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An Introduction to Syntactic Analysis and Theory


Dominique Sportiche, Hilda Koopman & Edward Stabler


Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

Paperback. xv+454 p. ISBN 978-1405100175. £26.99


Reviewed by Laure Gardelle

École Normale Supérieure de Lyon



This book is an introduction to syntax designed to be accessible even to those with no prior knowledge of linguistics. Its ultimate aim is to contribute to a better understanding of the necessary linguistic properties of language processing tasks; the book focuses more specifically on what the atoms of language are and how they are combined [4]. It is mainly concerned with English, both because the authors teach in the United States and because it is the most deeply studied language, so that some universal properties of language are likely to have been made out. The authors stress the fact that the general principles given for English are confirmed by data collected from other languages, and at one point analyses of mainland Scandinavian, Icelandic and Chinese are provided. The theoretical framework is generative linguistics, and every now and then a few lines (along with a photograph) are devoted to some major contributors to the field such as Noam Chomsky, Timothy Stowell or Richard Kayne, reminding the reader of why they are important. The book is original in that it includes a chapter on morphology, whereas morphology and syntax are traditionally regarded as separate areas of language study (focusing on words and phrases respectively). The authors wish to show that in fact the rules of combination for morphemes share similarities with the rules of combination for words in syntax.

The book is divided into fifteen chapters, with a clear progression in difficulty. After a general introduction (chapter 1), two chapters present the fundamentals of morphology and syntactic structure (with a focus on constituents and how to identify them). Chapters 4 and 5 take a closer look at types of constituents (clauses and other phrases respectively). Chapters 6 to 8 go on to examine syntactic structure (X-bar theory, binding, the hierarchical nature of phrase structure and apparent violations of locality of selection). Then chapters 9 and 10 focus on more specific aspects of syntactic analysis (infinitival complements and Wh- questions). The remaining chapters address more advanced issues. Three of them build on earlier parts of the book to provide further analyses (identification of constituents, chapter 11; binding, chapter 13; Wh- movement, chapter 14). Chapter 12 argues for a unified approach to syntax and morphology. Finally, chapter 15, entitled ‘Syntactic processes’, summarises some of the ideas developed earlier in the book, but taking into account how syntactic structure can be recognised and processed in natural conversation. This is an important question since speakers do not wait until the end of a sentence to process what they hear.

This is not the first introduction to syntax to have been published, but it has a number of valuable assets which make it particularly worth reading. First, at the end of each chapter the book provides help for readers, with a ‘summary’, a section entitled ‘what to remember’ and a number of exercises to check that the theory has truly been mastered. The answers are not given in the book but the exercises are a direct application of what is presented in the chapter, so that readers will know where to look if lost. Further reading is also suggested at the end of each chapter. Another major point of interest is the fact that the authors do not just present the theory, but always endeavour to justify it. For instance, in chapter 4 (‘Clauses’), the labels ‘TP’ (tense phrase) and ‘CP’ (complementiser phrase) are introduced. The authors first give the hierarchical (tree) structure, but then explain in detail why it is important to consider the tense and the complementiser, rather than another element, as heads of their phrase: they determine the internal structure and the distribution of the phrase. Tense is crucial to determining types of TPs (finite vs. infinitival or tenseless phrases), as is the complementiser for types of CPs (e.g. whether-phrases introduce questions, as opposed to projections, hence *John will think whether she left). At that point the reader might wonder why ‘tense’ is used for tenseless phrases; the authors take that explicitly into account (‘The only surprising idea here is that to should be labelled the way will is in the earlier tree’ [94]) and go on to tackle the issue. For those who might wonder why it is this subdivision into types that matters, the authors also show how such a conception of phrase heads is in keeping with the definition of heads in morphology.

Another asset of the book is its clear progression: readers are taken from one very easy step to a slightly more difficult one (and so on) until they gradually build up much more advanced knowledge. For instance, to present the English Right-Hand Head Rule (RHHR), the authors start from compounds, which typically have their rightmost element as their head, then extend their analysis to prefixed words, for which it is also intuitively undeniable that the head is the rightmost element. This serves as a stepping stone to convince the reader that in suffixed words, the head is also the rightmost element, that is, the suffix rather than the stem: suffixes are regarded as the head of the combination category + suffix because some of them restrict the range of categories that might be used [31]. For instance, -able is added to a verb – in the authors’ framework, it is said to ‘c-select for V’ (verb). Also with progression in mind, at the end of each chapter a short paragraph entitled ‘Puzzles and preview’ introduces further questions and mentions where in the book they will be addressed.

As a result of this mode of progression, the book is truly accessible, as announced. It does not require any knowledge of generative linguistics, although it does require some knowledge of traditional grammar – parts of speech, prefixes vs. suffixes, relative vs. indirect interrogative clauses, etc. For those the traditional labels are given along with examples, but without any defining criteria to identify them. By the end of the book the reader has tackled a wide range of issues and made real progress in the understanding of the theory: to someone not conversant with the framework, it would have been impossible to do any of the exercises without having carefully gone through the chapters first.

Thanks to the progression and explanations the reader tends to be convinced by the overall framework. A few questions remain, though. For instance, while the authors explain that the head of a number of clauses (TPs) is T(ense), in chapter 7 they add a note saying that ‘in this chapter only’, they place a conjugated verb under V rather than under T, and will ignore this issue because it is not relevant to what is under discussion. T was not intuitively the best candidate as head to a reader who was not familiar with the framework, so that finding out that it is not always the head can tend to undermine the whole demonstration. Furthermore, the authors are so convinced by the validity of their framework (at least the methodology and tools, as they note that some of the results might prove obsolete one day [5]) that despite the overtly explanatory approach, they never indicate why their own labels are better than those of traditional grammar. Comments such as the following might again prove puzzling for some readers: ‘We took for granted from the start the existence of a category C, but it should be noted that this is not a category found in traditional grammar. This is, in part, because recognizing the underlying unity of a subset of “subordinating conjunctions” is not all that easy without the kind of formal tools we are using.’ [94]. The authors, however, add that this conclusion ‘owes much to Bresnan (1979)’, so that readers can explore the issue further if they want to.

All in all, therefore, this book should be recommended to students looking for a clear introduction to generative syntax, as well as to anyone interested in language structure. The exercises can also make it a good handbook to use as a complement to a course on syntax.


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