Syntax is an area of traditional strength at USC. Syntacticians at USC work primarily within the generative tradition, seeking to develop models of syntax as part of the human mental faculty of language and to express generalizations about the empirical domain of syntax as explicit formal statements embedded within a computational model of the human linguistic ability. Fundamentally, they share the belief that the investigation of language cannot be conducted outside of a well-articulated theoretical framework and without rigorous empirical research.
Over the past two and a half decades, the accumulated record of the research produced by the USC syntax faculty has given rise to major contributions to the development of syntactic theory, including the development of, by now, widely used concepts such as Case Theory, Generalized Binding, the Lexical Parameterization Hypothesis, Prosodically Motivated Syntactic Movement, Neo-constructionist approaches to event structure, and others.
An essential aspect of the construction of formal models is accomplished through a thorough examination and analysis of particular languages and after extensive parts of their structure have been carefully studied and formulated. At that point, it becomes possible to ask questions about the ways in which differences and similarities among languages can be formally captured. As a result, much of the task of the syntactician is to conduct a comparative study of specific structures within and across languages. Comparative syntax continues to be one of the mainstays of USC Linguistics, with an unusually broad range of language areas covered. Language areas studied in detail at USC are: East Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean; Southeast Asian languages, including Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese; South Asian languages, including Bengali and Hindi; Romance, including French, Italian, Romanian, and Spanish; and Slavic languages, in particular Bulgarian, Old Church Slavonic, and Russian, as well as Balkan languages. Specific phenomena studied by syntacticians here include but are not limited to WH-movement and resumptive pronouns in Arabic and in Chinese (Li); quantifier scope and anaphoric relations in Japanese (Hoji); the interaction of focus and movement in Germanic and Romance languages (Zubizarreta); the structure of nominal phrases in Romance (Zubizarreta), Chinese and Southeast Asian languages (Simpson); and clitics and phrase structure in Slavic and Balkan languages (Pancheva).
Fundamentally, syntax is a computational system that interfaces between sound and meaning. While some work at USC deals almost exclusively with the properties of that computational system, other work focuses on the interface between the syntactic computational system and other linguistic systems, such as semantics, phonology, morphology, and the lexicon. Work on the properties of syntax as a computational system includes the study of the relations between chains and phases (Li, Simpson). Work on the syntax-phonology interface includes the relations between focus and phrasal stress (Zubizarreta), prosodic constraints on clitic placement (Pancheva), and phases and tone sandhi (Simpson); work on the syntax-semantics interface includes anaphora and scope dependencies (Higginbotham, Hoji, Li), focus (Zubizarreta, Guerzoni), questions (Li, Guerzoni, Higginbotham, Simpson), intervention effects (Guerzoni, Li, Zubizarreta), comparatives (Pancheva), grammatical aspect (Pancheva), and event structure (Higginbotham, Schein, Zubizarreta). Work on the syntax-lexicon interface includes the study of the grammatical properties of lexical representations ( Zubizarreta). Pancheva and Simpson study diachronic syntax and grammaticalization.
The investigation of language as a mental human ability is central to the generative approach, and as a result, interest in the relations between the study of the brain and the study of syntax is a significant part of the interest of most generative syntacticians in general, and at USC in particular. Interfacing with the area of Neuroscience, Pancheva studies the breakdown of functional structure in aphasia patients as well as the electro-physiological correlates of such structures in normal adults. Interfacing with psycholinguistics, Zubizarreta studies the acquisition of lexico-syntactic structures by second language learners of different ages.