Friday, July 23, 2010

The Phrase in English Form and Function in the English Phrase Words are the constituent elements of the next rank, phrases. At the phrase rank,

The Phrase in English
Form and Function in the English Phrase

Words are the constituent elements of the next rank, phrases. At the phrase rank, we discover that it is possible to analyze each structure in more than one way. To study this phenomenon more closely, we will look at phrase structure in English. English is a language with five classes of phrases, noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases, adverb phrases, and prepositional phrases.
The Noun Phrase
Like all phrases, the constituents of the English noun phrase can be analyzed into both functional constituents and formal constituents. From a functional point of view, the noun phrase has four major components, occurring in a fixed order:
• the determinative, that constituent which determines the reference of the noun phrase in its linguistic or situational context;
• premodification, which comprises all the modifying or describing constituents before the head, other than the determiners;
• the head, around which the other constituents cluster; and
• postmodification, those which comprise all the modifying constituents placed after the head.
In the diagram below, notice that each functional component of a noun phrase (NP) can be further subclassified as we trace the diagram from left to right until we find that we have form classes (of the kind we discussed above) filling each constituent category.

Depending on the context of situation, we choose determiners and modifiers according to our needs in identifying and specifying the referent of the NP. Sometimes we need several determiners and modifiers to clarify the referent (all my books in that box); sometimes we need none at all (Liz).
That diagram is one way to represent the dual nature of a phrase. Each phrase, remember, is a merger of both form and function, and, as complex as it looks, the diagram illustrates only some of the complexities of the noun phrase in English. (For a more thorough treatment, see Halliday 1994 and Quirk et al. 1985.) Another way to illustrate some of the possible arrangements of form and function in the noun phrase is presented in the table below.
Some Examples of the Noun Phrase in English

FUNCTION Determiner Premodifier Head Postmodifier

(a) lions
E (b) the young
X (c) the information age
A (d) each of the children
M (e) some badly needed time with the family
P (f) this conclusion to the story
L (g) all my children
E (h) several new mystery books which we recently enjoyed
S (i) such a marvelous data bank filled with information
(j) a better person than I

FORMS Pronoun Participle Noun Prepositional Phrase
Article Noun Adjective Relative Clause
Quantifier Adjective Phrase Pronoun Nonfinite Clause
Notice that several forms classes can be "reused." For example, in the noun phrase it is possible to use quantifiers to function as pre-determiners or as post-determiners. This kind of "recycling" is known as recursion. Notice also that phrases and even whole clauses can be "recycled" into the noun phrase. This process of placing a phrase of clause within another phrase of clause is called embedding. It is through the processes of recursion and embedding that we are able to take a finite number of forms (words and phrases) and construct an infinite number of expressions. Furthermore, embedding also allows us to construct an infinitely long structure, in theory anyway.
For example, the nursery rhyme "The House That Jack Built" plays on the process of embedding in English noun phrases. The nursery rhyme is one sentence that continuously grows by embedding more and more relative clauses as postmodifiers in the noun phrase that ends the sentence:
This is the house that Jack built.
This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the mouse that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the cat that scared the mouse that ate the malt hat lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the dog that chased the cat that scared the mouse that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the boy who loves the dog that chased the cat that scared the mouse that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.
And so on. In theory, we could go on forever because language relies so heavily on embedding.
The Verb Phrase
The verb phrase (VP) in English has a noticeably different structure, since the information it carries about mood, tense, modality, aspect, and voice is quite different from the information carried by a noun phrase. The verb phrase has two functional parts,
• the auxiliary, a grammatical morpheme carrying information about mood, tense, modality, and voice; and
• the main verb, a lexical morpheme carrying its lexical information and, usually, an inflection.

The mood system in English is divided into four subcategories.

