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There are a number of positions you can take on what the relationship between syntax and semantics.

You could think that syntax is prior and so think that an expression's syntactic function determines (or, weaker, constrains) the expression's semantic role. Or you could hold the converse (i.e., an expression's semantic role determines/constrains it's syntactic function). Finally, you could deny any significant connections exist and think that they are two largely orthogonal parts of language.

Most people I talk to seem to agree that there is some relationship, but they're not sure what exactly it is.

What views have linguists developed about the relationship between these two branches? What are some of the classic/canonical articles and what is the current state of the art?

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    My lazy attempt: Syntax and semantics both work at sentence level. Syntax has to do with the form and order of words within the sentence. Semantics has to do with the meaning. Syntax is language dependent, whereas the semantics remains the same if the same sentence were expressed in another language. (I hope the generalizations that I have made, and the short-cuts I have taken, are forgiveable.) – prash May 28 '13 at 20:44
  • @prash I appreciate the overview, but I'm more interested in claims of dependence or independence. Can a word's syntactic and semantic functions vary independently? For instance, can something function syntactically like a singular term (perhaps cashing this out in terms of inferential role or something) while not behaving semantically like a singular term (perhaps its semantic function is more predicative than referential). Is this concern clear? Does this clarify the question at hand (enough to warrant an edit)? – Dennis May 28 '13 at 22:17
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I'll speak for the research tradition I work in, namely Construction Grammar. In CxG you have something called constructions which are symbolic units that directly link form and meaning. A construction can the be a word, say tree, but it also can be an idiom kick the bucket, or a semifixed construction [the mother of all X] or [what is X doing Y] (what is that fly doing in my soup?), or an argument structure construction (kinda hard to represent). Syntax then is intrinsically interrelated to semantics, and there is a really strong link between both.

There are many flavours of construction grammar, you have on the one hand some very formalist approaches like sign based CxG by Kay and Fillmore; and on the other hand some more cognitive takes on the matter like Langacker, Croft, Bybee or Goldberg. I like better this latter approaches, if you are interested you should check out Croft 2001 Radical Construction Grammar and Langackers Cognitive Grammar, also Goldberg has a very important book Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure.

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  • Thanks much for the response. Is construction grammar compositional in the usual sense? I ask because it reminds me a bit (though only a bit, in the sense that they appear to have more of a holistic and top-down, rather than bottom-up, approach to language analysis) of inferential role semantics and a common criticism of that school of thought is that it is non-compositional, or at least not compositional in the classical sense. – Dennis May 28 '13 at 22:34
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    It is partly compositional, but the construction adds meaning to the whole sentence, you can't derive the meaning of the sentence just from the words. More abstract constructions allow for more compositionality, while more specific ones allow for less. Idioms are an example of constructions that allow almost no compositionality in meaning. – MGN May 29 '13 at 23:40
  • Just throwing out Hilpert's (2014) Construction Grammar and its Application to English and Goldberg's (2019) most recent Explain Me This: Creativity, Competition, and the Partial Productivity of Constructions as other good (and probably easier to read) introductions to CxG! – Robin Sep 12 '19 at 11:42
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It is not easy to describe the relation between syntax and semantics, but it is probably easy to say why that is not easy: there are different perspectives about syntax and semantics, so the relation depends on what you understand by form and meaning, structure and content. If you look at the history of Chomskyan linguistics, you will find the chapter in which a group of people were working on deep structures so much that they actually were doing semantics and not syntax. Moreover, anaphors and quantifiers became really problematic for the framework, so it became insufficient to explain the linguistc phenomena under discussion. But Chomsky and others were not happy about the division, and today there are many syntacticians who keep themselves away from the "dangerous" interface with semantics.

Now, to be more specific about your question, but still general about the definitions, I think that you could see syntax as independent from semantics but not the other way around. Let's say the goal of syntax is to develop theories about the similarities and differences between linguistic structures within and across languages. Let's also assume that we can study elements that are necessary for those structures to be well-formed, and that their meaning is not essential for the interpretation of the whole structure. Then it is possible to say that syntax does not need semantics, or that it is structure what determines meaning. Whether that is interesting or helpful is up to the syntacticians who work under such view. As for semantics, it simply cannot be studied without reference to syntax, for any meaningful phrase or sentence is always a that, a phrase or a sentence, so it must have a certain structure.

If we want to study language in a more comprehensive way, I think the relation bewteen syntax and semantics must be one of interdependence, and thus it is more fruitful to study the way structures are built up and also the meaning that arises from such building operation. Just as we have structure building from a syntactic perspective, we have function application from a semantic perspective. This is one of the several general descriptions of the relation between syntax and semantics, but again, the specific views depend on the theories of syntax and semantics which you are working with. Even if the view is that syntax and semantics are related in some way, there are approaches in which syntactic and semantic structures are generated independently, for instance 1 below. There's also an interesting and recent article about the syntax-semantic interface that you might find useful, and that's 2. Another interesting presentation of the mutual influence of syntax and semantics can be found in 3 (link to video).

  1. Jackendoff (2002) Foundations of language: brain, meaning, grammar, evolution.
  2. Hackl (2013) The syntax-semantics interface.
  3. Conference by Barbara Partee (2009) video
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Grammar (syntax and morphology) is an avenue for expressing meaning, and it works in parallel with the explicitly semantic content of the words. We can use all kinds of very technical linguistic jargon to discuss both grammar and semantics, but in the end we have to explain to ourselves and to each other what it all means in very clear and simple everyday terms.

