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(linguistics) The first meaning of the term syntax can be described as the study of the rules, or "patterned relations" that govern the way the words in a sentence come together. It concerns how different words (which, going back to Dionysios Trax, are categorized as nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.) are combined into clauses, which, in turn, are combined into sentences.

In the earliest framework of semiotics (established by C.W. Morris in his 1938 book Foundations of the Theory of Signs) the syntax is defined within the study of signs as one of its three subfields, the first being syntax (the study of the interrelation of the signs), the second subfield being semantics (the study of the relation between the signs and the objects to which they apply), and the third subfield being pragmatics (the relationship between the sign system and the user).

In the framework of transformational-generative grammar (of which Government and Binding Theory and Minimalism are recent developments), the structure of a sentence is represented by ''phrase structure trees'', otherwise known as ''phrase markers'' or ''tree diagrams''. Such trees provide information about the sentences they represent by showing how, starting from an initial category S (or, for ID/LP grammar, Z), the various syntactic categories (e.g. noun phrase, verb phrase, etc.) are formed.

There are various theories as to how best to make grammars such that by systematic application of the rules, one can arrive at every phrase marker in a language (and hence every sentence in the language). The most common are Phrase structure grammars and ID/LP grammars, the latter having a slight explanatory advantage over the former.

Dependency grammar is a class of syntactic theories separate from generative grammar in which structure is determined by the relation between a word (a head) and its dependents. One difference from phrase structure grammar is that dependency grammar does not have phrasal categories. Algebraic syntax is a type of dependency grammar.

Tree adjoining grammar is a grammar formalism which has been used as the basis for a number of syntactic theories.

See also:

  • Phrase
  • Phrase structure rules,
  • x-bar syntax,
  • Syntactic categories,
  • Grammar,
  • Algebraic syntax
  • Syntactic ambiguity


    The second meaning of the term syntax has been evolved in the field of computer science, especially in the subfield of programming languages, where the set of allowed reserved words and their parameters and the correct word order in the expression is called the syntax of language. This second meaning can apply to natural languages, as well, as through Latin's inflectional case endings.

    In computer languages, syntax can be extremely rigid, as in the case of most assembler languages, or less rigid, as in languages that make use of "keyword" parameters that can be stated in any order. The syntax of expressions can be specified with parse trees. The analysis of programming language syntax usually entails the transformation of a linear sequence of ''tokens'' (a token is akin to an individual word or punctuation mark in a natural language) into a hierarchical ''syntax tree'' (abstract syntax trees are one convenient form of syntax tree).

    This process, called ''parsing'', is in some respects ''analogous to'' syntactic analysis in linguistics; in fact, certain concepts, such as the Chomsky hierarchy and context-free grammars, are common to the study of syntax in both linguistics and computer science.

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