Constituency Tests in Syntax (Linguistics)
Before jumping to naming all the Constituency Tests in Syntax – let us first quickly and briefly understand what exactly do we mean by the term “syntactic constituents”. The thing is words do not just occur as isolated entities in a sentence. Instead, they form groups on the basis of their relationship with other words in the sentence. This means, two or more words in a sentence can behave and function as one single unit. This is to say that certain words bear higher affinity to some other words in a sentence as compared to the rest. In other words, some words are closer to each other than other words in a sentence. A group of such closely related words together forms a syntactic constituent.
There can be many syntactic constituents in a sentence. One or more syntactic constituents again form larger syntactic constituents. In this way, the whole of the sentence itself is the largest syntactic constituent. Don’t worry if you didn’t understand this part. Continue to read and you will understand exactly what I meant here.
Nothing better than understanding with examples, right? So let us take an example sentence to understand constituency in syntax:
“The cat slept quickly.”
Carefully look at the above sentence (and not just the picture!). It is a very simple sentence, right? Anyway, you’ll notice that the words the and cat are closer to each other and kind of form a unit than, for instance, the words the and quickly. By closeness, we don’t just refer to their spacial proximity. the is related to cat rather than slept or quickly for it tells that the noun (cat) is a definite one (The articles mark definiteness of nouns in English). The words the and cat form one syntactic constituent (in this case, a Noun Phrase or NP constituent).
Similarly, the words slept and quickly form another syntactic constituent in this sentence because quickly is an adverb that modifies the verb (slept). The words cat and slept, however, do not form a syntactic constituent. Smaller constituents form larger constituents, and larger constituents form even larger constituents. Sentence is the largest constituent, occurring at the top of the hierarchy, in this way.
Knowing syntactic constituents is an important “starting point” of doing syntactical analysis in Linguistics, especially in the phrase structure grammars and also to some extent in dependency grammars. Only after that we can understand more complex syntactic relationships like c-command, precedence, dominance, etc.
Interestingly, it may happen that a concept which is represented as separate word in one language might actually just be an inflectional affix in another language. In such cases, it is predictably more meaningful and logical to club such words together.
Constituency Tests in Syntax
Although, we have a slight intuition about which group of words should form one syntactic unit, we need some rather concrete tests for syntactic constituents to reduce errors of judgement. Nothing is fool-proof, however, and even constituency tests can give wrong and ambiguous results. It is, thus, advisable to use more than one constituency test for a particular case. I will now list all the Constituency Tests in Syntax:
Movement Constituency Test (or Topicalization):
One of the simplest Constituency Tests in Syntax is Movement. Also knowns as Topicalization. According to this constituency test, two or more words form a syntactic constituent – if they can be moved together as one single unit to another position in the same sentence. This position is generally towards the front of the sentence. Hence, it is also referred to as Fronting in some textbooks.
- The man sat on the chair.
On the chair, the boy sat.
On the chair can be moved from the end of the sentence to the front without making the sentence ungrammatical. Hence, On the chair forms one constituent. Similarly, we can see some more syntactic constituents examples by applying this movement constituency test to the following sentences:
- They gave him brown biscuits.
Brown biscuits, they gave him.
- She went to the market.
To the market, she went.
We generally move the syntactic constituents in front of the sentence, which is why this constituency test is also known as “fronting”. Constituency tests- Topicalization or Movement can be used best for testing noun phrase constituency.
Proform Substitution Test (or Replacement Constituency Test)
This is one of the most reliable Constituency Tests in Syntax. According to this constituency test, two or more words form a syntactic constituent if they can be replaced by one word. This word is generally taken to be a pronoun. Proform Substitution is also known as Replacement Constituency Test in linguistics.
For example, in the following sentence:
- The black cat slept quickly.
The black cat can be substituted by a pronoun like “it”.
- It slept quickly.
Similarly, we can replace different constituents with different types of pronouns in the following sentences:
- The man sat on the big chair
The man sat there. (there replaces the constituent the big chair)
or He sat there. (The pronoun he replaces the man)
This works for constituents with embedded relative clauses also. For example, in the following sentence:
- The girls who study in school went to the market.
They went to the market.
The trick to use this constituency test is that the meaning of the original sentence must be retained as much as possible.
Clefting & Pseudo-Clefting Constituency Tests in Syntax
Most students of syntax get confused between the Clefting and the Pseudo-clefting Constituency Tests in Syntax. Let us take them one at a time.
