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What Is a Grammatical Relation?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Grammatical relation is a part of linguistics that studies the relationships of elements within a clause, phrase, or sentence from a grammatical point of view. The primary means of studying this is through the relationships of the subject, objects, adjuncts, and complements. These relationships then determine the grammatical cases and categories of the words contained with the sentence and thus help to determine the syntax of the sentence.

Linguists have used grammatical relation theory to determine the idea of relational grammar and also a further development called arc pair grammar. Both are counter-theories to Noam Chomsky's ideas of transformational grammar, which looks at the deeper meanings of sentence structure. In relational grammar, the basic grammatical relationships of a language determine the later development of syntactic relationships. In other words, all conceptual notions are born out of function and not vice versa.

The grammatical relation the subject has with the verb and the object determines the structure. This makes the subject the most important part of the sentence. In the sentence "Bob hit Jim with a cream pie," Bob is the subject and determines the form of the rest of the sentence.

Objects are a thing or person that relates to the subject. There can be no objects, one object, or multiple objects within one clause or sentence. In the sentence "Bob hit Jim with a cream pie," Jim is the first object and the cream pie is the second object. There are three types of object: direct, indirect, and prepositional.

An adjunct is a piece of additional information, which can be removed without the sentence losing meaning. For example, "Bob hit Jim" is just as effective as "Bob hit Jim with a cream pie." The complement is a piece of additional information that does need to be included. For example, "Bob throws" has no real meaning unless the reader knows what is thrown; the complement to this sentence would be "a cream pie."

In the field of grammatical relation, the subject is always the subject and the object is always the object. This is the major difference between grammatical relation and syntax. Once the basic functions and forms of all the words in the sentence have been determined, their thematic or syntactic values can be identified.

Differentiating grammatical relation and syntax in this sense is like splitting apart a layer cake. The layer of cake is the function and the layer of cream is the thematic value. While the subject and object are constant, either one of them can be the agent or the patient, or even the instrument in syntactic terms.

The agent is the person or object that does the action. Patients are the ones that receive the action. Instruments are used to do the action by the agent. The following three sentences demonstrate how the grammatical relation of the words determines the syntactic functions:

"Bob threw a cream pie at Jim."
"Bob got hit with a cream pie thrown by Jim."
"Bob was thrown by Jim at the cream pie."

In all three sentences, Bob is the subject and Jim and the cream pie are objects. Syntactically, however, the subject-verb relationship determined different values. This means that Bob is the agent in the first one, the patient in the second one, and the instrument in the third.

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Discussion Comments

By Lostnfound — On May 12, 2014

@Grivusangel -- Sigh. I guess that's why I'm an old school grammar nazi. You can throw around terms like "relational grammar" all day, but you still have to illustrate it, and like you, I think the best way is to learn diagramming.

At least, people need to learn good grammar habits, which will help them in every field. Relational grammar is one of those things one learns along with good grammar, without really breaking it down into a subject of its own. Learning proper syntax and grammar is learning relational grammar.

I remember reading an column where the writer had caught a snake (rat snake, I think) and had it in a jar. He wanted to express that, when he reached into the jar to retrieve the snake, it wrapped around his arm and started squeezing it. However, because of the way he constructed the sentence, it indicated the *jar* was squeezing his arm, not the snake.

He was unhappy I had edited his work, until I explained to him what the sentence was really saying. Then, he seemed to understand that dangling modifiers and participles all over the place creates confusion. He was just, "writing like normal people write, not like some fancy English professor." I told him that constructing a sentence like he did was more laziness and not wanting to proofread his work than "writing like a normal person," and we didn't expect English professors at the newspaper. We just expected decent grammar and sentence structure. He didn't like it, but he did make more of an effort.

By Grivusangel — On May 12, 2014

And all this demonstrates why learning to diagram sentences is vital in learning good grammar and writing skills. Diagramming allows a person to see and understand how each word functions in a sentence, as well as helping nail down syntactical relationships.

Even if the words maintain the same basic function in the sentence (subject, object), the meaning changes as the syntax changes, and diagramming illustrates this clearly.

I don't think it's really possible to understand how words in a sentence relate to each other, grammatically and syntactically, without learning diagramming. One draws a picture of the sentence.

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