Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Syntactic Hierarchy

I’ve mentioned syntactic hierarchy in previous posts and in several papers I’ve written and received some inquiries on the subject.  First, let me point out that I’m a linguist and as such sometimes get a bit technical in my discussions of English.  It’s a curse of being part of a technical/academic field – if you don’t use enough technical language (that is, the language of your chosen field) then your peers and colleagues won’t give your work due credence, however if you uselanguage that is too technical you run the risk of alienating or confusing lay readers.  Because this blog is essentially a mix between language education and linguistics, it leaves me often walking a fine line.  Sometimes technical terms are necessary, and in discussing this topic – syntactic hierarchy, it’s one of those times.  That said, I will do my best to explain this (honestly very simple concept) in the least technical terms possible…


Syntactic Hierarchy

First, this article on Wikipedia: has nothing to do with syntactic hierarchy.  I’m honestly not sure what the author’s point is with the wiki entry as it seems to be little more than a cluster of terminology and references to the concept of syntax in general.  Google tossed out a few more hits for syntactic hierarchy, but most are simply reprints of the Wikipedia article or a collage of syntax and hierarchy.  There are a few other references to syntactic hierarchy on the web, but these mainly attempt to define a classification of linguistic concepts from most to least important, or in terms of grammar as lexical units as pertain to other lexical units within an utterance.  These are primarily limited to adjectives modifying nouns or adverbs modifying verbs.  Basically, someone out there has had the right idea but hasn’t quite fully grasped the concept.  From what I can tell, at least within the terms defined herein, and especially within the realm of English linguistics, the term ‘Syntactic Hierarchy’ is of my own coining.  It seems such a logical concept that I myself (and many of my students) have been using for years.  I haven’t found an equivalent named concept, and as I believe in the KISS (‘keep it short and sweet’ or ‘keep it simple, stupid!’) principle, and as this concept is one of a governing hierarchy of syntactic units, I am sticking with Syntactic Hierarchy.  I hope before long that others will choose to use this term and to incorporate awareness of syntactic hierarchy into their study of English and their methods of teaching the language.


Syntax is one of those rather more unfriendly sounding linguistic concepts, but luckily its definition is nowhere near as harsh as its name may imply.  Syntax and semantics are probably the two most important concepts for understanding language.  Semantics is the overall name given to the concept of meaning – meaning of a word, meaning or a phrase, or the meaning of an entire sentence or paragraph (you may note that linguists generally use the term utterance instead of sentence, because sometimes the information being discussed is a whole sentence, but other times only a clause, or a phrase).  Whereas semantics deals with the meaning of an utterance, syntax deals with the structures of the utterance used to express that meaning.  Syntax is the overall category given for things like nouns, verbs, subjects, objects, prepositions, etc.  Syntax is basically the architecture of language.  Or, semantics is the information conveyed, and syntax is the method for conveying it.  Syntactic is the adjective form of the noun syntax – thus the syntactic in syntactic hierarchy refers to structural hierarchy.

Word Order & Hierarchy

Within languages which use set (or fairly set — in this usage meaning rigid) word order to define the role of various items within the utterance, the older systems of declensions and case have been replaced or at least heavily augmented by a system which utilizes relative position to convey meaning and role within the utterance.  Now, there is more than enough information widely available describing the various word orders and implications and usage of each.  Thus, these will not be discussed here.  However, I shall point out again that English has four basic word orders and a few variations on these (see TAMPA articles for a more thorough treatment).   The normal role of these word orders is in determining which components of an utterance are nominative (subjects), predicative (verbs), accusative (direct objects and objects of prepositions), dative (indirect objects), or genitive (possessives).  This is the general treatment of word order when discussing language.

There is however another layer of word order which caries meaning in most languages and which has its own set rules.  That layer deals with the relative position of one component of an utterance to other components, especially the ones directly adjacent.  To put it simply this word order is what determines what one word’s role is in regard to the next or previous word in an utterance (word x modifies word y but word y does not modify word x, etc).  This layer of information is called syntactic hierarchy.  English has a left-to-right syntactic hierarchy.  This means that within a given functional group (say a phrase or clause, or even the utterance as a whole), items to the right will always modify items to the left.  So, ‘The big red dog’ has a hierarchy in which ‘the’ modifies ‘big red dog’ while ‘big’ only modifies ‘red dog’ and is itself modified by ‘the’; ‘big’ can never modify ‘the’ and if ‘big’ is passed by by ‘the’ then the information of ‘which red dog?’ is lost.

This left-to-right syntactic hierarchy is especially important to be aware of when analyzing for things like mood in which one modal may modify another and another and another.  For more on this, check out the articles here on structure of modals.



January 6, 2011 - Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , ,


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