Author Topic: If-clause syntax  (Read 194 times)

Offline snoacesupport

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If-clause syntax
« on: January 08, 2022, 09:21:32 AM »
Having recently gotten into studying syntax, I was wondering if anyone would be able to offer any help in regards to creating syntax trees for sentences including if statements (e.g. “if you work hard, you will get a good mark in the competition”). I have identified the first clause as a CP and the second as a TP although I am unsure as to whether I have done this correctly as I am struggling to form the tree.

Online Daniel

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Re: If-clause syntax
« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2022, 10:05:00 AM »
Hello and welcome! (I've moved this thread to the morphosyntax forum.)

Remember the most basic principle of syntax trees: constituency. If you've identified the if part (e.g. "if you work hard") as a CP, then you've also implicitly identified it as a constituent.* Now that means that the whole clause is a single node in the tree (that's what a constituent is); that is, the position of a phrase is equivalent to the position of a single word. Internally there's more structure, but you can set that aside while figuring out where to attach it. We might also try to replace it with a single word and see what that tree would look like: in this case there isn't necessarily an exact equivalent, but something like "therefore" seems reasonably close.

(*Note that this does not necessarily apply to your comment about the second as a "TP": assuming the if-CP is embedded within the TP, then the whole sentence is a TP, but the sentence without the CP is not a TP or even a complete consituent on its own! If you assume a position for the CP outside of the TP, e.g. at a higher level in the tree [see some comments below about other options], then that might work out, but under the most basic assumption of an adjunct within TP, then there is no independent TP without including that CP within it! This is why constituency should be your first step in the analysis, rather than jumping to or guessing about possible labels.)

In general, conditional clauses with if are considered to be some kind of adverbial clause. In other words, they would appear in a similar position to other adverbials (like adverb phrases, similarly-functioning prepositonal phrases, e.g. "on Tuesday", etc.). Therefore, it would be an adjunct at a high level in the tree, probably in TP.

Another possibility would be to give it some kind of special analysis (distinct from other kinds of adverbials). You might imagine several structures, perhaps some kind of "CondP" (conditional phrase) split into antecedent/protasis and consequent/apodosis, but that's not a typical analysis and would require some kind of unusual structure in the syntax tree (resembling a construction-based analysis rather than a maximally general syntax tree as is usually desired in a typical Generative analysis, where the trees share as much structure as possible across all sentence types). But we still might consider some other position for the "if" clause, and one option for that might be as topic. If you're familiar with Rizzi's "fine structure of the left periphery" you might know that CP has now been proposed to be split into multiple phrases such as TopicP, FocusP, etc., so that could be a natural position. Or simply as an adjunct or topic within CP more generally. In the typological literature there is also some support for that kind of approach, e.g.:
Haiman, John. 1978. Conditionals Are Topics. Language 54(3). 564–589. https://doi.org/10.2307/412787

If you're just starting out in syntax, then something you'll probably have started to notice (or will notice soon) is that there isn't just one answer to questions like this. It depends on the specific version of the theory you're using-- so it depends on your textbook, on your instructor, and ultimately your own preferences and assumptions in syntactic analysis. There will be similarities between analyses, but there are different options (some bigger differences, and some smaller differences), but at some point you will need to pick one. It's best to follow as closely as possible whatever you're already working with (especially if you're in a class, or working with an advisor for your own research as a student), but you'll have to see what fits best. The simplest answer here is as an adjunct in TP, but there are other options including a special topic position, or other possibilities.

The next step, of course, would be to start reading more about this. A lot has been written about conditionals, both in general (e.g. browse some textbooks and see what they have to say, or look for a reference chapter on conditionals in one of the several useful "Handbooks" of syntax that have been published), or for specific languages (and see whether the analyses proposed for different languages converge, or if there are meaningful reasons why different approaches have been suggested for different languages).
« Last Edit: January 08, 2022, 10:08:07 AM by Daniel »
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Offline snoacesupport

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Re: If-clause syntax
« Reply #2 on: January 08, 2022, 11:31:40 AM »
Hi, and thank you for such a quick response.

I have reconsidered my constituencies and I think it may be 'you will' which is throwing me. In this example is 'you' an NP on its own as it could be substituted with 'one', if so could this be part of the TP? Although, it would be difficult to include this in the tree as TP cannot be sister to CP, or, if the sentence as a whole is considered TP where would this leave the CP?

I have also identified 'get a good mark' and 'get a good mark in the competition' as verb phrases, could I then consider only 'you will' to be the TP and how would this affect the structure of the tree?

I have been able to draw two separate trees for the subordinate and main clauses, but I am struggling on how to combine them to form one tree.

I apologize for asking so many questions, however, I have been trying to wrap my head around this for a few days now and for some reason, it's just not clicking. I have spent many weeks on TP and CP tree structures, but have never been taught anything about conditional phrases like this example.




Online Daniel

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Re: If-clause syntax
« Reply #3 on: January 08, 2022, 04:10:10 PM »
Quote
In this example is 'you' an NP on its own as it could be substituted with 'one', if so could this be part of the TP?
It's the subject of the sentence, in the same position as any normal subject, within TP in most common analyses.

