What is Syntax?? Let’s Learn it more!

Syntax is the structure of individual sentences.[1] Syntax is how a group of words build a phrase and a sentence.[2] In other word, it can be said that syntax is about the rule of sentence construction. It is about how sentences are constructed by a group of words, a group of phrases, or may be clauses.[3]  Therefore, it can be define that syntax is the rule or principle that govern sentences, clause, or phrase structure.


a. Phrase

Phrase is a unit that is functional within the sentence.[4] It is formed by head word and modifier that group together. Therefore, it can be defined that phrase is a group of word that functional in the sentence and consist of head and its modifier. The head is the most important element within the phrase.[5] There are two reasons why the head becomes the most important word within the phrase. The first, the head becomes the important semantic meaning information. Second, the head within the phrase determines the meaning of the entire phrase.[6] In other word, the head controls the other word within the phrase that is called by modifier.

A head may have more than one modifier or may have no modifier.[7]

In other word, a phrase can be only grouped by a single head or a head with its modifier. It may have one or more than one modifier. The example bellow will make it clearly to be understood.

1)      Children like ice cream very much.

2)      A very bright sun flower was planted in the front of Tina’s house.

3)      He runs very fast.

4)      The girl played with her doll.

Based on the example above, one of the phrases is only formed by one head without modifier. The word of “children” in (1) has no modifier that gives more information who “children” is. In other hand, the phrases within the sentences (2,3, and 4) have one or more than one modifier. The phrase of a very bright sun flower is headed by sun flower. It is called by noun phrase because sun flower is a noun. The phrase of very fast in the sentence (3) has one head and one modifier. Fast is an adjective that becomes the head of the phrase. Therefore, it is called by adjective phrase.

1)      Kind of Phrase

a)      Noun Phrase

It has been stated above that phrase is formed by a group of word and its modifier. Within the phrase, the head word control the modifier and the modifier give more information about the head word. A noun phrase might have five phrase elements or might be just a head word.[8] Those phrase elements are head, complement, attribute, adjunct, and specifier.[9] Bellow is the example of the noun phrase:

(1)   Students ask the teacher about the final assignment.

(2)   The boy is singings on the stage.

(3)   The naughty boy was punished by his father.

(4)   The news on the death of the famous artist was available.

(5)   The tall man in black jacket was over there for a long time.

(6)   The handsome English teacher with mustache is sick.

               Based on the example above, the word “students” in (1) is only consists of one head without modifier. “The boy” in the sentence (2) is the noun phrase that consists of one head and specifier as the modifier. The naughty boy in the sentence (3) consists of specifier, attribute, and the head phrase. A noun usually takes certain phrase categories as the attribute.[10] In other word, a noun phrase is headed by a noun and it has an attribute as its modifier. Several categories of phrase attribute are adjective phrase and verb phrase. The example is “the blue sky” and “the singing bird”. “The blue sky” takes an adjective phrase as its attribute and “the singing bird” takes a verb phrase as its attribute.

The noun phrase in the example (4) consists of specifier, the head, and complement. A complement is a noun phrase that is selected by the head and it has a close relationship with the head.[11] The news on the death of the famous artist takes a preposition phrase that is headed by preposition on as its complement. Just like a transitive verb, the preposition on in the example (4) must have a noun phrase as the complement. The other example is inside the house. Inside is transitive and it has noun phrase “the house” as the complement.

Meanwhile, the example (6) consists of specifier, attribute, complement, the head, and adjunct. Different with complement, adjunct is the extra information of the head and it has no particular relationship with the head.[12] Adjunct gives additional information like appearance, location or manner in which some thing was done.[13] In other word, the adjunct has a function to give extra or more information about the head such as time, location, or manner.


b)      Adjective phrase

Adjective phrase is a phrase that has an adjective as the head      and it may only consist of single adjective or may consist of complete elements.[14] Like a noun phrase, an adjective phrase can also have a complement, attribute, and adjunct. The complement of the adjective phrase can be a preposition phrase, noun phrase, or to-infinitive verb. A complement is the element that is selected to complete the meaning of the head.[15]

In addition, a complement in adjective phrase has a close relationship with the head and it cannot be separated.[16] In other word, if the complement of the adjective phrase is separated, the sentence will be unacceptable. Bellow is the example of the adjective phrase using complement. The word in bold will show the adjective phrase.

(1)   Mr. John is angry with the students.

(2)   Jenny was very different from her mother.

(3)   John F Kennedy is ambitious to be a president.

Based on the examples above, (1) and (2) use preposition phrases as the complement of the adjective phrases. Meanwhile, (3) uses to-infinitive verb as the complements. Since the complement has a close relationship with the head, therefore it will be unacceptable if the complement separated from the head. It is shown in the example bellow.

(1)   *With the students, Mr. John is angry.

(2)   * From her mother, Jenny was very different.

(3)   *To be a president, John F Kennedy is ambitious.

