Why to syntax

Why to syntax

Haj Ross
Linguistics, University of North Texas
Centrum für Informations- und Sprachverarbeitung
Munich, Germany
Some poetics and some syntax papers are at:

“There are some enterprises in which
a careful disorderliness
is the true method.”
Herman Melville

This note begins with what Valerie Koontz, a student in our course on syntax, this Spring of 2000, wrote as a response to my charge to the students, which was to say, in a non-formal way, how they had intersected with, what they had learned from, syntax, what syntax had had to do with them. I will start with what Valerie wrote, because it so accurately describes the kind of interaction with the heart of syntax, which is what I hope I will be lucky enough to midwife in any of my syntactic encounters with anyone, whether that person is officially a student (whose definition is supposedly completely and most importantly given by the fact that I am put in a position of having to evaluate their performance in a course, or a degree program, etc., an absurdity which I will try not to foam further at the mouth about), or a colleague, or one of my teachers. In short, any fellow being.

Before I start, let me explain a cryptic phrase that comes up twice in what follows: shooting for the stars. I say that doing syntax is a bit like the opposite of writing a poem. It is a truism that one can tell a poet by the following ability: give a poet a poem, and they will make it into a better poem. Well, the way to tell a syntactician is: give them a sentence and they will make it worse. I call this “shooting for the stars,” because when a syntactician has taken a perfectly decent sentence (like Lee watched TV all night) and has twisted it into *TV was watched all night by Lee), by misapplying to it the most famous rule, or transformation, in syntax – PASSIVIZATION – the syntactician prefixes to the wrecked result the symbol * (a star), to announce its hopelessness. All syntacticians shoot for the stars, because when they manage to get one, they realize that they have hit a nerve – that there is something fundamentally important in the structuring of English, which they have managed to hit, to thwart. And then they work to find more stars, to discover what it is that makes this starred sentence connect with all the sentences of English into a systematic whole.

Needless to say, many times, my invisibly structured (not to say chaotic) “methods” of shooting for this kind of stars leave many of my fellow syntax-lovers dismayed, angry, confused, thinking that I am a flake, and that nothing is going on except a wasting of their time. And in all honesty, I think that there are far too many people who come through “my” classes badly bummed out. I had in fact learned that that was the case this semester in another class, and was discouraged, though I had felt that our syntaxing together had worked in general pretty well in the class of which Valerie was a member.

So when I read what follows, I was very happy, and I wrote to her what you will see after reading what she wrote to me.


Syntax – What Have You Learned and How Will You Use It

You proposed the question and this is one of many responses from one of many students who has progressed from feeling lost and confused to knowing a little and desiring to know a lot more.

The problem for me with this paper and with syntax was where to begin. With such a mammoth subject to conquer, I was a bit overwhelmed in the beginning. It seemed as if syntax was a bottomless pit or that infinite number of stacking turtles that you described on the first day. “Shooting for the stars” seemed like an impossible task that only true scholars would ever be able to accomplish. As the semester progressed, I soon came to realize that the true joy of syntax was finding those stars and analyzing those turtles.

That is what I find to be the most true – the joy and frustration of syntax is taking structures and sentences apart and figuring them out. By figuring them out, I mean discovering what they can and cannot do. This is true even if you do not know why they can or cannot do what they can or cannot do. The joy comes in being able to take a sentence through various transformations and discovering what the deep structure really was and being able to explain how it went from that deep structure to the surface structure we use in everyday conversation or literature. Another aspect of that joy is being free to express new ideas about how or why certain structures perform the way they do and discussing those thoughts with others who are equally interested in the topic. Along with that joy also comes a kind of frustration when you cannot explain why it does not follow a certain rule or does not undergo a transformation that seems completely logical. But the frustration is minimal and motivates you to continue digging and working towards a solution.

For me, this class taught so much more than syntax. Sure, we talked about transformations, parts of speech, valence, selection, thematic roles, sentence families, grammatical relations, centrality, recursion, coordination, complements, negative polarity items, etc, etc, etc. True, it gave excellent information on all of these things that are so vital to the world of syntax. However, at the same time, it challenged me to develop my own thoughts and ideas about the way syntax should or might work, instead of saying that there was only one way to “do” syntax. The plethora of knowledge and information that came from you and other students was insightful as well as challenging. It’s so nice to know that the world of linguistics can revolve around someone other than Chomsky and his followers.