Quote
...if the sentence as a whole is considered TP where would this leave the CP?
Assuming the top node in a typical sentence is TP, then you will need to find a place to put the if-CP. Assuming it is an adjunct, you will need to add an adjunct position within the TP. There are slightly different styles of doing that in different versions of trees, but they're similar: you need to add an additional layer and add a branch splitting off for the adjunct. This is similar to adding an adverb in the VP or an adverb in TP, or an adjective in NP, etc. Maybe what's confusing here is that the adjunct can go at the beginning of the tree, but adjuncts generally allow relatively free ordering, and note that actually if-CPs could go at the beginning or end of a sentence, so that makes sense here.

Quote
I have also identified 'get a good mark' and 'get a good mark in the competition' as verb phrases, could I then consider only 'you will' to be the TP and how would this affect the structure of the tree?
Again, think about constituency, and also typical hierarchy in clauses: VPs go within TPs, so the whole TP would include the VP here. If "you will" is the complete TP, then there would be nowhere to add the VP! So you can't split off the VP from the TP.

Quote
I have been able to draw two separate trees for the subordinate and main clauses, but I am struggling on how to combine them to form one tree.
Right, so again remember that once you've figured out the internal structure of the elements, then you just need to find a place to attach them. Think about adding an adverb to the beginning of a sentence, like "therefore". Where could that go? Or maybe you've seen a sentence with an initial PP in your textbook, like "In the morning, I eat breakfast." The position for the if-CP could be the same.

Quote
I apologize for asking so many questions, however, I have been trying to wrap my head around this for a few days now and for some reason, it's just not clicking. I have spent many weeks on TP and CP tree structures, but have never been taught anything about conditional phrases like this example.
The questions are welcome!
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Offline panini

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Re: If-clause syntax
« Reply #4 on: January 11, 2022, 10:01:59 AM »
I want to add a comment about a problem with constituency argument which in my experience is not well-enough treated, at a pedagogical level. An example is in the sentence "I sent a ticket to my mother", and the question (posed by the instructor) is "is 'a ticket to my mother' a constituent?". There are many ways to frame the question. The expected answer is "No, it's not a constituent", and the test is that "You can't say 'A ticket to my mother was sent', you have to say 'A ticket was sent to my mother'". (This is a stripped-down example, admittedly clunky). The problem is that the supposedly impossible string is not ungrammatical, it simply has a different meaning, one where "ticket to X" is an NP and perhaps the guy's mother is a performance artist (and the recipient is unspecified).

The underlying problem is an unspoken assumption about constituency tests, one which I've never gotten a professional syntactician to explicitly articulate (at least since the mid 70's), that in such sentence-pairs, the meaning of the two sentences must be the same. Except, that's only true at a coarse level of semantic analysis. Sentence-pairs that we would classically treat as being related by movement often have subtle semantic differences.

As you progress in syntax, therefore, I would urge you to dedicate a small amount of your attention to the question is what implicit theory of semantics a theory requires. Scrutinize any starred sentence that you're presented with and ask yourself whether the string of words is really impossible per se, or does it involve a striking change in meaning. If the latter is  the case, what does that entail for semantic theory. In order to do syntax, you have to also have a theory of semantics.



Online Daniel

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Re: If-clause syntax
« Reply #5 on: January 11, 2022, 11:28:50 AM »
Yes, I agree these are very important issues, but I just want to emphasize here that the basic idea of a constituent being a node/unit/part/phrase in a tree is often overlooked by beginning students too: the question here is similar to the difficulties my students have had in class trying to figure out the right labels and structure for a tree, without relying on basic ideas of constituency.* Here, the if-clause is a constituent, so after identifying that, then the only remaining question is to think about possible places to attach it.

[*This often results in a kind of "guessing" about syntactic structure that I don't fully understand in my students' work: it seems to be roughly making a guess about what some likely labels might be then filling in the parts around it in an approximate way, until the tree looks like it might be right, but without explicitly working through the constituency. If the students stop and think through the constituency, the results are much better. I've thought about whether there's some way to actually study the errors made in trees and better understand the strategies used in this "guessing" I see often, but I'm still trying to figure out the patterns. At some point that would be interesting to research specifically. A good example of this is a sentence of the format "That constituency is important will be taught in this class", where the majority of students at least start with the fundamentally wrong breakdown of the sentence, as "[that constituency] [is important will be taught in this class]". Maybe explicitly teaching more examples like that, rather than repeating more examples of the more typical kinds, would help to reinforce constituency as the first step.]
« Last Edit: January 11, 2022, 11:34:02 AM by Daniel »
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Offline panini

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Re: If-clause syntax
« Reply #6 on: January 12, 2022, 11:06:25 PM »
I believe that the pedagogical emphasis on constituency tests is a response to an alternative trend to rely on semantic intuitions to arrive at constituency conclusions. I know that that is how I initially understood "constituency" in the old days, and I've seen good evidence for it in students in intro courses. Going back to the generative semantics golden era, recall (or, believe me when I say) that contrasts in constituency that tightly match contrasts in interpretation were important data that could be easily handled by determining meaning before movement (the essence of the generative semantic hypothesis). As a corrective against this methodological error, there arose a realization that the structures posited in syntax had to be motivated independent of semantics – but "independent of semantics" doesn't mean "with flagrant disregard for semantics". What made gen-sem so fun for intro students was that it was easy, you just tap in to your intuitions about meaning.

I dunno, it might be worthwhile to take some examples like  "that constituency is important will be taught in this class" and give it all (okay, many) of the possible parsings, and then have students develop arguments for one versus another. It depends on whether the students are willing to construct arguments.