Clefting changes the original structure of the sentence into an expletive construction making use of expletives like “it” and “there” and puts emphasis on one particular group of words. Hence, for a sentence like the following:
- She bought a basketball from the shop.
It was a basketball that she bought from the shop.
Notice that we cannot do the clefting of the sentence in the following way:
*It was basketball that she bought a from the shop.
Hence, a and basketball have to occur together in the clefted sentence. They form a constituent.
The same sentence can also be clefted in the following way, which is grammatical and acceptable:
- It was from the shop she bought a basketball.
Hence, we can say that from the shop forms another constituent (Prepositional Phrase or PP) in the sentence.
Pseudo-Clefting is similar to Clefting, in that we change the sentence structure in a way that we put emphasis on a particular group for words. But, unlike Clefting, we don’t use expletives in this case.
We use wh-words, like who and what. Let us understand this by pseudo-clefting our test sentence from the above example on clefting:
- She bought a basketball from the shop.
a basketball is what she bought from the shop.
from the shop is where she bought a basketball.
Let us see one more example to gain clarity:
- Ram gave the chocolate in the box to Sita.
Sita is whom/who Ram gave the chocolate in the box to.
the chocolate in the box is what Ram gave Sita to.
Notice that the two pseudo-clefted sentences in both the examples differ in the placement of emphasis. What is emphasised always comes to the front. If hope after reading this section, you will be able to differentiate well between Clefting and Pseudo-Clefting Constituency Tests in Syntax. However, if you need more examples, do write in the comments section below.
Ellipses Constituency Test (or Answer Fragment)
If a group of words of a sentence can stand alone as an answer to a question constructed from the sentence itself, then they form a syntactic constituent. Answer Ellipses constituency test is also known as stand alone test.
Let us take the following sentences as example:
- Rahul went to the market.
Where did Rahul go?
Answer: to the market.
- He ate two red apples.
What did he eat?
Answer: two red apples.
Passivization Constituency Test
When we make an active sentence into passive in English, we move the object of the verb to the subject position. The group of moved words after passivization can be treated as a single constituent.
- Walt made fish curry for dinner.
Fish curry was made by Walt for dinner.
fish curry is the object of the verb (made). Since, we can move it to the subject position, it forms a syntactic constituent.
Omission Constituency Test (or Deletion)
If a word or group of words can be omitted or deleted together in a sentence, without making it ungrammatical, they form a syntactic constituent. For example, in the following sentence:
- Kate is going to school in the morning with Sarah.
We have an NP constituent <Kate>, and three PP constituents <in the morning>, <with Sarah>, and <to school> . If we delete one or more of them, we get sentences like the following:
Kate is going to school with Sarah.
Kate is going to lunch in the morning.
However, the following sentences are bad constructions in English:
- Kate is going to in the morning with Sarah.
Kate is going to lunch in the morning Sarah.
Hence, <in the morning>, <with Sarah>, and <to school> form separate constituents in this sentence. If we are delete them, we have to do that together as a unit. We cannot just delete, say, <in> of in the morning from the sentence as it will generate ungrammaticality.
Coordination Constituency Test
If two or more words can be coordinated or conjoined together, they form one syntactic constituent. We can use “and” to conjoin the constituents.
- Sita loves chocolates and black coffee.
chocolates and black coffee are constituents.
However, chocolates cannot be conjoined with just black.
*Sita loves chocolates and black.
chocolates and black are, thus, not constituents of the same category.
Parenthetical Insertion Constituency Test
Parenthetical Insertion is the least considered Constituency Tests in Syntax. But this post will be incomplete without an explanation of this test. According to this test, We can break a sentence only at certain positions by inserting words like “hopefully”, “luckily”, “frankly”. This break determines the border of constituents. For example,
- The tall man is the first winner.
The tall man, luckily, is the first winner.
We cannot, however, add “luckily” like this:
*The tall, luckily, man is the first winner.
Hence, the tall man forms one syntactic constituent.
Note: As I already mentioned before, it is important to remember that in certain cases, one or more of these listed Constituency Tests in Syntax fail too. This is generally a rare occurrence, but not impossible. Hence, to be totally sure of the results, it is a good idea to test your constituents with more than one of these given Constituency Tests in Syntax.
I have tried to bring in as many examples as I could. However, if you wish to see how these constituency tests work on a sentence of your choice, let me know in the comments section below.
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