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Syntagmatic Relations

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English

Before we discuss what syntagmatic relation is, let's first have a look at semiotics, saussure, and syntagms.

Semiotics, saussure, and syntagms

The term 'syntagmatic' is closely related to the field of semiotics. Semiotics is the study of how meanings are produced by signs.

Road signs are a good example. You can understand the meaning of the signs even though there aren't any words to explain what they mean. Look at the two road signs below. You know that the left one means 'no u-turns' and the right one means 'slippery road'.

Syntagmatic Relations, Syntagmatic Relations Example, StudySmarterNo u-turns, pixaby.comSlippery road, pixaby.com

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) argued that:

  • Words in a sentence are meaningfully related to each other. Saussure called this relationship syntagmatic, and the combinations of two or more words that create the chain of words he called syntagms.

When a single word or element of the chain is altered, the overall meaning is also changed. This chain concept is the basis of syntagmatic relations.

What is a Syntagmatic Relation?

Syntagmatic relation defines the relationship between words that co-occur in the same sentence. It focuses on two main parts: how the position and the word order affect the meaning of a sentence. Let's look at an example:

Syntagmatic relations

Paul is roasting a chicken

The syntagmatic relation in this sentence explains:

  • The word position and order: Paul + is roasting + a chicken
  • The relationship between words gives a particular meaning to the sentence:
    • It is a chicken that Paul is roasting, not something else.
    • It is Paul who is roasting a chicken, not someone else.

Thus, the syntagmatic relation refers to a word's ability to combine with other words, and the syntagmatic dimension (syntagm) always refers to the horizontal axis or linear aspect of a sentence.

The syntagmatic relation can also explain why specific words are often paired together (collocations), such as have + a party in 'We had a party on Saturday'. If you hear someone say, 'We made a party on Saturday', you'll probably cringe because make + a party doesn't sound right.

The opposite of syntagmatic relation is paradigmatic relation. Paradigmatic relation refers to the relationship between words that can be substituted within the same word class (on the vertical axis).

Study tip: Syntagmatic relation is about word order and position. The meaning of syntagmatic is similar to syntax (the arrangement of words and phrases in a sentence).

Some examples of syntagmatic relations

Some examples of syntagmatic relations are shown in the table below:

Syntagmatic relations
Subject verb Object
DeterminerAdjective NounNoun
Thebeautifulwomanbuyssome brioche
handsomemansoldsome cake
tallboyis eating

a hotdog

From these sentences, the syntagmatic relations are all the relationships between words within the same sentence. That means there is a syntagmatic relation in:

  • The beautiful woman + buys + some brioche (sentence level).
  • The + beautiful + woman (phrase level).
  • The handsome man + sold + some cake; and the + handsome + man.
  • The tall boy + is eating + a hotdog; and the + tall + boy.

Additionally, in all three sentences above, each grammatical function (ie, subject, verb, and object) is at the same level. But in some cases, if you change the order of the sentence structure, it can change the meaning completely. For example:

  1. The tall boy is eating a hotdog.
  2. A hotdog is eating the tall boy.

The two sentences use the same words (syntagms) but differ in order (syntagmatic relationship), which changes the meaning of the sentence.

What are the types of syntagmatic relations?

Because syntagmatic relations have to do with the relationship between words, the syntagms can result in collocations and idioms.

Collocations

Collocations are word combinations that frequently occur together.

1. There are three interesting facts about collocations:

  • There isn't a specific rule for the way words go together (why A is commonly paired with B). It is based on what the speakers of a language commonly combine, and eventually, what sounds natural. That's why when you read, 'a handsome girl' instead of 'a pretty girl' it feels odd.

2. Word substitution is possibleSyntagmatic Relations, Collocation example, StudySmarterPretty girl vs handsome girl, pixaby.com

  • Sticking with the example of handsome girl, technically, it isn't wrong to say handsome girl because handsome means 'good-looking' (Oxford Learner's Dictionary) which is gender-neutral. Therefore, you can say handsome girl, but it just doesn't sound natural.

3. The collocation's meaning can be traced back to the meaning of each component

  • For instance, catch a cold means 'getting a cold' and office hours means 'the hour someone dedicates to work'. The definition of each component forms the meaning of a collocation.

Here are some examples of collocations:

Verb + noun: do homework, take a risk, catch a cold.

Noun + noun: office hours, interest group, kitchen cabinet.

Adjective + adverb: good enough, close together, crystal clear.

