Perhaps the biggest problem with understanding long sentences is that they seem to be a lot longer than the basic syntax unit. Today we accept that there are seven basic sentence pattern types, where the possible number of obligatory units is between 2 and 4 (SVOC, SVOO and SVOA). Yet a sentence with, for example, eleven words seem difficult to fit into this pattern. The secret is to chunk them into units. Take the following sentence:
A lot of Carp fans are standing by the back entrance.
What is the subject? We know the subject of a sentence is a person (who) or a thing (what). And that in this case “standing” implies a person or people. So ask the question:
Who is (or who are) standing by the back entrance?
The answer is of course Carp fans. If in doubt the entire chunk ‘a lot of Carp fans’ would also be fine to be called the subject.
Incidentally, if you want to know what is the pattern type just think about what is necessary within the sentence.
In the above sentence almost every word is necessary. The only words which can be cut are ‘a lot of’, ‘Carp’ and ‘back’ which gives us
Fans are standing by the entrance.
Words which help nouns are called ‘adjectives’ and are mostly “decorative”. The remainder of the sentence therefore tells all that we need to know, that there are fans and they are standing (implying waiting) by the entrance. This is an SVA sentence. You can say
The fans are standing. △
but that would have a different meaning not implying waiting. Therefore by the entrance is obligatory.
There is something to be said about linguistic determinism, and in particular relativity. Linguistic relativity says that the form or structure of a language influences the way people think, or world-view. The often quoted example is the Inuit people and the words for “snow”. Whereas in English we have snow (and perhaps sleet and slush) the Inuit have at least nine different words for different types of snow. Because of this the Inuits have a “greater” understanding and knowledge of snow and their conditions.
But is this absolutely necessarily true?
The idea that language reflects your thought is better described as relative rather than absolute. If the relationship is absolute then all people of a language will think in exactly the same way. But this is not true. A talk to two people from the same culture will quickly reveal that people do think differently. And you would be hard pushed to even say there are two people who are exactly identical in their way of thought. Even biological twins who are genetically the same are different in their thoughts and likes. Experience from a first-person or one-person point-of-view will guarantee that we will be different no matter what.
English is a language which takes pains to highlight “one over many”. It is one of the languages which have difference morphological form for the singular and the plural (or not-singular). Is it natural to give the singular priority? Arabic has forms for “one”, “two” and “plural”. And Japanese does not differentiate between singular and plural at all. Nor does Chinese for that matter. So grammar is really a creation of the mind, of people, to make communication possible. The rules are not set in stone or in the mind as some would like you to believe. As humans we make do with what we have – the physical world – to do things like communication.
In fact all we can do is ‘make do’. But it is important to see that making do with something does not mean it is the only way to the same thing. There is no reason for ‘one’ to be given priority over not ‘one’ … except for may be it is the first thing in an order.
I have talked about the seven sentence patterns here. Those are all simple sentences. A simple sentence contains a single verb, that is, one clause. Complex sentences contain more than one verb, or two or more clauses.
An SVO sentence theoretically can have three clauses, having one each for the subject, verb and object. It is possible to have more clauses (and/or phrases) by adding optional elements like adjectives and adverbs. But the more clauses you add the more complex and difficult it becomes to understand what-is-what within a sentence.
It is advisable not to make add too many clauses to a sentence. If you do find you have created a long and difficult to understand sentence on your hands break it down to two or more shorter simpler sentences.
Morphosyntax is another word for grammar.
Grammar can be divided into morphology and syntax. Morphology is the study of words and their rules of formation. And syntax is the study of sentences and their rules of formation. Essentially, morphology and syntax are studies of the same thing – formation rules of a language – but at differing “levels”.
By calling it by the transparent term morphosyntax we are highlighting this dualism.
When we talk about word-formation (morphology) we use terms like
And when we talk about sentence-formation (syntax) we use terms like
The term verb unfortunately has “double duty” for word-forming and sentence-forming. So when using the term be careful and clear to your reader/listener as to which meaning of the verb you are trying to convey.
Note also that the sentence-formation terms do not appear in dictionary definitions, indicating most clearly the idea that dictionaries are about words, and not sentences.
The Japanese language is considered syntactically a Subject-Object-Verb or SOV language in contrast to English which is considered a subject-Verb-Object or SVO language, as these two example sentences will show.
(1) Ken wa (S) tama wo (O) uchimashita (V).
(2) Ken (S) hit (V) the ball (O).
While it is not possible to move the syntactical elements around in English without a changing its meaning, it is possible in Japanese. Why this is so is due partly to particles (助詞). Particles mark the syntactic role of the word or phrase before it. By doing so this means the entire phrase including the particle can move to any other position within a sentence without losing its marked role.
The ‘wa’ and ‘wo’ in (1) are particles.
The English syntactic elements, however, are not marked whatsoever by particles (particles do not exist in English) and only show their syntactic distinction to other elements within the sentence unit by its relative position to each other. The sentence is therefore the unit. The rearranged syntactic units of (3) below in contrast to (2) has a now a completely different meaning because of the changed positions of the subject (S) and object (O).
(3) The ball (S) hit (V) Ken (O).
So Japanese is considered an SOV language because most often the elements follow this order and not because it is fixed by its position like English. But English learners of Japanese can safely assume this structure for learning purposes.
There is something very similar to the chicken-or-the-egg question about formal grammar in which meaning is ignored and only the formal properties of the string is discussed.
But would that string exist without production of meaning, without the communicative desire to impart something in an instance of existence?
This is also like asking what is the meaning of life as if life needs to have some universal meaning or purpose before life can arise. There is something a priori about this logic.
This is where Chomskyan linguistics, to me, fails to convince – that there can be an explanation of language without meaning. Whether it be a word, phrase, clause or sentence there will always be two sides to a sign (in the Saussurean sense). Phoneme and basic-unit phonology are different in that they are the building blocks of language and not invested with meaning.
By looking at language and variation in the system is a mathematical exercise that cannot explain the inherent meaning of utterances (which, sadly, it is not trying to explain at all in the first place). For me language is about meaning, and about the limitations a language’s form has on expressing meaning and not the other way around. Syntax should therefore take into account semantics or rather syntax should be studied through semantics.
While the seven sentence pattern description is the norm in English linguistics today there still persists the use of five sentence description in some non-English speaking countries like Japan which teach English as a foreign language.
Essentially the seven sentence pattern is a five sentence pattern with the extra two pattern as extensions of SVA and SVOA. The problem is that some common sentence patterns seemingly cannot be described by the five sentence pattern model. Take sentence (1.), for example:
- John sat up.
There is ‘John’ and he is performing the action of sitting up from perhaps a slouched position. In other words there is one actor doing one action. Therefore it is an SV pattern (John (S) / sat up (V)). Now consider (2.):
the grammar police are here
and now i must ask for forgiveness
for my syns.
that i have to pay for in