Upon reflection, I really just want to say thank you to you for opening a new door and making a scary, frightening topic into one that is now fascinating and intriguing. Thank you for introducing books and authors as suggested reading to enlighten the mind and challenge the preexisting thoughts that seem so difficult to overcome. I can’t wait to spend some time this summer looking at Tajik and the way the rules and theories I’ve learned in this class apply to this particular language.

So the answer to your question is all of the above. This class does have applications and implications far beyond the doors of the Language Building at UNT and I will use what I learned to expand my research and help me gain a better understanding of language in this country and others.

Have a wonderful time in Germany and thanks again.


Valerie Koontz


Hi Valerie –

Just a quick note of thanks for your lovely thing, which I didn’t get a chance to read till I got over here to Munich. The kind of take you had on our time together star-shooting is just what I hope for whenever I start a class. I think that what you did with the time we had to learn together is exactly right. You have learned what it is like to walk around inside a syntactican’s head a little. You didn’t have to actually be a syntactician permanently – but I think you have come to see: syntax is a language. When we learn Gilyak or ASL, we do not do it so that we can sell more shoes to speakers of those languages, the popular “justification” for teaching Spanish, etc. We do it as cerebral calisthenics – so that our world becomes bigger, because we have found a new set of goggles which we know how to see the world through anew, if we should ever want to.

I have you to thank for coming to say this in this way. I have previously said that what one learns in linguistics courses is:

how to linguist

which is a helpful way for me to say what I hope people will learn in an introductory linguistics course. And I have even written about this, saying that chemistry is a language, and that history is, and that math is. But by talking about “the language of chemistry,” I do not mean to refer only to the symbols used in chemical formulas (like H2O), but rather to the way chemists view the world, and live in it, as members of the scientific community of chemists. I bet that two chemists look at substances and liquids and elements in ways that are very similar to one another, but are beyond imagining for us non-chemists.
But for some reason this way of understanding language in a deeply metaphorical sense had never sunk into my heart of linguistic hearts – I never tried to see syntax as a language too – the language that we syntacticians live (in).
So now I do think syntax is a language too, and the reason that we study it so that we can live in a bigger noetic universe. Not for any utilitarian purpose. We study it as musicians study the fugue, because if they do not know what is going on in a crab fugue (the one that goes backward), they will not be able to hear it, they will miss its intricate beauty. Similarly, it takes a lot of “work” to be able to “read” x-rays, to be able to hear that some far-out abstract jazzperson is playing a twelve-bar blues, even though the chords are pushed way outside the usual envelope. And it takes “work” to learn how to putt, to photograph, to knit, to cook, to be a parent, to teach. It is the same stretching and engrossing, like eating, sorta, which makes us bigger, because we have “gotten our minds around” a subject. Equivalently: we have gotten far into it.
How wild! It seems to me that what true learning consists of is

going beyond the usual polarity of inside/outside.