Verb + preposition: protect from, angry at, take advantage of.

Adverb + verb: strongly suggest, deeply sorry, highly successful.

Adjective + noun: handsome man, quick shower, fast food.

Idioms

Idioms are expressions that have a meaning other than their literal one.

Idioms are distinct from collocations:

1. The word combination is not interchangeable (fixed expressions).

  • You can't substitute the words in idioms, even with their synonyms. For instance, in 'kill two birds with one stone' the stone is substituted with rock and becomes 'kill two birds with one rock'. This version of the idiom simply doesn't exist, even though the overall meaning and construction of the sentence remains unchanged.

2. The meaning of each component is not equal to the meaning of the idiom

  • It is difficult to find the meaning of an idiom based on the definition of the words alone. For example, red herring. If you define the idiom word by word, it means 'red fish', not 'something that misleads', which is the real meaning.
  • Because of this, idioms can't be translated to or from another language because the word definition isn't equivalent to the idiom interpretation.

Here are some examples of popular idioms:

Break a leg.

Miss the boat.

Call it a day.

It's raining cats and dogs.

Kill two birds with one stone.

Paradigmatic vs. syntagmatic relations - what's the difference?

Paradigmatic relation describes the relationship between words that can be substituted for words with the same word class (eg replacing a noun with another noun). A paradigm in this sense refers to the vertical axis of word selection. This explains why paradigmatic relation is the opposite of syntagmatic relation.

Now that we have covered the paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations, we can say that:

  • Paradigmatic relation describes a substitution relationship between words of the same word class. The substitution occurs on the vertical axis.
  • Syntagmatic relation illustrates the linear relationship / position between the words in a sentence. The syntagmatic relation occurs on the horizontal axis.

Paradigmatic

relations

Syntagmatic relations
SubjectverbObject
DeterminerAdjectiveNounNoun
Thebeautifulwomanbuyssome brioche
Theunattractiveladybuyssome bread
Thathandsomemanatesome chicken

Paradigmatic relation:

Let's take 'The beautiful woman buys some brioche'.

  • The beautiful woman can choose to buy: some bread or chicken instead of brioche.
  • Brioche, bread, and chicken are parts of a paradigm of food that the beautiful woman can buy.
  • All the items in the paradigm share some kind of function (in this example: the object of the sentence) and this paradigm represents the category they belong to (in this example: food).
  • Some words from the sentence can also be substituted vertically: 'An unattractive (antonym) lady (synonymy) buys some bread (hyponymy)'.

Syntagmatic relation:

Let's take 'That handsome man ate some chicken'.

  • The combination of 'that handsome man + ate + some chicken' forms a syntagmatic relationship.
  • If the word position is changed, it also changes the meaning of the sentence, eg 'Some chicken ate the handsome man'.
  • Furthermore, the linear relationship also occurs at phrase-level: it is 'handsome + man', not 'handsome + woman' (collocation).

Syntagmatic Relations - Key takeaways

  • Syntagmatic relation illustrates the relationship between words that co-occur in the same sentence. It occurs on the horizontal axis.
  • Syntagmatic relation explains the concept of collocations and idioms.
  • Collocations are words that frequently occur together. The word pairings in collocations are not fixed, but changing the word pairing will make the combination sound unnatural, eg handsome man vs. handsome girl.
  • Idioms are fixed expressions that possess a meaning other than their literal one. The words in idioms can't be substituted, eg miss the boat becomes miss the ship, which is not an idiom.
  • Paradigmatic relation illustrates the relationship between words that can be substituted within the same grammatical position.

Syntagmatic Relations

Syntagmatic relation illustrates the relationship between words that co-occur in the same sentence. It occurs on the horizontal axis.

 The combination of each word in 'Paul is roasting a chicken' forms a syntagmatic relationship. This sentence means (1) It is a chicken that Paul is roasting, not something else, and (2) It is Paul who is roasting the chicken, not someone else.

The types of syntagmatic relations are collocations and idioms.

Paradigmatic relation is about word substitution which occurs on the vertical axis. Syntagmatic relation is about word position and a relationship between words which occurs on the horizontal axis.

Final Syntagmatic Relations Quiz

Question

Which of the following best describes what an idiom is?

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Answer

A well-established phrase or expression with a figurative meaning.

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Question

Which of the following is an example of an idiom?

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Answer

Breaking the ice.

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Question

Which of the following is an example of an idiom?


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Answer

Elephant in the room.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of an idiom?

Show answer

Answer

Running around like a headless chicken.

