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  • Writer's pictureA.F. McAllister

Phrase Structure: Rules or Guidelines?

Updated: Apr 21

Rules of grammar and phrase structure rules seem to be a set of absolute rules that any writer who wishes to be successful must follow. They guide a writer in the process of putting words down onto paper in such a way that other people can understand what is being written. Without these rules, a writer could produce a piece that does not convey any meaning, but are these concrete rules? Or are they made to be broken when the situation dictates? Phrase grammar rules are guidelines for how a language can function and for how it is put together in a grammatical fashion, but these rules are not absolute in all cases. Phrase structure rules are a system of formulas that describe how sentences should be put together in the correct order. These rules build upon a speaker’s nature ability with his or her native tongue. In the book Phrase Structure in Natural Language by Margret Speas, it states that this ability is what allows a speaker “to formulate, understand, and judge the grammaticality of an infinite set of expressions” (5). Everyone has the innate ability to create and speak grammatical sentences because of the interactions with others who speak the same language, namely his or her parents. The phrase structure rules are the way in which a writer learns what is correct and what is not correct when it comes to writing. The textbook states that “PS rules specify the well-formed structures of a particular language precisely and concisely” (95). Every writer must have a firm grasp of the standard rules of grammar. Without this firm grasp, the ability to change and modify the English language would be impossible. Though, on the surface, the idea of altering grammatical rules seems far-fetched, but in some instances, it is acceptable and needed. For example, consider an author creating a piece on the Midwest. Do they speak the same as someone from the west coast? The answer is no. Countries, states, and even different regions within the same state speak differently. They have their own unique dialect that may not conform to the formal standards of grammar. Murray and Simon, in the article Colloquial American English: Grammatical Features, states that “the morphological and syntactic constructions of these regions, [the North, Midwest, and West], render the English used there as distinctive as that occurring anywhere in the United States” (401). People who live in these areas use grammar that is not always correct. Consider the following sentence: The crick is over yonder, past the skreet. Normally we would write: The creek is over there, past the street. But to people living in southern Ohio, the first sentence makes complete sense and is part of their vernacular. It is determined by the region in which they live. When it comes to writing, if a writer has a character who lives in this part of the country, then they have to make sure that they are getting the dialect correct. This could mean that they have to forgo normal, standard grammar rules in order to make the dialogue believable. They have to bend the rules of correct spelling, and perhaps even the correct order for a sentence. What if the writer has an immigrate from another country as the main character? The character’s English may not be grammatically correct because of the person’s native tongue. An example was presented in The Grammar Book: Form, Meaning, and Use for English Language Teachers, when the author discussed the differences between SOV, and SVO order languages. The order of the subject, verb, and object change depending on the person’s native language (78). If an author was to have a main character from Japan, he or she would have to consider the character’s ability to speak grammatical sentences. If the character just arrived in the United States, it would make sense that they could make mistakes in sentence construction. For example: (SVO) George ate the apples. (SOV) George apples ate. While the second sentence is not grammatically correct and does not follow the phrase structure rules of English, it would be correct to write the sentence in this format in this instance. Writers have to consider the character, environment, and knowledge base of the character when writing a piece because sometimes the standard rules of grammar will not work. Adapting the rules is also crucial when it comes to ancient languages or new languages. If an author were to write a piece that had a character appear in the modern world from a period when Old English was spoken, it would make sense that the character may have trouble communicating. An example of this difference in English is presented in the article Variation and change in Old and Middle English – on the validity of the Double Base Hypothesis by Fuss and Trips. They present the following sentences: (1) “… pӕt man pam halgan were pӕt ilce hors eft bringan sceolde. [Meaning] …that one the holy man that same horse again bring should (172).” The sentence in modern English would be written as “…that one had to bring the holy man the same horse again” (172). The grammatical structure of the sentence would be considered wrong in modern English but for someone of the time period, it would have been correct. This is an important concept for a writer to keep in mind when trying to create an accurate portrayal of a historical character. In this instance, it is acceptable to have grammatically incorrect sentences because it is part of who the character is because of where he or she came from. Another acceptable variance to standard language conventions would be when creating a new language from scratch. While a firm basis in grammar rules helps, a new language is developed at the wimp of the creator. Federico Gobbo sums up the difference between a natural language and a planned one in his article The Case of Correlatives: A Comparison between Natural and Planned Languages. He writes that “what distinguishes planned languages from natural ones is the presence of man, who acts as a language planner—rarely, there is a committee, but even so with a clear leader who takes the final decisions about the structure of the planned language” (46). Fantasy, or planned languages are different than a naturally occurring language because the author creates everything, but if the writer does not have a firm grasp of grammar, they cannot bend the rules appropriately. Even Tolkien had a language base that he used when creating his own languages. The article Lŷg and Leuca: “Elven Latin,” Archaic Languages, and the Philology of Britain by Goering, states that “the relationship between Latin and British somehow closely resembles that of Quenya and Sindarin” (67). Tolkien uses his base of knowledge in linguistics and changes it in order to create the elven languages in his novels. He creates his own set of rules and phrase structures that guide his own language. Most writers who are serious about their own language creation should follow a similar path. They have to understand the basics before they bend and change the rules. The application of understanding that phrase rules can bend is needed in certain aspects of the creative process, but a writer must realize when they can and cannot change the rules. As stated above, the bending of the rules can take place in language creation, second language English speakers, and illustrating proper regional dialects. A professional writer should be able to do the required research on the region or language and be able to appropriately add the needed modifications to the sentence structure. If the writer does not have a firm grasp of the rules, then these types of changes should wait until they do. A professional writer should know when they have to follow the rules or when they can get away with changing it. A quote from Barbosa in Pirates of the Caribbean sums this up beautifully when he discussed the rules of parley. He said that “they’re more like guidelines than actual rules” (Curse of the Black Pearl). A writer, in some instances, can apply this same train of thought when it comes to phrase structure rules. This understanding allows the writer to branch out, which improves his or her writing because it opens the door for more genuine interactions between characters. And the writer understands they are not absolute rules, but are guidelines, and sometimes, they are meant to be broken.


Fromkin, Victoria., Rodman, Robert., Hyams, Nina. “An Introduction to Language.” Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. 2017.

Fuss, Eric., Trips, Carola. “Variation and change in Old and Middle English – on the validity of the Double Base Hypothesis.” The Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics. Vol. 4, No. 3. 2002. Accessed 19 November 2021.

Gobbo, Federico. “The Case of Correlatives: A Comparison between Natural and Planned Languages.” Journal of Universal Language 12-2. 2011. 2318/1715629 /542825/J.2011.2.gobbo2011-JUL.pdf. Accessed 18 November 2021.

Goering, Nelson. "Lŷg and Leuca: “Elven-Latin,” Archaic Languages, and the Philology of Britain." Tolkien Studies. Vol. 11. 2014. Project MUSE. doi:10.1353/tks.2014.0012. Accessed 20 Novemebr 2021.

Larsen-Freeman, Diane., Celce-Murcia, Marianne. “The Grammar Book: Form, Meaning, and Use for English Language Teachers.” National Geographic Learning, a part of Cengage Learning. 2016.

Murray, Thomas E., Simon, Beth Lee. "Colloquial American English: grammatical features.” The Americas and the Caribbean. New York: De Gruyter Mouton. 2008. 0.1515/9783110208405.2.401. Accessed 19 November 2021.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Director: Gore Verbinski. Performers: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom. Jerry Bruckheimer Films. 2003. DVD.

Speas, Margaret. “Phrase Structure in Natural Language.” Kluwer Academic Publishers. 1990.

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