Familiar Syntax-Lexis Links

 Materials in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) have implicitly recognised for many years that similar meanings may have both a lexical and a grammatical realisation. One of the earliest influences was the work of Winter (1977), where conjunctions, conjuncts and ordinary lexis are labelled three “vocabularies” of interclausal relations, as follows:


Although chickens have wings, they cannot fly.


Chickens have wings.  However, they cannot fly.


Chickens have wings.  Their inability to fly is surprising.

 Most people would agree here that although is “grammatical” whilst surprising is “lexical”.  The usual criterion is word class (conjunctions are typically grammatical while adjectives are lexical), which is linked to the capacity for new coinages (adjectives being more “open” to these than conjunctions).  Conjuncts perhaps fall between these two extremes, and are thus less clearly syntactic or lexical.

 Interestingly, Winter did not consider a fourth possible “vocabulary”, itself very clearly syntactic rather than lexical – prepositions introducing adverbial phrases:


Despite their wings, chickens cannot fly.


Halliday and Hasan (1976) are also a source of a well-known grammar-lexis link in EAP materials, through their analysis of cohesion markers in English.  Cohesion is now fully established as involving not just the traditional (grammatical) pronouns, but also the wider grammatical class of “pro-forms”, plus such lexical devices as exact repetition and repetition with synonyms and hypernyms:


Malaria is an economic concern.  It greatly affects output.

Mecca is central to Islam.  Believers try hard to go there.


Tax rises create bankruptcies.  Bankruptcies ruin lives. (EXACT REPETITION)

The government will cut income tax.  This policy is unfair. (HYPERNYM)


A third area where the linkage of grammatical and lexical forms is familiar is modality.  For example, probability is routinely said to be expressible either grammatically through modal verbs or lexically through ordinary nouns and adjectives:


England could beat Australia next time.


There is a (small) chance of England beating Australia next time. 


Value of Finding Syntax-Lexis Alternations

 When these recognised syntax-lexis alternations are brought together to indicate something of a trend in English, it is natural to wonder what other undiscovered alternations might exist.  There are various reasons why further discoveries might prove useful:

 (a)       Grammatical meanings might provide a new basis on which to group apparently disparate lexical items in EAP syllabuses.

 (b)       Grouping lexis in this way might provide a mnemonic to assist its acquisition by second language learners.

 (c)       Lexical paraphrases of grammatical concepts might assist the acquisition of the latter.

 (d)       Familiarity with syntax-lexis “translations” might improve EAP learners’ ability to paraphrase source texts in order to avoid plagiarism.  Such familiarity not only indicates new ways of paraphrasing, but also counteracts the misguided belief that to paraphrase is to substitute one lexical item for another.



Some Additional Alternations

 By accident or design I have identified a variety of further syntax-lexis alternations.


1.  LEXICAL NEGATIVES emerged as a fruitful EAP topic after an observation that learners often get the wrong end of the stick in reading when negation is not in its usual grammatical form.  The reason for such misinterpretation may lie not just in a misconception that negation must always be grammatical, but also in the fact that lexical negation seems to be much more varied in English than grammatical, with the result that learners actually need quite a large vocabulary in order to recognise it consistently.  The importance of lexical negatives in EAP lies in the fact that they allow polite criticism of another person’s argument, this being a central academic practice (Meldrum, 2000).  They are also important because, unlike many other single lexical items, they contribute core meaning to sentences:  if their meaning is ignored, the reader is likely to derive the opposite of the negative message that was intended.  The following vocabulary-teaching task, based on personal observation of EAP texts, illustrates the variety of expression that is available. 



Read the statements below in order to find those in which the writer is being negative or critical.  Underline the word(s) that show this negativity.

1.         The ability of mankind to overcome global warming is highly debatable.

2.         Women are arguably able to do any job that men have traditionally done.

3.         To claim that capital punishment can deter crime extends beyond the bounds of belief.

4.         There can be little justification of smoking in terms of any benefits that it might bring.

5.         Some analysts have placed their trust in a somewhat mythical power of government spending to reduce income inequalities.

6.         There is a grain of truth in the claim that British colonialism brought benefits as well as suffering.

7.         If trust can be placed in Second Language Acquisition research, there are quite shaky grounds for teaching grammatical structures by means of parrot-like repetition.

