Understanding Sentence Structure - Christina Tortora - ebook

Understanding Sentence Structure ebook

Christina Tortora

159,99 zł


A straightforward guide to understanding English grammar This book is for people who have never thought about syntax, and who don't know anything about grammar, but who want to learn. Assuming a blank slate on the part of the reader, the book treats English grammar as a product of the speaker's mind, and builds up student skills by exploring phrases and sentences with more and more complexity, as the chapters proceed. This practical guide excites and empowers readers by guiding them step by step through each chapter with intermittent exercises. In order to capitalize on the reader's confidence as a personal authority on English, Understanding Sentence Structure assumes an inclusive definition of English, taking dialect variation and structures common amongst millions of English speakers to be a fact of natural language. * Situates grammar as part of what the student already unconsciously knows * Presupposes no prior instruction, not even in prescriptive grammar * Begins analyzing sentences immediately, with the "big picture" (sentences have structure, structure can be ambiguous) and moves through levels of complexity, tapping into students' tacit knowledge of sentence structure * Includes exercise boxes for in-chapter practicing of skills, side notes that offer further tips/encouragement on topics being discussed, and new terms defined immediately and helpfully in term boxes * Applies decades of findings in syntactic theory and cognitive science, with an eye towards making English grammar accessible to school teachers and beginning students alike Understanding Sentence Structure: An Introduction to English Syntax is an ideal book for undergraduates studying modern English grammar and for instructors teaching introductory courses in English grammar, syntax, and sentence structure.

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Table of Contents




1 Let’s get Parsing!

1.1 some introductory words

1.2 let’s start understanding what those unconscious rules that create structure are

1.3 some conclusions, and what to look forward to in the coming chapters

list of terms/concepts


2 The Subject NP — Outside and In

2.1 some introductory words about the noun phrase vs. the subject position

2.2 the subject position

2.3 let’s get inside that NP triangle

2.4 possessive NPs

2.5 conclusions

list of terms/concepts

3 The Subject’s Better Half:

3.1 parts of the verb phrase we already know about

3.2 building up the VP

3.3 revisiting structural ambiguity from Chapter 1

3.4 VPs with double objects

3.5 VPs with adjectives

3.6 constituency test

3.7 conclusions

list of terms/concepts

4 Up Close and Personal with the Prepositional Phrase

4.1 aspects of the prepositional phrase we already know about

4.2 it’s not just the P and NP anymore!

4.3 verb–particle constructions

4.4 modifiers within PP

4.5 lexical vs. functional prepositions

4.6 English prepositions are not inflected

4.7 conclusions

list of terms/concepts

5 Infinite Wisdom

5.1 aspects of the verb phrase we already know about

5.2 building up VP

5.3 the complementizer phrase

5.4 embedded adjunct clauses

5.5 conclusions

list of terms/concepts

6 It’s More Complex Than That

6.1 aspects of the noun phrase we already know about

6.2 subordinate clauses within the noun phrase

6.3 the noun complement clause

6.4 the relative clause

6.5 subject relative clauses

6.6 conclusions

list of terms/concepts

7 Making Their Presence Felt

7.1 what is a silent category in sentence structure?

7.2 the reality of the trace of movement: wanna‐contraction

7.3 other kinds of silence: the null pronoun

7.4 the null operator in relative clauses

7.5 conclusions

list of terms/concepts

8 Main Verbs and the Simple Tenses

8.1 overview: the “main verb” and its entourage

8.2 main verbs: the present, the past, and the future

8.3 conclusions

list of terms/concepts


9 The Support System

9.1 auxiliary verbs: the support in the English verb system

9.2 auxiliary have

9.3 auxiliary be

9.4 modal auxiliaries

9.5 verb selection and word order

9.6 conclusions: all 16 possible combinations

list of terms/concepts

10 It Takes a Village

10.1 the syntax of the English verb system

10.2 auxiliaries and the syntactic expression of tense

10.3 main verbs: in a class by themselves

10.4 conclusions

list of terms/concepts


11 Unfinished Business

11.1 overview

11.2 tense as the head of S

11.3 matrix interrogatives

11.4 x‐bar and binary branching

11.5 adverbs

11.6 conclusions

list of terms/concepts



End User License Agreement



Table of Contents

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Linguistics in the World

Linguistics in the World is a textbook series focusing on the study of language in the real world, enriching students’ understanding of how language works through a balance of theoretical insights and empirical findings. Presupposing no or only minimal background knowledge, each of these titles is intended to lay the foundation for students’ future work, whether in language science, applied linguistics, language teaching, or speech sciences.

What Is Sociolinguistics?, by Gerard van HerkThe Sounds of Language, by Elizabeth ZsigaIntroducing Second Language Acquisition: Perspectives and Practices, by Kirsten M. HummelAn Introduction to Language, by Kirk HazenWhat Is Sociolinguistics? Second Edition, by Gerard van HerkUnderstanding Sentence Structure: An Introduction to English Syntax, by Christina Tortora


The Nature of Language, by Gary LibbenAn Introduction to Bilingualism and Multilingualism: People and Language in Contact, by Martha Pennington

Understanding Sentence Structure

An Introduction to English Syntax

Christina Tortora






This edition first published 2018© 2018 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, except as permitted by law. Advice on how to obtain permission to reuse material from this title is available at http://www.wiley.com/go/permissions.

The right of Christina Tortora to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with law.

