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Spanish For Beginners


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 coffee’.

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 to you’.

Finally, a verb phrase (‘VP’) consists typically of a verb together with any associated NPs (excluding the NP that supplies the verb’s 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 an NP:

[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 an AP:

(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 inútil:

[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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