Constituent grammar

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A constituent grammar is a grammar that is based on the principle of constituency and gradually breaks down a sentence into smaller units ( constituents ). Noam Chomsky uses this model under the name of “ phrase structure grammar ” for syntax descriptions in the context of generative transformation grammar . In contrast to this, the dependency grammar accentuates the relationship of a dependent word (dependency) to a superordinate one (rain) when structuring sentences.


In American structuralism , the constituent grammar was developed by Rulon S. Wells and Charles Hockett. Whenever possible, a larger syntactic unit is broken down into two or more constituents. If this is done step by step down to the words of the sentence, the hierarchical structure of the sentence is obtained according to the principle of constituency, e.g. B.

Structure tree (constituent grammar)

A constituent grammar is characterized by the combinatorics of a sentence or a group of words with the part-whole relationship. The overall expression is broken down into its immediate components, which in turn are broken down into their immediate components, until one arrives at the elementary units that are normally words. The components are called constituents. In the example here there are 23 constituents (= 23 nodes in the tree). The constituents obtained in the same analysis step are called immediate constituents, abbreviated: IC. Several constituents of the same analysis step are called co-constituents. Non-immediate constituents are also called indirect constituents.

The correctness of each division can be checked with the help of a replacement test. Units are permitted that can be replaced by a word form or that appear as extensions of a word form. The method (also known under the term IC analysis = immediate constituent analysis) was transferred to morphology using similar analysis principles (Busch & Stenschke 2007, 83ff.). It makes it possible to work out the hierarchical structures of linguistic units in both syntax and morphology, which consist in the fact that in a complex linguistic unit some constituents are more closely connected (directly), others less closely (indirectly). This type of structuralist linguistics is also called taxonomic structuralism.


The constituent grammar differs from the dependency grammar, which emerged around the same time (1930s) . Dependency is a strict mother-daughter relationship (= rain-dependency relationship). In a dependency structure, each word projects a single node. The dependency structure of the above example is as follows:

Structure tree (dependency grammar)

If a constituent is defined as a complete tree or a complete subtree of a tree, then dependency structures can also be broken down into constituents. This dependency tree contains 12 constituents (= number of nodes). However, the decomposition proceeds differently in that smaller constituents are detached from their heads.

Constituent grammars and dependency grammars

The following syntax theories are constituent grammars:

Constituent grammars (= phrase structure grammars)
Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar
Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar
Categorical grammar
Lexical-functional grammar
Minimalist program
Rection and attachment theory

And the following syntax theories are dependency grammars:

Dependency grammars
Meaning text model
Extensible Dependency Grammar
Functional generative description
Lexicase Grammar
Word Grammar

Constituent grammars are common in English-speaking countries, while dependency grammars are more prevalent in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe and the German-speaking countries.

See also


  • Vilmos Ágel , Ludwig Eichinger, Hans-Werner Eroms, Peter Hellwig, Hans Heringer, and Hennig Lobin (eds.): Dependenz and Valenz: An international handbook of contemporary research . Berlin: Walter de Gruyter 2003/2006.
  • Klaus Brinker : Constituent structure grammar and operational sentence segment analysis. Athenaeum, Frankfurt 1972. ISBN 3-7610-7142-6 .
  • Klaus Brinker: Models and Methods of Structuralist Syntax. Kohlhammer: Stuttgart u. a. 1977. ISBN 3-17-002749-2 .
  • Noam Chomsky: Syntactic Structures . The Hague / Paris: Mouton 1957.
  • Albert Busch, Oliver Stenschke: German Linguistics. An introduction . Narr, Tübingen 2007. ISBN 978-3-8233-6288-3 .
  • Charles Hockett: A Course in Modern Linguistics. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York / London 1958, pp. 147-156.
  • Rulon S. Wells: Immediate Constituents , in: Language 23, 1947, pp. 81-117.
  • Lucien Tesnière: Éleménts de syntaxe structurale . Paris: Klincksieck 1959.

Web links

Wiktionary: IC analysis  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: indirect constituents  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: immediate constituents  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Constituent structure grammar  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. See Brinker (1972) and (1977).
  2. See Wells (1947) and Hockett (1958)
  3. The dependency grammar is primarily associated with Tesnière (1959). See also Ágel et al. (2003/6).