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  • Galina Blankenship

Two Basic Principles of Turkish Syntax and Other General Properties (As Compared to English)

Updated: 2 days ago

The two basic principles of Turkish syntax are:

1. The Principle of Preceding Qualification (Head-Finality)

2. The Principle of Verb-Final Word Order (SOV)

Some general properties of the Turkish language, as opposed to the English language, are provided in the table below:






Head-Initial (Complements) / Head-Medial (Modifier)

Verb Position



Canonical Word Order

Subject–ObjectVERB (syntactically flexible, pragmatically fixed)

Subject–VERBObject (syntactically fixed, pragmatically depending on intonation)


Asyndetic Parataxis preferred

Syndetic Parataxis preferred


Nonfinite (Nominalization-Based Verbals and Postpositionals) & Finite

Finite & Nonfinite (Verbals)

Style of Describing



Sentence Branching

Left-Branching (+ Mid-Branching)

Left- and Right-Branching (+ Mid-Branching)




Subject vs. Topic

Topic-Prominent (Null-Subject)


Information Packaging




Determined by position and case marking

Determined by article: a(n), the, zero article

Grammatical Function

Determined by case marking

Determined by position within a sentence

Here, I'll explain in more detail some aspects of these principles and properties.

A painting called "Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks" by a painting by Ukrainian-born Russian artist Ilya Repin of the Zaporozhian Cossacks writing a letter to the Ottoman sultan.
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Ottoman Sultan by Ilya Repin

I. The Principle of Preceding Qualification in Turkish

The most prominent characteristic of the Turkish language is that, syntactically, it follows the so-called rectum-before-regens, or dependent-before-head, principle of phrasal and clausal structuring. In Turkish syntaxis, any qualifier precedes the qualified element, the secondary element is placed before the principal constituent, and all the words that complete the sense of (depend on) another word are placed before it, their head. This makes Turkish a head-final language.

Another term for the [dependent+head] relationship is phrase, or rather a dependent phrase, as opposed to a coordinated phrase based on an independent relationship. The common dependent phrases are verb phrases, noun phrases, adjective and adverb phrases, etc.

A phrase connected through an independent relationship, meaning that it does not have any heads or dependent elements, consists of equal, parallel items connected as a series, a compound construction, or an appositive structure.


The head plays a central role in defining a phrase: The grammatical category of the phrase depends on that of the head. If the most important part of the phrase, its head, is an adjective, the phrase is an adjective phrase; if the most important part of the phrase is a noun, the phrase is a noun phrase, etc. Clearly delineating the phrases helps make the structure of the sentence clearer and less ambiguous.

There are two kinds of dependents:

1. Complements (mostly obligatory)

2. Modifiers (optional), including determiners (articles, demonstratives, possessives, quantifiers)

While complements complete the meaning of their heads (and, as such, usually cannot be omitted), modifiers optionally modify their heads and, therefore, can be dispensed with.

In both Turkish and English, the common phrases with dependent complements include:

  • Verb phrases with direct and indirect objects, complement that-clauses, subject and object predicatives

  • Noun phrases with nominal complement that-clauses

  • Adjective phrases with adjectival complements (to-infinitival clauses)

  • Pre-/post-positional phrases with prepositional/postpositional complements


English: Head-Initial & Head-Medial

In English, complements always come after their heads, which makes English head-initial (with complements). English modifiers, however, may come before or after their heads, which makes English head-medial (with modifiers).

As a head-initial language (for complements) and a head-medial language (for modifiers), English words can have both pre- and post-dependent modifiers and post-dependent complements. The table below shows all kinds of phrases, with the heads highlighted in bold and their dependents identified in the brackets [...]:









Lena called

[noun as a subject]

called yesterday


feel good



just called


called constantly


call it



if you can, call

[conditional clause]

call when you can

[temporal clause]

say that you are OK

[that-clause as an object]


present people


​(the) people present


(the) reason [that] he left



(the) then director


(the) people that we met

[relative clause]


very tall


tall enough


glad to know

[verb phrase]


one-meter tall

[noun phrase]

tall as me


guilty of a crime

[preposit. phrase]


glad about this


glad that you could came



rather quickly


quickly enough



​just in


on it



over 100



until recently



in there



each five


five each



Turkish: Strictly Head-Final

In the head-final Turkish, in its basic syntactic units—phrases—the dependent element (or a complement) must come before its heads.