The indicative mood 'indicates;' that is, it conveys to the listener/reader that the speaker/writer is making a statement, referring to the real world in an honest, direct, relevant way. The majority of our expressions are indicative in mood. Speakers signal the indicative mood by using word order: when the auxiliaries take their "usual" position following the 'subject,' we interpret the clause as being in the indicative mood.
Philosophers of language, like H. P. Grice, have done some of the most interesting linguistics of recent years, explicating the meanings of the indicative mood in English by examining how people use language in conversation. After studying a series of conversations in different contexts, he developed the following generalizations or "rules of conversation" that help explain much about how we interpret our language in the indicative mood. Grice (1975) pointed out the participants in a conversation expect each other to be cooperative, to say something true and to the point, and not to be withholding any relevant information.
Specifically, Grice's maxims, or "rules," are the following:
a. Make your contribution as informative as is required.
b. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
c. Do not say what you believe to be false.
d. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
e. Be relevant.
f. Avoid obscurity of expression.
g. Avoid ambiguity.
h. Be brief.
i. Be orderly.
Look at the conversation between A and B below. The maxims of quantity and relation are at work in B's response, like principles guiding our indicative interpretation of the fragment.
A: When will you stop by?
B: Sometime after dinner.
What maxims are at work in the following conversations between C and D?
C: I'm hungry.
D: I've got five dollars.
The reply D makes is only sensible if we assume that D is following the maxim of relation (that D is being relevant to C's statement of hunger) and the maxim of manner (that D being brief).
The interrogative mood signals the speakers' desire for information, that they are asking a question, that they are 'interrogating' the listeners. The interrogative is marked by starting a clause with an auxiliary verb or an interrogative pronoun.
(1) Can Liz do that?
(2) What will Liz do?
The imperative mood express the speakers' sense of a command, request, or exhortation - an imperative. Speakers signal the imperative mood by using a base form of the verb in clause-initial position.
(3) Do that!
(4) Be here by 8:00 pm.
The subjunctive mood express the speakers' sense of the unlikely, a wish, a prayer, a hope. The subjunctive describes the state of affairs as speakers wish or hope them to be. It describes hypothetical situations, "some other world," the irreal. Speakers signal the subjunctive by beginning subordinate clauses with an auxiliary or by using subordinators that overtly mark hypothetical conditions.
(5) Had I known you were coming, I'd have baked a cake.
(6) If I were a millionaire, I'd endow an award in your honor.
The subjunctive is also marked in the verb phrase by the use of subject-verb concord, as in (6), where the singular subject I is matched with the plural verb were. Base forms of verbs can also signal the subjunctive.
(7) I suggest that Ms. Jones reconsider her decision.
(8) The administration insists that no one be exempted from the placement exams.
Finally, the base form is also used in several older, formulaic subjunctive expressions that have survived in the modern language.
(9) God save the King.
(10) Heaven forbid it should snow again.
Tense systems mark time. Tense is an inflection on the verb that indicates the time reference of the expression. In English, tense is marked on the first verb of the verb phrase. All verbs marked for tense are called 'finite' verbs, while verb forms that do not carry a tense inflection (such as participles) are called 'nonfinite' verbs.
English has two tenses, really. On most English verbs, the -s inflection marks the present tense, and the -ed inflection marks the past tense. Verbs using both the -s and -ed forms are known as 'regular' verbs in that those verbs employ the most common, most 'productive' inflection to mark time, as in helps/helped, hopes/hoped, loves/loved. 'Irregular verbs,' on the other hand, fall into seven subcategories, employing a number of inflections (such as -en for the participle inflection as in written, taken, stolen) or in some classes employing no participle inflections at all (such as put or cut as in Liz cuts the cake/Liz cut the cake/Liz has cut the cake).
It is really better to refer to the present tense in English as the 'nonpast,' since English uses the present tense to refer to many different time frames. Consider the sentences below, for example, where all the verbs are marked for the present tense, but the time reference varies considerably from example to example:
(11) Emily is tired today.
(12) Emily is leaving soon.
(13) Emily is clever.
Sentence (11) indeed does refer to the present time frame, but sentence (12) seems to refer to the near future, although it is marked for "present" tense. Sentence (13) is altogether different: its time frame is expansive, referring to the past, present, and future simultaneously.
What people commonly call the 'future' in English is really part of the modality system of the language. English speakers use modal auxiliary verbs (like will) or phrasal verbs (like is going to - often phonologically reduced to gonna) to refer to the future.
The modality system expresses the speakers' sense of obligation, volition, probability, permission, and ability. Modality is signaled by the use of a modal auxiliary verb and the use of a base verb, modal + base.
(14) Liz {must/should} go. ("obligation")
(15) Liz will stop that immediately! ("volition")
(16) Liz {may/might} go. ("probability")
(17) Liz {can/may} go. ("permission")
(18) Liz {can/could} do it ("ability")
The modal will also expresses a 'future' sense.
(19) Liz will do it tomorrow. ("future")
The modality system also includes a class of auxiliary verbs called semi-auxiliaries (or semi-modals or quasi-modals). These idiomatic verbs and phrasal verbs express modal (and sometimes aspectual) meaning. They often (but not always) take the form of BE+PARTICIPLE+to. These semi-auxiliaries resemble auxiliaries in that they have some equivalence of meaning. Syntactically, the semi-auxiliaries are a mixed group. The semi-auxiliaries starting with be do not need do-support in negation or question formation, but most of the others do employ do-support for those syntactic processes. (See the discussion of do-support below.)

