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Theoretical Approaches to Syntax Term Paper

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Updated: May 16th, 2019


This paper introduces the topic of the research paper which is the Syntax (Transformational Grammar (the Chomskyan approach to grammar) ) and Systemic Functional Grammar (the Hallidayian approach to grammar).

The paper goes ahead and highlights the important theories of language, namely: Systemic Functional Grammar, the theory of transformational generative grammar, an introduction of SF Grammar and Systemic-functional theory of grammar. The paper delves into the characteristics of the theme as highlighted in the theory and the problems with the SFG Notion of Theme.

The paper further looks at Functional grammar, Cognitive grammar, Fundamental Cognitive, Grammar concepts as well as the Summary of Cognitive Grammar. The paper concludes by looking at language Syntax and structures, properties of English syntax, the importance of syntax and the importance of learning and teaching syntax.


The human language is a unique and complex phenomenon that can be approached from different perspectives. The central conception of language, according to most linguists, is that it incorporates grammar. Language is a systematic phenomenon that shows structure due to its regular pattern in the way it is organized. Grammar can be defined as a structured system of regular patterns in language.

The grammar of language embraces the domains commonly referred to as phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. A grammatical description of language should cover all these domains (Radford, Atkinson, Britain, Clahsen, & Spencer, 1999).

The term Grammar does not include phonetics, phonology, semantics and pragmatics in its definition. It is mostly concerned with morphology and syntax, which are opposed to semantics.

This definition is characteristic of formal theories that depict grammar as being a set of rules for the combination of symbols. Language cannot bring out a clear distinction between morphology and syntax, to represent the formal side of language on one side and semantics and pragmatics on the other, if it is deemed to be a semiotic system.

According to Akamajian (2001), one should take the meaning into account and vice versa, to be able to identify regularities in its form. It is, therefore, possible to talk of distinct domains of semantics and pragmatics, but these become contextual phenomenon, concerning the ways in which language is deployed in its context of situation.

According to Clark & allop (1995), theories of grammar can be put into two categories, formal and functional theories. While formal theories focus on linguistic form, functional theories focus on language as a functional system, which people deploy for a particular purpose.

The theories can be differentiated through emphasis, and they range from the pole of extreme formalism to extreme functionalism and generalized phase structure grammar. The following theories are in order of decreasing concerns with formalism, and increasing concern with the functional aspects of language:

Semiotic Grammar (SG), Hallidayah Systematic Functional grammar (SFG), Functional Dirks functional grammar(FG), Cognitive grammar(CG), West Coast functional grammar (WCFG) and Lexical functional grammar (LFG) (Meyer, 2009). This paper will have a look at transformational and systematic functional grammar.

Overview of Transformational Grammar and Systemic Functional Grammar

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 necessary matter 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 such an event, 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 and making use of the concept of circumstances on the recognition of those semantic characteristics.

Thus, in the 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 ‘rewrite’ 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” (Meyer, 2009). The process of generation is controlled by the system of networks which comprises statements about relationships between semantic features. They are useful in modelling the meaning potential of the language.

Systemic Functional Grammar

The most outstanding representative of functionalism is the systemic functional grammar. It is a combination of systemic grammar and functional grammar.

Systemic grammar is one of the descriptive models for linguistic analysis, while linguistic descriptions are abstractions of linguistic forms from linguistic utterances. Between language and the extra linguistic world, there exists a close relationship which is produced by the situational context.

Functional grammar, on the other hand, is the theoretical approach to the description and explanation of linguistic structure and pattern based on their various functions. The basic assumption of functional grammar is that linguistic phenomena cannot be explained without examining their function.

Linguists who adopt the approach of SFG to grammar are interested in relating the various kinds of linguistic structures and patterns to the functions that the language serves and to the social settings in which it is used.

The following terse description provides a clear expression of Hallidays view about theme, and shows an obvious debt to the Prague school (Griffiths, 2002). The rheme is the remainder of the messages, the part that develops the theme.