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Library of Congress Cataloging‐in‐Publication Data

Names: Tortora, Christina, author.Title: Understanding sentence structure: an introduction to English syntax / Christina Tortora.Description: 1 | Hoboken, NJ : Wiley‐Blackwell, 2018. | Series: Linguistics in the world | Includes bibliographical references and index. | Identifiers: LCCN 2017059534 (print) | LCCN 2018000441 (ebook) | ISBN 9781118659748 (pdf) | ISBN 9781118659595 (epub) | ISBN 9781118659489 (hardback) | ISBN 9781118659946 (paper)Subjects: LCSH: English language–Syntax. | BISAC: LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Linguistics / General.Classification: LCC PE1365 (ebook) | LCC PE1365 .T67 2018 (print) | DDC 425–dc23LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017059534

Cover Design: Wiley





For Honus




From De sphaera mundi (by Johannes de Sacrobosco), 1550 edition.


welcome, students and teachers and DIYers!

I wrote this book for my beginning syntax students. But since I believe that my students are no different from any other English‐speakers studying syntax for the first time, this book is for all those people out there who have no background in this area but who want to learn. The reader I have in mind has never thought about syntax and doesn’t know anything about grammar. Maybe you’ve never been taught anything substantive about grammar in primary or secondary school, and maybe you just have a few preconceived notions about English grammar which amount to no more than deep‐seated, culturally‐based dogmas, like “ain’t isn’t a word,” or “two negatives make a positive.” You might not even be sure what it means to say that “two negatives make a positive,” or if you are, perhaps you secretly wonder why the latter is patently not true for languages like Spanish and Italian (and so why would it be true for English?). You may be an undergraduate or MA student studying to be an English Language Arts teacher and feel insecure about your knowledge in this area and want to change that. Perhaps you’ve heard of “syntactic trees” but have never drawn one and wonder if you can learn to do it. You might have tried to read a more advanced book on the subject (and were intrigued) but thought you’d do better if you could start at a more basic level. Maybe you have no self‐confidence with grammatical terms like object, verb, preposition, relative clause, pronoun, tense, intransitive, accusative, and the like, but you want to build your confidence up. Or you might be a budding computer scientist who wants a basic understanding of the structure of natural language. Whatever your personal goals, fears, desires, insecurities, or curiosities are as a beginning syntax student — and whether you’re in a class, or you simply want to learn on your own — this book welcomes you with open arms.

what you already bring to this book

Like many linguists, I take sentence structure to be a product of the human mind. This book is therefore designed to bring into your consciousness knowledge which you already have. If you’re reading this book, you know English, so you’re already an authority on the subject. If you’ve been speaking English as one of your native languages since childhood, this book helps you use this native knowledge to your advantage, to learn about syntax. If English is not your only native language, your other languages will give you even more power to learn. Those of you who instead came to learn English as an older child (or as an early teen or adult) will also bring to the table tools you already have at your disposal from the different languages you speak.

this book and variation in English world‐wide

Since there are so many different “Englishes” spoken in the world, I can’t anticipate what variety of English (or, which English dialect) you’re a personal authority on. So while I can push you to tap into your individual knowledge, the existing regional and sociolinguistic variation dictate that each reader will have a different understanding of what is possible and what is not possible in their own English.

To give just a few very simple examples: some English speakers use the reflexive pronoun theirselves while others use only themselves, for the “third plural.” The form theirselves is consistent with myself, yourself, and herself (because their, my, your, and her are all possessive pronouns). The form themselves is consistent with himself and herself (because him and her are accusative pronouns). Thus, both uses are perfectly logical and rule‐governed, and the variation exists precisely because of this. (You’ll learn more about reflexives in Chapter 7.)

Similarly, for embedded questions, some speakers might use “subject–auxiliary inversion” (as in Mary wondered what wouldSue fix next), where the word order is would > Sue, while other speakers might not, as in Mary wondered what Suewould fix next (where the word order is Sue > would). Again, the variation exists precisely because both uses are perfectly logical and rule‐governed. (You’ll learn more about embedded questions and why grammatical structure gives rise to these variant possibilities in Chapters 5 and 11.)

Likewise, for the verb to run, some people predominantly use the form run for the past tense (Sue run to school this morning), while others are more likely to use the form ran (Sue ran to school this morning). Use of the form run as the past tense of to run is consistent with use of the form put as the past tense of to put (Sue already put her tools away). On the other hand, use of the form ran as the past tense of to run is consistent with use of the form dug as the past tense of to dig (Sue dug a hole to plant the azalea). There are thus systematic reasons for either choice, and therefore this book has to take such syntactic variation into account. (You’ll learn more about verb forms in Chapter 8.)

But since it’s completely impossible to cover all the existing variation in one book, the reader should not expect comprehensive coverage in this regard. Nevertheless, the book includes enough analysis of variation across the United States and in the world to provide the reader with the necessary tools to analyze their own English, even if there’s a particular regional or social variant that you realize you use which I haven’t been able to cover. My main concern is for you to use whatever English(es) you know as a vehicle to learn about the complexities of sentence structure. This is one of the features of this book which makes it a fit for Wiley’s series Linguistics in the World.

