3.2 Advanced Theoretical Studies in Grammar: What is Immediate Constituent Analysis?

Chapter  3


3.2 Analyze the concept of immediate constituent analysis and its impact on language.


The goal of ICA is to identify and describe words that are closely related (Immediate constituents). A two-way or binary system is used in dividing up a sentence into decreasing parts called constituents. In syntax, the biggest constituent is therefore the sentence while the smallest is the word. In morphology, the smallest is the morpheme, whether bound or free. To illustrate, we will make a binary analysis of the sentence ‘The small boys opened the door’ and indicate how some of the constituents are related to each other.

1. The small boys / opened the

{NP-subject}              {VP-predicate}

2. The / small boys

{det}   {noun phrase}

3. Small / boys

{adj} {noun}

4. opened / the door

{verb} {noun phrase}

5. the / door

{det} {noun}

Morphologically, the word ‘boys’ is divided into ‘boy’ and ‘-s’ and ‘opened’ into ‘open’ and ‘-ed’.

Concerning the relationship between constituents, those that need each other (and are therefore both obligatory) are said to be in mutual dependency (also called binary dependency). This kind of relationship exists between a subject and a predicate (i above), a determiner and a singular noun (viii above), and a transitive verb and its object (v above). If one of the constituents is obligatory and the other optional, they have a relationship of unilateral dependency. For example, in (ii) and (iii) above, the first constituent can be left out but not the second one. If two constituents cannot co-occur, they are said to be in mutual exclusion. This would be the relationship between the subject and a pronoun if one were to be introduced as in * The small boys they…

The are several criteria used in determining what forms a constituent. First is substitutability. For example, the noun phrase ‘ the small boys’ can be replaced by the pronoun ‘they’. Second is coordination. This means that we can join one unit to another similar one as in ‘the small boys and the big girls’ or ‘opened and closed’. Third is movement. This means that we can move a unit from one position of the sentence to another as in ‘The door was opened by the small boys’- initially the phrase appeared after the verb.



The strong points if ICA include:

  1. ability to show constituents that are closely related and to describe
  2. ability to show the hierarchical nature of constituents (the biggest to the smallest)

ability to remove ambiguity in sentences. For example, in the sentence “ New shoes and handbags are expensive”, we don’t know whether only the shoes are expensive or both the shoes and the handbags.



Among the weak points of ICA are:

  1. it has no capacity to generate new sentences ( can only analyse existing ones)
  2. it cannot detect ill-formed structures as such * pupil write poem
  3. cannot handle discontinuous Consider the sentence: “She brought the children up well”. ‘brought’ and ‘up’ are closely related since they form a phrasal verb but ICA has no way of putting them in the same constituent. Also in “Nimewaona watoto wawili” there is no way of showing that ‘wa’ and ‘watoto’ are one and the same constituent.
  4. the binary division does not work in some constituents. This problem is evident in cases involving coordination as in ‘ Kindness and honesty are virtues’. The question is, should ‘and’ be in the same constituent with ‘kindness’ or with ‘honesty’?
  5. the relationships among constituents are not applicable to most languages so they are not
  6. it has no way of indicating missing but understood elements such as ‘You’ in ‘come here’.
  7. Has no way of showing how various types of sentences are related. Among these are: active and passive, statements and questions and affirmative and negative sentences



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