8.         It is a tempting to think that building new roads is the solution to traffic congestion.

9.         It is sometimes suggested that women are more successful language learners than men. This misconception is probably based on the fact that language classes have a noticeably female composition.

10.       An initial priority is to dismiss all notions that poverty is a self-inflicted evil.

11.       Evidence for racial causes of athletic prowess is scanty to say the least.

Other Negative Adjectives

OVERSTATED                                             UNCONVINCING

BOGUS                                                      PROBLEMATIC

INDEFENSIBLE                                           FEEBLE

QUESTIONABLE                                         EXTREME

HARD TO ACCEPT                                      WORTHLESS


All of these statements contain a “hidden negative” except nos. 2 and 6.  Sentence 2 makes the interesting point that, whereas “debatable” is negative (used to question an opponent’s view), “arguable” is positive (used to indicate that a personal opinion is being given). 


2.  INDIRECT QUESTIONS form a second important EAP area where we can discover a new syntax-lexis alternation.  The importance of indirect questions to EAP lies not so much in the fact that they allow “reporting” as in their ability to introduce a section or topic in a stylistically formal way.  For example, they might occur in the introduction to an academic essay as follows, being greatly preferred to their direct equivalents[1]: 

Mobile telephone use has accelerated phenomenally in the past decade.  This essay will examine why this has occurred and how influential each different reason is. 

The particularly “grammatical” forms in indirect questions are the question words (“why” and “how” in this example).  The lexical equivalents emerge when it is recognised that an indirect question can be asked without any question word at all.  This fact will be clear from the following extract from a web-based materials project at my own university:


Study these two different ways to make a direct question indirect. DIRECT         :       How does global warming harm the world? 

INDIRECT    :       It is important to understand ……..


                              (1) … how global warming harms the world

                              (2) … the way global warming harms the world.


In (2) the question word how has gone, and we have now used a NOUN (way) instead.



Identify the indirect question words implied in the following.  Answers are below.


  1. 1.                  We must now identify reasons for the Internet’s success.
  2. 2.                  The central problem, of course, is the nature of justice.
  3. 3.                  The next section considers the value of feedback.

4.         Napoleon’s origin merits detailed analysis.


ANSWERS: why the Internet is successful; what justice is; how valuable feedback is; where Napoleon came from.



Rewrite these indirect questions so that there are no question words.  Then check your ideas with the suggestions below.


  1. 1.                  It is important to appreciate how a transistor works.
  2. 2.                  An experiment was conducted to ascertain whether carbon dioxide levels increase in winter.
  3. 3.                  It is first necessary to identify what a sentence is.
  4. 4.                  A major fact to establish is when computers first appeared.
  5. 5.                  Thus one must clarify how many problems these answers solve.



(1)              It is important to appreciate the manner/way in which a transistor works.

(2)              An experiment was conducted to ascertain the stability/behaviour of carbon dioxide levels in winter.

(3)              It is first necessary to identify the nature/definition of a sentence.

(4)              A major fact to establish is the date of computers’ first appearance.

(5)      Thus one must clarify the number of problems that these answers solve.


Finding lexical equivalents of question words seems to be a particularly fruitful means of identifying important EAP lexis.  I produced the following list after just a few minutes’ reflection. 


way, means, manner, mode, method, methodology, approach, technique, style, tactic, strategy. 


identity, nature, definition, name, term, description. 


appearance, characteristic(s), features, quality. 


(a) reason, cause, source, factor, determinant, origin, (b) purpose, intention, aim, motive, end, objective, desire, goal. 


place, location, position, spot, stage, point, bearings. 


time, occurrence, date, moment, hour, day, week, month, year, decade, century, millennium, point, stage, period, age, reign, era. 


3.  VERBAL CONJUNCTIONS are a subcategory of Winter’s “vocabulary 3”.  I became aware of them in seeking to understand EAP learners’ problems in both understanding and wielding nominalizations.  The comprehension difficulties might be illustrated by the following sentence paraphrased from an Economics journal: 

The move away from marriage is being accompanied by a progressive appropriation of the rights of the married by the non-married. 