features of this book

Since the primary purpose of this book is to get the beginning student comfortable with syntactic analysis, it doesn’t adopt the most current phrase structure theories. If you’ve never thought about grammar in your life, I don’t believe that it helps you to use more advanced tools to introduce basic concepts. This is because there are features of more advanced tools whose motivation you can only genuinely understand once you’ve first had enough practice with the more fundamental principles of sentence structure. For example: one of the most basic skills to develop when learning syntax for the first time is the ability to properly analyze constituent structure. It’s essential to automatize (= to make automatic) your ability to recognize the hierarchical relationships between major sentential constituents and to become comfortable talking about them using the language of syntax. This takes practice with basic tools. Such skills can’t be developed overnight, and it isn’t always productive to try to build up such basic skills with advanced phrase structure theories whose complexity relies on an already automatized facility with the basics. Perhaps you’ve seen structures in some introductory textbooks that utilize more current theories of phrase structure involving “bar‐levels,” like those I introduce in Section 11.4. In my own experience, if a student new to syntax is asked from the start to draw trees using bar‐levels — when they haven’t yet automatized the ability to pick out lexical categories or major sentential constituents — then their ability to manipulate bar‐levels can become just an exercise in guesswork (at worst), or an exercise in manipulating a system without appreciating the motivation for it (at best). A student’s well‐meaning desire to “get the bar‐levels right” (for example, to make their teacher happy) can result in focusing their energies on the wrong thing, such that development of the more foundational skills ends up getting neglected. So while the phrase structure rules I use in this book might seem outdated to syntactic theorists of today, I assure the reader that I use these tools for very specific pedagogical purposes. Once you work through this book, you’ll be ready to really appreciate the elegance of more advanced theories of phrase structure, like that presented in Liliane Haegeman’s Introduction to Government and Binding Theory or Andrew Carnie’ Syntax: A Generative Introduction, which you will find referenced later.

As you work through this book, you will develop different kinds of skills simultaneously. You’ll become an adept analyzer of more and more complex structures. This in turn means that you’ll develop a greater and greater appreciation of the fact that sentence structure is a product of the human mind. You’ll see that the “rules” we’re using are not something out there in the world, created by some authority outside of your own brain: rather, they represent the grammatical rules that are part of your own (unconscious) structural instincts. This book will engage you in a discovery process in which you’ll learn how to best create tools that accurately capture what we do as humans, and you’ll thus develop a greater appreciation of linguistics as a cognitive science. As you proceed, you’ll also come to appreciate syntax as an object of scientific inquiry and develop methodologies which are applicable to other STEM disciplines. In some English classes you’ve taken, you might have been told “there is no right or wrong answer.” But when you approach human language as part of the natural world (like you would mammalian vision, for example), sometimes there simply is a right answer and a wrong answer, and these can be ascertained via scientific methods. You will learn how to form hypotheses that make predictions, and to develop the skill of testing to see whether the predictions of a particular hypothesis are borne out, which in turn tells you what the right and wrong answers are. It can be a thoroughly satisfying enterprise to develop the power to determine what the correct analysis is for a given structure, based on the simple idea that certain hypotheses make predictions which we can see are borne out with empirical evidence, while other hypotheses must be rejected, because they make incorrect predictions.

Note that, because of the pedagogical purpose of this book, I mix and match historical stages of phrase structure theory. The student should thus take this book as an amalgam of what I believe to be some of the “greatest hits” of syntax, suitable for a beginner’s consumption. Relatedly, the reader should understand that most of the ideas presented in this book do not originate with me. While the selection, packaging, and presentation of the material are particular to this work, most of the concepts themselves come from decades of research in syntactic theory (in some cases), or even thousands of years of research in grammar (in other cases). The concepts I discuss (such as lexical categories like Noun and Verb) are so entrenched in our understanding of grammar and syntax that authors who write about these concepts present them as general knowledge, and rightly so. But this should not detract from the fact that all ideas have their origins somewhere, and the more recent the concept or analysis, the easier it can be to trace it back to a specific scientist or group of scientists. Where possible, I make reference to the relevant literature at the end of some of the chapters, to give a flavor of this, and also with an eye towards directing you to further reading.

How to use this book

This book is designed like a DIY manual. This means it can be used in many different ways: teachers can use it to learn how to teach others; teachers can use it in the classroom with students; or students can use it to teach themselves. In order for learning to be successful, though, the reader needs to take the design seriously.

Exercises: You’ll notice that there are no exercises at the end of each chapter. This is because I don’t believe you should be waiting until the end of the chapter to practice your skills. Rather, since each skill follows from the previously developed one, the reader will be most successful only if they do each exercise right at the point where I put it. If you see an exercise and think you don’t need to do it in order to move on to the next paragraph, you do so at your own risk, and I can’t guarantee you’ll properly develop the skills and attain the knowledge that this book is designed to give you. Of course, stopping to do the exercises along the way means that it’ll take longer to read each chapter. But this will be an investment worth making. So try to resist the temptation to take short‐cuts!

Side notes and term boxes: In addition to the exercises, information is hierarchized through the use of two different kinds of text box: the Side Note and the Term Box. The side note is designed to help you make your way through a streamlined text, with elaborations, additions, opportunities, and notes visually presented as asides. You don’t want to skip the side notes, but at the same time, you can wait until you’re done with a particular section before going back to read them. The term box is a way to keep you on track with the new terms you’re learning. In case you forget what a term means, or need elaboration that goes beyond what I said about a term bolded in the text, you can avail yourself of the term box. At the end of each chapter, I provide a list of terms/concepts that appeared in the text, the term boxes, the side notes, and the exercises to help keep you on track.

By the end of the book, if you did everything you were guided to do, you’ll be able to converse intelligently with a syntactician about the basics of how humans unconsciously structure sentences. When finished with this book — or a course based on this book — you’ll be prepared to take a more advanced course on syntactic theory. I’ve been using drafts of the chapters from this book in my classes for many years, to test run them on my own students, in order to see what works and what doesn’t. If you’re a teacher who’s thinking of using this book in a class, my own experience suggests that you can use the book to run your class in the following way: For a single week (whether your class meets once a week for 3 or 4 hours, or twice a week for 1.5 to 2 hours), direct your students to read a chapter and do all the exercises, in preparation for the class meeting in which that particular chapter is to be discussed for the first time. Then, in class, invite your students to raise which questions in each exercise they’d like to go over. You may find that you can cover approximately a chapter a week in this way without any lecture preparation involved. Of course, this depends on the chapter in question, the teacher, the students, the time you have, and the purpose of the class. For example, it’s possible to get though Chapters 1 and 2 in a single week, if you put aside Section 2.4. It’s also possible to get through Chapter 5 in a week, if you put aside Section 5.4. Chapter 6 tends to take longer (often, it takes me two weeks to cover it), because relative clauses take a while for students to absorb, given their semantic complexity. Chapters 3, 4, and 7, on the other hand, each tend to fit comfortably within one week.

