What are the tests that you can apply to determine whether a sequence of words is a syntactic constituent? Give examples to illustrate.

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Keep in mind that multiple tests should be done. One test alone might not settle the matter of whether a word or phrase is a constituent.

Topicalization- move the potential constituent to the beginning of the sentence and see if the meaning is sustained.

A constituent:

I ran home because I was already late.

Because I was already late, I ran home.

Not evidence of a constituent:

I ran homebecause I wasalready late.

Because I was, I ran home already late.

Clefting- place "It is/was" before the sequence, follow with "that" and then finish with the rest of the sentence. It was X (sequence) that . . .

A constituent:

I built a skyscraper with some construction paper and duct tape.

It was with some construction paper and duct tape that I built a skyscraper.

Not evidence of a constituent:

I builta skyscraper with some construction paperand duct tape.

It was a skyscraper with some construction paper that I built and duct tape.

(Again, one test is not enough. This one almost makes sense and this is indicative of further required tests.)

Pseudoclefting -using "is/are what" or "is/are who" around the sequence.

Not evidence of a constituent:

A skyscraper with some construction paper is what I built and duct tape.

Also not evidence of a constituent:

With some construction paper and duct tapeis what I built a skyscraper.

(Note that this phrase passed the clefting but not the pseudoclefting test.)

Pro-form Substitution (pronoun)

I know the man who built the skyscraper.

I know him who built the skyscraper. (This doesn't work because it is ungrammatical.)

I know him. (This works because him grammatically replaces "the man who built the skyscraper.)

Answer fragments (a test to determine if a phrase can stand alone as an answer)

What are you doing? Playing a. (unacceptable)

What are you doing? Playing a game. (acceptable)

Passivization - changing an active sentence to a passive one or vice versa.

A woman who was driving while texting hit the broad side of a barn.

The broad side of a barn was hit by a woman who was driving while texting.

Omission - if a constituent can be omitted without affecting the grammar of the sentence, it is a constituent.

I drank some coffee in the kitchen.

I drank some coffee. ("in the kitchen" is therefore a constituent)

Coordination - a flimsy test that assumes only constituents can be joined by coordinators such as "and."

The dogunderstands calculusandenjoysalgebra.

This works for the coordination test, but using topicalization, the phrases "understands calculus" and/or "enjoys" fail.

Understands calculus, the dog and enjoys algebra.

Understands calculus and enjoys algebra, the dog.

This test (coordination) is the least reliable.

Sources:

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