Syntax

We may think of meaning in a language as something that is carried by words, which, of course, it partly is. But meaning is just as much a result of syntax, of how the words relate to one another. To give you an immediate glimpse of syntax, here is some nonsense:

The boogep poogly zilled a yoxy huz.

Although none of the principal words in this sentence has any meaning in English, a good deal does get communicated. We can tell that whatever zilling might be, it refers to an action. It’s something (whether pleasant or unpleasant) that the boogep did to the huz, and it was done at some time in the past. We know that this zilling was done in a certain (poogly) way to a certain kind of huz (a yoxy one). Again, all this information comes to us through the syntax, or structure, of the sentence.

Syntax in English relies on two things. One is word order. The boogep zilled a huz says something very different from a huz zilled the boogep. The other is a set of “small” words or parts of words, like the, a, to, in, the -ed ending on zilled, or the -ly ending on poogly. Such words are structural markers. Most don’t refer to things outside of themselves, in the way that the word red refers to a color or that cobra refers to certain unfriendly animals. Instead, as their name indicates, structural markers help to indicate structural, or syntactic, relationships. Although the sentence about the boogep and huz is nonsense, we recognize it as English nonsense. But if we took out the structural markers, we’d be left with total nonsense:

Boogep poog zill yoxy huz.

–> Continue to Syntax in motion.

2 comments on “Syntax
  1. Elizabeth Ashey says:

    Hi Dr. Rower, I find your website fascinating and plan to digest it over the next several weeks. I am a literacy coach in an elementary school and I wondered if I could refer to your site as well as use your examples in the PD work I do with teachers. Any suggestions in supporting teachers’ understanding of how language works and how to best teach them is much appreciated!
    Take care, Liz

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