baby milk drinks” does not have a syntactic meaning, but through semantics most people would interpret it as meaning “Baby drinks milk “as our prior knowledge tells us that a baby drinks milk, and therefore we can find a meaning from the key words.

The difference between syntax and semantics is that syntax is only concerned with what is linguistically and grammatically correct, semantics requires all ones prior knowledge which, as Anderson states, “goes far beyond anything which is language specific”.


This typically includes all phrase structure and sub-categorization rules. Among its functions, is to generate all but only grammatical sentences. Speakers of any language possess a mentalistic dictionary from which all forms of words of that language are drawn from. With the unmatched aid of the syntactic component, these words are ordered in a hierarchical ordering, putting into consideration the tense, agreement and word environment (collocation), into sensible and meaningful units called sentences.

These sub-categorization rules are a lead to replication and reorganization of phrase structure rules. The aspect of frame in the syntactic component give a comprehensive elaboration of class categories of lexical items and the environment in which they occur e.g. V {-NP} for the verb environment in the case of English language.


It comprises a set of rules of whatever their nature which assign interpretation to sentences, clauses and phrases for possible meaning both implicit and explicit in relation to the possible world. The semantic component provides and subjects out-puts of syntactic component to an interpretation for meaning, sense and logic. It is on the basis of the general rules of grammar shared by the users of a language that through the semantic component they are able to appreciate instances of ambiguity, contextual meaning and the general ability to unanimously declare a sentence meaningless, senseless or one that is not logical.

Actually, after critical analysis, the semantic component generates the sentence structure as its out-put in a mentalistic oriented process where the Phrase structure is in-put to it from the syntactic component as is explained by the diagram in this paper.
For purposes of discussion, it is actually a tough steep up a hill trying to discuss the syntactic component and the semantic component in isolation since they posses an out-put in-put relationship. This aspect is supported by the fact that an evidence of a perfect application of syntactic component is the ability to have a grammatical sentence structure as the out-put of semantic component.


Input output

PS level SS level
(Cognitive Generation) (Sentence structure)

( missin diagram)


Before an English speaker produces the sentence ‘ my cow is very thin’ this words may exist in the mentalistic dictionary as ‘cow’, ‘thin’, ‘is’, ‘my’, ‘very’ which have of course been cognitively generated from many other words in this dictionary. They are interpreted and in-put to the syntactic component which subjects them to rules of sub-categorization, frame and lexical insertion rules and finally hierarchically ordered into phrases.

These phrases ‘my cow’ and ‘is very thin’ are in-put in the semantic component which in then interprets their meaning and finally generates a sensible, grammatical, meaningful and logical sentence structures like ‘ my cow is very thin’ or ‘very thin my cow is’.

Generation of meaningful and grammatical sentences greatly requires the syntactic and semantic components as is exemplified in the discussion below.

i. The rules of syntax combine words into phrases and phrases into sentences. Among other things, the rules specify the correct order of words in a language. The English sentence below is grammatical because the words occur in the correct order
a). I gave a bone to peter yesterday.

The sentence b) below is ungrammatical because the word order is incorrect for English language.
b). * Peter bone yesterday to gave I a.

ii. Syntax describes the relationship between the meaning of a particular group of words and the arrangement of these words. For instance the sentences below show that the order of words contributes significantly to the sentence meaning.

a). He means what he says.
b). He says what he means.

iii. The rules of syntax also describe and specify the grammatical relations of sentence such as the subject and the direct object. That means that the syntactic rules provide information that permits the hearer to know who/what is doing what and to whom/what. This information is prerequisite to the understanding of the meaning of a sentence.

a). My son chased your dog away.
b). your dog chased my son away.

These seemingly identical sentences have totally different meanings.

iv. The rules of syntax specify other constraints that sentences must adhere to. Consider the following English sentences:

a). * The boy found.
b). * The boy found quickly.
c). * The boy found in the house.
d). The boy found the ball.

The sentences a) to c) are ungrammatical while sentence d) is undoubtedly found grammatical. This is so because syntactic rules specify that a verb like ‘found’ is followed by a noun phrase or prepositional phrase or an adverbial phrase. At times a number of verbs like ‘found’ reject bare adverbial heads like ‘quickly’.

