flesl.net grammar glossary::grammatical hierarchy

the grammatical hierarchy

• There are five types of grammatical constituent. These five constituents form a “hierarchy,” i.e. they are ranked one above another according to their status. Sentences are at the top of the hierarchy, below them come clauses, then phrases, then words, and finally morphemes.

• The grammatical hierarchy has a structure similar to that of a hierarchical society. They have different bases, however. The basis of a social hierarchy is power; a particular class of people has power over those below it. The basis of the grammatical hierarchy is composition: sentences are at a higher level than clauses because they are composed of one or more clauses; clauses are composed of one or more phrases; phrases of one or more words; and words of one or more morphemes.

• Morphemes do have parts. They are made up, orthographically, of letters and, phonetically, of phonemes. But, despite this, they are at the bottom of the grammatical hierarchy because letters and phonemes are not grammatical entities. Similarly, sentences are parts of larger “texts” but since texts are not themselves grammatical, this does not affect the status of sentences as the top-ranking grammatical constituents.

• The idea of the grammatical hierarchy has great explanatory and organizational power; it is, in fact, essential to a clear understanding of the foundations of English grammar. Nevertheless, it is an oversimplification: to be fully valid and optimally useful, the idea has to be complicated by three other concepts: embedding, subordination and coordination.

Embedding occurs when an item at one level of the grammatical hierarchy contains another item at the same level. (Such a possibility is not provided for by the simple notion of a grammatical hierarchy according to which one element of the hierarchy is composed only of elements of the next lower rank.) For example, in the sentence, “Jack and Jill went up the hill behind their house,” the noun phrase “their house” is embedded in the prepositional phrase “in their house” and that phrase is itself embedded in the noun phrase “the hill behind their house.”

Subordination occurs when one clause is contained in another; it is typically signaled by the use of a conjunction. For example in the sentence, “Because, when he got home there was so much work to do, Jack didn’t go up the hill with Jill,” the clause, “when he got home” is contained in the clause, “because when he got home there was so much work to do.” (Because it involves an element at one level of the hierarchy being contained within another element at the same level, subordination is actually a type of embedding although it is not usually described in that way.)

• In coordination, one element is placed not inside another but simply beside it. The two elements are typically joined by a “coordinating conjunction” (and, or, but). The “conjoined” elements may be clauses as in “Jill went up the hill and Jack went to bed,” phrases as in “Jill brushes her teeth after breakfast and before going to bed,” or words as in “Jack and Jill went up the hill.”