Syntax sentences and sentence combining
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Mary was given a mink coat by John. A mink coat was given to Mary by John. Imperative: Give Mary a mink coat! ... Contrastive Stress: John gave Mary a mink coat. 42. 14. SPECIAL ...

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SYNTAX(Sentences and Sentence Combining)

by Don L. F. Nilsen

and Alleen Pace Nilsen


Resolution of Ambiguities:Punctuation in Writing; Pausing & Intonation in Speech

  • The Czarina of Russia saw a note on the desk of Alexander III that read:

  • Pardon impossible; to be sent to Siberia. She changed it to read:

  • Pardon; impossible to be sent to Siberia!

    (Smith & Wilhelm 131)


Commas (Pauses) to Resolve Ambiguity

  • Woman! Without her, man is nothing.

  • Woman without her man is nothing.

  • Beth, thinks her employer, is attractive.

  • Beth thinks her employer is attractive.

  • Mr. Smith, the superintendent came in.

  • Mr. Smith, the superintendent, came in.

    (Smith & Wilhelm 131-132)


Quotation Marks, Hyphens, and Periods to Resolve Ambiguities

  • Brad, called Miles, Come here!

  • Brad called, Miles, come here!

  • The tight-rope walker almost fell.

  • The tight rope-walker almost fell.

  • No man can be happy.

  • No. Man can be happy.

    (Smith & Wilhelm 132)



  • Between you and I.

  • I didnt know whom was going to be there.

  • In one episode of Seinfeld, George decides that the way for him to succeed with womenis to decide what to do and then do the opposite.

    (Smith & Wilhelm 133)


Smith & WilhelmsImportant Syntactic Concepts


Sentence Combining:Explain the parallelism.

  • The purpose of school is to help students mature, to prepare them for work and life, and to teach them to be democratic citizens.

  • In the cross-country race, Fiona ran into the woods, through the ditch, around a pile of wood chips, in between two lakes, across a river, up the hill, down the valley, and into the finish chute, where she received her award.

    (Smith & Wilhelm 42)


Sentence Combining:Explain the parallelism.

  • Stealing the ball, feeding passes to her teammates, grabbing loose balls and rebounds, and shooting the clutch three-pointer, Sarah Palin led her team to victory!

  • He stirs, beats, and pours the batter into a perfect silver-dollar pancake!

  • Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, stronger than gravityits a bird, its a plane, its Superman!

    (Smith & Wilhelm 43)


Sentence Combining

  • He likes tennis. He likes baseball. He likes Johnny Cash. (Are the combined terms parallel?)

  • Combine two sentences with: and, but, therefore, however, and nevertheless.

    (Smith & Wilhelm 40-41)



  • John swims well. (Subject, Predicate, Adverb)

  • John saw Mary. (Subject, Predicate, Direct Object)

  • Obama became President. (Subject, Predicate, Subject-Complement)

  • John gave Mary a mink coat. (Subject, Predicate, Indirect Object, Direct Object)

  • The country elected Obama President. (Subject, Predicate, Direct Object, Object Complement)



  • John gave Mary a mink coat.

  • Question:

  • Did John give Mary a mink coat?

  • Negative:

  • John didnt give Mary a mink coat.

  • Negative Question:

  • Didnt John give Mary a mink coat?

  • Information Question:

  • Who gave Mary a mink coat?

  • Tag Question:

  • John gave Mary a mink coat, didnt he?


Whos on First?


John gave Mary a mink coat.

  • Passive:

  • Mary was given a mink coat by John. A mink coat was given to Mary by John.

  • Imperative:

  • Give Mary a mink coat!

  • Negative Imperative:

  • Dont give Mary a mink coat!

  • Contrastive Stress:

  • John gave Mary a mink coat.



  • Whiz Deletion: I met the girl (who was) doing the dishes.

  • Extraposition: For John to be nice is very difficult It is very difficult for John to be nice.

  • Expletive: Thirty-seven students are in the room There are thirty-seven students in the room.



  • Relative Clause as Substantive:

  • He didnt know who had the bicycle.

