This chapter provides an introduction to syntactic structure, and to how words are combined together to form phrases and sentences. We shall see that phrases and sentences are built up by a series of Merge operations, each of which combines a pair of constituents together to form a larger constituent. We look at how the resulting structure can be represented in terms of a tree diagram. We also examine some of the principles which underlie sentence formation and explore ways of testing the structure of phrases and sentences.
To put our discussion on a concrete footing, let's consider how an elementary two-word phrase such as the italicised response produced by speaker B in the following mini-dialogue is formed:
SPEAKER A: What are you trying to do?
SPEAKER B: Help you
As speaker B's utterance illustrates, the simplest way of forming a phrase is by merging (a technical term meaning ‘combining’) two words together: for example, by merging the word help with the pronoun you in (1), we form the phrase help you. The resulting phrase help you has verb-like rather than pronoun-like properties, as we see from the observation that it can occupy the same range of positions as the simple verb help, and hence, for example, occur after the infinitive particle to: cf.
(2)(a) We are trying to help
(b) We are trying to help you
By contrast, the phrase help you cannot occupy the same kind of position as a pronoun such as you, as we see from (3) below:
(3)(a) You are very difficult(b) *Help you are very difficult
So it seems clear that the grammatical properties of a phrase like help you are determined by the verb help, and not by the pronoun you. Much the same can be said about the semantic properties of the expression, since the phrase help you describes an act of help, not a kind of person.