Modern syntactic theory can be a very
technical affair. We shall try to keep things relatively
simple here, but some abstract analysis is unavoidable.
In particular it will be assumed that the words of a
sentence form natural groupings or phrases. This is
the basic insight behind what is known as phrase structure
grammar, which is a method of syntactic analysis that
has been popular for the last half century.
A phrase is classified according to the word that is
its principal item (normally called the head) and which
determines how the phrase functions in the containing
sentence. Thus a noun phrase (NP for short),
for example, can be defined as a noun together with
any adjacent determiners, adjectives or prepositional
phrases, as in el chico the boy, mi casa
my house, el vestido azul the blue
dress, un café con leche a white
In the same spirit, a prepositional phrase (PP
for short) normally comprises a preposition and a following
noun or NP (or some item functioning as such); e.g.
con leche in un café con leche a white
coffee or de tu padre in Hablaron de tu padre
They spoke about your father.
An adjectival phrase (AP) is made up of
an adjective and any adjacent adverbs or PPs; e.g. sumamente
inepto exceedingly inept, igual a ti identical
Finally, a verb phrase (VP) consists typically
of a verb together with any associated NPs (excluding
the NP that supplies the verbs subject), PPs or
adverbs. For example, the VP in sentence (1) below is
bebió el vino (verb + NP), while in (2) it is
comió el huevo con un tenedor (verb + NP + PP):
(1) El chico bebió el vino.
The boy drank the wine.
(2) El chico comió el huevo con un tenedor.
The boy ate the egg with a fork.
There are other phrasal categories, but NPs, PPs, APs
and VPs are the ones that will be mentioned most frequently
in this book.
Now that we have rough definitions of some of the main
phrasal categories, a few illustrations can be given
of how to analyse sentences. In doing this, a common
notational technique will be used that involves enclosing
the constituents of a sentence between labelled brackets.
For example, sentence (1) can be analysed, at one level,
in the following way:
[NP El chico] [VP bebió el vino]
The verb phrase bebió el vino can in turn be
split up into a verb (denoted by V) and
[V bebió] [NP el vino]
Finally, the NP el chico can be analysed into a determiner
(denoted by D) and a noun (denoted by N)
[D el] [N chico]
To take another example, sentence (2) can be analysed
first into the NP El chico and the VP comió el
huevo con un tenedor:
[NP El chico] [VP comió el huevo con un tenedor]
The VP comió el huevo con un tenedor can then
be split up into a verb, an NP and a PP:
[V comió] [NP el huevo] [PP con un tenedor]
The PP con un tenedor can in turn by analysed into
the preposition con and the NP un tenedor:
[P con] [NP un tenedor]
Finally, as before, the NPs break down into a determiner
and a noun:
[D el] [N huevo]
[D un] [N tenedor]
Our third and final example illustrates the use of
(3) Este destornillador es completamente inútil.
This screwdriver is completely useless.
The sentence above splits up, in the first place, into
the NP este destornillador and the VP es completamente
[NP Este destornillador] [VP es completamente inútil]
The NP obviously has the structure [D este] [N destornillador],
while the structure of the VP is as follows:
[V es] [AP completamente inútil]
The AP completamente inútil can itself be broken
up into the adverb completamente and the adjective inútil:
[ADVB completamente] [A inútil]
Words Used as Phrases
As the preceding remarks suggest, the concept of a
phrase is crucial to syntactic analysis. In normal usage,
the term phrase refers to a sequence of
two or more words. But in the technical sense in which
it is used in modern syntax, phrase can
also be applied to a single word if it has the function
of a phrase in a sentence. For example, the noun casas
houses in (4) below has an identical role
in its sentence to the full NP muchas casa in (5). Accordingly,
though casas is a single word, in sentence (4) it counts
as an NP for the purpose of syntactic analysis.
(4) Compraron [NP casas].
They bought houses.
(5) Compraron [NP muchas casas].
They bought many houses.
Similarly, a proper name such as Pedro or Madrid, always
has the same status as a full NP. For instance, Madrid
can appear wherever the full NP la capital de España
the capital of Spain can appear; two examples
are given below:
(6) [NP Madrid/La capital de España] tiene 5
millones de habitantes.
Madrid/The capital of Spain has 5 million inhabitants.
(7) Me gusta ir a [NP Madrid/la capital de España].
I like going to Madrid/the capital of Spain.
Finally it is worth noting that a pronoun can have
phrasal status also. Thus él he in
(8) below functions as the subject NP of the verb vive:
(8) [NP Él] [VP vive muy bien].
He lives very well.
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