Characteristics of the theme

The theme is considered to belong to the textual semiotic class; thus, it fulfils a linking function, which implies that it is not a constituent of the clause. This provides no reason to assume an equivalent grammatical function of the rheme. The theme is defined in SFG as a linguistic sign and, as such, it is characterized by an indissoluble connection between some form (the signifier) and some meaning (the signified).

SFG runs the risk of making an incorrect claim due to the following reasons:

  1. What comes first can hardly be anything but the point of departure of the message, whatever the language. The notion of point of departure needs to be given some non-trivial semantic content in order for Halliday’s characterization to be useful.
  2. “The point of departure of the message” cannot be equated with “what the clause is concerned with or concerned about” (Griffiths, 2002). It is unclear how the two notions are considered to be semantically related, they are connected if indeed.

The Problems with the SFG Notion of Theme

According to Griffiths (2002), there are three critical problems that have been identified in the systemic account of the theme. These include:

  1. The characterization of its meaning (both formal and contextual) is inadequate;
  2. The rheme cannot be supported as a textural (textual) phenomenon though theme can be supported;
  3. To model the clause in terms of a theme-rheme constituent structure is at best, seriously misleading.

The SG approach to theme resolves these (and other) problems identified in SFG.

An introduction of SF Grammar

According to Pütz & Aertselaer (2008), the earliest version of SF grammar was developed in the early sixties by Halliday. The version came to be known as scale and category grammar. It was named so because it set up three “Scales” of abstraction which were referred to as rank, delicacy and exposition.

Rank scale

According to Clark & Allop (1995), a unit is a category that is set up to account for stretches that carries grammatical patterns. The units of a language are related to each other by the reference to the scale of rank. The units that had been set up earlier for English were sentences, clauses, groups and phrases, words and morphemes. It was later reinterpreted as clause complex, which was not a basic unit on the rank scale.

The units are hierarchically ordered on a rank scale such that there is a constituency relationship between the higher and lower unit. These clauses consist of groups or phrases, which consist of words and morphemes. SF grammar is, thus, a constituency grammar, but it differs form other constituency analyses in that the constituents are ranked. This is referred to as “rank hypothesis” (Clark & allop, 1995).


Delicacy was earlier referred to as exposition, a scale in the sense of a cline. You start by making a big and general distinction in a system and then refine the analysis by making finer, more specific distinctions. In grammar, one can choose to narrow down on the clauses and look at them further. Delicacy refers to the degree of detail or differentiation that is made at a particular rank (Fromkin, Rodman, Hultin, & Logan, 2001).


Various scholars working in other disciplines have brought out metafunctional hypothesis in functional theories as a hypothesis about the functions of text which is not the case.

According to Radford (2004), metafunction is a hypothesis about the internal grammatical organization of the clause; it is about how the language is organized and the functions of language that are built into the very structure. He notes that Halliday recognized only three meanings namely textual, ideational and interpersonal.

The textual meaning relates to the way in which language makes a connection with itself, as well as the situations in which it is used. This kind of a meaning allows the speaker to create a coherent text, one that makes sense in the context in which it is being uttered and, in the context of what has been uttered and will be uttered.

The ideational meaning is concerned with the semantics of language. It is concerned with the way language serves as a model of reality. It is concerned with the way in which language mediates about the reality that we assume to be in us and around us. It has both an experimental and logical meaning.

While the logical meaning is concerned with the interdependency relationships that language allows us to construct between theses things, the experimental meaning is concerned with things that we can talk about.

The interpersonal meaning is concerned with language as a means of understanding the things the way they are supposed to be done. It is concerned with the way in which speakers assess truth or falsity, probability or improbability, frequency or rarity of occurrence, obligation and willingness. It is mostly realized in the mood and modality systems of language.

The three meanings recognized by Halliday can be referred to as Meta functions, due to the wide and abstract uses that language has evolved to serve (Fromkin, Rodman, Hultin, & Logan, 2001).

Meta functions can be described as interfaces that connect language and what is outside language, such as semiotic systems. They link up with other interfaces in the context of a situation, which is defined by Halliday as a “generalized semiotic construct”.