  • Relative Clause as Modifier:

  • Bill is the boy who has the bicycle.



  • Present-Participle as Substantive:

  • The young girls watching the children surprised everybody.

  • Present-Participle as Modifier:

  • I met the girl (who was) watching the children.



  • Infinitive as Substantive:

  • For John to be nice is very hard.

  • Infinitive as Modifier:

  • John came (in order) to be nice.



  • That-Clause as Substantive:

  • That John didnt get angry was a miracle.

  • That-Clause as Modifier:

  • I was surprised that John didnt get angry.



  • Possible only when information is recoverable from linguistic context (antecedant) or social context:

  • John wanted Bill to buy the drinks.



  • Lexical Categories:

  • Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb

  • Grammatical Categories

  • Preposition, Conjunction, Auxiliary, Expletive

  • Pro-Form

  • Relative Pronoun, Interrogative Pronoun, Personal Pronoun, Indefinite Pronoun



  • A Noun can function as a Subject, Subject-Complement, Direct-Object, Indirect-Object, Object-Complement

  • A Verb can function as a Predicate

  • A Verbal can function as a Modifier

  • An Adjective and an Adverb can function as a Modifier



  • Can refer to things in the real world

  • Can be stressed

  • Cannot be guessed in a Cloze Test

  • Can be inflected

  • Can enter into compounds



  • Look at the following English sentences:

  • John is doing his homework.

  • a. Is John doing his homework?

  • b. John isnt doing his homework.

  • c. John is doing his homework.

  • Notice that in each case something is happening to the auxiliary verb. In sentence a, which is a question, the subject and auxiliary are inverted. In sentence b, which is a negative, nt is attached to the auxiliary. And in sentence c, which is stressed, the auxiliary is emphasized.


  • English has two regular auxiliary verbs:

  • have (coming from perfect and passive constructions)

  • be (coming from progressive constructions)

  • When an English sentences has no auxiliary verb, we need to provide one to form questions, negatives, or stressed auxiliary.

  • Do serves this function.


  • From the sentence Michael read the book. we get:

  • Did Michael read the book.

  • Michael didnt read the book.

  • Michael did read the book.



  • Smoking grass can be nauseating.

  • Dick finally decided on the boat.

  • The professors appointment was shocking.

  • The design has big squares and circles.


  • That sheepdog is too hairy to eat.

  • Could this be the invisible mans hair tonic?

  • The governor is a dirty street fighter.

  • I cannot recommend him too highly.

  • Terry loves his wife and so do I.

  • They said she would go yesterday.

  • No smoking section available

  • (Fromkin Rodman Hyams 164)



  • Sentences consist of Subjects and Predicates.

  • The Subject is what we are talking about, and the Predicate is what we say about it.

  • Therefore the Subject contains old information (so speakers will have something to talk about), and the Predicate contains new information (so speakers will be able to say something new).


  • Any transformation that moves a constituent up into the Subject or Topic position is called a Topicalization Transformation.

  • Any transformation that moves a constituent down into the Predicate position is called a Focusing Transformation.


  • The Passive Transformation is both a Topicalization Transformation and a Focusing Transformation.

  • John saw the girl

  • The girl was seen by John

  • The girl has undergone a Topicalization Transformation, and John has undergone a Focusing Transformation.

  • Note that this has not affected the truth value. John saw the girl is true if and only if The girl was seen by John.


  • Notice that in a normal sentence the strongest stress is on the last word. Because this is part of the predicate or new information, it is important enough to be stressed.

  • But rather than moving the word to the end of the sentence where it would be stressed, we can move the stress (by voice or underlining) up to earlier words in the sentence.

  • John saw ten girls on bicycles.

  • John saw ten girls on bicycles.

  • John saw ten girls on bicycles.

  • John saw ten girls on bicycles.

  • John saw ten girls on bicycles.



  • This is the house that Jack built.

  • This is the malt that lie in the house that Jack built.

  • STUDENTS: Using embedded relative clauses expand this sentence. Notice that this expansion could go on until you run out of breath, run out of daylight, or die.

