This is the first half of a two-part article on contrastive grammar: Part 1 | Part 2

ESL and FL instructors need to be aware of some of the fundamental differences between the home language and the language that is taught.

Phrase structure grammar

This system of description shows how constituents of language are combined and in what basic order. The constituents are the groups and subgroups of words that go together.

For example, consider the sentence: "The child found the puppy." The child (a noun phrase) is a constituent, and found the puppy (a verb phrase) is a constituent, but found the is not. The rules indicate which sequences are correct and which are not.

Sample rules:

  • S = NP +VP
  • NP = (Det) N
  • VP = V (NP)

S: Sentence

NP: Noun phrase (Can perform as subject or object; includes infinitives and gerunds)

VP: Verb phrase (Always contains one or more verbs; may be followed by other constituents)

Det: Determiner (a, an, the, this, that, some ...)

Equals: "Rewrite as ..."

This set of rules allows the following:

  • Jason screamed.
  • The boy left.
  • Some boys saw Elizabeth.

The following are not allowed:

  • Screamed Jason.
  • Boy the left.
  • Boys some Elizabeth saw.

Of course, this is only a partial set. There are other elements that may occur in the NP and VP. For example, the NP can contain more elements:

  • Quantifiers: words like one, every, several.
  • Intensifiers: Words like very or somewhat.

The verb phrase (VP) can be expanded by adding prepositional phrases and adverb phrases.

Language contrast

These rules differ across languages:

English rule: NP = Art (Det) + N. (The noun phrase can be rewritten as an article or determiner and a noun.)

The house red is incorrect in English, but the rule in Spanish is the following: NP = Det +N + (Adj). Thus, La casa roja (The house red) is correct in Spanish.

The generative/transformational approach to the study of grammar was introduced by Noam Chomsky in 1957 in his seminal work, "Syntactic Structures." Here, Chomsky traced a relationship between the "deep structure" of sentences (what is in the mind) and their "surface structure" (what is spoken or written).

For example, the surface structure of the sentence, The postman was bitten by the dog, was derived from the deep structure, The dog bit the postman, through the application of a passive transformation. Here is another example: A book on language was written by Steven, which is derived from Steven wrote a book on language.

From transformational/generative grammar arose the theory of Universal Grammar. This widely accepted theory starts from the perception that all languages share certain linguistic features (universals). The goal of this theory is to explain the uniformity of language acquisition among humans despite ostensible differences in their native languages.

Deep and surface structure

In transformational grammar, we find "two levels of representation of the structure of sentences: an underlying, more abstract form, termed 'deep structure,' and the actual form of the sentence produced, called 'surface structure'. Deep structure is represented in the form of a hierarchical tree diagram, or 'phrase structure tree,' depicting the abstract grammatical relationships between the words and phrases within a sentence."

It consists of "a system of formal rules specifying how deep structures are to be transformed into surface structures," according to the Cognitive Science Initiative.

The deep structure provides characterization of this common form and how it is manipulated to produce actual sentences. Take the sentence Whom will John see. According to the transformational grammar, we form this sentence by unconsciously applying transformation rules to the underlying deep structure given in the phrase structure tree of the form John will see whom. In this particular case, the transformation rule applied is termed "Wh-movement."

Transformational grammar formed the basis for many subsequent theories of human grammatical knowledge. Since Chomsky's original presentation, many different theories have emerged. Although current theories differ significantly from the original, the notion of a transformation remains a central element in most models.

Consider the following sentence pairs:

  • The cat chased the mouse. The mouse was chased by the cat.
  • Where did John drive? John drove (where).

According to transformational grammar, there is an abstract level of representation that underlies the syntactical structures of each pair member. For instance, the first and second sentences correspond to "surface structures." These surface structures are derived from a common underlying grammatical representation or deep structure.

Example: Consider the following; ungrammatical sentences are marked with (*):

  • *I bit me.
  • I bit myself.
  • *Himself bit John.
  • John bit himself.
  • *I bit ourselves.

Obviously we just can't insert words into the basic formula: Sg NP+VP. The choice of the reflexive pronoun depends on the subject "antecedent," which exists in the deep structure as an identical NP to the object NP.

Whenever there are two identical NPs in the same sentence referring to the same individual, the rule changes the second to a reflexive pronoun that matches the first in person, number and gender. Thus, The girl cheats the girl. becomes The girl cheats herself.

In second part of this article, we will examine more similarities and differences in grammar structure among languages.