Akamajian (2001) noted that Halliday characterized the context of situation in three dimensions:

  1. Field: this characterizes the situation in terms of the social activity that is taking place, for example, discussing an event that has already taken place;
  2. Tenor: this is concerned with the various kinds of relationships that are held between the participants who are involved in the situation either directly or indirectly; for example, two people talking to each other;
  3. Mode: this is concerned with the place that is assigned to the text in the situation and encompasses a number of variables which give rise to a distinction between the spoken and written medium.

Systemic-functional theory of grammar

Systematic-functional theory was first used in computational and educational contexts a long time ago. “Unlike the theory of grammar that is still used in schools, systemic-functional grammaticism takes the resource perspective rather than the rule perspective” (Pütz & Aertselaer, 2008). It is designed to display the overall system of grammar rather than just the fragments.

Grammar is a part of language that needs to be studied since it involves a system of wording for the language. Grammar is a phenomenon that needs to be studied and a theory is needed to interpret it. The manner in which grammar is conceptualized is dependent on our knowledge for grammar.

The arguments in this paper are based on the theoretical perspectives that have their origins in ancient Greece (Radford, Atkinson, Britain, Clahsen, & Spencer, 1999).

“Grammar is a set of rules for specifying grammatical structures; for example, the construction of a transitive sentence with ‘verb + object’. The sentence is the basic unit which can be studied in isolation; this perspective is that of logic and philosophy” (Radford, Atkinson, Britain, Clahsen, & Spencer, 1999).

Language is a way that gives a meaning to the processes and things by means of the words and signs of communication. This perspective about grammar is based on rhetoric and ethnography. The text is reckoned to be the main unit and the sentence is one of the forms to be expressed in the speech or in the conversation.

Tserdanelis & Wong (2004) note that if a theory does not meet the demand that is now being made on grammatical theories, it relies too much on “European languages that it was first applied to”; hence, it has limitations when it comes to “interpreting the grammars of Non-European languages”, such as Japanese and other languages of other continents.

It limits itself to only a small fragmentation and fails to “provide us with a way of interpreting the overall organization of the grammar of a language as a system of information” (95).

Functional grammar

Radford (2004) proposes another way of grammatical formalism, which can be successfully developed away from what other English philosophers have used to describe functional grammar. In his outline, Radford (2004) proposes three counts:

  1. Functionalism is required to work as a model of language production and comprehension;
  2. It can be interpreted by an abstract machine whose operation is intended to model the syntactic processing of sentences by speakers and hearers indifferently. It differs from the structural description of better known formalisms, mainly by stressing the function that a part plays as a whole, rather than the positions a part occupies in a sequence of others;
  3. Functionalists view grammar in which notions like topic and focus, will have equal status with subject and predicate, positive and negative. This is because the properties that distinguish among logically equivalent sentences will have equal importance with properties that they share.

According to Radford (2004), theoretical linguists see grammar as an abstract device that differentiates the sentences from other strings that are not sentences. Computational linguists have taken grammar to be a transducer, showing how a meaning comes to be represented as a string of words or more frequently, how the string of words is analyzed to reveal its meaning. Functional grammar has both aspects.

The theory of transformational generative grammar

According to Meyer (2009), the following assumptions were made in the earliest version of transformational generative grammar concerning syntactic structure. The assumptions were that the syntactic component of grammar consists of two sorts of rules: transformational rules and rewriting rules.

The rewriting rules are made up of phrase structure grammar. Each rule, as described by the author, is in the form of A to X where A is a category symbol and X, Z, W are strings of the category or terminal symbols. Springs produced by this system may be referred to as base strings or C-terminal strings. In the process of producing the string, the system of rewriting rules assigns to it a phrase marker (Meyer, 2009).

The transformational rules bring out phrase markers into new phrase markers. The specification of the transformation is made whole by associating with this structural analysis. The transformations meet certain ordering conditions which should be stated in a separate part of grammar.

In order to generate a sentence, one should select a sequence of several base phrase-makers and apply singularly and generalized requirements, until the result is a single phrase-maker dominated by S (this is the initial category representing “sentence”).

