Author Topic: Books on syntax  (Read 819 times)

Offline Matt Longhorn

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Books on syntax
« on: September 28, 2020, 06:07:00 AM »
I was hoping someone could direct me to a good introductory book on syntax that covers the symbols used. I am struggling my way through a booko and will brute force it with lots of searches on google. It would be good though to have a decent resource that helps me understand the terminology and symbols better if such a thing is available.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #1 on: September 28, 2020, 04:06:55 PM »
You will not find a single general introduction to syntax that covers everything you might come across. This is because of both depth and breadth, mostly the latter.

There are a variety of different syntactic theories out there, and to some extent they are completely different from one another. When students take an intro class, the instructor selects a textbook and teaches them one approach, usually just based on their preference. There are broadly different approaches, as well as more subtle variation within those approaches. Which ones you encounter will depend on the kinds of research you read, the kind of syntax popular at your university, etc. (Ideally, some of the variation would simply be terminological/notational variants, and to some degree that is true, but not completely. Personally I would also add that I think the different theories are not in as direct competition to "solve syntax" as they are often presented to be, but instead focused on answering different, if related, questions.)

So, all of that said, there are various ways to approach this, but you'll first need to pick a framework. Reading material online (e.g. Wikipedia) or in an intro textbook will require this, because otherwise there's just so much to pick from. Probably the most typical approach would be to start with Generative Grammar (i.e. Chomsky's work), and a good place to start there is with the Government and Binding version of that from the 1980s. Many intro textbooks begin there. These days, research in Minimalism builds on that and a basic understanding is something of a prerequisite. There are also various other different approaches: other Generative variants like LFG and HPSG, etc., completely different approaches like Construction Grammar. You can find intro textbooks for all of these. Generally speaking the terminology of the Generative approaches will be harder to understand, so in a sense it might make sense to start there in order to have that foundation, even if you end up going in another direction later. I think all of these approaches are valuable (sometimes for different reasons), and ideally they would all lead us to a better, combined theory in the end that takes insights from across the different perspectives, but we're not there yet. Another approach to consider would be what is sometimes called "Basic Linguistic Theory" (or similar), just focusing on descriptive information and looking at how languages vary (e.g. typology), which is also assumed (at least the terminology) within other approaches when attempting theoretical explanations of phenomena.

To emphasize, I am not exaggerating the differences in theories and what you might encounter in one class or one textbook. Students who have taken an intro class with one approach might be entirely unable to follow even the basic arguments of another approach, and certainly wouldn't be familiar with the notations. (Even a typical Syntax professor may not be able to follow the details, or perhaps even basic ideas, in a radically different theory, at least not without doing some background reading first.) As a basic example, most Generative approaches (though not necessarily all) will involve syntax trees, but some other (e.g. Construction-based) approaches won't have any trees. Just one difference regarding notation, but relevant for how this differs from a practical perspective.

Some specific suggestions, not a comprehensive list:
--Andrew Carnie's Syntax: A Generative Introduction: a go-to textbook (probably graduate level) for a relatively standard approach to Generative Syntax (including some later chapters on other related and newer approaches)
--Sportiche et al.'s An Introduction to Syntactic Analysis and Theory, which I personally use to teach intro classes, and is a bit more streamlined than Carnie's larger volume, and for that reason may be more appropriate for complete beginners including undergrads. It doesn't go into as much technical detail, and it focuses more on building a specific theory, while Carnie gives more historical context and extensions
--Koeneman & Zeijlstra's 2017 Introducing syntax, which is an interesting new attempt to start directly with Minimalism in an introductory course
--There are also various (including some very new) good overviews of Construction Grammar, which I have not used to teach so I won't recommend here, but in general it should not be hard to find an overview
--Similarly you can find intro textbooks to LFG, HPSG, and various other approaches
--I could recommend some books on typology, descriptive morphosyntax, etc., if you'd like, but that's going in a different direction.

As a starting point, I might most recommend the following:
https://langsci-press.org/catalog/book/255
Müller's Grammatical theory is an open access book that is not necessarily appropriate as a textbook for an introductory class, simply because it is relatively technical and so comprehensive. It is also comparative, rather than intending to teach one approach or another. But that sounds like it might be exactly what you're after, or at least could help you pick a particular approach to read about more, and since it's open access it won't hurt to look. It has very good metatheoretical overviews of each of the major theories, and is somewhat unique in that way. It's more of a reference work than a textbook, but good for someone generally familiar with ideas in syntax to either review or to familiarize themselves with a new approach. It is particularly useful for understanding the mechanics of different theories, but it is not a light, introductory approach, but rather a technical comparison.
« Last Edit: September 28, 2020, 04:08:48 PM by Daniel »
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Offline Matt Longhorn

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #2 on: September 28, 2020, 11:27:59 PM »
Thanks Daniel, that response was not entirely unexpected; the book I am reading at the moment references concepts with the same name as found in other theories, but stress that they are different. I just spotted the "Audience" stated on the back as advanced undergrads, 1st or second year post-grads. Not an ideal "Introduction" book to start on!

