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Review of  An Introduction to Syntax

Book Title: An Introduction to Syntax
Book Author: Robert D.
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Issue Number: 12.2380

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Van Valin, Robert D., Jr. (2001) An Introduction to Syntax, Cambridge
University Press, hardback ISBN: 0-521-63199-8, xvi+239pp, $59.95
(paperback ISBN 0-521-63566-7, $22.95).

Viatcheslav Iatsko, Department of English, Katanov State University of

The textbook under review is written by one of the leading American
linguists whose works are well known abroad. It should be noted that the
book presupposes some elementary knowledge of linguistics and can be
recommended for undergraduate and graduate students.

The textbook comprises 6 chapters and such useful sections as Subject
Index, Language Index, Abbreviations, References, and List of Figures.
The latter includes 116 items, the book being well illustrated. Each
chapter opens with an "Introduction" summarizing the content of the
previous chapters and of the current chapter and ends with
recommendations for further study and generous exercises.

The first chapter entitled "Syntax, lexical categories, and morphology"
introduces specific features of syntax and compares it with morphology
pointing out interrelations between these two branches of linguistics.
>From the very start the author resorts to contrastive analysis using
data from a typologically wide variety of languages. Such analysis is
sure to be interesting for students, to contribute to better
understanding of described linguistic phenomena.

The second chapter (the biggest, and, perhaps, the most interesting one)
"Grammatical relations" concentrates upon two types of relations:
relations between parts of the sentence, such as subject, direct object,
and indirect object and relations between semantic roles, traditionally
studied within the scope of Case Grammar. Unlike other experts in Case
Grammar, Van Valin discusses semantic roles at two levels of
generality: in terms of verb-specific roles, such as runner, hearer,
smeller, etc., and in more general terms like Agent, Experiencer,
Recipient, Stimulus, Theme, and Patient. Differentiation between these
two levels will be rather useful and instructive for students. Such
complex linguistic phenomena as correlation between semantic roles,
properties and argument structure of verbs, neutralization of
distinctions among verb-specific semantic roles are explained with
striking simplicity and convincing evidence from various languages.
Describing coding and behavioral properties of grammatical relations the
author gives a detailed analysis of peculiarities of verb agreement,
case marking, the position of the argument in the sentence,
reflexivization, WH-question formation, cleft-formation, and relative
clause formation, by means of which subject, direct object, and indirect
object are distinguished in different languages.

The third chapter "Dependency relations" is devoted to different types
of syntactic dependencies: between a headword and a dependent word;
between a verb and its arguments and adjuncts. The author distinguishes
between bilateral, unilateral and coordinate dependencies, suggests some
interesting considerations on the correlation between syntactic and
semantic valence, and characterizes ways of representing dependency

The fourth chapter is entitled "Constituent structure". Any modern
textbook in English grammar has a part focused upon constituent
analysis. An advantage of Van Valin's work is that along with the
description of constituency tests and rules for representing
constituency structure of simple and complex sentences it has a special
paragraph analyzing the problem of universality of form classes and
describing specific features of configurational and non-configurational
languages. The author also characterizes some alternative approaches to
the analysis of phrase structure, such as X-bar schema and makes an
attempt to formulate rules so as to distinguish grammatical relations
(subject, direct object, and indirect object) in terms of constituent

The fifth chapter "Grammar and lexicon" discusses phrase structure rules
and structure of lexical entries in the lexicon. The author suggests
giving phonological, semantic, and syntactic information about each
lexical item. Sample lexical entries for some verbs in English, German,
and other languages are described. It should be noted that these ideas
are very much similar with Y.D. Apresian's (1986, 1992) ideas of integral
approach to lexicon and lexicographic portraits.

The concluding chapter "Theories of syntax" outlines main principles of
relational grammar, lexical-functional grammar, government-binding
theory, and role and reference grammar summarizing differences and
similarities between these conceptions.

One can't help pointing out some disputable and weak points of the book.

The discussion of constituency tests is rather brief; a more thorough
analysis with tests arranged according to their power can be found in
Borjars & Burridge (2001). The author's statement "Finite verb
agreement...must be triggered by the subject in English. ...this is a
unique property of the subjects in English..." (p.34) is a simplification,
as modern English presents such examples as "30 miles is a long distance",
in which "be" agrees with "distance", not with "miles". According to the
author's conception, "distance" must be a subject though it is, of course,
a predicative and "miles" is a subject.

Considering Russian sentences with the same lexical units but different
word order the author states:"...the order of the words is not the key
to their interpretation" (p.2). On the contrary, the order of the words
is the key to the interpretation of the sentences because they answer
different questions, express different ideas, and are used in different
situations. Having ignored the specific features of word order in
Russian the author missed a good opportunity to introduce main notions
and techniques of communicative syntax. Communicative syntax as a branch
of linguistics should have been mentioned by the author in "Theories of
syntax" chapter. The author should have referred to the works of such
prominent European scholars as W. Mathesius, F. Danes, and W. Dressler,
and De Beaugrand who contributed to the field. Moreover, the author
might have tried to apply the notions of "topic" and "focus" to specify
constituent-structure-based case assignment and agreement rules in
languages like Russian (p.140-141) though it is doubtful if the
application of constituent analysis to Russian makes any sense at all,
especially as word order in Russian NPs is more flexible than it seams
to the author. For example, in the NP "eta molodaya uchitelnitsa" (this
young teacher) the order of the words is not fixed as the author states
(P.148). Variants with the determiner placed after adjective and after
the noun ("molodaya eta uchitelnitsa" = young this teacher, "molodaya
uchitelnitsa eta" = young teacher this) are acceptable in emphatic

While discussing syntactic conceptions it would have been natural to
point out means by which sentences are connected to create coherent
texts, to analyze some discourse strategies. Unfortunately, nothing of
the sort can be found in this book and this introduction to syntax can
not be considered complete. This is, of course, a disadvantage
especially compared with other recent textbooks in English grammar,
which have separate chapters devoted to the problems of discourse
analysis (See, for example, Borjars & Burridge (2001), and L.J. Brinton

In spite of these drawbacks Van Valin's textbook is a valuable source
that provides students with a thorough grounding in the analysis of
syntactic structure. It can be widely used by students of linguistics on
the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels.

Apresian Y.D. (1986) "Integralnoe opisanie iazyka i tolkovyi slovar'" In:
Voprosy iazykoznania. 1986. No 2. P.57-70. (In Russian)
Apresian Y.D. (1992) "Lexikograficheskie portrety" In:
Nauchno-tekhnicheskaya informatsia.Ser.2. No 3. P.20-33. (In Russian)
Borjars K., Burridge K. (2001) Introducing English grammar. London:
Brinton L. (2000) The structure of Modern English. Amsterdam;
Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

V. Iatsko is a professor in the Department of English and Head of the
Computational Linguistics Laboratory at the Katanov State University of
Khakasia located in Abakan, Russia. His research interests include text
summarization, text grammar, TEFL, contrastive analysis of English and
Russian syntax.


Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0521635667
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 256
Prices: U.K. £ 16.95

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521631998
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 256
Prices: U.S. $ 65.00

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0521635667
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 256
Prices: U.S. $ 24.00