Evidence of the difficulty that this poses for students is usually provided by the gasps that greet its translation to “People are marrying less but having just as much sex”.  Part of the problem here, no doubt, lies in the rather coy “rights of the married”.  However, experience suggests that the nominalization appropriation is also a factor.  It is, of course, a nominalization of the verb appropriate, whose subject and object would have been respectively the non-married and the rights of the married (cf. the prepositions of and by).  If we try to write this sentence with the two nouns move and appropriation converted back to verbs (i.e. something more like EAP learners might attempt to say), a likely result might be something like: 

While people are moving away from marriage, the non-married are progressively appropriating the rights of the married. 

This rendering has lost the verb is being accompanied by, but has gained the conjunction while instead.  These two items are synonyms – and one is lexical while the other is grammatical. 

Once we have identified is accompanied by as a “verbal conjunction” it is an easy step to find corresponding verbs for other conjunctions.  Here are a few possibilities: 


leads to, results in, causes, creates, etc. (Hard work leads to success). 


precedes, anticipates 


follows, succeeds 

SO THAT (Purpose)

is aimed at 


contradicts, fails to bring 


4.  LEXICAL PASSIVES are yet another way to lexicalise a grammatical meaning.  In this case lexical items link not with particular grammatical items, but with a morpho-syntactic structure (BE + -ed), for example was sent, as in John was sent to gaol. 

The value of this alternation arises from the current doubts about passive verb usage that computer grammar-checkers in particular encourage. There is some virtue, perhaps, in preferring the supposed “simplicity” of the active voice in preference to the passive, but not when such preferences result in mere grammatical transformations that ignore all of the insights Linguistics has now given us into the true value of the passive (for example its ability to place “given” and “new” noun phrases in the most appropriate clause positions). The problem in avoiding the passive, then, is how to replace it with an active without altering any other part of the clause.  The proposed concept of “lexical” passives might just fit this bill.  A lexical passive is a particular verb whose active form can replace the passive form of a different verb without significant impact on meaning or word order.  Compare the following: 


John was sent to gaol. 


John went to gaol. 

We might expect lexical passives to include something of the “meaning” of the equivalent passive in their lexical meaning, but this seems to be variable.  In the second sentence above, a passive meaning is perhaps detectable in the fact that the subject John still seems to be having something “done to” him.  Technically, we might argue that this use of GO is “ergative” (Zobl, 1989), and in contrast to the interpretation that we would have if the were inserted before gaol.  A particularly clear lexicalisation of passive meaning is observable in a different example, the verb RECEIVE in the sense of BE GIVEN.  At the opposite extreme, however, there seems not to be the same relationship in the pair BE ATTRACTED BY and SEEK. 

Verb pairs of this sort are, like other grammar-lexis links, surprisingly easy to find, once a serious attempt is made – and this availability may help to explain why the active is so much more common than the passive in English as a whole.  The following are a few of the possibilities: 

BE OWNED BY                     –          BELONG TO

BE PROVIDED BY               –          COME FROM

BE CONTROLLED BY         –          OBEY

BE LIKED BY                        –          APPEAL TO

BE BUILT ON                       –          STAND ON

BE FED BY                            –          CONSUME

BE FILLED WITH               –          CONTAIN

BE ASSISTED BY                 –          BENEFIT FROM

BE INHABITED BY             –          HOUSE/BE THE HOME OF


The last example here indicates an interesting possibility that emerges during any search for lexical passives: the availability of BE constructions (with nouns or adjectives) as a supplement to active verbs. 



The possibility of lexical items being related to each other through their links to a particular grammatical pattern in English may be a promising idea on which to base EAP vocabulary materials.  In this paper I have presented seven separate grammatical areas from which lexis might be derivable.  There is no reason to believe that there are no more.  If we believe that we can find them, and actively go out after them, there is no knowing what surprises might turn up. 






HALLIDAY, M.A.K. & HASAN, R.  (1976).   Cohesion in English.   Harlow, Longman.


MELDRUM, G.  (2000).   “I know I have to be critical, but how?”.  In G.M. Blue, J. Milton and J. Saville (eds).  Assessing English for Academic Purposes.   Bern, Peter Lang.


WINTER, E.O.  (1977).   “A Clause-Relational Approach to English Texts”.  Instructional Science.  6, 1: 1-92.

[1] Of particular EAP interest is the fact that this preference is not the case in all languages.  Romance languages, for example, seem much more at home with direct questions in these contexts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.