If you select a single base phrase-maker and apply only obligatory transformations, it will result in a sentence referred to as the Kernel sentence. A sentence is made up by an ‘output’ of the syntactic component of the grammar, and an ‘input’ to the phonological component (Meyer, 2009).

Cognitive grammar

Cognitive Grammar theoretical models are among many that fall under the umbrella of cognitive linguistics. The theory of cognitive grammar was founded by Ronald Langacker, who is still the main practitioner.

The theory of grammar was developed as a reaction against Noam Chomskys Generative Grammar (GG), which endorses a formal approach to grammar that does not and cannot take into consideration either usage or figurative language (Akamajian, 2001).

Fundamental Cognitive Grammar concepts

Cognitive Linguistics is a growing interdisciplinary enterprise that is guided by the following claim: language is Symbolic in nature. To explain the meaning of language being symbolic in nature, we have to define what a symbol is symbol.

Symbol is the blend between a phonological structure and a semantic structure to the extent the one evokes the other. Grammar involves how the two elements come together to form complex expressions (Tserdanelis & Wong, 2004).

Cognitive Grammar is driven by the assumption that language is essentially and inherently symbolic in nature. That is to say, linguistic expressions symbolize conceptualizations.

According to the Symbolic Thesis, any linguistic expression is thoroughly characterized by a phonological structure (an acoustic image), a semantic structure (a conceptual image) and a symbolic relation between them. Hence, the main focus of Cognitive Grammar must be to describe the language’s symbolic resources (Tserdanelis & Wong, 2004).

Summary of Cognitive Grammar

Cognitive Grammar claims that grammar and meaning are dissociable. It also claims that grammar reduces to the structuring and symbolization of conceptual content and thus, has no autonomous existence at all (Tserdanelis & Wong, 2004).

The semi logical function of language reduces to units, conceptual, phonological and symbolic units. Cognitive grammar further claims that lexicon grammar from a continuum of symbolic structures is comprised of lexical structures and grammatical structures.

Cognitive grammar is a part of cognitive linguistics, which is also a part of the function tradition. The important branches in cognitive grammar include metaphor theory, construction grammar, the study of blends and mental spaces, and various efforts to develop conceptualist semantics.

Tserdanelis & Wong (2004) note that among other major components of functionalism, there are discourse pragmatic analyses, the study of grammaticalization and universal-typological investigation via cross-linguistic surveys.

Within functionalism, cognitive linguistics stands out by emphasizing the semi logical function of language. Cognitive grammar fully acknowledges the grounding of language in social interaction, but insists that even its interactive function is critically dependent on conceptualization.

Compared to formal approaches, cognitive linguists stands out by resisting the imposition of boundaries between the language and other psychological phenomena. Despite its functional nature, Cognitive Grammar with formal approaches seeks to explicit characteristics of language structure.

Research in Cognitive Grammar aims at justifying particular constructs by examining diverse phenomena in various languages (Tserdanelis & Wong, 2004).

Language Syntax and structures

According to Griffiths (2002), Chomsky believes that all natural languages either in writing or in spoken form are languages. Chomsky distinguishes the fowl lowing qualities:

  1. Each natural language has a finite number of letters in its alphabet – on the assumption that it has an alphabet writing system;
  2. Although there may be infinitely many distinct sentences in the language, each sentences can be represented as finite sequence of these sounds (or letters);
  3. It is the task of the linguist describing some particular natural language, to determine which of the finite sequences of elements in the language sentences are and which non-sentences are.

The combinatory properties of words and phrases involve two aspects of syntax: internal and external syntax. Internal syntax deals with the way a given phrase is constructed in a well-formed manner, whereas external syntax is concerned with how a phrase can be used in a larger construction.

Properties of English syntax

Pütz & Aertselaer (2008) give two essential features that provide the basic foundations for learning linguistics. The two key properties of language are:

No motivated relationship is found between sounds and meanings

In human language, the same meaning is usually expressed by a differently sounding – word in a different language. For example, words such as dog, car, mountain, table, there is no relationship between their shapes and their meaning. The relationship between the words sound and its meaning is just arbitrary.

