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  Syntactic theory, in linguistics, deals with the constraints which govern how words are put together to create grammatical sentences. Of paramount importance has been the influence of Noam Chomsky, whose writings since the 1950s have reinvigorated and revolutionized the previously neglected topic of syntax. Chomsky stressed the need for syntactic theory to describe the systematic knowledge of grammar every native speaker has about their language. Every normal speaker knows many thousands of words plus a number of syntactic principles (or rules), which enable an explicit judgement to be made about the grammaticality of a given string of words. Modern syntactic theory is not, therefore, confined to writing rule systems for generating correct sentences. There is also a keen interest in what makes certain sentences ungrammatical, since a unique insight is gained into the bounds of possibility for natural human languages.

The data which a linguist works with are sentences, which naturally originate in the mind of a speaker/writer. However, people\'s speech is often syntactically fragmented and ill-formed, owing to such deviations as false starts, slips of the tongue and hesitations. The vagaries of language production, though, are not the concern of the syntactician. Therefore, Chomsky distinguished between competence (the system of grammatical knowledge in someone\'s head) and performance (the use of the language system on a particular occasion). The terms competence and performance enjoy wide currency, being inspired by the structuralist terms langue and parole, although Chomsky has recently modified and rechristened them I-language and E-language, respectively. For Chomsky, syntactic theory should describe native-speaker competence, which means revealing the state of language knowledge in the brain. Not all linguists share Chomsky\'s urgency to relate their analyses of words and sentences to matters of psychology and cognition. However, most linguists do acknowledge the importance of describing the pure, underlying qualities of the syntactic system, which are captured by the concept of competence.

Despite their great diversity, all theories of syntax deal with a common set of basic phenomena (see theories of grammar). At a basic level, an adequate theory must account for the constituent structure of a sentence, which provides an analysis of a sentence into its constituent parts (noun, verb, adjective and so on). A so-called distributional analysis reveals the patterns which particular constituents form within sentences. However, all syntactic theories agree that basic constituent structure analyses are very limited, since nothing is said about the systematic links between sentences of related types, including active and passive, declarative and interrogative and so on (see transformational grammar for one approach to this problem). A further major problem is subcategorization, which reveals how particular subclasses of words are strictly confined to certain types of syntactic structure only. Compare the acceptable ‘George seems to be depressed’ with the ungrammatical ‘George seems’. These examples show that the verb ‘seem’ cannot occur without some kind of complement (in this case, ‘to be depressed’). Particular theories handle these and other problems in strikingly different ways, to produce highly intricate and abstract analyses. Although Chomsky\'s current theory of universal grammar receives most attention at present, competing theories testify to the vigour of research in this area of linguistics. MS

See also generative grammar; psycholinguistics.Further reading R.D. Borsely, Syntactic Theory: A Unified Approach.



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