Element Five: The Wonder of Syntax

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” – Groucho Marx

In this joke, the first sentence has two meanings. It is “structurally ambiguous.” The ambiguity comes in the phrase “in my pajamas.” Does “in my pajamas” refer to “an elephant” or “I shot?” If it refers to “I shot,” then the shooter wears pajamas. If it refers to “an elephant,” then the elephant wears pajamas. Most people think the shooter is wearing pajamas. But that’s the joke. It’s a twist; the first sentence sets up the punch line. And we see an elephant wearing pajamas.

Here are two more examples of structurally ambiguous sentences. (A) The chicken is ready to eat. (B) Stolen paintings were found by a tree. In (A), we read two meanings. (A1) Somebody cooked the chicken, and it is ready to be eaten. We can eat it now. In (A2), the chicken is hungry. She is sitting at the table ready to eat her dinner. In (B), we can read two meanings. In (B1), somebody found stolen paintings by a tree. In (B2), a tree found stolen paintings. Of course, we can only make sense of A2 and B2 in a fantasy world of chickens and trees that think like people. However, these sentences show us that correct grammar is complicated, and that structurally ambiguous grammar affects meaning.

Grammar and Meaning

To better understand structural ambiguity, we can compare it to semantic ambiguity. The above sentences are ambiguous because of the structural relationship between words and phrases. But we can see semantic ambiguity when one word has two meanings. For example, “We saw her rock” has two meanings. (A) We saw a rock, stone, or diamond that she owns. In A, the “rock” is a noun. (B) We saw her make music, and she rocks! In B, rock is a verb. Semantic ambiguity is thus clearly different from syntactic ambiguity.

When we use ambiguous syntax, we may accidentally communicate strange or funny things. And when we use incorrect grammar, we may fail to communicate meaningfully. However, we can also use perfect grammar to communicate meaningless nonsense. Chomsky gives the most famous example of grammatical nonsense “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Here we see that we can separate syntax (grammar) and semantics (meaning). Unless we like speaking nonsense, we seldom use grammar this way. But this point shows us that grammar is a system of rules that we can separate from meaning.

Here’s another example of how we can separate syntax and grammar from meaning. Imagine a native speaker of Japanese. Her name is Akiko. She is a college graduate, and she is an office worker at a Japanese hospital. She is not a doctor, but she does office work. There is an Indian doctor working at the hospital who speaks perfect English and very good Japanese. He has written an academic and technical article in Japanese, but he is worried about his Japanese grammar.

He asks Akiko, “Could you please check the Japanese grammar in my article?” Akiko will not understand many of the scientific ideas in the article. But she understands a little about linguistics, and so she knows that she can probably check the grammar without fully understanding the science in the article. Now Akiko is probably not the best person to check the article. A Japanese doctor could check both the grammar and the medical science. But Akiko can do a pretty good grammar check because she is an educated native speaker of Japanese, and because the complicated scientific meanings (which she does not understand) are separate from the grammar and syntax (which she knows).

An Organ of Extreme Perfection

At this point, we might want to ask, “What is this thing called syntax that Akiko knows so well?” Linguist Steven Pinker defines syntax as “The component of grammar that arranges words into phrases and sentences” (Pinker, 2007, p. 514). This is a good definition, but it doesn’t really show the complexity of syntax. If we think deeply about it, we will discover that syntax is a thing of wonder that can even inspire awe.

That’s different from our experiences with grammar at school. Students and teachers often find grammar study painfully boring. But if we look at syntax from a new perspective, maybe we can begin to see the magic and wonder of it. Imagine a young man named Jonathan. He sees a girl named Maryanne. She has long black hair, a sweet smile, and a lovely voice. As Jonathan starts to introduce himself, he stops when he sees her eyes. They are big, beautiful, blue eyes. Jonathan usually is pretty good at talking to girls, but now he is speechless.

Maryanne looks at him and says, “Excuse me. Are you okay? Why are you looking at me?” Jonathan is finally able to speak, and he says, “I’m so sorry! It’s your eyes. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in the world!” Fast forward. They become friends, fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. And Jonathan is forever mesmerized by Maryanne’s eyes.

