LINGUIST List 16.2486|
Thu Aug 25 2005
Review: Syntax/Textbooks: Fabb (2005)
Editor for this issue: Lindsay Butler
What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Sheila Dooley at dooleylinguistlist.org.
Message 1: Sentence Structure
From: Oliver Streiter <ostreiterweb.de>
Subject: Sentence Structure
AUTHOR: Nigel Fabb
TITLE: Sentence Structure, 2nd ed.
SERIES: Language Workbooks
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-783.html
Oliver Streiter, National University of Kaohsiung, Taiwan
The book under review, "Sentence Structure, Second Edition" has
been conceived as a textbook for students with no prior knowledge of
syntax. It might serve in a one-semester course on syntax. In a very
accessible language the fundamental notions of modern syntactic
theories are introduced in only 60 pages, which is about half of the
book. No attempts are made to relate these notions to one of the
major syntactic theories. Terminology and reasoning are compatible
with phrase-structure-based generative approaches to syntax
(Government and Binding (GB), Principle & Parameters (P&P), Lexical
Functional Grammar (LFG), Tree Adjoining Grammars (TAG), Head-
driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG) etc). In general, thorny
questions such as the definition of semantic roles are systematically
To further facilitate the access to the subject, most example sentences
are taken from Modern Standard English or dialectal variants (e.g.
Scottish English), an approach similar to Radford's Textbook on
Minimalism (see Radford 2004). As a consequence, students do not
have to wrestle with glossed examples in exotic languages to
understand the point the author makes. This, however, does not mean
that the book is limited to students with (near) native speaker
competence in English. Even students with a somewhat shaky
competence in English will get through the text and discover in the
exercises interesting aspects of English syntax. Exercises which
require English native speaker's competence are relatively rare and
could be reformulated in future editions, e.g. those exercises involving
an acceptability judgment of movements.
While all this might sound like a description of an easy-going textbook
unable to trigger syntactic enlightenment, there is still much to be said
about the second half of the book. This includes about 10 pages of
parallel, sentence-aligned corpora in 4 languages (Cantonese, Madi,
Malay and Tamil + English). Students learn on 2 pages how to
proceed from the sentence-aligned corpus to a word-aligned corpus
by contrasting sentences of minimal difference. Students are thus not
confronted with ready-made glossed example sentences, but have to
construct their dictionaries and example-sentences themselves. The
advantages of this approach are obvious. The students will acquire
competence, confidence and a play-like attitude in handling foreign
language data, since doing this alignment is great fun. They will
discover linguistic phenomena before they are theoretically introduced
(e.g. word order phenomena) and certainly will recall phenomena and
data much better than in the top-down approach of most syntax books.
After a first run through the corpora for which the teacher has to
allocate enough time and find the appropriate form (e.g. switching
for and back between personal home work, group work and class-
room discussion), the corpora will be referred to in the exercises of
each chapter. In these exercises, students will explore passive,
question formation or subordinate clauses for the four languages after
the respective notions have been discussed in the text or developed
in exercises with English material. Students thus go through phases of
induction and deduction, theory formation and theory testing.
Most of the 26 pages of exercises (almost half as much as
explanatory text) are dedicated to let the student discover, explore
and explain phenomena not handled in the explanatory text. Some of
these phenomena are named and shortly introduced (e.g. Dative Shift,
zero-derivation) while others remain unnamed (e.g. binding, do-
support, gerund, mixed categories, preposition-stranding vs. pied-
piping, subject and object control, small clauses). The nature of the
exercises, which focus frequently on unconventional examples from
different dialects or particular English words like NEVER, FAST,
ENOUGH or THOUGH, requires autonomous and creative thinking as
solutions to the problems are not within the reach of a search engine.
15 pages provide answers to most questions, thus making the book
quite suitable for self-studies. A considerable portion of the book is
used to let students exercise the drawing of tree structures and derive
the underlying regularities. Tree structures are kept as simple as
possible and don't become object of the linguistic reflection. Phrase
structure rules are not explicitly discussed in the book.
Chapter 1 introduces the methodology of syntactic research, phrase
structures and tests for the identification of phrases. Although the
focus of the chapter is clear, i.e. let the student understand the very
central position of the phrase in syntactic reasoning, some unrelated
topics such as prescriptivism or truth values emerge.
Chapter 2 continues to explore the notion of phrase, analyzing in
detail the English noun phrase. Word classes, morphology and open
vs. closed classes are introduced to characterize the components of a
Chapter 3 discusses adjective phrases, adverb phrases and
preposition phrases, the notion of head and degree modifiers. The
exercises mainly develop the internal structures of AdvP and PP
including intransitive PPs.
Chapter 4 focuses on the verb and verb phrase, mentioning
agreement, idioms, grammatical roles and auxiliaries. The exercises
introduce the zero-derivation of verbs and the many-to-many relation
between word class and meaning (something which Radford (2004) or
Carnie (2002) directly mention when defining word classes). While
one exercise suggests treating auxiliaries as head of VP, the
suggestion remains without visible effect in the tree structures to
follow. Overall, exercises are more loosely connected and there is
maybe no major insight being aimed at.
The focus of Chapter 5 is the drawing of tree structures, discussing in
addition the nature of conjunctions (coordinations) and compound
words. The terms 'root', 'mother', 'daughter', 'sister', 'immediate
containment' and 'non-immediate containment' are introduced. The
formulation introducing the term 'constituent' is sloppy. It fails to make
the distinction Carnie makes between a 'constituent' and 'constituent
of' and might read simply as 'constituents are nodes'. The exercises
let the student practice the drawing of trees, find regularities in
compound formation (not only compound nouns) and contrasts
complex proper names with compounds.