It is my belief, though, that the differences in pace that teachers in different contexts experience won’t diminish the learning process for the students. If you’re a student training to be a teacher in Adolescence Education and you use this book to learn grammar/syntax, you may very well find yourself able to bring the lessons contained herein to your own junior high or high school classes that you teach. Many of my own students have gone on to successful careers in teaching English Language Arts and have reported that eighth graders are capable of grasping the material. It seems that they get a kick out of tree‐drawing, often treating it as a fun game.

However you choose to use this book, I wish you the very best in your journey of discovery, and I hope you come to embrace syntax as a thing of beauty in the natural world.


This book would not exist without my students at the College of Staten Island (CSI). Far more than anyone or anything else in my experience, it’s been my CSI undergrads and MA students who’ve taught me that the only thing to worry about with “teaching” is the learning. And they taught me how beginners genuinely learn to do syntax, and why they should even want to do it, when it’s not the goal of everyone in the classroom to become a syntactician or a linguist.

As all teachers know, it’s not easy to reach a random collection of 30 different minds simultaneously. This is especially true with an unknown subject matter like syntax, which involves a “way of thinking” that the students are not accustomed to. Furthermore, each person has a different reason for being in the classroom, and in my case, my beginning syntax class at CSI has since 2003 often been scheduled very late at night, after my students put in a full day of work or childcare or classes, without having had a chance to get a bite to eat and with nothing but broken‐down junk‐food vending machines as the source of their nourishment during class break. Described in this way, it might seem like very few people would care about figuring out how to prove whether a string of words forms a constituent or not, or to tell whether A immediately dominates B. Yet, no matter how mixed the class is in terms of level of preparation, no matter the uniqueness of each person’s goals, no matter what just happened on that particular day, or how tired or hungry they might be at that particular moment, or what my own frame of mind is, my students have consistently proven — with a force of energy that I rarely see in other contexts — that they’re always up for growth and change. I’m grateful to work with people who want something so badly, that they’re not going to be shy about teaching me the ways that I could help make things happen, including backing off to let them think on their own or help each other out without me intervening, and including just writing something down, just the way I said it when I was right there in front of them, so that they could read and contemplate it outside of the classroom, in their own time.

This became the idea behind this book: my students were interested in reading my notes if I wrote them in the way that I talked in the classroom, and structured them in the way I structured the class. Over the years students pushed me to turn these notes into a book. As I wrote this book, I always imagined myself together with my students in front of me, asking me to repeat something or to let them work on a problem before I moved on to the next point, and encouraging me to go off on relevant side discussions (but making sure that I made clear when the side comment was over, and when the main point started up again). I shared the chapters with my students in each class, in a place where the cultural norm thankfully is to be frank about what you think. I am indebted to every student for the candid feedback they gave me on this work, which began in earnest in 2013. Thank you to Aminah Abdel, Steven Arriaga, Olivia Ayala, Anisa Bekteshi, Rena Berkovits, Andrea Beyer, Alexandria Boachie Ansah, Rose Bonamo, Anthony Bongiorno, Saffire Borras, Tyler Cabell, Annmarie Cantasano, Bianca Cardaci, Tameeka Castillo, Armando Cataldi, Dana Cavaliere, Allison Cespedes, Nicolle Cillis, Martin Clifford, Lorenza Colonna, Samantha Conti, Krystal Cordero, Julia Correale, Ava Cozzo, Phil Criscuolo, Lizette Cruz, Jayde Cuesta, Alyssa Culotta, Jezel Cuomo, Iolanda Dagostino, Brittany Debrosse, Ashley Delacruz, Valeriana Dema, José Diaz, Stephanie Dimarco, Francesca Dimeglio, Tom Diriwachter, Shelley Disla, Nawal Doleh, Evelyn Dominguez, Shannon Doyle, Shelley Faygenbaum, Christina Friscia, Remonda Ghatas, Michelle Granville‐Garvey, Elinora Gruber, Emily Hernandez, Yarlene Hernandez, Yashanti Holman, Nicole Ianni, Kelly Hughes, Kaitlyn Kane, Raven Kennedy, Medine Kovacevic, Jacquelyn Kratz, Melynda Kuppler, Tamara Laird, Matt Leavy, Marilyn Lombay, Samara Lugo, David Lyev, Angelica Mannino, Nino Marino, Aprile Martin, Danielle Masino, Samantha Matos, Radia Ouali Mehadji, Noelle Mejias, Chelsea Morales, Liana Morse, Tom Mottola, Connie Neary, Cassandra Nelson, Deanna Nobriga, Lauren O’Brien, Kelly Ortega, Lorenzo Pacheco, Samantha Paholek, Kristie Palladino, Lauren Pansini, Stephanie Parathyras, Corinne Paris, Jessica Patrizi, Kaitlyn Pellicano, Zachery Pierre, Gyancarlos Pinto, Jenny Pisani, Kenneth Price, Vanessa Reyes, Samantha Sblendido, Ashley Schoberl, Saundra Scott, Gaby Shlyakh, Shira Shvartsman, Moné Skratt Henry, Vicky So, Michelle Spano, Jessica Spensieri, Lea Steinwurzel, Jamie Sterner, Estie Szczupakiewicz, Adelina Taganovic, Rebecca Tapia, Jessica Taranto, Chauna Thomas, Joe Tilghman, Nicole Tozzi, Christine Vecchio, Celeste Velez, Alexsandra Villafane, Christian Winston, Ewa Wojciechowska, and Nadia Zaki.

