Tests for constituents: What they really reveal about the nature of syntactic structure

Timothy J. Osborne


Syntax is a central subfield within linguistics and is important for the study of natural languages, since they all have syntax. Theories of syntax can vary drastically, though. They tend to be based on one of two competing principles, on dependency or phrase structure. Surprisingly, the tests for constituents that are widely employed in syntax and linguistics research to demonstrate the manner in which words are grouped together forming higher units of syntactic structure (phrases and clauses) actually support dependency over phrase structure. The tests identify much less sentence structure than phrase structure syntax assumes. The reason this situation is surprising is that phrase structure has been dominant in research on syntax over the past 60 years. This article examines the issue in depth. Dozens of texts were surveyed to determine how tests for constituents are employed and understood. Most of the tests identify phrasal constituents only; they deliver little support for the existence of subphrasal strings as constituents. This situation is consistent with dependency structure, since for dependency, subphrasal strings are not constituents to begin with.


phrase structure; phrase structure grammar; constituency tests; constituent; dependency grammar; tests for constituents

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