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What Is the Role of Syntax in Linguistics?

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  • Written By: Meg Kramer
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  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2016
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Syntax in linguistics can refer either to the study of the structural rules of language or to the bodies of rules themselves. It is part of the branch of linguistics dealing with the form and structure of natural languages, such as word order in spoken English or the sequencing of physical gestures in American Sign Language. The branch of linguistics that includes syntax also includes morphology, which is the study of the formation of words, and phonology, which is the study of a language’s system of sounds.

Linguistics is the scientific discipline dedicated to the study of human languages, and it comprises three main subfields. The first focuses on the forms of languages, and it includes syntax, morphology and phonology. The second deals with meaning in languages and includes the studies of semantics and pragmatics. In the third branch of linguistics, researchers deal with languages in different contexts, including history, human evolution and neuroscience.

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The word “syntax” is derived from the Greek syntaxis, which means “arrangement.” Syntax in linguistics deals with the ways that the elements of a sentence or phrase can be arranged and rearranged to express different meanings. For example, in spoken and written English, sentences are often constructed by following a subject with a verb and the direct object. The positions of the words convey the subject-object relationship. For example, a sentence such as "The dog bit the cat" conveys a meaning that is different from "The cat bit the dog," even though they contain exactly the same words.

Researchers and students of syntax in linguistics analyze languages by breaking down sentences and phrases into units known as “syntactic atoms.” A syntactic atom might be a single word, or it might be a phrase that communicates one meaning. In the previous example, the word "the" is not a syntactic atom, but "the cat" is. In the sentence "The dog bit the small black cat that lives in the neighbor’s barn," the entire phrase "the small black cat that lives in the neighbor’s barn" is a single syntactic atom.

In some languages, sentence structure isn’t used to convey the relationships between the words. Rather, the forms of the words themselves change to communicate those relationships, and word order within the sentence is irrelevant. For this reason, syntax in linguistics is closely related to morphology — the study of how words are formed and how those formations change within the structure of a language. What is communicated syntactically in English might be communicated morphologically in another language.

Syntax allows speakers to communicate complicated thoughts by arranging small, simple units in meaningful ways. In English, for example, a sentence can be a simple as a one-word interjection, or it can be a lengthy composition with multiple clauses strung together. Human language is unlimited, because even within the rules of syntax, humans can generate new sentences or phrases to express novel ideas or experiences.

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