You have to know syntax. Even if you hate it, you need syntax. Every language has a grammar and a syntax, and to learn a language such as Latin you need to at least understand the basic syntax of your own language.
This is precisely what we are going to do in this extra lesson: learn about the fundamental English syntax. For that we’ll explain the strictly necessary syntax, with examples, and we’ll give some tips to understand everything.
The grammar-translation method the Latin from scratch course is based on requires the knowledge of some basic syntax. But you really don’t have to worry: most of the stuff you might have struggled with at school is superfluous and we will not be spending time on that, but on knowing how to identify the fundamental types of phrases.
Before starting, it is important that you forget most of what you might have been taught about syntax. Especially forget the tips & tricks about asking the verb for information, etc. From now on, the only valid questions are the ones I say.
Notice that what we are about to study is basic syntax, and that the goal is not the accuracy of the concepts or any kind of erudition, but helping understand and heal syntactic trauma.
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What is a phrase?
A phrase (also known as syntagm or syntagma) is a group of words which appear together because they have the same function: subject, direct object, attribute, etc.
Sometimes a phrase can consist of only one word:
John is tall.
Other times a phrase can be made up of quite a lot of words:
The neighbor who lives upstairs is tall.
And of course a phrase can contain other phrases, which can contain other phrases, etc.:
The neighbor who lives upstairs is tall.
We don’t care about what the subject is, but about how to identify it. We don’t ask the verb “who” (this works many times, but not always). It is not necessarily the first phrase in a sentence (quite often it is, but not always). We can’t always trust the method of checking with a pronoun.
My friend gave this to me. ← Who gave this to you?
I saw him/Mike. ← Who did you see?
Me and him were just like best friends.
—Who gave this to you? —Him! It was him!
So how do we identify the subject? First you may try using subject-verb agreement: the subject and the verb should have the same grammatical person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular, plural).
Consider: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, you are, they are.
This is easier to check in the present tense, or in simple past with the verb “to be”:
My friend gives this to me. ↔ My friends give this to me.
Me and him were eating out. ↔ I was eating out.
Also notice how in the structure “there is/are” what follows is the subject:
There is a window.
There are many windows.
However, since verbs in English have lost most of their conjugation, you might need something else. When changing a sentence into a question, we have different types of results:
My friend gave this to me. → Who gave this to you?
I saw him/Mike. → Who did you see? / Who saw Mike?
My dog is running. → Is my dog running?
The attribute (also known as subject complement or predicate) appears mostly with the verb “to be”, usually right after it. The structure of this verb is almost always the following:
- verb “to be”
- attribute (adjective or noun)
My dog is smart.
A dog is an animal.
There is an important exception: if what follows begins with a preposition and refers to a place, then it is not the attribute, but an adverbial of location.
My dog is in the garden.
The direct object
The direct object is the obligatory complement of a type of verb called transitive. Learn this:
- transitive verb → requires a direct object
- intransitive verb → doesn’t admit a direct object
The direct object is not what receives the action directly (what does that even mean?!), and we definitely don’t ask the verb “what?” or even “whom?”.
What hit you?
What is that?
So how do we identify the direct object? In many languages this can be achieved by transforming the sentence into the passive voice (and the direct object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive version):
The dog is chasing the car.
↳ The car is being chased by the dog.
However, English has the peculiarity of admitting the indirect object as subject of the passive:
You give a ring to me.
↳ I am given a ring by you.
This means that the usual trick in most languages won’t necessarily work in English if the verb is ditransitive (it has both direct and indirect objects).
At least, we can be sure of one thing: the direct object is never preceded by a preposition.
You give me a ring.
You give a ring to me.
The indirect object
This is the only difficult complement we can identify by asking the verb: “to who(m)?” (sometimes “for who(m)?”).
I give the letter to the mailman.
Of course, we already know that the indirect object can appear without “to”, but in that case it requires to be moved next to the verb:
I give the mailman the letter.
This doesn’t really change the fact that we still can identify the indirect object with the question “to who(m)?”:
To whom do I give the letter? → To the mailman.
The indirect object appears very often in ditransitive structures, where the verb needs both a direct and an indirect object, such as give something to someone (or give someone something), ask, tell, say…
Adverbials (sometimes circumstantial complements) can be of several types and are easily identified through questions to the verb. The most important ones are the following:
- manner → how?
- instrument → with what?
- quantity → how many/much?
- cause → why?
- purpose → for what?
- company → with whom?
- time → when?
- location → where?
- origin → from where?
- direction → to where?
- “through” → through where?
Sometimes it is not easy to decide what exactly is the type of an adverbial:
The police found the money with bloodhounds.
So there is really no need to obsess over this, as often it’s a semantic matter rather than a syntactic one.
The prepositional complement
We use this name to refer to an obligatory complement of verbs which require a preposition. We can think of it as a direct object, but with a preposition. (Some of these verb actually can work with or without a preposition with pretty much the same meaning).
We trust in love.
Children believe in monsters.
Some analyses consider that the preposition is part of the verb, not part of the complement.
Notice that these are not the same as the complements of phrasal verbs:
Put out that cigarette.
Put that cigarette out.
The complement of the noun
Most of the times, the complement of the noun is a non-obligatory phrase that we could translate with the preposition “of” and which is dependent on a noun (not a verb). Quite often it can be expressed through the Saxon genitive.
It usually expresses some idea of possession, belonging or similar.
The phone of my father is broken.
My father’s phone is broken.
The boyfriend of my sister is a firefighter.
My sister’s boyfriend is a firefighter.
The capital of Poland is Warsaw.
The door of my house is painted yellow.
Sometimes a similar complement is actually a complement of the adjective:
I am afraid of the dark.
And sometimes a complement of the noun can use other prepositions:
The door to my house is always open for you.
What we have been learning is the basic syntax, that is, how to identify the most important phrases. We still need to learn about other types of phrases (predicative complements, appositions, etc.), but I don’t consider those essential at the beginning; and of course the syntax of sentences, subordinate clauses, etc.