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Question

True or false?


An idiom gives advice or states a general truth.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false?


Idioms should not be taken literally.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or false?


Idioms are only for everyday conversation and do not appear in literature.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

How many idioms are there in the English language?

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Answer

More than 10,000.

Show question

Question

Which of the following does NOT apply to an idiom?

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Answer

It is an obscure phrase.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of an idiom?

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Answer

Let’s begin.

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Question

True or false?


Idioms often use metaphors.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

What does the idiom “throw a spanner in the works” mean?

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Answer

To stop a plan going smoothly.

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Question

What does the idiom, “my neck of the woods” mean?

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Answer

The place where I live.

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Question

What does the idiom, “kick the bucket” mean?

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Answer

To die.

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Question

Which of the following idioms refers to a reversal of fortunes?

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Answer

Turn the tables.

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Question

What is a syntagmatic relation?

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Answer

Syntagmatic relation illustrates the relationship between words that co-occur in the same sentence.

Show question

Question

Does the syntagmatic relation occur on the vertical or horizontal axis?


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Answer

The syntagmatic relation occurs on the horizontal axis.

Show question

Question

Syntagmatic relation explains the word cluster in: 


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Answer

Syntagmatic relation explains the word cluster in collocation and idiom.

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Question

What does collocation mean?


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Answer

Collocations are words that frequently occur together, such as handsome man, do homework, and crystal clear.

Show question

Question

True or false - The word pairings in collocations are not fixed, but changing the word pairing will make the combination sound unnatural.



Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or false - There are specific rules for the collocation of pairs (why A is commonly paired with B).


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Answer

False. There isn't a specific rule / restriction for the collocation of pairs.

Show question

Question

True or false - The collocation meaning CANNOT be traced back to the meaning of each component.

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Answer

 False. The collocation meaning can be traced back to the meaning of each component.

Show question

Question

What are some examples of collocations?


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Answer

Some examples of collocations are fast food, highly successful, and good enough.

Show question

Question

True or false - Idioms describe forms of expressions that possess a meaning other than their grammatical or logical one.


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Answer

True. 

Show question

Question

True or false - idioms are fixed expressions.


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Answer

True. 

Show question

Question

True or false - The meaning of each word in idioms is equivalent to the meaning of the idiom.


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Answer

False. The meaning of each word component is NOT equivalent to the meaning of the idiom.

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Question

What is the opposite of a syntagmatic relation?

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Answer

A paradigmatic relation.

Show question

Question

What is a paradigmatic relation?


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Answer

 Paradigmatic relation is about the relationship between words that can be substituted in the same word class. It occurs on the vertical axis.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations?


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Answer

Paradigmatic relation is about word substitution which occurs on the vertical axis. Syntagmatic relation is about word position and relationship which occurs on the horizontal axis.

Show question

Question

Which of the following best describes a typical collocation?

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Answer

A pair or small group of words that naturally fit together.

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Question

Which of the following best describes collocation?

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Answer

The relationship between words and how naturally they combine.

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Question

Which of the following is the most typical collocation?

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Answer

Fish and chips.

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Question

Which of the following is the most typical collocation?

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Answer

I’m looking forward to my birthday.

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Question

True or false?


If a collocation is untypical, then it sounds 'correct'.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Collocations never involve nouns.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Untypical collocations can sound unnatural or jarring.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Which of the following is an example of an adjective + noun collocation?

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Answer

Bitter pill.

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Question

Which of the following is an example of a noun + noun collocation?

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Answer

A round of applause.

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Question

Collocations rely on familiarity.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Why do collocations matter?

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Answer

Because certain word combinations feel more natural than others.

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Question

Sometimes writers deliberately use untypical or unusual collocations for effect.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Collocations are easy to understand if you’ve just started learning the English language.

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Answer

False.

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Question

How else could you describe an 'untypical'  collocation?

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Answer

Unnatural.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of an adverb + adjective collocation?

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Answer

Perfectly normal.

Show question

Question

FIll in the blank:


A preposition is a word that indicates the relationship between a ______ and something else.

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Answer

noun

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Question

What are the two types of collocations?

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Answer

Typical and untypical

Show question

Question

True or false?


Typical collocations sound unnatural.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Typical collocations sound ___________.

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Answer

correct

Show question

Question

Untypical collocations sound ___________.

Show answer

Answer

incorrect

Show question

Question

Untypical collocations feel more _________.

Show answer

Answer

unnatural

Show question

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