2 The analytic and synthetic levels of thought and grammar

Analytic and synthetic thinking

It has been suggested that some people have naturally analytic minds and others have naturally, or preter-naturally, synthetic minds. For example, if one says to Person A “I am going to say a sequence of words to you – after each word, please say the first new word that comes into your mind; okay, let’s start: green.” If person A says “blue”, they have responded to the prompt analytically. It’s like they are thinking “What can replace green? Oh, I know, blue.” It’s as if they are thinking of things in a ‘vertical’ relationship:


It’s a green flower.




However, if we say to Person S “Okay, now, I am going to say a sequence of words to you – after each word, please say the first new word that comes into your mind; okay, let’s start: green.” Person S may say “grass”. Person S is thinking synthetically or in a ‘horizontal’ way, thinking “What things are green? Oh, I know, grass is green.”

But, to use grammar effectively, we have to think analytically and synthetically pretty much equally. We can’t operate only analytically or synthetically and be effective in our use of language, receptively or productively. Okay, so, what is the structure of the analytic and the synthetic within grammar or, at least, within the grammar of English?

Analytic grammar

On the analytic level, we can see in the example above that blue, green, orange, beautiful and ugly are in a contrastive relationship with each other and are fulfilling the same role of description in the same position to flower. Blue, green, yellow etc. are therefore of the same analytic type – commonly called adjectives. Similarly, in the same example, we can replace flower with car or with teapot or with brooch:


It’s a green flower.



These words (flower, car etc.) are fulfilling the same role of referring to things in the world – and as such, they are nouns, words in the same position in relation to a and to the adjective.

But note how a bit of the synthetic has crept in here, at least in relation to English, in that adjectives, for example, almost always precede nouns. We partly know that a word is an adjective because it comes before a noun and after a word like a or the. And, we partly know that a word is a noun by its coming after a or the and after an adjective. The positioning of adjectives, for example, can be less inflexible in other, less ‘synthetic’ languages, such as Italian.

Synthetic grammar

On the synthetic level, we look at a sentence as a whole and at how the separate parts of a sentence work together to form a whole. In this context of observation, we can see that each sentence part has a specific function within the sentence. In the example above, It is the subject; it is what the rest of the sentence is describing. Also, in the example, ’s is the verbal part; it is relating the describing phrase, a blue/green/ … flower, to the subject; here, the verbal part functions rather like ‘equals’. And so on …

The advantages of two

The above is just a ‘taster’ of the contrast between the analytic and the synthetic within English; what is key to focus on here, now, is that explanations of English grammar have always tended to focus on the analytic level of grammar and they have largely ignored the synthetic level. Where they have not completely ignored the synthetic level, they have given very little value to its close relationship with the analytic and the subtle interplay that occurs between the two levels. This is unfortunate because the grammar cannot be fully understood or explained without a relatively equal value being given to the two levels and to how the levels interconnect and interact when we use language.

What’s more, it is necessary to have a conscious awareness of the analytic grammar and the synthetic grammar co-operating within English to, then, have an effective command of related areas such as punctuation when writing. An awareness of the synthetic-analytic relationship within English is also very relevant when reviewing what we write, as it enables us to see diversions from our intended meaning or unintended ambiguities, both of which we can rectify by re-resolving our grammatical structures within the sentence. And, when we write or say raw text, we are subtler and cleverer in our conceptions and structuring of ideas when we have a clear understanding of how grammar, the enabler of coherent infinity through the analytic and the synthetic, works its magic.



David Lott

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