Similarly sentence a) below is ungrammatical while b) is grammatical.
a). * Ochieng ran the car.
b). Ochieng ran quickly.
The verb ‘ran’ is differently selective to the verb ‘find’ in that it must be followed by adverbs (-Ly) or prepositional phrases and not noun phrases like ‘the boy’ which the verb ‘find’ can allow.

v. The fact that the native speakers have the same judgment illustrates that grammatical judgments are neither idiosyncratic nor capricious but are determined by the rules that are shared by the speakers of a language.
Therefore, sentences in any language are not simply strings of words but a fully dictated process of organization.

Our syntactic knowledge crucially and largely includes how words form groups in sentences; or how they are hierarchically arranged with respect to one another. Consider this phrase;
a). Synthetic Uganda hides.

The above phrase can be interpreted to mean ‘hides from Uganda that are synthetic in nature’ or ‘hides from a synthetic Uganda’. The words in this phrase can be grouped in two ways;
Synthetic (Uganda hides) for the first meaning.
(Synthetic Uganda) hides for the second meaning.

The rules of syntax allow these two groupings hence paving way for ambiguity. Because this ambiguity results from two structures of the same sentence, it’s an instance of structural ambiguity.

vi. The rules of syntax reveal grammatical relations among the words of a sentence as well as the order and the hierarchical organization. They also explain how the grouping of words relates to the meaning. In addition, they allow the speakers to produce and understand a limitless number of sentences never produced or heard before. Therefore syntax allows the creative aspect of linguistic knowledge.

People are to understand, produce and make judgments about an infinite range of sentences most of which they have never heard before. We can exploit our resources of our language and grammar to produce and understand a limitless number of sentences embodying a limitless range of ideas and emotions.

Though the structure of a sentence contributes to its meaning, grammaticality and meaningfulness are not the same thing. Consider the following sentences.

a). Colourless ideas sleep furiously.
b). A verb crumbled the milk.

Although these sentences do not make much sense, they are syntactically well formed. They sound funny but not as in the case below
a). * Furiously sleep ideas green colourless.
b). * milk the crumbled verb a.

We can understand some sentences though not well formed.


One of the earliest grammars to be postulated and studied was based on the observation that in grammatical sentences, certain words tend to appear in clusters. They are grouped into phrases and those phrases are broken down into sub-phrases and so on. Phrase structure is an important part of the language. These structures can be put into categories: noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases etc. the idea is that all the phrases of the same type ought to be completely interchangeable.

In such a phrase-structure grammar, anywhere you have a grammatical sentence with one phrase of a certain type, you can just substitute for it any other phrase of the same type and the result will be a grammatical sentence. This concept leads to a grammar that is simple mathematically known as “context-free phrase structure grammar.” It consists of finite list of phrase type and a finite set of rules for piecing together sentences. You can generate an infinite set of sentences with a finite set of rules.

But this simple structure does not account for all grammar features of human language. Phrase structure rules have various shortcomings:
Phrase structure rules duplicate information, which is explicitly specified in sub-categorization frames.
Phrase structure rules do not reflect the distinction between the sub-categorized and non sub-categorized categories. Phrases which are sub-categorized for are known as compliments and phrases which are not sub-categorized for are known as adjuncts. Adjuncts are optional while compliments are not. Additionally, the compliment must be adjacent to its head, and form an immediate constituent with its head.
a) John hit bill
b) *john hit
c) The student of linguistics with red hair
d) *the student with red hair of linguistics

Phrase structure rules do not provide an explanation for the constraints that phrases must have a head of the same categorical value:
The above rule fails to recognize that a prepositional phrase is very selective in terms of what noun phrase post modifies it. So that when sentence a) below is grammatical, sentence b) is ungrammatical hence wrong.

a). The boy dived into the swimming pool.
b). * The boy dived into the bag.

If grammar contains phrase structure rules, the information that all phrases must have a head of the same type has to be repeated independently for each kind of phrase.
Though the general and collapsed phrase structure rule in given as;
XP= (specifier) X (compliment)
The mandatory head of the phrase ‘X’ is very selective on the type of specifier and compliment that modify it even though they are marked as optional. Therefore, though an ordering of words may fully satisfy the phrase structure rules, it is notable that there can result a set of ill-formed sentences.
Published: 2009-02-14
Author: Aggrey Nzomo

About the author or the publisher
I am a graduate of Moi university kenya in Linguistics and Foreing languages. I am aged twenty two and a good narrative and descriptive writer. i currently write with an online company the i have with me finished poems and short stories. i also write sex episodes and i have four episodes so far. i am a single male of an African origin.

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