The examples above show that if the complement of the phrase separated from the head, it will be unacceptable sentence.

In addition to complement, the adjective phrase can also take an attribute and adjunct. Just like the noun phrase above, the attribute shows characteristics of the head. Adjunct in other hand gives more specific information for the head. Bellow is the example of the adjective phrase using attribute and adjunct.

(1)   John was angry in the meeting.

(2)   His car is very expensive.

Based on the example above, angry in (1) has in the meeting as the adjunct. It gives more specific information about the head that is where he angry was. Besides, the word expensive in (b) gives characteristic for the head.


c)      Verb Phrase

Verb phrase is a phrase that has a verb as its head and it is categorized in to three classes, they are full, linking, and auxiliary verb.[17] Just like a noun phrase and adjective phrase, the verb phrase can be only a single verb or take some elements such as complement, attribute and adjunct.

A verb phrase usually takes a noun phrase, preposition phrase, and clause as the complement. Bellow is the example of the verb phrase with complement.

(1)   He drives a car.

(2)   Tom is waiting for his mother.

(3)   I believe that he will be able to pass the test.

In addition to complement, a verb phrase may also have an attribute in its structure.[18] Besides, a verb phrase may also have an adjunct that has a function to give information about the time, place, and manner of the action that verb expresses.[19] In other word, a verb phrase is not only consisting of a single verb or complement but it may also consist of attribute and adjunct. Bellow is the example.

(1)   He drives.

(2)   He drives a car.

(3)   Lucy usually read a book in the library.

Based on the example above, it shows that the verb phrase  may only consist of single verb like in (1), consist of a complement like in (2), or consist of attribute, complement, and adjunct.


b. Clause and Sentence

A clause is a group of word which minimum contains of verb and complement, but it may also contain of a single verb, its complement, and its adjunct.[20] An ideal clause may contain a phrase that refers to an action, refers to people that involves to the action or state, or may refers to time and place of the action.[21] It means that a clause minimum contains of one verb or predicate but it is not may only a verb. It may also contain a phrase or other clause that modify the verb its self.

Linguistics divides sentence into two central parts, they are the subject and the predicate.[22] In the clause, predicate has a function to express an event within the clause. The term of clause refers to sentence that become the fundamental element of other sentence or phrase.[23] In other word, a fundamental element of clause or sentence may coordinate with one or more than one fundamental element of sentence or clause to form a compound or complex sentence. Therefore, a simple sentence contains only one clause and a complex sentence contains at least two clauses.

A sentence is a statement, exclamation, or question that is formed by a group of words or phrases.[24] It has been stated above that a sentence that contains of one clause is known as simple sentence and complex sentence in the other hand contains of more than one sentence. Simple means that consisting of one sentence and complex in the other hand means that consisting of more than one clauses. Bellow is the example of the clause and sentence.

  1. Those men like potato chips.
  2. My friend though that I claimed that my sister likes potato chips.

Based on the example above, the simple sentence in (a) contains of one clause and it is known as independent sentence or clause. Simple sentence or clause is not attached to the other sentence or clause. That is why it is called by independent sentence or clause. The example (b) in other hand is called by complex sentence. It contains of more than one clause. The bold word in example above is called sub-coordinate conjunction. It is used to join together every single string of simple sentence.[25] The complex sentence above has one main clause and two (more than one) subordinate clauses. The term of main clause and subordinate clause indicate that the clauses do not have the same function within the sentence.[26] The subordinate clause is contained within the main clause. In other word, it is syntactically dependent on the main clause. Therefore, the subordinate clause is a part of the main clause.

[1] Raphael Salkie. Op.cit. p. ix

[2] Maggie Tallerman. Understanding Syntax: Second Edition. Hodder Education: London. 2005. p. 1

[3] Jim Miller. An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh. 2002. p. xii

[4] Mark Newson, et.al. Basic English Syntax with exercises. 2006. p.57

[5] Maggie Tallerman. Loc.cit. p.95

[6] Ibid

[7] Jim Miller. Loc.cit. p.1

[8] B.B Dwijatmiko. 2002. English Syntaxt. Sanata Dharma University Press: Yogyakarta. P.10

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Maggie Tallerman, Op.Cit. p.98

[12] Ibid, p.98

[13] Ibid

[14] BB. Dwijatmiko. Op.Cit. p. 22

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid, p.22

[17] Ibid. p.37

[18] Ibid. p 47

[19] Ibid

[20]Jim Miller, Op.Cit. p 6

[21] Ibid

[22] Maggie Tallerman, Op.cit. p.58

[23] Herman Wekker and Liliane Haegman. 2004. A Modern Course in English Syntax.Taylor and Francis e-Library. P. 29

[24] Emalia Iragiliati, et.al. Reading 2. Universitas Terbuka: Jakarta. 2007. p.1.1

[25] Maggie Tallerman. Op.cit. p.77

[26] Ibid