Syntax is concerned with the structure of sentences, and the parts that make them up (i.e. phrases and clauses). It’s sometimes known as ‘group grammar’, while identifying word classes is ‘word grammar’. In analysing syntax in a text, you may simply be talking about word order, particularly in an older text using a word order that would not be used now, or if discussing data relating to CLA or variation. It’s also worth noting that spoken syntax is different to written syntax, so avoid criticising speech as ‘ungrammatical’ for simply not being in sentences such as you’d find in a written text when in fact that’s normal.


  • A unit within a sentence.
  • It centres on a head word, which gives the phrase its name – i.e. a NOUN PHRASE has a noun as its head word.
  • The phrase may also include pre-modifiers (coming before the head word) or post-modifiers (coming after the head word).
    • e.g.: the fat cat (cat = head word, pre-modified by fat)
    • the cat over there (cat = head word post-modified by over there)
  • A noun phrase can consist of a single word: cats chase mice – cats is a noun phrase, as is mice, while chase is a verb phrase.
  • Verb phrases consist of main verbs with or without accompanying auxiliaries.


  • “Bigger” than a phrase and usually contains both a verb phrase and a subject (although sometimes this is implied rather than repeating from an earlier clause: He paused the video and reached for his coffee – ‘he’ is the subject of both clauses here, making them both main clauses).
  • Main or independent clauses can stand alone as simple sentences.
  • Subordinate or dependent clauses cannot stand alone as full (major) sentences.
    • relative clauses open with a relative pronoun, e.g. did you see the man who was here yesterday
    • comment clauses are usually brief and could be removed from the sentence without any real loss of meaning; they tend to be more about relationship between speaker/writer and audience, e.g. you know, I think, as I’ve said before, as we all know


A sentence is a complete ‘sense unit’.  There are five structural types:

  • Simple sentences are made up of a single clause.
  • Compound sentences are made up of two or more clauses, joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but).  The clauses are of equal importance, and are therefore both/all main clauses.
  • Complex sentences are made up of two or more clauses, where one or more is subordinate to the main clause.  These are often joined by subordinating conjunctions (eg because, since, although) or relative pronouns (e.g. whose, which, that).
  • Compound-Complex sentences are made up of two or more main clauses with at least one subordinate clause.
  • Minor sentences lack something required to make a full simple sentence, commonly a subject or verb.Sentences can also be described according to their function.  There are four main types.
  • Declarative sentences make statements, and are constructed using a subject-verb word order.
  • Interrogative sentences ask question using an inverted verb-subject word order, or with a dummy verb (‘do you like…?’ – notice that the ‘do’ does not serve any purpose other than to turn the statement ‘I like …’ into a question). Note that although we can ask questions using only intonation (‘You are going to the party?), that form is grammatically a declarative, although you can use a tag question to make it a question: you are going to the party, aren’t you? (tag questions repeat the same verb, or use an auxiliary and reverse the polarity of the verb phrase)
  • Imperative sentences issue commands or instructions, using the bare stem of the verb without a subject: leave now, write this down,
  • Exclamatory sentences are emphatic and usually use an exclamation mark. They are usually incomplete grammatically and often start with ‘what’ or ‘how’ (e.g. ‘how awful!’) Note that every sentence with an exclamation mark is not an exclamatory.  To be an exclamatory, the sentence needs to not also be another type.  In other words, if it could be an imperative or an exclamatory, it’s an imperative; if it looks like an exclamatory but also fits the ‘declarative’ criteria, it’s a declarative.