The goal of learning about something is to attain a state in which paradoxically, we are simultaneously inside that thing and ALSO wrapped around it! For when we have merged with it, we are “consubstantial” with it, to use (I hope not incorrectly) what I believe is Conor Cruse O’Brien’s word, which I think he means us to understand as being not only a term for art, but also for the true merging of spirit which is at the core of all re-lig-ion. (The root of this beautiful word is *lig, which is cognate with “league, ligament, link”). The idea is that when we are truly in the experience of living spirit we have reconnected, linked up again. But to understand this experience better, we must ask what the valence of connect is – that is, we have to ask what kinds of subjects and objects it “takes.”
If we look at a sentence like I connected the dots, we might mistakenly think that connect is a simple transitive verb. But connect is importantly different from run-of-the-mill transitives like lift, tickle, audit – these verbs have no requirement that their objects be plural. We can say either lift the stone, or lift the stones. Not so with connect: I connected the dots is fine, but not ?I connected the dot. The deeper way of seeing the valence of connect comes from a classic paper by George Lakoff and Stan Peters, “Phrasal conjunction and symmetric predicates,” in David Reibel and Sanford Schane, Modern Studies in English (1969: 113-142)]. They point out that connect is a symmetric predicate, like differ and collide. These last two verbs require deep plural subjects (The [papers / *paper] differed, The [trucks / *truck] collided). Lakoff and Peters postulate a transformational rule (CONJUNCT MOVEMENT) that can split up conjoined subjects to produce surface verbs which appear to have the valence of 2: A and B differ  A differs from B; A and B collided  A collided with B. But these plurality-requiring verbs are always logically symmetric: if A differs from, or collides with, B, then B differs from, and collides with, A.
This is not the case with normal valence-2 verbs; if A tickles B, or C dreams of D, there is no implication that B tickles A or that D dreams of C. The verb connect, like the verb contrast, can have their required plural arguments as subjects {when syntacticians put a * in front of a parenthesis, they mean that the parenthesized element is not optional: A*(B)C means ABC is good, but AC is bad. (Dot 1 *(and dot 2) can connect; Color 1 *(and color 2) will contrast), or as objects: I connected dot 1 *(and dot 2); The artist contrasted color 1 *(and color 2). The Lakoff-Peters analysis of symmetric predicates rests on a fundamental insight: while there are predicates which require certain arguments to be grammatically plural, there are no predicates which require arguments to be grammatically singular.
What does all of this have to do with seeing syntax as a language? To attempt an answer to this question will take me back to what it means to understand English, or German, or Portuguese, the three natural languages that I feel most at home in. My feeling is that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is correct – that any language centers around a way of thinking, a way that is unique for that language. But if this is correct, I must claim that translation is impossible.
I do make that claim but not as stupidly as you might think. Translation is possible, but only for language which is unconnected with deep feelings. Translating instructions for assembling a lawn chair is easily done – but the more poetic or metaphysical a source text is, the less translatable it is.
And then what of the language of syntax? Is it translatable? My belief is that it is not, especially for those syntacticians, like me, who view linguistic theories as works of art. I do not recommend this stance towards anyone’s theory of language – I wish I could be a dispassionate scientist. But I confess that I am far from this ideal, which is why I believe there was so much more heat than light in the linguistic wars, which were the subject of Randy Harris’s book by that name. Thus there is not one language of syntax – each thinker finds her or his own. When the assumptions which underlie your language of syntax are close to those of another scholar, some understanding is, or seems, possible.
But then what can teaching syntax be? Do I want the students who come to my class to learn only my flavor of the language of syntax? Of course not. I offer to them my language, as a sort of snapshot of a possible lens through which to observe language. If I am honest, I emphasize very clearly all the things that my own view fails to explain. My goal is for each student to understand my way of looking at things syntactically as one possible way of looking at language. But what I hope for them is that they will go beyond my language of syntax (my “dialect” of Syntaxese) to find their own way of looking at language, their own language of syntax, one which makes the most sense to them, and is the most beautiful to them.
Thus teaching syntax is like teaching guitar, or painting, or any form of art.

I realize that any such statement will sound like lunacy to anyone who believes in the necessity of objectivity in science. Unfortunately (as many would say), or fortunately, as I would say, my own experiences as a combatant in the linguistic wars has shaped my inability to see any clear lines between the following four great enterprises of the human spirit (in alphabetic order): art, philosophy, religion and science.

I believe, with Socrates, that my best efforts as a teacher should be maieutic, a word I learned from my great friend and teacher, Tim Hoye, a colleague in political science. My work should be kin to that of a midwife: I should help any student to look as deeply into themselves as possible, so that each can arrive at a way of thinking about language which strikes her or him as most deeply beautiful and true.

While I am getting close to explaining what I try to teach, I realize that I am still far off. I teach syntax, or poetics (“two” endeavors which I think should be seen as interpenetratingly one) not in the hope that any student will arrive at only theories of language, but instead theories of whatever field is deepest within them and truest of them. My own work, as a syntactician or as a poético, is only to serve as an example of something which whatever they may end up coming around to may look vaguely similar to.
At the end of the day, I am really only interested in helping anyone who comes to learn with me to arrive at the deepest and truest understanding of themselves.

So why to syntax? Because it is one way to a deeply felt beauty, and because it may start an itch in you the scratching of which may lead you to find something from way deep within you which will give you as much joy as syntax has given me.

Syntax is an art form which has resonated in my core – I try to show you the beauties I see in it so that you will seek to find or invent a form of art which lies as deeply within you.


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