I also thank all those CSI students I taught syntax to from 2003 to 2013, who although they didn’t read chapters of this book, were responsible for the seeds of the idea: Greg Acanfora, Holly Acerra, Saima Akram, Javier Alvarez, Kimberly Amatrudo, Tiffany Amatrudo, Anna Amodio, Phil Anastasia, Linda Appu, Peter Barnes, Cathleen Boylan, Denise Burton, Cynthia Calvanico, Cathy Cannizzaro, Christine Cannizzaro, Michelle Choi, Chu‐han Chuang, Christina Ciccarelli, Vincent Coca, Kimberly Corbisiero, Shirlene Cubas, Ghada Daoud, Agatha Demeo, Ann Desapio, Yevgeniy Deyko, Antoinette Dibenedetto, Chrissa Diprossimo, Jennifer Donadio, Patrick Fair, Giselle Fani, April Fedele, Michelle Fiorenza, Ashley Fotinatos, Pearl Friedman, Yasmin Garcia, Rosy George, Irene Giacalone, Jaclyn Grann, Kristen Gugliara, Katherine Han, Leanora Harper, Nicole Jonas, Michael Jones, Kevin Justesen, Mary Kay, Etab Khajo, Lafleur King, Karolina Konarzewska, Lori Krycun, Fikriye Kurtoglu, Georgia Laios, Lucie Lauria, Felicia Layne, Kathryn Lobasso, Ramona Lofton, Lori Lorenzo, Stephanie Lorenzo, Sara Losack, Aiko Maeukemori, John Magalong, Lauren Maligno, Cortney Mancuso, Jaime Manus, Glenda Marquez, Dominika Marscovetra, Aubrey Mcgoff, Patrick Misciagna, Fotini Mitilis, Michelle Morandi, Danielle Narwick, Danielle Nygaard, Patroba Omer, Robert Pollack, Garth Priebe, Lisa Quagliariello, Billy Quilty, Carla Radigan, Vinny Raimondo, Jessica Rella, Thomas Riley, Erin Rios, Christine Russo, Matt Safford, Bill Safte, Erica Salzillo, Dilini Samarasinghe, Christine Sanders, Lauren Stabile, Barbara Stanul, Jaclyn Scimone‐Avena, Jodi Szmerkowicz, Enrico Turchi, Rosalia Turriciano, Rocio Uchofen, Jillian Vitale, Erica Vitucci, Jillian Wagner, Paul Wiley, Johnny Ye, Pamela Zambrano, and Konstantina Zontanos.

I’d also like to thank friends and colleagues for reading, using, commenting on, and encouraging this work, especially John Bailyn (for trying out the book with his class at Stony Brook before it was published, and for his very helpful and crucial comments); Richard Larson (for sharing in the belief that teaching Linguistics in the most effective way and to the widest possible audience is the most important part of our profession, and for our many conversations about this); Lori Repetti (for her friendship and for sharing thoughts on teaching beginning students); and Bill Safte (my former student and current colleague, who taught this course brilliantly when I was on leave in Spring 2018, and who gave me very important feedback as he used the manuscript with his students). I especially want to thank Jason Bishop, for using bits of this book for his Intro to Ling class, but more importantly for his unparalleled empathy and camaraderie, and for being the best colleague anyone could ever hope to have. I also thank my former PhD students Frances Blanchette and Teresa O’Neill, for their excitement about the project, and I thank my parents George Tortora and Marina Duque‐Valderrama, for always being okay when I have to put work before all else.

Finally, I thank my husband, advocate, cheerleader, and most important person in my life, John Shean. His ability to listen to me and take me seriously never, ever wanes, no matter how many hours and years, and no matter how miniscule anyone else in the world might think my particular concerns are. I thank him for this and for never ceasing to gracefully deal with all of the material problems associated with my sometimes long bouts of inattention to him or to our home or to our meals together, on account of my work. I thank him for making me survive the biggest losses in my life, and for making me carry on. As a small gift, I dedicate this book to him, in the summer of our 25th wedding anniversary.

1Let’s get Parsing!   

expected outcomes for this chapter

You’ll acquire a basic sense of what linguists mean by “sentence structure.”

Regardless of your belief that you know very little about sentence structure, you’ll see that you actually know quite a bit — and this will help you gain some confidence, for the chapters to come.

You’ll become familiar with the following terms (see words in bold and term boxes):

















phrase structure rules


phrase structure trees




noun phrase


verb phrase


hierarchical organization


1.1 some introductory words

The purpose of this chapter is to get us started immediately. I want you to see right away what sentence structure is, and how you already have the power to analyze — or parse — sentences. I want you to see that this power derives from your natural human disposition to automatically analyze strings of words as structured. Consider the immediately preceding sentence, for example. In fact, please read that whole sentence over again, starting with the words “I want you to see that this power …” Let’s write the sentence down; you can do this on a separate sheet of paper, so that you have it in front of you, all by itself. We’re going to analyze this sentence, and it’ll be easier to do that if we can look at it in isolation. Let’s give the sentence an example number, like “Example (1).” It’ll be useful to treat it like a specimen — like something we can dissect and examine. We’ll be doing a lot of this kind of thing in this book: analyzing individual sentences in isolation as a way to learn about sentence structure.

