Surface structure

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In linguistics, surface structure is generally called the directly observable form of a sentence. “Structure” here generally means a representation that shows the individual parts of the sentence and how they are linked. “Surface structure” is specifically a term used in generative grammar to denote the word and sentence constituents that are then implemented phonetically in pronunciation . It is in contrast to the deep structure , which denotes an abstract level, accessible only through theoretical analysis, on which a systematic explanation for the occurrence of variations in the surface form is expressed. A classic example is the variation between active and passive : These have different surface shapes, to which the deep structure shows the similarities, which are also reflected in their similarity of meaning.

In a more technical perspective, it can be said that the term surface structure (Engl. Surface structure , abbreviated OS and SS, later S-structure) in the generative grammar to the mid-1990s, the result of the syntactic derivation represented a linguistic expression . The term was introduced by Noam Chomsky as part of Generative Transformation Grammar in the late 1950s. It describes the constituent structures of a well-formed sentence, which consists of a deep structure , i.e. H. can be derived from abstract syntactic basic components and transformation rules operating on them.

From the depth to the surface structure

A core idea of ​​generative transformation grammar is that representations of sentences are broken down into constituents (parts of sentences, word groups, words, syllables) and generated using general rules. The application of this so-called constituent analysis and phrase structure rules results in a hierarchical structure: the deep structure . The creation of the first level is called the basic generation .

Depending on the language and the theoretical environment, further meta-rules, so-called transformations , can be applied to the deep structure . Usually the hierarchical or linear sequence of the constituents is changed, individual elements are removed and new ones are added (e.g. conjunctions, inflections). The end product of these standard applications is called surface structure , the path from deep to surface structure derivation .

It is important to note that the creation of the surface structure in the sense of generative grammar is not a matter of mapping a pragmatic , everyday language production process, but rather the idealized mapping of the hierarchical order of the abstract components of a sentence. Chomsky's model was controversially discussed in the Linguistics Wars and varied several times (see interpretative semantics )


Traditional German grammar distinguishes between independent main clauses (Hannah tells Jörg, ...) with a subject-verb-object position (SVO) and dependent subordinate clauses (... that Lisa has invited them) with an SOV order . Generative analyzes give up this evaluation in superordinate or subordinate order by assuming a common deep structure and showing that one can mutually transform the different appearances by rearrangements and that many statements require an addition: Es [representative particle: reference to the subject sentence ] pleased [V] Hannah [O] that Lisa has invited her [subject sentence , convertible into: Lisa's invitation] (see Generative sentence formation with tree graph examples ).

Example of an operation:

The surface structure of the sentence is to be generated

Peter sees the man ,

where Peter and the man are two noun phrases (NP), sees is a verb (V) and Peter sees the man as a whole is a sentence (S).

The following phrase structure rules are assumed for German (among other things):

VP → NP V.

The basis-generated deep structure would be

[S NP [VP NP V]],

where the square brackets reflect the hierarchical order of the elements.

This structure forms the necessary context for a movement transformation, which structurally lifts the verb, i.e. detaches it from the VP and integrates it into the higher-level layer. A radically simplified representation of the resulting surface structure would be:

[S NP Vi [VP NP ti]],

where t is called the trace and indicates the position from which the verb V was moved. The common index i should represent the co-reference between the track and the moving element.


  • Hadumod Bußmann (Ed.): Lexicon of Linguistics. 3rd updated and expanded edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-520-45203-0 (entry surface structure ).
  • PH Matthews: Concise Dictionary of Linguistics. Oxford University Press.
  • DM Perlmutter, S. Soames: Syntactic Argumentation and the Structure of English. University of California Press, Berkeley / Los Angeles / London 1979, ISBN 0-520-03828-2 .

Web links

Wiktionary: surface structure  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. surface structure. In: Hadumod Bußmann (Ed.): Lexicon of Linguistics. 3rd updated and expanded edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-520-45203-0 , p.
  2. ^ Noam Chomsky: Syntactic Structures . Mouton, The Hague / Paris 1957.
  3. Noam Chomsky: Aspects of Syntax Theory. (Translation from: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, 1965). Frankfurt 1969.