How Can We Tell If A Particular String Of Words Is A Constituent Or Not? Essays Example
There are a number of important things to consider when considering the idea of a constituency test for syntax. However, there are a number of important ideas to understand before the idea of syntactic analysis can even be addressed insofar as constituency is concerned. The idea of constituency in syntax is the idea that a group of words within a sentence or a phrase can be grouped together to form a single unit (Cla.calpoly.edu, 2015). There are a number of different tests that can be done to determine whether or not a phrase is constituent, and this will be discussed here in depth. Constituents are very commonly phrases, although they are not always phrases; the idea that a constituent is made up of a phrase is an idea that commonly confuses individuals trying to determine whether or not something is a constituent within a phrase or complete sentence.
According to Cal Poly (2015), constituency structure is commonly associated with dependency grammars, as well as phrase structure grammars; that is, constituency structure can commonly be broken down into important pieces or parts. These parts can be found using constituency tests. Cal Poly (2015) goes on to note that these tests include tests like topicalization or fronting, clefting, pseudoclefting, substitution or replacement, question tests, omission tests, coordination tests, and passivization (Cla.calpoly.edu, 2015). Some of these tests are easier to employ than others, and it is these tests that will be discussed in depth throughout the course of this discussion.
Notably, the testing that is done on these phrases is dependent upon the phrase itself; they cannot be generalized in any meaningful way, and must instead be applied to every phrase in question regarding the constituency of that particular group of words.
The first test that is used for the determination of whether a phrase is a constituent phrase is the substitution test. Professor Ling (2006) at University of Pennsylvania writes, “The most basic test for syntactic constituenthood is the substitution test. The reasoning behind the test is simple. A constituent is any syntactic unit, regardless of length or syntactic category. A single word is the smallest possible constituent belonging to a particular syntactic category. So if a single word can substitute for a string of several words, that's evidence that the word and the string are constituents of the same category” (Ling.upenn.edu, 2006). This is a particularly easy test to apply in many ways, because it just involves taking some of the words—particularly the ones in question—and replacing them with other words that make up part of the whole.
For instance, observe the following sentence:
The mother dog fed the tiny puppies.
In this sentence, we can take the mother dog and replace it with “she;” similarly, the tiny puppies can be replaced by “them.” The new sentence reads:
She fed them.
Thus, the pronouns can be used to substitute in for these noun phrases. The noun phrases, then, are constituent phrases, because these substitutions can be used in place of the noun phrases themselves. This is clearly a very easy test to do, and is one of the most basic tests that is done to determine whether something is a constituent phrase.
Movement is another commonly used type of constituency test that is done with phrases. It is also simple, although not nearly as simple as the previous test; instead, in the movement test, the phrase that the individual is testing is moved around in the sentence to see if it acts as a unit (Ling.upenn.edu, 2006). The important thing to note in a movement test is that when a string of words is moved that are not constituent, the resulting sentence becomes grammatically incorrect, much in the same way that a noun phrase that is not constituent would make no sense when replaced with a pronoun.
I fed the tiny dogs.
In the movement part of the test, we then move the phrase the tiny dogs:
The tiny dogs, I fed.
This sentence may not be an excellent one, but it certainly works from a grammatical standpoint. The tiny dogs from this particular example can be considered a constituent phrase, because it can be moved about in the sentence. Not only noun phrases can be used; adjective phrases, adverb phrases, and even prepositional phrases can be moved around in sentences with complete certainty if they are constituency phrases (Ling.upenn.edu, 2006). This is another excellent way of checking to be certain that a phrase is a constituency phrase, and if it is, it is a good way of determining how much of the phrase is a constituency phrase; if the new sentence does not make sense, the phrase is not a constituent phrase.
“It” clefts are the final way to determine whether or not a phrase is a constituent phrase. In an “it cleft” test, the constituent phrase or suspected constituent phrase is split using the word “it.” Ling writes, “We begin by noting that ordinary sentences can often be divided into two parts: a part that contains background information that is presupposed, the ground, and a part that is intended to be particularly informative, the focus In written language, where intonation is difficult to represent, it is still possible to indicate a sentence's information structure by fitting the focus and the ground into a syntactic frame consisting of it, a form of the copula to be, and the subordinating conjunction that” (Ling.upenn.edu, 2006). This can be most effectively seen using examples. Take the following sentence as an example:
Large dogs bark loudly when startled.
It is large dogs that bark loudly when startled.
Thus, we can see that “large dogs” is a constituent phrase using this test, because the “it” and the “that” phrases can be used to form sentences that are grammatically correct and follow the proper form. This test is not limited to noun phrases, however; it is also used for adjective phrases, adverbial phrases, and prepositional phrases. Each of these tests can be used to determine whether a string of words is a constituent string of words; when a string is a constituent string, the resulting sentence after using any of these tests is a grammatically correct sentence, although it may be slightly wordy. If the string is not a constituent string, the resulting sentence will be grammatically incorrect.
Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.
Cla.calpoly.edu,. (2015). Phrases. Retrieved 3 March 2015, from http://cla.calpoly.edu/~jrubba/syn/Syntax_phrases.htm
Ling.upenn.edu,. (2006). Syntactic constituenthood. Retrieved 3 March 2015, from http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/syntax-textbook/ch2.html
People.fas.harvard.edu,. (2003). Intro. Syntax Lecture Notes. Retrieved 3 March 2015, from http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~ctjhuang/lecture_notes/lecch2.html
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