Aspect signals either the completion or the continuation of the process indicated by the verb in English. The perfect aspect expresses the speakers' sense of completion, the speakers' sense that the process expressed by the verb has been "perfected," to use the older sense of the word. The perfect aspect is signaled by the use of a form of the auxiliary have and the -ed participle, have + V-ed. (Remember that some verbs are irregular, with irregular participle forms.)
(20) Liz has gone already.
The progressive aspect expresses the speakers' sense that the process expressed by the verb continues, covers a period of time, and is in some way relevant to the present moment. The progressive aspect is signaled by the use of a form of the auxiliary be and the -ing participle, be + V-ing.
(21) Liz is doing the best work ever.
Voice systems allows speakers to view the action of the sentence in different ways without changing the facts involved. English has two voices, active and passive. In the examples below, it is possible to see the event from the perspective of the 'agent' (the conscious "doer" of the action - that is active voice), as in (22), or from the perspective of the 'goal' (the "receiver" of the action - that is passive voice), as in (23).
(22) Liz encourages Emily. (active)
(23) Emily is encouraged by Liz. (passive)
The passive voice is signaled by the use of a form of be and the -ed participle, be + V-ed.
Lastly, English also employs the verb do to function as a supporting auxiliary in verb phrases that require an auxiliary for certain grammatical processes but which lack some other auxiliary already discussed. Consider (24) for example where it would be impossible to signal the interrogative mood without the support of the do auxiliary, as in (25).
(24) Emily sleeps well at night.
(25) Does Emily sleep well at night?
To signal the interrogative mood, remember, the auxiliary verb occurs in clause-initial position. However, if the clause has not auxiliary verb, as (24) does not, then do-support provides the necessary auxiliary, as in (25). Notice too that do has all the hallmarks of an auxiliary: not only does it occur in clause-initial position as other auxiliaries do in the interrogative mood, but it also is marked for tense like all first verbs in the finite English verb phrase.
Another way to illustrate some of the relationships between form and function in the verb phrase is presented in the table below.
Some Examples of the Verb Phrase in English

FUNCTION Auxiliaries Main Verb

(a) do believe
E (b) can go
X (c) may have gone
A (d) is going
M (e) has been waiting
P (f) might have been waiting
L (g) were hired
E (h) are being hired
S (i) should be trying
(j) might have been being interviewed

FORM Modal Perfect Progressive Passive Auxiliary Support Main Verb
The Adjective Phrase
The adjective phrase in English has four functional constituents,
• premodification, those modifying, describing, or qualifying constituents which precede the head;
• the head, which is an adjective or participle serving as the focus of the phrase;
• postmodification, that modifying constituent which follows the head; and
• complementation, (the major subcategory of postmodification here) that constituent which follows any postmodification and completes the specification of a meaning implied by the head.

To see some examples of adjective phrases, examine the table below.
Some Examples of the Adjective Phrase in English

FUNCTION Premodifier Head Postmodifier

(a) happy
E (b) excited indeed
X (c) partly cloudy
A (d) young in spirit
M (e) very energetic for his age
P (f) so extremely sweet
L (g) too good to be true
E (h) hot enough for me
S (i) quite worried about the results of the test
(j) unusually sunny for this time of year

FORM Adverb
Adverb Adjective Prepositional Phrase
Adverb Phrase Infinitive Clause
Notice that the order of constituents in the adjective phrase, like all other phrase structures in English, is relatively fixed, helping us determine the constituent elements.
The Adverb Phrase
The adverb phrase in English is nearly identical to the adjective phrase, with only the expected changes in form. In the adverb phrase, an adverb functions as head.

To see some examples of adverb phrases, examine the table.
Some Examples of the Adverb Phrase in English

FUNCTION Premodifier Head Postmodifier

(a) quietly
E (b) quite honestly
X (c) very hard indeed
A (d) however
M (e) really early
P (f) so very well indeed
L (g) too quickly to see well
E (h) likely enough for us
S (i) formerly of Cincinnati
(j) more easily than ever

FORM Adverb
Adverb Adverb Prepositional Phrase
Adverb Phrase Infinitive Clause
The Prepositional Phrase
The last structure for us to study at the phrase rank is the prepositional phrase. This phrase is a 'nonheaded' construction in English since no one constituent functions as the center of the phrase, the center on which the other elements depend. Instead, the structure is divided into two functional components - the preposition followed by its complement. In general, a prepositional phrase expresses a relationship between the complement of the preposition and some other constituent of the sentence. Diagrammatically, the structure of the prepositional phrase looks like this:

The table below illustrates some of the possible structures found in the English prepositional phrase.
Some Examples of the Prepositional Phrase in English

FUNCTION Preposition Complement

(a) for now
E (b) with her
X (c) in time
A (d) next to the table
M (e) into the thick of things
P (f) by the time that you read this
L (g) before slipping off to sleep
E (h) after running more than 500 miles in one week
S (i) to whomever it may concern
(j) from what I can see

FORM Preposition Adverb
Noun Phrase
-ing Clause
Relative Clause
Halliday, Michael A. K.
1994 Introduction to Functional Grammar 2nd edition, London: Edward Arnold.
Quirk, R., S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, and J. Svartvik.
1985 A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, London: Longman.

© 1995, 2010 Daniel Kies. All rights reserved.
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Last revision: 05/21/2010 18:40:53