Term Box 1

When we parse a string of words, we are mentally assigning structure to the string. We are thus analyzing the string as if it were a sentence in a language, with syntax. As humans, we naturally parse certain strings of symbols as linguistic structures without realizing we’re doing this — that is, we do it unconsciously. As syntacticians, we parse such strings consciously, with an eye towards understanding how humans structure such strings. Related words: parsing; parser

Side Note 1: (Be proactive!)

You can learn a lot from this book, if you do what is suggested each step of the way. The more you do the mini‐exercises as you read, the more surely you’ll integrate everything into your knowledge and skill base.

Have you written the sentence down and considered it? If you did, I bet you understood as structured as having something to do with strings of words. I’ll illustrate this in Example (1a), where I’ve indicated your mental grouping of these particular words with underlining):

What you did, mentally:


I want you to see that this power you have derives from your natural human disposition to automatically analyze

strings of words as structured


So, I’m pretty sure you understood me to be saying that “strings of words” are “structured.” On the other side of the same coin, I bet you didn’t understand the words as structured to be associated with, say, the words your natural human disposition, as follows:

What you did NOT do, mentally:


I want you to see that this power you have derives from

your natural human disposition

to automatically analyze strings of words

as structured


If I’m right, then it’s pretty amazing that you mentally put together the underlined words in (1a) automatically, without consciously thinking about it; it’s equally amazing that you didn’t put together in your mind the underlined words in (1b); so it’s not as though you thought that “structured” should have anything to do with “your natural predisposition.” Furthermore, it’s certain that you unconsciously put the words together in the way I think you did without anyone ever explicitly teaching you how to do it. In fact, it came so naturally to you that you might be thinking it’s strange for me to point out that (1b) was NOT something you did.

Side Note 2: (Just in case you’re doubtful)

You might be thinking here, “Well of course I put as structured together with strings of words, as in (1a); they’re right next to each other! The words your natural human disposition are too far away from the words as structured for me to have thought that these two sets of words could belong together, as in (1b)!”

In case you are thinking this: Yes, there are in fact a lot of other words in between your natural human disposition and as structured, making these two sets of words distant from one another. However, as we’ll see below, distance (i.e. how far away words are from each other) doesn’t always dictate how you mentally structure words into sentences. Sometimes, you automatically mentally put together groups of words that look far away from one another. The examples in (2b)/(2c) below will illustrate this.

1.1.1 before we talk about sentence structure: the Necker Cube

As human beings, there are lots of things that we do mentally which come naturally to all of us, which are below the level of consciousness; that is, we don’t consciously think about them. And although you may not realize this, structuring sentences is one of them. But before we look more carefully at what “structuring sentences” means and how it works, let’s look at an example of another thing you do automatically — or, instinctively — without realizing you do it, without you even trying, and without anyone having taught you how to do it. I like this particular example because it helps understand what is meant by your cognitive instincts (or, your automatic mental processes).

Perhaps you’ve actually already seen an example of a Necker Cube, and maybe you’ve even doodled a million of them. In case you haven’t, though, let’s look at a Necker Cube in Exercise [1]:


Consider the Necker Cube here. What do you see?

If you spend some time looking at this picture, you’ll notice something amazing: in particular, you’ll realize that this two‐dimensional line‐drawing actually gives rise to your perception of two possible cubes — or, put differently — two possible structures. In one structure, you’re interpreting the lower left corner of the drawing (from your perspective) as the lower left front of the cube, so that the front of the cube is pointing downwards towards the left. In the other structure, you’re interpreting this same lower left corner as the lower left rear of the cube, so that the front of the cube is pointing upwards towards the right.

Term Box 2

When something can be mentally assigned more than one possible structure, like this Necker Cube, we say that it’s structurally ambiguous. Related words: structural ambiguity, structurally unambiguous

Side Note 3: (Don’t try this at home)

There are two other things you could try to see when staring at a Necker Cube, but I warn you, these exercises become irritating very quickly:

First, you could try to see both cubes at the same time, but I’m sure you’ll find this to be impossible. No matter how you try, you either see one cube or the other, but not both simultaneously.

Second, you could try to see the picture in Exercise [1] as a two‐dimensional line‐drawing. As you’ll see, though, it’s actually extremely difficult to see this object as anything other than a pair of three‐dimensional cubes.

These exercises can be frustrating, because they make you try (and fail) to go against your cognitive instincts.

It’s important to note that there aren’t really two cubes here on the page. The only thing that’s on the page is a two‐dimensional line‐drawing. So there’s nothing outside of your mind which forces you to see the two cubes. Your perception that there are two possible cubes in the drawing simply has to do with how your brain is “hardwired” to structure the image as two distinct cubes. And just as importantly, these are the ONLY two structures that you can see; your mind doesn’t create any other logical possibilities. So if I tried to teach you through explicit instruction to see the drawing in Exercise [1] in other ways (as in Side Note 3), I would do so in vain.

The structures you see in the Necker Cube are thus a product of your mental processes. Our little study of the object in Exercise [1], then, is not about the object itself; rather, it’s about your mind.

1.1.2 how is sentence structure like the Necker Cube?

When we study sentence structure, we’re studying the same kind of thing. Like the Necker Cube, sentence structure is not something that’s actually out there in the world. Rather, sentences are structured by your mind. Let me make this analogy more concrete by asking you to consider the string of words in Example (2) (just like I asked you to consider the Necker Cube in Exercise [1]):


Sue poked the dog with the stick.