I will definitely check out the open access book you linked to. Buying more books unless they are immediately applicable at the moment isn't really on the cards.

I appreciate the response.


Offline Daniel

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #3 on: September 29, 2020, 03:52:00 PM »
 I hope that's helpful. Feel free to ask specific questions here if they come up.

For what it's worth, I'd suggest focusing your background reading on Generativism, specifically because the learning curve is steeper and the approach is less intuitive if you don't have a background, along with all of the technical terms. So having that will help you to understand what is going on, whereas for something like Construction Grammar the ideas are generally more intuitive. (For other formalisms like LFG, you would also need to specifically read something about that, but you're less likely to encounter that by chance.) In the end, Müller's book should be a good place to start so you get an idea of how to navigate the literature in general. Then you can start picking out the specific things you need.
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Offline Matt Longhorn

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #4 on: September 30, 2020, 01:21:33 AM »
I spotted a footnote in the book I am struggling with ("The Dynamics of Language: An Introduction") that suggests reading through some "formal semantics" texts. I hunted down one by the same author (Ronnie Cann) and am working quickly through that at the moment. A lot of the symbols are becoming clearer from that book. Will definitely be posting questions though!

Offline Daniel

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #5 on: September 30, 2020, 10:49:43 AM »
As a rough summary, Formal Semantics piggybacks on Generative Syntax: the idea is to figure out how meaning combines within the syntax trees (so the "other" side of the trees, in a sense). ("Formal Syntax" could be a terminological substitute, but "Generative" is more common. Confusingly, "Generative Semantics" is something else, a distinct offshoot of an earlier version of Generative Syntax.) For the most part, Formal Semantics is concerned with intricacies of logic and compositionality, rather than specific details of the syntactic structure per se (although a lot of important and fundamental questions about syntactic theory have been addressed with respect to Formal Semantics). For example, semanticists might not make a distinction between "NP" and "DP" (a determiner phrase, which contains a noun phrase, e.g. "the red book" is a DP, containing "red book" an NP), because they're not so concerned with that level of detail in syntactic structure and instead concerned primarily with how the denotations of those elements combine. In short, you know know a bit about Generative Syntax (I'd recommend Carnie's book, or if it isn't too technical as an intro, Müller's), and the rest should work out from reading about Formal Semantics itself. (If you're looking for a textbook about formal semantics, I'd recommend Kearns' Semantics, which I've used to teach and is useful, but there are a number of books out there. Formal Semantics is a very technical topic but also inherently logical [that's the whole point], so you may or may not find it intuitive, but at least it is consistent. There is still some variation in approaches to semantics, roughly parallel to the variation in syntactic theories, but I'd say somewhat more navigable.)
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Offline Matt Longhorn

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #6 on: October 01, 2020, 03:31:01 AM »
I picked up Kearn's and it is really helpful.
A question on functional application where you have a one place predicate
if t is the sentence/proposition at the top of the tree and e is the argument node, the predicate is listed as (e,t). Is this a combination of the argument e with the t from the top of the node? or is it e combined with a newly introduced t?
In Dynamic Syntax I have seen this listed as (e -> t), presumably with the same meaning

Offline Daniel

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #7 on: October 01, 2020, 01:57:28 PM »
(e -> t) seems like a clearer notation to me.* The comma-notation is not intuitive, but refers to the same input-output relationship. The predicate "SLEEP(x)" maps entities ("x") to whether or not they are sleeping (which is a truth value).

(*It is less convenient to type using special symbols, and also not as convenient for a shorthand when multiple levels of functions are embedded within each other. And it is also confusing because an arrow like -> is a technical symbol for 'material implication', a kind of logical conditional relationship between truth values.)
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Offline Matt Longhorn

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #8 on: October 02, 2020, 01:32:11 AM »
do you know what the annotation def is likely to mean? alpha = def alpha V up arrow, up arrow
Alpha is the greek letter not the word i typed, and up arrow are actual arrows

def = definition?

Offline Daniel

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #9 on: October 02, 2020, 01:08:43 PM »
Definiteness and definition are possibilities. I'm not sure without context. I'm guessing alpha is some kind of variable (think "x" in algebra). In phonology it's used as a placeholder for features on a segment (e.g. voicing), while in syntax it may be used as an element in a tree (e.g. "Move alpha" or "Merge (alpha,beta)").
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Offline panini

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #10 on: October 03, 2020, 11:32:07 AM »
If this is about "def", "Equal-sub-def" usually means "is defined as", if that is how it is presented. But I have no clue what "α is defined as α^^" would mean.

Offline Matt Longhorn

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Re: Books on syntax
« Reply #11 on: October 04, 2020, 03:27:38 AM »