Introduction  to Phrase Structure Rules in English

Gaurav Gurung
Gaurav Gurung





By- Gaurav Gurung

Phrase structure (PS rules) rules are generally applied to sentences to understand them properly with the divisions of constituents in sentences. It makes us to understand better about the English sentences structure. Generally, sentences are studied under phrases (group of words) or constituents.

Constituents are defined as group of words which work together or belong together. According to Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, “Phrase Structure rules are a way to describe a given language’s syntax and are closely associated with the early stages of Transformational Grammar.

They are used to break down a natural language sentence into its constituent parts (also known as syntactic categories) namely phrasal categories and lexical categories (also known as parts of speech).” Phrase structure rules are needed to understand syntax of certain sentences.

Generally, sentences are studied under two categories which are phrasal categories and lexical categories which are part of syntactic category. Phrasal categories refer to the phrases of sentences having certain functions. There are several types of phrasal categories. Some of them are : NP ( Noun phrase), VP (Verb phrase), PP ( prepositional phrase), AP (Auxiliary phrase),  AdvP ( Adverb phrase), AdjP/Ap ( Adjective phrase). Conventionally, phrasal categories are denoted before arrow we use to refer several constituents of sentences.

Capture1 This is the conventional way to denote phrasal categories.

Likewise, lexical categories refer to parts of speech. They are often defined as lexical items as well. They are noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, conjunctions, particle, preposition etc. These two categories are also known as syntactic category as well.

This sentence was constructed by Noam Chomsky as an illustration that phrase structure rules are capable of generating syntactically correct but semantically incorrect sentences. Phrase structure rules break sentences down into their constituent parts. These constituents are often represented as tree structures. The tree for Chomsky’s famous sentence can be shown as follows:


Noam Chomsky

Basically, there are two types of phrasal categories i.e. noun phrase (NP) and verb phrase (VP). They are the constituents of sentence (S).

A noun phrase correlates noun but in some cases determiners and adjective also the part of it. An noun phrase is modified in some cases which results in adjective phrase (Adj P)(pre-modification of Noun phrase) as well. An noun phrase comes with various positions like subject, object or complement. Pre-modification of noun phrase also takes place in some cases in which noun phrase is modified by PP (prepositional phrase) and subordinate clause. In some cases, sentence consists of double noun phrases.

Likewise, a verb phrase is that type of phrase which co-operates with verbs in a sentence. Though the verb is lexical phrase or necessary in verb phrase (VP), auxiliary verbs also come along with it. VP( Verb phrase) not only consists of another NP but also Adv P(Adverbial phrase)  and PP make the sense in VP. Generally, transitive verbs generate these cases but intransitive verbs don’t come with this things. Cases of inflection also shape the meaning of certain verb in verb phrase (VP).

There are several phrase structure rules of English in which almost all sentences can be generated. While applying the phrase structure rules, several symbols are used which will help to generate complete explicitness. Some of the symbols or abbreviations used in phrase structure rules are as the following:

a)       S →Sentence

b)       DET→Determiner

c)       NP→Noun Phrase

d)       V →Verb

e)       VP→Verb phrase

f)       N→ Noun

g)       P→Preposition

h)       PP→Prepositional Phrase

i)        Adj→Adjective

j)       Adj P→Adjective Phrase

k)      Adv→Adverb

l)        Adv P→Adverbial Phrase

m)      Aux→Auxiliary Verb

n)       Aux P→Auxiliary Phrase etc

While applying phrase structure rules, terminal and non-terminal symbols are used. Terminal symbols are those symbols which are used to represent morphemes but non-terminal symbols stand for syntactic categories. While applying PS rules, tree diagram and square brackets with labeling are used. Some of the tree diagrams representing several PS rules are as the following:

1)     S  → NP      VP

The Cat is Cute.



 2) NP → DET      Adj P        N

A very beautiful model.

3)    NP   →   DET               N                     PP

A model on the ramp.


4)    VP  →     V        NP (Example no. : 1)

5)    PP   →     P       NP (Example no. : 3)

6)    Adj P  →   Adv           Adj (Example no. : 2)

7)    S   →    NP        IP        VP

Bhima is reading books.


8)    CP  →  C        S

Mala told that she would love  me.


9)     VP   →  V      CP ( Example no. : 8)

Note:  IP ( Inflectional Phrase) is also called Auxiliary Phrase (Aux P).IP consists of Tense, Aspect, Modal and Passive. Tense is Mandatory but other aren’t. Tense refers to non-past and past. And aspect consists of perfect and imperfect. Modal refers to modal verbs which are the part of the sentences.


Writer’s Note:

I had written this paper on 28th of December, 2012 during my Linguistic class in MA in English Program (I-Semester) at IACER ( Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research), Baneshwor Height, kathmandu, Nepal (Affiliated to Pokhara University).

Albeit, I put my best work in this paper; I would love to have feedback and comments from you (readers) to make this paper better. I hope this paper would be real help to the upcoming learners in Linguistics, since we thought it would be real hard to learn.

If you can’t read the tree of sentence structure. I would love to send the file enclosed to your mail. All you need to mail me at . Don’t feel hesitated to write to me.


About the writer:

Mr G. Gurung is currently working as the content writer in local based  IT company. He is doing his MA in English (III-Semester)  Program at IACER, Pokhara University. With his early twenties (23), he has managed to do two years long teaching in local boarding school and has maintained to run outreach center to domestic workers when he was working in a native organization called CWISH (Children and Women in Social Service and Human Rights).

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One thought on “Saying “HELLO” To PS (Phrase Structure) Rules In English

  1. Very well presented!

    “Mala told that she would love me” I think this sentence does not conform to standard English.

    Mala said that she would love me.
    Mala told Ali that she would love me.

    Is verb transitivity an issue?

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