Chapter 6 returns to the topic of noun phrases and discusses variants
of simple noun phrases, e.g. those containing a pre-nominal genitive,
demonstratives, quantifiers, partitive structures and relative clauses.
Three exercises deepen the understanding of pre-nominal genitives,
two are concerned with demonstratives. Tree-drawing, rule induction
and rule testing are as well part of the exercises as the discovery of
mixed categories (English gerund) and the phenomenon of
Chapter 7 contrasts root sentences and subordinate clauses,
introducing subordinate conjunctions (including FOR) and accusative
subjects of infinitival clauses. Practical hints are given of how to draw
tree structures with subordinate clauses. In the exercises, again, much
space is dedicated to let the student practice the drawing of trees.
Students are encouraged to develop analyses for accusative subjects,
small clauses, the behavior of THOUGH, SO, NEVERTHELESS,
THEREFORE and BECAUSE and discover the scope of NOT.
Chapter 8 relates meaning to form. After the introduction of the
terms 'predicator', 'arguments', 'thematic roles', structural
rearrangements are discussed which do or do not significantly affect
meaning (active, passive, topicalization, WH-questions, yes-no
questions). This topic is elaborated in the exercises where the 'Dative
Shift', the 'Middle', the 'GET passive', the 'SEE topicalization' and right
shifting are introduced.
What sets this book apart from all other introduction into syntax is its
constructivist approach. Thus, syntax and example sentences are
explained to a minimal extend only. Much more is left to the
exploration by the reader who develops practical skills, linguistic
intuition, curiosity, unconscious familiarity with syntactic phenomena
and a basic understanding of the relation of meaning and form.
Although it might be unreasonable to claim that such a Piaget-like
approach to syntax is necessarily better than what other textbooks on
syntax achieve (Carnie (2002), Kroeger (2004), Ouhalla (1994)), it is
nevertheless possible to identify areas where this book might be more
suitable as a base for a course on syntax, e.g. courses for non-
linguists (e.g. translators, language teachers, students of literature),
courses for relatively young (old) students or as preparation to one of
the aforementioned books. On the other hand, this book might be
inappropriate in a curriculum related to computational linguistics,
natural language processing, logic, mathematical linguistics etc).
The question in how far this book might prepare for the reading of
more theory-oriented textbooks on syntax might depend on how
implicit knowledge acquired with this book can be turned into explicit
knowledge. The book itself is only partially helpful in doing so. A
number of terms are mentioned without marking them explicitly as
central syntactic term, definitions of terms are not recapitulated in a
box (as e.g. Cook 1993) and phenomena are discussed without
naming them (see above). The teacher might thus assume a central
role in linking back and forth between the content of the book and
notions of modern linguistic theory.
Another, more serious question might be in how far a simplified
approach, a pedagogical adaptation, really facilitates the access to a
science or whether they complicate the access through imprecise
formulations, misleading metaphors etc. In this light the book under
discussion is a true star as it remains scientific, exact and systematic.
Exceptions are what seems to me a sloppy definition of a constituent
(see above) and maybe the style of tree structure chosen and
practiced in this book. More advanced/progressive/HPSG-
like/minimalist tree structures might be as easy to learn and would
bring the reader closer to contemporary linguistic theories. No matter
how such an improvement might look like, tree structures such as
4.11, 6.11 or 8.14 shouldn't be allowed to look that flat.
As for the syntactic theories, although the book might be understood
as promoting syntactic thinking without enforcing a specific syntactic
theory, one should be aware that this is only possible to a limited
extend. Much reasoning in this book is based on phrase structures
thus excluding dependency grammar, relational grammar and others.
In regions of the world where dependency grammars are a main
source of linguistic conceptualization, such as in East-Europe or Asia
(e.g. Boguslavskij et al. 2000) the book under discussion might not fit
into a linguistic curriculum. For other regions, be it the United
Kingdom, West-Europe or the Americas, full compatibility is assured.
To sum up, the book represents an excellent and flawless attempt to
learn syntax through active explorations. Adopting this book in a
syntax course should be based on conscious decisions which take
into consideration the cultural background of the students, the
linguistic environment and the nature of the university program. When
used in conformity with these factors, the book will do a wonderful job.
Boguslavskij, I. M., Grigorev, N. V., Grigoreva, S. A., Iomdin, Leonid L.,
Kreidlin, M. V., Sannikov, V. Z. and Frid, N. E. (2000) Annotirovannyj
korpus russkix tekstov: koncepcija, instrumenty razmetki, tipy
informacii. Proceedings of the Dialogue-2000 International Seminar in
Computational Linguistics and Applications, Volume 2, Pages 41-47,
Carnie, Andrew (2002) Syntax, A Generative Introduction. Oxford:
Cook, V. J. (1988/1993) Chomsky's Universal Grammar. An
Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Kroeger, Paul R. (2004) Analyzing Syntax. A Lexical-functional
Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ouhalla, Jamal (1994) Introducing Transformational Grammar, From
Rules to Principles and Parameters. London: Edward Arnold.
Radford, Andrew (2004) Syntax, A Minimalist Introduction. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Oliver Streiter teaches computational linguistics and corpus linguistics
at the National University of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. His current research
focuses on the compilation and annotation of linguistic resources to
support low density languages.
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