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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-W044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

Syntax (more loosely, ‘grammar’) is the study of the properties of expressions that distinguish them as members of different linguistic categories, and ‘well-formedness’, that is, the ways in which expressions belonging to these categories may be combined to form larger units. Typical syntactic categories include noun, verb and sentence. Syntactic properties have played an important role not only in the study of ‘natural’ languages (such as English or Urdu) but also in the study of logic and computation. For example, in symbolic logic, classes of well-formed formulas are specified without mentioning what formulas (or their parts) mean, or whether they are true or false; similarly, the operations of a computer can be fruitfully specified using only syntactic properties, a fact that has a bearing on the viability of computational theories of mind.

The study of the syntax of natural language has taken on significance for philosophy in the twentieth century, partly because of the suspicion, voiced by Russell, Wittgenstein and the logical positivists, that philosophical problems often turned on misunderstandings of syntax (or the closely related notion of ‘logical form’). Moreover, an idea that has been fruitfully developed since the pioneering work of Frege is that a proper understanding of syntax offers an important basis for any understanding of semantics, since the meaning of a complex expression is compositional, that is, built up from the meanings of its parts as determined by syntax.

In the mid-twentieth century, philosophical interest in the systematic study of the syntax of natural language was heightened by Noam Chomsky’s work on the nature of syntactic rules and on the innateness of mental structures specific to the acquisition (or growth) of grammatical knowledge. This work formalized traditional work on grammatical categories within an approach to the theory of computability, and also revived proposals of traditional philosophical rationalists that many twentieth-century empiricists had regarded as bankrupt. Chomskian theories of grammar have become the focus of most contemporary work on syntax.

Citing this article:
Neale, Stephen. Syntax, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-W044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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