Language makes infinite use of a set of rules or principles

Language is a system for putting together parts in infinitely many ways. Words can be put together to provide infinite number of meanings. This can be done even with limited number of words. They will still provide a grammatical correct sentence when put together to form meaning.

The importance of syntax

Language is a complex but a very important human skill; the goal of using any kind of language is to communicate among individuals. To achieve this goal, both parties have to carry out a number of distinct tasks some including inferring sense from the relationships among words in the sentence (syntax) and associating words with their meanings (semantics).

To illustrate the difference between semantics and syntax and how it contributes to the language, the author looked at two sentences with the same meaning. “The lion chased the tiger” and “The tiger chased the lion”. The two examples bring out the meaning of syntax in language. This is because the meanings of the words are different, but the interpretation of who is doing what is the same (Clark & allop, 1995).

The other important issue of syntax, according to the Clark & allop (1995), is that it helps us to point out the meaning of new words in a sentence.

This is mostly important when the word does not provide information by itself. An example is provided by the author, “Lemmas are selected during grammatical encoding”. For people outside the psycholinguistic circles, the word “Lemma” might be a foreign term, though the sentence indicates that the word is used as a noun.

Semantics and syntax are distinct, different aspects of language use and the issue on whether they are processed in certain areas in the brain is important. Clark & Allop (1995) note that studies in cognitive science have identified the psychological reality of semantics and syntax and their differences.

The evidence for the separability is finding patients with Alzheimers disease sometimes have a semantics impairment while their syntactic ability is preserved.

Clark & Allop (1995) note that semantic or syntactic impairment can be divorced from the patients ability to process the sound structure, or phonology of a sentence. This helps to indicate different neural representations and processes are involved in processing different types of linguistic information.

Importance of learning and teaching syntax

The importance of teaching English syntax to students is to help improve their understanding of the structure of English in a systematic and scientific way. Such information proves to be vital for students, who move on to the next stage, where they will use the basics to carry out linguistic analyses for both simple and difficult phenomenon (Clark & allop, 1995).

One of the important functions of any human language is to pass on different kinds of information in our day to day lives, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of the message. Learning syntax makes it easy to learn new languages. Syntax provides students with clear guidelines for sentence construction in different languages. Learning a new language is simplified by the knowledge on the rules of the new language.

Communication effectively involves the use of appropriate words in the proper way and context. Syntax provides students with the ability to construct sentences that convey the intended messages through the right arrangement of words in the sentence.

Learning syntax helps both tutors and students to understand various types of languages available: the definition of grammar provides an understanding of various kinds of languages.

Insight into the role of syntax provides a clear guideline on what construction of grammar entails, and how the sentences help in the communication process. This allows students to understand the difference in the various types of languages found globally. The study of syntax provides students with the necessary tools to appreciate other languages.

Learning syntax provides students with the rules of grammar. Students are, therefore, able to write any text which clearly communicates the message to other people without ambiguity.

Different languages have the rules which guide the process of sentence construction. The study of syntax allows students to communicate either verbally or in writing while appreciating the role of syntax in facilitating the packaging of the message.


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 one. 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 grammar overall resources. It is also possible to vary the view according to rank, system, realization or register variation.


Akamajian, A. (2001). Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication. Cambridge: CUP.

Clark, J., & allop, C. (1995). An Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology (2nd edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., Hultin, N., & Logan, H. (2001). An Introduction to Language (2nd Canadian Edition). Canada: Harcourt.

Griffiths, P. (2002). An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Meyer, C. F. (2009). Introducing English Linguistics. Cambridge: CUP.

Miller, J. E. (2008). An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Pütz, M., & Aertselaer, J. N. (2008). Developing Contrastive Pragmatics: Interlanguage and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Radford, A. (2004). English Syntax: An Introduction. New York: CUP.

Radford, A., Atkinson, M., Britain, D., Clahsen, H., & Spencer, A. (1999). Linguistics: An Introduction. Cambridge: CUP.

Tserdanelis, G., & Wong, W. Y. (2004). Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press.

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