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Introduction to syntax


This course will be an introduction to the scientific study of natural language syntax starting from first principles. What is syntax, and how should we approach it empirically and analytically? We will then look at the fundamental properties of natural language syntax that any theory must be built around — linear order, hierarchical structure, discrete infinity  — and see how they are related to each other (think constituency and recursion).


This will lead us to consider some basic formal tools that we can use to describe syntactic structures (think phrase-structure rules and Merge). We will then explore restrictions on the co-occurrence of certain elements within syntactic structures. How can we characterize these restrictions (think selection and features)? Next we will turn to cases where we have apparent dependencies between elements which are not particularly close to each other in the structure. How can we account for such ‘displacement’ and ‘agreement’ facts? Do we relax (aspects of) the co-occurrence restrictions or do we allow operations to modify syntactic structures after the restrictions have been met (think Agree, Move and feature inheritance/percolation)? We will then see that, in spite of apparent displacement and agreement, syntactic relationships are heavily restricted in terms of how much structure they can involve. What kind of formal devices could we use to model such constraints (think relativized minimality and phases)? Once we’ve put together a basic toolbox for syntactic analysis in this way, we will look at a few examples of complex syntactic phenomena and see how we can use our toolbox to construct accounts for them.

No background knowledge in syntactic theory will be assumed. What we build towards in the course will not look exactly like any specific contemporary theory or framework (though it will mostly closely resemble some form of Minimalism), but it should prepare us to understand and critically evaluate most of what is out there.