When teaching English syntax to students, both native and non-native, it is vital for the instructor to consider both facts and theory, and balance the two. This is because classes in English syntax are aimed at assisting students to improve on their understanding of the structure of English in a systematic and scientific manner.
The acquisition of such knowledge is essential for the students, as it will enable them to progress to other stages, in which they can perform linguistic analyses for both simple and complex English phenomena (Hornstein, 2009).
Why Do We Study Syntax and What Is It Good for?
There are a variety of reasons as to why the study of syntax is vital, and involve general humanistic or behavioural motivations, as well as specific goals such as: an aid to illustrating the patterns of English more effectively and clearly; and to aid in the systematic and explicit analysis of the structure of English sentences.
The example below allows us to look into the syntactic notion of head (the essential element within a phrase), using an informal rule of English; the main verb agrees with the head element of the subject (Akamajian, 2001).
The recent strike by pilots have cost the country a great deal of money from tourism and so on.
Structural knowledge of sentences like the one above allows us to identify the essential element of the subject as ‘strike’ as opposed to ‘pilots’. Having realized this, the man verb should be changed from have to has, in order to be in agreement with the rule of English stated above.
The change is important since there is more than one noun, and the sentence should be structured to talk about the noun that gives its character to the phrase, the head. As a result, a singular head requires a singular phrase, and the plural is also true (Akamajian, 2001).
Syntactic knowledge can be useful in learning English grammar. One of the common sentences used for beginners in the analysis of English statements is ‘He said that that ‘that’ that that man used was wrong.’
Structural or syntactic knowledge can be used in the diagnosis of differences in the five thats. Research on syntax, transformational grammar and systemic functional grammar, will be beneficial in clarifying how each word is categorized, and the contribution that it makes in a sentence.
The knowledge of English syntax is useful when studying complex sentences as it helps to understand them in a systematic way (Griffiths, 2002).
Objectives of the research
Micro-grammar looks at numerous phenomena including
“simple types of moods such as imperatives and yes-no questions; a small sub-set of the type of ‘modal verbs’ that express the performer’s assessment of the validity of what is being expressed; ‘tense’ forms; the ‘passive’ construction; the idiosyncratic syntactic and morphemic behaviour of the verb be; ‘emphatic’ forms of do; and simple ‘negation’” (Miller, 2008).
For each problem area in the grammar, the essential question to be considered is “In which component(s) and with what type of descriptive apparatus should this complexity be handled” (Miller, 2008)? In Systemic Functional Grammar, the response provided reflects on the approach that looks for any contrast at the level of form: “Is this contrast also a contrast at the level of meaning” (Miller, 2008)?
In the event that it is, then it is articulated in a selection between semantic features in the system network. If the opposite is true, then it is handled by the realization rules; make use of the concept of circumstances on the recognition of those semantic characteristics.
Thus, in a Systemic Functional Grammar in which the features in the system networks are explicitly semantic, “a higher proportion of realization rules include conditions that in SFGs in which the system networks are less clearly semantic or are even described as being at the level of form” (Miller, 2008).
Systemic functional grammar however, does not use ‘re-write’ regulations to create the primary structure. There are also no transformational rules to modify the present structures. Instead, “the grammar merely stores up the choices of semantic aspects that are made for every semantic unit, and then generates the appropriate syntactic unit” (Hornstein, 2009).
The process of generation is controlled by system networks, which comprise statements about relationships between semantic features. They are useful in modelling the meaning potential of the language (Hornstein, 2009).
The main difference between theories used in transformational grammar (conservative approach) and systemic functional grammar is that the latter supports and demands a reference that is technologically more advanced than the former. The systemic-functional theory is multidimensional in terms of rank, delicacy, metafunction, axis and instantiation.
This makes it possible to adopt a logical view, an experiential view, an interpersonal view, or a textual view, either of which constitutes different ‘projections’ of the map of the overall resources of the grammar. It is also possible to vary the view according to rank, system, realization or register variation (Radford, 2004).
Akamajian, A. (2001). Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Griffiths, P. (2002). An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Hornstein, N. (2009). A Theory of Syntax: Minimal Operations and Universal Grammar. New York: CUP.
Miller, J. E. (2008). An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Radford, A. (2004). English Syntax: An Introduction. New York: CUP.