Syntax is the study of word order, sentence structure, and the rules that govern how words are combined to form phrases and sentences. It is an important aspect of language that helps us understand how meaning is conveyed through language.
The study of syntax helps us understand the grammatical structure of a language as well as provide insights into the cultural and social aspects of those who use it. Linguists and grammarians who study linguists have to understand more than a rule (such as putting a comma between two independent clauses joined by a comma) or the order of words. They also study the language’s history and changes in usage.
The fact that there are a lot of technical terms in the field should come as no surprise. However, some words that help us understand syntax are words we use on a daily basis.
An expletive is a cuss word. But in syntax, an expletive refers to a word or phrase that has no meaning on its own but is necessary for grammatical structure. An example of an expletive is the word “there” in the sentence “There are many ways to learn syntax.”
The head is the thing that sits on our shoulders. But in syntax, head describes the most important word in a phrase or sentence. It often conveys the main meaning of the sentence. For example, in the phrase “big red ball,” “ball” is the head because it signifies that the phrase is about a ball that is big and red.
Movement is a synonym for motion. But in syntax, movement is used to describe the process of moving a word or phrase from one position in a sentence to another. This can change the meaning or emphasis of the sentence. Compare the difference between these sentences:
I saw the dog that chased the cat.
The dog I saw chased the cat.
The second sentence focuses on what the dog did, not what the speaker saw.
I saw the cat that chased the dog.
The cat I saw chased the dog.
Here we have the same difference, and a topic for funny Instagram reels.
We use numbers to count, like this article has 547 words. But in syntax, number is related to how we distinguish counts. For example, we can have 43 dogs and 1 crocodile. Dogs is plural in number, while crocodile is singular. Nouns, pronouns, and adjectives that express how many of something are grammatical numbers.
Diseases caused by parasitic infections are those that exist on or in other living things. But in syntax, a gap is a spot in a sentence that is considered “empty” because the words are not in the expected order. The following sentence has no gap:
Macy rejected the idea without even considering it.
This sentence does:
Which idea did Mary reject without even considering it?
In syntax, a gap doesn’t have to mean there’s nothing there. Instead, a word or phrase is out of place. And a parasitic gap needs an original gap.
I create a parasitic gap by leaving out “it.”
Which idea did Mary reject without even considering?
Parasitic gap is a complicated (and controversial!) syntactical concept best left for a separate post for a more detailed analysis.
A particle is a small piece of matter, as in a particle of dust, an atom, or a molecule. But in syntax, the word particle has two distinct meanings. The first is a word that cannot be changed. The verb “must” is a particle because it cannot be transformed—he might have dusted, but he didn’t musted. Here is another example:
He must, they must, yesterday they must, tomorrow they must.
The modern second definition is that a particle is a word or phrase that expresses the mood or context of the sentence. In the following sentence, “oh well” is a particle.
I’m having fun at the party, but oh well, I guess we have to go.
Oh well, doesn’t add meaning directly, but it does show the mood of the individual who doesn’t want to leave.
Compare that to this sentence:
I’m having fun at the party, but if you say so, I guess we have to go.”
We can scramble eggs, or our brains can be scrambled from this journey into syntaxical words. But in syntax, scrambling refers to moving words around in a sentence without changing the meaning. Languages like German can scramble words without changing the meaning of the phrase. In English, this does not happen. Find an example, and you have found the exception to the rule.
Other Everyday Words Used in the Study of Syntax
This is a list of commonly used words that mean something different in the field of syntax.