What is “syntax”?

Naively, syntax is the study of word order. More accurately, syntax is the study of how languages package information. When we conduct syntactic investigation of a particular language, we are learning how that language chooses to organize the pieces of the sentence, that is, how it organizes the information that is being communicated. By looking at more than one language, we can make generalizations about Human Language, i.e., the unique capacity for humans to communicate.

Why is syntax a science?

Syntactic theory is scientific because it is, fundamentally, hypothesis driven research. By looking at one language or many languages, we come up with a hypothesis about how that language(s) work(s). We then test that hypothesis by looking at one or more languages. It is absolutely vital that we treat syntax as a scientific discipline. It is tempting to succumb to the false belief that “I speak a language, therefore I understand how it works.” This is equivalent to saying “I have a body, so I understand how it works.”

It is likewise critical that we avoid relying on our “impressions” about a language, the prescriptive rules we were taught in English/Spanish/German/Swahili/Hindi/… about “proper” writing, or our judgements about what is “good” and “bad” because these things are not scientifically rigorous and they do not reflect language as it is used. We cannot use those things to make hypotheses because in fact, they do not represent the actual data.

Suppose a biologist told you that they had found the cure for the common cold. “Great news! How do you know?” you would ask. If the biologist responds, “Well, I just have a really good feeling about this vaccine,” you would be rightfully doubtful. Ideally, you want the biologist to have run clinical trials which illustrated the effectiveness of the vaccine.

The same is true of syntax (and all linguistics). We do not base our theory on our intuitions or our “feelings” or the rules that others impose. We base them on data. For this reason, much of this course will focus on developing diagnostic tests that we can use to identify properties of language.

Syntax as a science (Andrew Collins; length: 2m 51s)

Why this theory?

There are many theories of syntax. This book teaches (a version of) X’-syntax (read “X-bar syntax”).[1] However, very few working theoretical syntacticians use X’-theory anymore. In fact, in the second level of syntax at KU (Syntax II LING 526/726), we transition to Minimalist Syntax, which is the syntactic theory that is most widely adopted now. So it is fair to ask, why don’t we just start with Minimalism, and skip X’-syntax? What’s the point in learning a theory that practically no one uses anymore?

In fact there are many reasons why it’s best to start with X’-syntax. Foremost, utility. While the theory itself is no longer used by working theoreticians, the core principles behind the theory are useful in every other branch of linguistics that interfaces with syntax, including semantics, morphology, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, first and second language acquisition, and others. If you know X’-theory, then you can read those papers, and understand the conclusions of those researchers. Moreover, in related non-theoretical fields, particularly experimental fields, you are quite likely to encounter people still relying on trees that use X’-syntax. Since those fields are non-theoretical, the differences between X’-syntax and Minimalism are usually irrelevant.

Second, though Minimalism is the theory that is adopted by most working (generative) syntacticians, it is important to realize that Minimalism grew out of X’-syntax and in fact presupposes all of the empirical groundwork that built X’-theory. It is this empirical groundwork that we are covering in this class. For instance, in Syntax II, we take for granted the following ideas that we will empirically motivate in this class.

Thus, in order to learn and understand Minimalist syntax, you have to have an understanding of all of the above topics. That is what this class teaches.

And finally, it many ways, X’-syntax is a better theory than Minimalism. It is more powerful than Minimalism: it offers clear explanations for almost all of the facts presented in this work. However, in the mid-’90s, the field of syntax decided that the explanations that were offered by X’-syntax just weren’t very good explanations. When we transitioned to Minimalism in the mid-to-late ’90s, we lost much of that empirical coverage: all the explanations we had in X’-theory were no longer possible, but we didn’t have any replacements for those explanations! A great deal of research since then has been to try to capture the facts that X’-theory explained. We have been partially successful. Some things have become clearer with time, others are still mysterious.

In the end, the purpose of this class is to teach you to think like a syntactician. This means relying on data to formulate hypotheses, and testing those hypotheses by looking at more data. This scientific orientation transcends theoretical models. If you leave this class with a scientific mindset for syntax, but with a healthy dose of skepticism about the theory taught, then I will consider the class a success. (I look forward to seeing you in Syntax II!)

How to use this book

Foremost, you need to read it. This should go without saying, but of course many people will not read the book. (Indeed, many people will not even have made it this far in the introduction.) It is also not enough to simply look at the videos that appear in each chapter. Everything that is assigned should be read thoroughly, with the intention of practical application. We will mostly be going over diagnostic tools for identifying syntactic phenomena. You the student should endeavor to learn those tools so that you can apply them to new data. It is the same as learning the Pythagorean theorem, or how to calculate the slope of a line. The tools taught here are meant to be applied.

Finally, as an Open Education Resource, this book is a “living document.” It can be edited at any time. I encourage you to contact the author (Dr. John Gluckman: johnglu@ku.edu) if you have questions or think that something should be changed or added. Your comments are crucial for making this a document that later classes will benefit from fully.

Drawing Trees

You will end up drawing many trees in this class. I encourage you to use the web application here (https://dprebyl.github.io/syntree/), developed by Drake Prebyl, to draw all your trees. The application offers an easy-to-use interface for drawing very beautiful structures, with lots of ways to customize the representations.


  1. Indeed, the theory taught here is a mere shadow of the extensive theoretical apparatus that was worked out and utilized in the '80s and '90s. That theory was called Government and Binding and it existed within the over-arching Principles and Parameters framework.


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