The human eye is an beautiful thing. It is a complex wonder of the natural world. Regarding the eye, Darwin called it an “organ of extreme perfection and complication.” He wanted to explain how creatures with no eyes could evolve into animals with eyes. And he admitted that it was hard to believe that his theory could explain it. Today scientists explain how eyes can arise through the physical process of natural selection. But that’s not the point. The point is eyes are like syntax. Both eyes and syntax are exquisitely complex wonders of the natural world.

Syntax Makes Language Big

It is hard to understand the great complexity of syntax. With words and syntax, language becomes a “discrete combinatorial system.” “Discrete” just means limited. And “Combinatorial” means that things are combined. Human language and the language of DNA are both discrete combinatorial systems. A limited number of genes combined and made Maryanne’s beautiful blue eyes. We combine a limited number of words and rules into the larger structures of phrases and sentences. For example, we can take three words: dog, man, bite. And we can combine them to say, “Man bites dog,” or “Dog bites man.” The meaning of these two sentences is different from the three words: dog, man, bite. Syntax gives us something more than the sum of the three words.

But there’s more. Some linguists often say that with grammar and syntax, humans can produce an unlimited number of new sentences; other linguists disagree. But it doesn’t matter because syntax still produces an incredible amount of information. Just imagine all the native speakers of English in the world. There are about 400,000,000 of them. In a 12-hour day, every native speaker probably produces 1 sentence every 10 seconds, a low estimate. That’s (4,320 sentences) x (400,000,000) people.

In English then, we can estimate that all native speakers produce 1,728,000,000,000 sentences every day, or in 100 years they will have produced: 63,072,000,000,000,000 sentences. That’s not infinite, but it’s 63 quadrillion sentences. And these are usually not memorized sentences. We creatively understand and produce them by combining words with the rules of grammar and syntax.

Syntax Makes Language Complex

Thinking about complex syntax is like thinking about genetics. Most people don’t understand the deep rules of syntax; just like most people don’t understand the deep rules of genetics. However, we can appreciate this complexity by looking at some complex sentences. For example, “This is the house that Jack built.” This sentence is actually two sentences embedded together to make one. But there is more. “This is the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the salt that lay in the house that Jack built.”

Now we have six sentences embedded into one. And we can keep embedding more. “This is the bird that pecked the dog that. . . “ In some cases, we can remove the “that.” For example, Jonathan believes Mike thinks Maryanne is beautiful. This is a right embedded sentence. But English syntax lets us do center embedding, too. The girl cried. The girl the boy chased cried. The girl the boy the teacher hit chased cried. The last one is too complex, but try it with “that.” The girl that the boy that the teacher hit chased cried. In short, these examples begin to show us how recursive syntax makes language complex.

Syntax Makes Language Beautiful

Words and syntax give us a giant explosion of complex language. But the product of syntax is not just big and complex. It can also be beautiful. Bob Dylan is considered by many music critics to be one of the greatest song lyricists of all time. (A lyricist is a person who writes the words for songs.) He also has written a lot of songs. One book of Dylan’s song lyrics (2014) is 960 pages long. Many of these songs are considered great works of art. Even the simple song, “Blowin’ in the Wind, expresses a deep and beautiful message.

How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind. 

No code of syntax? Then no Dylan, Shakespeare, or Tolkien. The genetic code produces the wonder of life on earth: red spiders, blue birds, elephants, mice, and all the unique people who have ever lived. All these people look upon this wonderful and wild world with their eyes. These are eyes formed by the genetic code of DNA. And as we look at this world, using the code of syntax, we talk about it; we create libraries of knowledge about it; we write stories about life and death in this world, and we sing songs about sorrow, love, and happiness. And we could do none of this without the power of syntax.

Dylan, B. (2014). The Lyrics: 1961-2012 (Revised ed. edition). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Pinker, S. (2007). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

White, E. B. 2011. In the Words of E. B. White: Quotations from America’s Most Companionable of Writers. Edited by Martha White. 1 edition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.