The Structure of English Language - Introduction

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This is a guide to the structure of the English language. Teachers of English and English as a second language may use it for reference. This text is recommended for advanced users of English.

We can study the structure of language in a variety of ways. For example, we can study

  • classes of words (parts of speech),
  • meanings of words and longer structures (semantics),
  • how words are organised in relation to each other (syntax),
  • how words are formed (morphology),
  • the sounds of words (phonology) and
  • how written forms represent these (lexicography).

There is no universally accepted model for doing this, but some models use the notion of a hierarchy, and this may prove fruitful for you.

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The most basic units of meaning are simple words (e.g.: dog, yes and swim) or the elements of complex words (e.g.: un- -happi- and -ness in unhappiness). These basic elements are called morphemes, and the study of how they are combined in words is morphology.

The study of how words are organised into phrases, clauses and sentences is usually referred to as syntax.

A longer stretch of language is known as discourse, the study of its structure as discourse analysis.

This hierarchy is partly explained by the table below. The right hand column should be read upwards, in the direction of the arrow.

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Outline structure of English

sentences
are analysed into
clauses
are analysed into
phrases
are analysed into
words
are analysed into
morphemes
↓ ↑
sentences
are used to build
clauses
are used to build
phrases
are used to build
words
are used to build
morphemes

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The following table shows a three-part model of the structure of English.

Three-part model of English

Morphology
Syntax
Discourse
morphemes


words
phrases


clauses


sentences
relationships between sentences in longer stretches of language

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