In This Article Phrase Structure Grammars

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Immediate Constituent Analysis
  • Formal Properties
  • Psycholinguistics

Linguistics Phrase Structure Grammars
Frank Van Eynde
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0190


Phrase structure grammars model the internal structure of a sentence in terms of a hierarchically organized representation. The sentence Every boy has a bike, for instance, is taken to consist of a noun phrase (every boy) and a verb phrase (has a bike), where the former consists of a determiner (every) and a noun (boy), and the latter of a verb (has) and a noun phrase (a bike), which in turn consists of a determiner (a) and a noun (bike). The structure is made explicit by labeled bracketing, as in (S (NP (Det every) (N boy)) (VP (V has) (NP (Det a) (N bike)))). Phrase structure grammars were introduced by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s, building on the tradition of Immediate Constituent Analysis in post-Bloomfieldian structuralism. They played a key role in Transformational Grammar (TG) till the late 1960s, mainly as a descriptive device. The shift toward generalization led to a more abstract version, widely known as X-bar syntax, a staple ingredient of generative syntax throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. The introduction of the Minimalist Program in the 1990s led to further abstraction, involving, among others, the virtual elimination of phrase structure rules. In Non-transformational Grammar, which has its origins in the 1970s, Phrase Structure Grammar continues to thrive, especially in Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG) and Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG). While phrase structure grammars are mainly used in syntax, they also play a role in other areas of linguistics: they provide a structural backbone for the compositional interpretation of sentences in Semantics and for identifying prosodic units in Phonology. Their role in morphology is a bone of contention: in Transformational Grammar, the smallest units of analysis are morphemes, so that PS grammars extend below the word level. Non-transformational frameworks, by contrast, adopt a lexicalist stance and treat words as the syntactic atoms, leaving the expression of sublexical regularities to other devices, such as lexical rules. The Formal Properties of phrase structure grammars have been studied extensively in mathematical linguistics. They play a key role in computational linguistics and Natural Language Processing. Their relevance for the investigation of human language processing is studied in Psycholinguistics.

General Overviews and Textbooks

Phrase structure grammars provide a formal notation for the analysis of the internal structure of sentences. Their origins and their role in linguistics are traced in Graffi 2001 and Matthews 1993. They currently play a key role in both transformational and non-transformational generative grammar; see Baltin and Collins 2001. Textbooks usually introduce either the one or the other, but there are a few that cover both, such as Borsley 1999 and Carnie 2011.

  • Baltin, Mark, and Chris Collins, eds. 2001. The handbook of contemporary syntactic theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470756416E-mail Citation »

    Contains a chapter on phrase structure by N. Fukui (pp. 374–406). It traces the role of phrase structure in Transformational Grammar, with special attention for X-bar syntax and the Minimalist Program.

  • Borsley, Robert D. 1999. Syntactic theory: A unified approach. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    Introduces the central concepts of syntactic theory in a stepwise way, systematically comparing their treatment in the transformational GB framework and in GPSG/HPSG. Contains exercises.

  • Carnie, Andrew. 2011. Modern syntax: A course book. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511780738E-mail Citation »

    Aims to draw together the best ideas from Minimalism, HPSG and LFG. Contains exercises.

  • Graffi, Giorgio. 2001. 200 years of syntax: A critical survey. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/sihols.98E-mail Citation »

    A broad historical survey, spanning both the 19th and the 20th century, up until and including the Minimalist Program. Immediate Constituent analysis is introduced in the chapter on techniques of syntactic description.

  • Matthews, Peter. 1993. Grammatical theory in the United States: From Bloomfield to Chomsky. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511620560E-mail Citation »

    A bird’s eye view of the history of linguistics in North America, spanning the period from 1900 to 1990. Traces the development and continuity of three leading ideas: the autonomy of syntax (from meaning), the view of sentences as linear configurations of morphemes, and the view of grammar as a genetically inherited system of universal principles.

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