I’m absolutely certain that you understand this string of words. I’m also reasonably certain that, if you think about the string in (2) for long enough, you’ll “see” two possible meanings (just as you saw two possible structures with the Necker Cube). Let me give you a moment to think about (2), and what you think it means.

Side Note 4: (a hint)

If you think you already see two meanings, you don’t have to consider my hint here.

However, if you’re having a little trouble getting at the two possible meanings, I’ll help you along a little bit: who do you think has the stick in sentence (2)?

Ok, so now that you’ve thought about (2), I’m going to assume that you see the two different meanings that I do, which are as follows: In one meaning, Sue poked the dog, which happened to have the stick. In this meaning, I don’t know what Sue used to poke the dog with (her finger maybe?), but it doesn’t matter; the important thing is, I’m certain that the dog has the stick. In the second meaning, Sue used the stick to poke the dog.

You should take a moment to make sure you agree with my characterization of the possible meanings of the sentence in (2).

There are a few questions which arise now, but let’s shoot to the most important one: how are you getting these two different meanings? That is, why do you interpret the sentence in these two different ways? It has to do with how you’re grouping the string of words with the stick with the rest of the words in (2) (Sue poked the dog). It turns out that there are two strategies at your disposal, and you use these strategies instinctively, probably without you realizing it. In one strategy, you structure the words with a stick together with the words the dog. Let’s use [square brackets] to represent this grouping, in (2a):


Sue poked

[the dog with the stick]


When you mentally group with a stick and the dog, as in (2a), you’re essentially thinking that the words [the dog with the stick] form a kind of meaningful unit, to be analyzed all together. That is, [the dog with the stick] refers to a particular dog, as opposed to some other dog (maybe one without a stick or one with a bone).

Term Box 3

In this case, we would say that the string with the stickmodifiesthe dog. That is, with the stick is a modifier. Related words: modification.

Term Box 4

A string of words that you put together to form a meaningful unit is what we call a constituent. So, [the dog with the stick] in (2a) is a constituent. There are other constituents in this sentence (in fact, the whole sentence itself is also a constituent, making [the dog with the stick] a smaller constituent within a bigger constituent). We’ll talk more about constituents throughout the rest of the book. Related words: subconstituent.

So this is one strategy you use for structuring the words in the sentence in (2). There is, however, another strategy at your disposal. In this second strategy, you do NOT group the string of words with the stick with the words the dog. This second structural strategy is represented in (2b), where [the dog] is grouped separately from the three words with the stick:


Sue poked

[the dog]

with the stick.

When you mentally group the dog without the words with a stick, you’re thinking that the words [the dog] form a kind of meaningful unit all by itself, at the exclusion of with the stick. In this case, then, the dog with the stick doesn’t form a constituent (see Term Box 4). In terms of meaning, the dog doesn’t have the stick, and in fact, we don’t know what he has, if anything. So with the stick doesn’t modify the constituent [the dog] (see Term Box 3).

In this particular strategy, you are instead mentally grouping the words with the stick with something else. If you think about it, you’re actually grouping these words with the word poked; it’s as if the constituent [the dog] were invisible, or somehow out of the way, as schematized in (2c). Here, the string with the stick modifies poked directly, so that we interpret “the poking” as having been done with the stick:



[poked with the stick]


Of course, [the dog] isn’t literally invisible, and it isn’t literally floating there in a cloud, on top of the sentence. In the single sentence in (2), these two words come right after the word poked, and right before the word with, both when these words are on the page, and when these words are coming out of your mouth. The schematization in (2c) is just meant to give you a rough picture of how you interpret the words with the stick as somehow being grouped with the word poked, despite the fact that they’re separated from each other by other words (see Side Note 2)!

So to sum up, when you hear or read the string of words in (2), you interpret these words in one of two ways. This a direct result of the fact that you can mentally assign the string in (2) one of two different possible structures, just as you assigned two possible structures to the Necker Cube in Exercise [1]. The sentence is thus structurally ambiguous (see Term Box 2). I’ll repeat the two structures that you assign to (2) here:


Sue poked the dog with the stick.

Structure 1: Sue poked

[the dog with the stick]



Sue poked the dog which had the stick


Structure 2: Sue poked

[the dog]

with the stick.


Sue used the stick to poke the dog


In Chapter 3, I’ll prove that this description of your instincts is correct, and that you indeed automatically assign two different structures to the string of words in (2).

Side Note 5:

Like sentences, a single word can have more than one meaning. Consider, for example, the word bat. This word can mean either “the stick used for baseball,” or “the flying mammal.” We can therefore say that the word bat is also ambiguous. Crucially, however, it isn’t structurally ambiguous, like the sentence in (2)/(3): the two meanings of bat don’t derive from two different structures.


The following sentences are like (2) in that they are structurally ambiguous. Just as I did in (3), provide the two different structures for each sentence, and for each distinct structure you provide, state which meaning it corresponds to. Note that the meaning you give must be an unambiguous paraphrase of the structure you provided (much as the meanings I gave in (3) were).

Mary saw the man with the telescope.

Steve shot the man with the gun.

Sue attacked the piñata with the ax.

Bill opened the door with the key.

Lisa fixed the refrigerator in the kitchen.

Bob ate the ice cream from the freezer.

Jane painted the tile on the roof.

1.1.3 in sum: what does sentence structure mean?

This brings us to the main point, which is to clarify what linguists mean by sentence structure. If we just look at the words in example (1a), or in example (2), or if we look at any of the strings of words on these pages, we see that in the world, these are just strings of ink marks. But when you — as an English‐speaking human — read these ink marks (or likewise, when you hear them spoken as words), you assign structure to them. Furthermore, that unconscious mechanism you have which adds structure to strings of words is one and the same mechanism which allows you to take words you know and create your own sentences — structures which can be written, or spoken, or just thought. Thus, like the structures in the Necker Cube in Exercise [1], sentence structure is a product of the human mind.

