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How do Syntax and Semantics Get Along?

Jere Mitchum dropped us this note Monday:

“I’ve been concerned about the awkward placement of only in present day writing. This example is from your April 27th discussion of denouement:

‘It has only been in the language since the latter half of the 18th century, so it has changed little.’

It seems to me that only should be next to since because the sentence means it has been in the language only since the latter half of the 18th century.”

“Another recent example may be clearer: ‘We were only able to book six travelers.’

Only here modifies six, not able. Why not place it next to the word it modifies?”

My response to Jere was so long that I haven’t heard from him since. The reason I was swept away in my answer to this question is that it touches on one of the most fascinating aspects of language: how it is processed by the human brain.

In fact, language comprises several layers of mental rules that operate independently but simultaneously. The semantic regions in our brains feed on syntactic and morphological (word form) regions but maintain their own set of rules and acceptable relationships.

This means that the semantic operations of our minds put the semantic components of a sentence together in a way vastly different from the way syntatic rules put words together. The classic example is, “An occasional sailor walked by.” I think most English speakers would accept this sentence even though ”an occasional sailor” here does not refer to someone who occasionally sails.

Even though the adjective occasional is perfectly at home before the noun sailor syntactically, its meaning does not combine sensibly with sailor in this sentence. So, the semantic component in our brains simply looks and finds another word in the sentence whose meaning the adjective makes sense with, and we understand the sentence as quickly as we would have had syntax placed occasionally before walked.

I have published quite a bit of scholarship about noun phrases like criminal lawyer and old friend. A lawyer doesn’t have to be crimnal to practice criminal law (though some wag might suggest it would help). Again here, the semantic rules dig into the syntactic stuff of this phrase and decide that the suffix -(y)er has more likely been added to the phrase criminal law than simply to law. Piece of cake.

While an old friend may be old, the semantic operator in our brains is happy if only the friendship is old. The definition of friend is “member of a friendship” so, at the semantic level, old may modify either main semantic concept: “old member” or “old friendship”. Semantics operates on semantic objects, not syntactic or morphological ones. Makes sense.

The syntactic component of our mind ’reads’ morphological rules, and follows hints laid down by suffixes and the like: occasional goes well with sailor but three does not, since adjectives may modify nouns syntactically but numbers above one require a plural noun. This information helps semantics but doesn’t do its job for it.

The semantic component in our minds operates on logic: which words make sense together? Semantics looks for the most likely combinations whether the syntactic construction helps or not. Semantics considers syntactic rules suggestions, not laws.

I find it fascinating that we can collect examples like these prove that our brain contains a language processor that comprises distinct parts (levels, subcomponents) that talk to each other but have their own rule-governed characters. Linguists today are exploring the interactions between these parts and the discoveries they are making are truly remarkable.

6 Responses to “How do Syntax and Semantics Get Along?”

  1. Rick Mastronardi Says:

    Just found your site and was hoping for an explanation about the common use of the the adjective “not” before a term “inexpensive” that is “not uncommon” usage in 18th century writing. Why “not inexpensive” instead of plain ol’ “expensive.”

  2. Jere Mitchum Says:

    Thanks for your reply to my previous question about placement of “only” which was more detailed than I had expected. Here’s another that a friend asked me, but I was unable to answer to her satisfaction:
    I am contemplating the two root word nouns, “fire” and “wire.” If I want to turn them into adjectives, I would drop the “e” and add a “y.” True with “wiry,” but how is it that the should-be-dropped “e” in fire simply shifts left and becomes “fiery”? Is it just the vagaries of the language or is there a rule?

  3. rbeard Says:


    The spelling of “fiery” is just a quirk (vagary) of the English spelling system, one of the worst on Earth. It involves no rule; writers just have to know it.


    Prescriptive grammarians have railed in vain against these constructions for centuries. As usual, like all linguists who like to prescribe rules of grammar based on logic, these are wrong, too.

    In point of fact, “not uncommon” does not mean the same thing as “common”, any more than “not common” means the same thing as “uncommon”.

    Negation works in an odd way in the world’s languages. Negative constructions are sometime positive. In this case, “not common” implies something slightly more common than uncommon but not “uncommon”. “Not uncommon” implies something less common than “common”, but not common.

    The result is a gradation of commonness:

    not uncommon
    not common

    It works especially clearly with antonyms like “good” and “bad”:

    This icecream is good.
    This icecream is not bad. (= pretty good)
    This icecream is not good. (= pretty bad)
    This icecream is bad.

    Notice how the negative expressions overlap, with “not bad” actually implying something rather good and something “not good” implying something rather bad.

    So “not uncommon” does not mean “common” nor does “not common” mean “uncommon”. We need all four expressions to make four relatively fine distinctions in the quality of things.

  4. Rick Mastronardi Says:

    Dr. Goodword:
    Thank you. That makes perfectly good sense to me. It affirms my opinion that by reducing the use of such subtle and fine expressions from our speech patterns in America we are becoming less accurate and complete in our ability to convey meaning. Curious as to your thoughts on the matter….

    Is my conclusion that we no longer see or hear this expression a true one, or is it just that I am not in the more elite circle of communicators?
    Thanks for the quick reply! Rick

  5. Marla Katen Says:

    Um those jeans could NOT look better on you. Amazing.

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