Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Immediate Constituent Analysis

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What is a constituent?

A constituent is one of two or more grammatical units that enter syntactically or morphologically into a construction at any level. Lets take this example from English

• You eat bananas

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This sentence contains the following constituents

Immediate constituents

• you

• eat bananas

Ultimate constituents

• you

• eat

• banana

• -s

• Definition of Immediate Constituent

An immediate constituent is any one of the largest grammatical units that constitute a construction. Immediate constituents are often further reducible.

Here are some examples of immediate constituents from English

• In the complex noun phrase the dog that killed the cat, each of the following items are immediate constituents

• the

• dog

• that killed the cat

Immediate Constituent Analysis

It is an approach that has some descriptive aims. The technique which is used in this approach is designed to show how small constituents (or components) in sentences go together to form larger constituents. In the following sentence, we can identify eight constituents (at the word level)

The minister handed a letter to the president

These eight constituents go together in a certain way, i.e., we cannot say

Handed a minister handed letter to to the

We don’t normally think of these combinations as phrases in English. But rather, we are more likely to say that the phrase-like constituents here are combinations of the following types the minister, a letter, the president, which are noun phrases; to the wedding, which is a prepositional phrase; handed a letter, which is a verb phrase.

This analysis of constituent structure of the sentence can be represented in different types of diagrams. One type of diagram simply shows how these constituents are distributed at different levels


The Minister A letter To The President

Here is another way to draw the diagram

Why has the ICA failed?

The Immediate Constituent Analysis has failed because it failed to link together the sentences which appear to be semantically, phonetically, and syntactically related bearing in mind that the grammar that is descriptively adequate must be able to give a full account of the native speakers linguistic competence (Kebbe 16). To illustrate this, lets consider the following examples

1) the game was difficult for the kid to win.

) It was difficult for the kid to win the game.

) To win the game was difficult for the kid.

4) For the kid to win the game was difficult.

The native speaker will predict that the above sentences are all related by synonymy. This is a problem for ICA because it can only assign a separate analysis to each sentence missing thus an important generalization about them.

Another problem for ICA is the ambiguous sentences. As mentioned above, the descriptively adequate grammar should be able to assign a different analysis to each of the possible readings of the ambiguous sentence. ICA here as well fails to meet this condition for adequacy as it provides but a single analysis for any given sentences. Lets see this example

I saw the man with binoculars.

This sentence can be interpreted in two ways

I used binoculars to see the man.

Or the man who used binoculars was seen.

The problem here is that the sentence implies two syntactic structures while the ICA can predict one only.

Furthermore, Chomsky points out the fact that ICA shows considerable weakness when dealing with constructional homonymy, i.e., sentences which appear to have the same structure but whose items exhibit different logical relations. The following classic examples may help illustrate the point

1) John is easy to please.

) John is eager to please.

) Bill promised Mary to come early.

4) Bill wanted Mary to come early.

At first sight, the above listed data show that (1) and (), () and (4) have identical linear structures (insofar as their grammatical categories are concerned), yet they are understood in different ways. John in (1) is not the logical (real) subject of please; on the contrary, it is the logical object of the verb. The sentence is understood as for someone to please is easy. By contrast, John in () is the logical subject of please since the sentence is interpreted as John is eager to please others. The same argument can be applied to () and (4) where the logical subjects of come, contrary to what ICA predicts, are not the same in the two sentences in () it is Bill, whereas in (4) it is Mary. Hence the failure of ICA. It assigns exactly the same syntactic structure to both sentences although their logical relations are distinct. (Kebbe 164).


Kebbe, Mohammed Z. Lectures in General Linguistics.

Langacker, Ronald W. Fundamentals of Linguistic Analysis. USA Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. 17.

Smith, Neil and Deirdre Wilson Modern Linguistics The Result of Chomskys Revolution. England Penguin Books Ltd. 17.

Yule, George The Study of Language. Cambridge CUP. 16.

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