  • The same is true of adding very as a modifier.


  • Other examples of infinitely recursive sentences are On the tenth day of Christmas, and The Farmer in the Dell, even though these examples do end.

  • The Farmer in the Dell example ends with The cheese stands alone.

  • This is the basis for Robert Cormiers novel, I Am the Cheese, which is about the Farmer family that is in the witness protection program and has no friends.

  • As Kurt Vonnegut would say, And so it goes (NOTE: No Final Period)



  • Grammars must be able to parse nonsense sentences.

  • Otherwise they must conclude that nonsense sentences dont have any meaning.

  • Since all nonsense sentences have the same meaning, zero, then they all mean the same thing.

  • However, the following sentences do not mean the same thing:


  • *I never saw a horse smoke a dozen oranges. (Martin Jooss example)

  • *Enormous crickets in pink socks danced at the prom.

  • *A verb crumpled the milk.

  • *Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. (Noam Chomskys example).

  • (Fromkin Rodman Hyams 120)


  • Such sentences mean very different things and have very different functions in the English language.

  • For example only *Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is a grammatically well formed sentence, although all of the sentences demonstrate incompatibilities of certain words with other words in the same sentence.


  • The asterisk in front of *Colorless green ideas sleep furiously means that the grammar doesnt generate this sentence. It should not occur in English.

  • Ironically, this non-occurring sentence is the sentence most likely to occur in many linguistics classrooms.

  • Furthermore, its very poetic.



  • You may have been told that a word gets its meaning from its linguistic context.

  • This is both true and not true. Words out of context tend to be very ambiguous.

  • What the linguistic context does is to disambiguate a word. Social and cultural contexts do the same thing.


  • As an example, consider the word ball. The fact that this word is written rather than spoken already disallows another word that sounds the same bawl meaning to cry loudly.

  • If we add a the (more linguistic context) we know the word is a noun and not the verb ball meaning to roll paper or mud into a ball


  • As we add more linguistic context we make the word less and less ambiguous, so that the beach ball is different from the basketball or the harvest ball which is a dance.

  • In the case of Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, weve disambiguated the meanings down to zero, because of feature incompatibilities.

  • Something colorless cant be green. Abstract things like ideas cant be any color, and cant sleep. Sleeping is usually not done furiously, etc.


  • Like Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did Gire and gimble in the wabe is also syntactically well formed but semantically anomalous.

  • In the Colorless green example the words are incompatible; however in the Twas brillig example the content words dont even exist.

  • The function words it, was and did, and in exist, but the content words brillig, slithy toves, gyre, gimble and wabe are not English words, and therefore their compatibility with each other is a moot point.

  • (Fromkin Rodman Hyams 121)



  • People who used to read the Tom Swift novels invented a new type of joke:

  • My name is Tom, he said Swiftly.

  • This pattern is extended to:

  • Id like my egg boiled, she whispered softly.


  • !!

  • Get to the back of the boat! he shouted sternly.

  • Would you like another pancake? she asked flippantly.

  • She works in the mines, he roared ironically.

  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 176)


!!!The Whitest Kids Grammar Lesson



References # 1:

Chomsky, Noam. Degrees of Grammaticalness. Fuzzy Grammar: A Reader, Eds. Bas Aarts, et. al., New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004, 321-325.

Clark, Virginia, Paul Eschholz, and Alfred Rosa. Language: Readings in Language and Culture, 6th Edition. New York, NY: St. Martins Press, 1998.

Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. Syntax: The Sentence Patterns of Language. An Introduction to Language, 8th Edition. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007, 115-172.

Heny, Frank. Syntax: The Structure of Sentences (Clark 189-224).


References # 2:

Langacker, Ronald W. Siscreteness. Fuzzy Grammar: A Reader, Eds. Bas Aarts, et. al., New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004, 131-137.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

Truss, Lynne. Eats(,) Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation!. Aukland, New Zealand: Gotham Books, 2004.

Smith, Michael W., and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm. Getting It Right: Fresh Approaches to Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Correctness. New York, NY: Scholastic, 2007.


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