Grammar I think boils down to the fact that we have to express words in sequence one at a time. The options are necessarily further constrained by the language that we speak, just as our vocabulary is. (The constraints are necessary and understood for mutual comprehension.)

If we focus on the meanings of all of the words in our working vocabulary (including words - and parts of words - that serve a grammatical function), and think about dictionaries, an interesting paradox arises:

If we use words to explicate the meaning of other words then we can easily end up going in circles - sooner or later - usually sooner!

This is not a council of despair however. Philosophers like John Locke and Gottfried Leibniz thought deeply about this problem. The conclusion that Leibniz drew was that we have a fundamental vocabulary that can be used to explicate the meanings of all of the rest of our vocabulary.

If I seem to have walked away from answering the original question it is because I think that grammar is subservient to semantics.

Anna Wierzbicka and Cliff Goddard are two of quite a few modern day proponents of this fundamental aspect of languages and linguistics. Wierzbicka's The Semantics of Grammar addresses this question in much greater depth.

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As a supplement to MGN's great answer on CxG in general, there's a closely related approach by Ray Jackendoff and Peter Culicover called "Parallel Architecture" that I think is relevant here.

The question asks whether syntax determines/constrains semantics, semantics determines/constrains syntax, or neither. But there's a fourth possibility: both.

Syntax is inherently tree-structured; that's presumably uncontroversial. And semantics is also inherently tree-structured: PAST(LIKE(John, PROPERTY-OF(Mary, smile))) doesn't make sense unless the argument to PAST is the whole liking, and one of the arguments to LIKE is Mary's smile. There are also both syntactic and semantic mechanisms for coreference. And so on.

The way PA handles this is to treat each construction as having not a syntactic structure with dependent semantics, or a semantic structure with dependent syntax, but instead both a semantic structure and a syntactic structure, plus an interface between the two that determines how components are linked up (and possibly adds additional constraints).1

If you look at a fixed idiom construction, like MGN's "kick the bucket", you get a simple semantic structure with a nonsimple syntax:2

  • cognitive structure: DIE1
  • syntactic structure: [VP kickV [NP^ the bucket]]1

In other words, at the syntactic level, we have a perfectly normal verb phrase, but the verb, noun head of the complement, etc. aren't attached to any meaning; rather, the entire verb phrase is attached to a meaning (that's what the coindexed subscript represents).

Or, for an idiom with a "variable" in it:

  • cognitive structure: SUPERLATIVE(x1)2
  • syntactic structure: [NP theD motherN [PP ofP [NP allD [N' a1 -s]]]2

Here, both semantics and syntax are compositional, but with different structures. The "a" inside the syntactic construction is linked to the "x" in the semantic construction, and the entire syntactic tree is linked to the entire semantic tree, but, e.g., the PP syntactic subtree isn't linked to anything.

So, which tree do you "build first" when producing or processing a sentence? Neither. As you go along, you select constructions that have both syntax and semantics and assemble them into larger compositions that also have syntax and semantics, following constraints on both.

In fact, all of the things that traditional generative grammar considers "rules" are like this—the simple active sentence construction is just an idiom with more, and more complicated, variables.

Of course often both syntax and semantics are perfectly compositional, and coindexed in the obvious way, like this construction:3

  • cognitive structure: PROPERTY-OF1(x2, y3)
  • syntactic structure: [NP [DP [NP a2] -'s] bN, 3]]1

… but that's just a very common feature of many constructions, not actually a rule that applies everywhere, as it would be be in a syntax-first or semantics-first theory.

If you could show that in every case, the semantic structure can be derived from the syntactic structure (as traditional generative grammar holds), or vice-versa (as Generative Semantics claimed), then this whole mechanism would just be extra complexity for no real purpose. But Jackendoff and Culicover argue that can't be done. Their book Simpler Syntax is a reasonably approachable introduction to their argument.


1. In fact, there's also a phonological structure, and there's interfaces between all 6 pairs. For example, that's how you handle the altered prosody that goes with topicalization, or syntactic effects of phonological weight in cases like heavy NP shift.

2. The "standard" way to draw things is with two trees, and arrows between nodes in the trees, because using "bracket trees" and indexes gets hard to follow as soon as you try to deal with large phrases or anything nonlocal like anaphora or coordination. But I'll try to keep things simple enough that we can stay with brackets.

3. This is oversimplified; "Mary's" is probably a separable component at the semantic level as well as the syntactic level, and "-'s" probably has an inherent meaning that the "x's y" construction relies on rather than duplicating. And I've left out most of the semantic constraints on all of these trees—for example, as drawn, there's no reason you couldn't use these constructions to build a phrase like "John's mother of all Marys kicked the bucket", which you obviously can't. But I think this is enough to show the idea.

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In my own terms, syntax is the relation between semantics. If the relation gives new semantics, then syntax is semantics by syllogism. The reverse also holds: Semantics describes the syntax of objects. Which is first is undecidable if not meaningless, unless grounded in a thorough understanding of the speech aparatus and its interrelation with the workings of the mind in general. Category theorists observe syntax-semantics-duality (e.g. Stone-Duality), with the empty set or the void-type as initial elements. I wonder for the initial and terminal elements of thought: Ex nihilo quodlibet.

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