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Section C

Theoretical and Applied Linguistics


LI9: Syntax

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

Syntax is commonly defined, perhaps a little simplistically, as the study of sentence structure; it is concerned with the principles governing the combination of words into larger linguistic units (among which the sentence is taken to be of fundamental importance), and with the properties of these units. Some examples of the kind of issue the syntactician investigates are: the categorisation of words on the basis of their behaviours in larger, phrasal, structures, and of the phrases built up around them; the ways in which lexical choices determine aspects of sentence structure; the behaviour of expressions like reflexive pronouns which are dependent for their reference on other ('antecedent') expressions; systematic relationships between distinct sentence types, such as declarative and interrogative sentences.

Abstraction plays a central role in syntactic analysis, as in other areas of linguistics. An example of this is the widely accepted assumption that sentences involve underlying levels of structure distinct from the observable structure and linked to this by 'transformational' processes. Another is the idea that structural positions within sentences may be filled by 'null' elements which have no phonetic form. This course introduces the basic concepts, principles and techniques of current syntactic theory and analysis. As well as familiarising students with the central areas of syntactic thought, the course offers practice in using analytic techniques and concepts on data from a range of languages.

In common with other areas of linguistics, syntax can be treated from both a theoretical and a descriptive viewpoint, and there has been a tendency for theoreticians (building models to explain the human language faculty) and typologists (searching for descriptive generalisations across languages) to pursue their goals in separate compartments. This paper is concerned with both theoretical and descriptive aspects of syntax, on the principle that they can be integrated and that both benefit from such integration.

In this paper one syntactic theory, the 'Principles and Parameters' model, which is by far the most highly developed and most widely adopted, is studied to a relatively advanced level. This limitation to one model makes it possible to consider in some depth not only the technical details of this theory, but also its goals, and the nature of syntactic argumentation. The importance of description in supporting and testing theory is emphasised, and students are encouraged to evaluate theoretical claims in the light of observations of a wide range of languages. This discussion of the findings of syntactic typology together with those of syntactic theory is in line with a growing trend in research. The languages used for illustration are chosen as far as is practical from the range known to students taking the paper, but students are also urged to examine for themselves languages with which they have some familiarity.


Please see information on the Moodle course for this paper.

Preparatory reading: 

Burton-Roberts, N. (1986) Analysing Sentences: An Introduction to English Syntax. Cambridge: CUP.

Haegeman, L. (1999) Introduction to Government and Binding Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Teaching and learning: 

You will receive sixteen lectures in total, eight in Michaelmas Term and eight in Lent Term. You will also have eight supervisions, normally three during Michaelmas Term, four in Lent Term and one in Easter Term. The Department will also be providing eight hours of optional practical classes.

The paper's Moodle site can be found here.


Assessment will be by a 3hr in person written exam.

Course Contacts: 
Professor James Baker