Let’s think of this “mental mechanism” as a set of rules. And just as no one ever explicitly taught you how to see the two cubes in Exercise [1], no one ever explicitly taught you these sentence‐structuring rules; you just naturally developed them as a child, in the process of language acquisition (as it’s called in linguistics). These rules are what is often meant by syntax, or grammar. For our purposes, then, let’s think of “syntax” as those rules that the human mind uses to create sentences out of words. As a human, you can use these rules both to create sentences on your own and also to assign structure to strings of words that you read, or that you hear someone else say. This book is thus about how we, as human beings, structure sentences.

So, as we analyze sentences in this book, we’re really studying how you, as a human being, instinctively structure sentences. Of course, this book is in English, we’ll be discussing how English speakers structure sentences using English words, and I’ll be tapping into your knowledge as an English speaker to bring these tacit rules to your consciousness. But keep in mind that this structure is a product of the human mind, so what we’re doing in this book could be done with any language.

Side Note 6:

In the remainder of the book, I may say things like “… the structure of this sentence is …” or “… in that sentence, the noun is modified by an adjective …” and so forth. In other words, I might talk about words and sentences as if they have a life of their own, independent of our minds. But please don’t be fooled by this; we’ll always be working with the underlying assumption that the structure we’re talking about is mentally created. Sometimes it’s just easier to talk about words and sentences as if they were objects out there in the world (even though we know they’re not). In a similar way, it’s easier to talk as if the drawings in Example (4) are cubes, even though we know they’re not cubes; in the world, they’re just line‐drawings. It’s just that sometimes for the purposes of discussion it’s more efficient to pretend that the object under investigation is outside of the human mind.

1.1.4 an important clarification: not all objects give rise to ambiguity

Before we continue, I need to clarify something right now. Both the Necker Cube in Exercise [1] and the subsequent linguistic analogy drawn with Example (2)/(3) were meant to illustrate the fact that you, as a human being, mentally assign structure to objects in the world. In both cases, I used objects which happened to be structurally ambiguous to make my point. (More accurately: I used objects which have properties that allow us humans to assign more than one structure to them.) I did this because it’s simply easier for students who are new to this kind of discussion to see how the mind assigns structure to an object if that object can give rise to two possible structures. However, it’s very important to note that not every object (spatial or linguistic) is structurally ambiguous. For example, compare the structurally ambiguous line‐drawing in (4a) (our Necker Cube) with the unambiguous line‐drawing in (4b):


The Necker Cube:


An unambiguous cube:

As we already saw, if you stare at (4a), you’ll see two structures. In contrast, no matter how long you stare at the cube in (4b), you’ll only ever see one structure, namely, a cube which points downward towards the left. The structure in (4b) is thus unambiguous. That doesn’t mean, however, that you’re not mentally assigning a structure to the line‐drawing in (4b). Just as with the Necker Cube, the picture in (4b) is nothing more than a two‐dimensional line‐drawing on the page (with some shading on the rightmost piece of the drawing). Nevertheless, your mind does assign a structure to it — namely, that of a single, three‐dimensional cube.

The point of this example is to clarify that not all objects give rise to our mental construction of multiple structures. That is, not all objects are structurally ambiguous; some objects cause us to assign only a single structure to them. And if we once again draw an analogy with sentences, we can see that in contrast with (3), not all sentences are structurally ambiguous. Some sentences, like the one in (5), only have one possible structure — and therefore, only one possible meaning. I’ve repeated our example (3) here, so that you can easily compare (5) with it:


Sue poked the dog with the stick.

Structure 1: Sue poked

[the dog with the stick]



Sue poked the dog which had the stick


Structure 2: Sue poked

[the dog]

with the stick.


Sue used the stick to poke the dog



Sue knows the dog with the stick.

Structure 1: Sue knows

[the dog with the stick]



Sue knows the dog which had the stick


In contrast with the string of words in (3), the string of words in (5) doesn’t have more than one meaning. This is because your mind will only assign one structure to this string of words.

Side Note 7:

A structure like Structure 2 in (3) is simply not possible with the string of words in (5):

*Sue knows [the dog] with the stick.

Meaning: Sue uses the stick to know the dog.

(We’ll use the asterisk * to mark structures which are not possible)

Your mental mechanism for structuring sentences automatically doesn’t allow you to use with the stick to modify know.

So, not all sentences are structurally ambiguous. For some strings of words, you can mentally assign only one structure (like (5), which is like the unambiguous cube in (4b)); in contrast, others can be assigned more than one possible structure. The common denominator is that SENTENCES HAVE STRUCTURE. And as I stated in Side Note 6, this statement must be taken as shorthand for “the human mind unconsciously uses rules to assign structure to words, to create sentences.”

1.2 let’s start understanding what those unconscious rules that create structure are

Now that we’ve established the fact that sentence structure comes from your mind, let’s spend the remainder of this book using the best methods we know of to discover how you structure sentences. We’ve already done a bit of this in the first half of this chapter, but it’ll be useful to get more “graphic” — literally! So let’s talk about phrase structure rules. Phrase structure rules are the rules you unconsciously use to form (or, “structure”) phrases out of words, and to structure sentences out of phrases. Remember that phrases are strings of words which form a coherent meaningful unit; in other words, a phrase is a kind of constituent (Term Box 4). As we’ll see later, the structures created from phrase structure rules can be represented in a kind of graph form, which we call phrase structure trees (or, syntactic trees