For example, compare the Turkish and English phrases with complements, with their heads shown in bold:

TR: öğrenciydik [noun (subject complement) + verb (copula)] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: (we) were students [verb (copula) + noun (subject complement)] ⟹ a verb phrase

TR: çikolata yedi [obj.+ verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: (she) ate chocolate [verb + obj.] ⟹ a verb phrase

TR: mutlu etti [adj. + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: made happy [verb + adj.] ⟹ a verb phrase

TR: işinden memnun [postposit. phrase + adj.] ⟹ an adjective phrase

EN: happy about the work [adj. + preposit. phrase] ⟹ an adjective phrase

TR: okulda [noun + locative case suffix] ⟹ a postpositional phrase

EN: at school [prep. + noun] ⟹ a prepositional phrase

TR: memnuniyet ile [noun + postposit.] ⟹ a postpositional phrase

EN: with pleasure [preposit. + noun] ⟹ a prepositional phrase

TR: sağdan ikinci [postposit. + numeral] ⟹ a postpositional phrase

EN: (the) second on the right [preposit. + preposit. phrase] ⟹ a prepositional phrase

As for modifiers, Turkish modifiers, again, come before their heads, whereas English modifiers come before and after the words they depend on:

TR: yavaşça konuş [adverb + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: ate chocolate [verb + adverb] ⟹ a verb phrase

TR: güzel okudu [adverb + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: read beautifully [verb + adverb] ⟹ a verb phrase

TR: bugün bitirdik [noun+ verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: (we) finished today [verb + noun] ⟹ a verb phrase

TR: ilk olarak söyledi [converb + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: said first [verb + numeral (adverbial)] ⟹ a verb phrase

TR: belki görür [verb + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: maybe see [modal adverb + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

TR: masadaki bardak [relativized noun + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: (the) glass on the table [noun + preposit. phrase] ⟹ a noun phrase

TR: naylon torba [qualifying noun + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: nylon bag [qualifying noun + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

TR: yeşil kitap [adj. + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: green book [adj. + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

TR: hep gülen yüz [participle + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: (the) face that always smiles [noun + relative clause] ⟹ a noun phrase

TR: annemin gelmesi [genitive noun + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: mother's arrival [genitive noun + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

TR: senden daha yavaş [adjective + comparative clause] ⟹ an adjective phrase

EN: slower than you [adjective + comparative clause] ⟹ an adjective phrase

TR: beklediğimiz gibi meşgul [adjective + postpost. clause] ⟹ an adjective phrase

EN: busy as we have expected [adjective + comparison clause] ⟹ an adjective phrase

TR: çok yavaşça [adverb + adverb e] ⟹ an adverb phrase

EN: very slowly [adverb + adverb] ⟹ an adverb phrase

TR: çamur içinde [noun + postposition] ⟹ a postpositional phrase

EN: in the mud [preposit. phrase] ⟹ a prepositional phrase

TR: her ikisi [determiner + numeral] ⟹ a numeral phrase

EN: both of them [determiner + preposit. phrase] ⟹ a numeral phrase

While Turkish is a head-final language with both complements and modifiers, English is head-initial with complements but head-medial with modifiers.


Dependent & Independent (Coordinated) Phrases

In Turkish, like in English, the basic syntactic unit is a phrase, which can be presented as having dependent or independent relationships.

Turkish Coordinated Phrases = Serial Items & Appositive Constructions

In a phrase with independent relationship, the elements are syntactically equal, or parallel to each other.

For example, a series of any items, including subjects, predicates, complements, or modifiers (sevimli ve akıllı; ben, sen; ne burada, ne orada, etc.), or certain appositive constructions (biz, Türkler) are parallel.

Likewise, a series of independent clauses (geldi ve konuştu; gelecek ama konuşmayacak), constituting a compound sentence (sıralı cümle), are parallel.


Turkish Dependent Phrases = Dependents + Heads

In a phrase with dependent relationship, the central element is the head, while the other one is its dependent. The head and its dependent must be in agreement with each other, with the head containing the key information about its dependent.

In addition to the obligatory complements, optional dependent elements, e.g., modifiers and adverbials, can also exhibit the head vs. dependent relationship.

For instance:

TR: onunki masa [relativized noun phrase + noun] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: (the) table of his [noun + preposit. phrase] ⟹ a noun phrase

TR: okulda kal [postposit. phrase + verb] ⟹ a verb phrase

EN: stay at the school [verb + preposit. phrase] ⟹ a verb phrase


Turkish Phrases (and Clauses) = Phrases Within Phrases

As we can see, in both Turkish and English, phrases are recursive, meaning that phrases can be made of other phrases, which, too, stand either as heads vs. dependents or as independently linked items:

TR: [[dün ve bugün] [benimle [koşan adam]]] ⟹ a noun phrase

EN: [[[(the) man who ran] with me] [yesterday and today]] ⟹ a noun phrase


dün ve bugün

dependent _ head

koşan adam

benimle koşan

dün ve bugün koşan

dün ve bugün benimle koşan

dün ve bugün benimle koşan adam

If we add another phrase, pek konuşkandır, another verb phrase that contains an adjective phrase (pek konuşkan) and the copular -dır, we get a complex sentence (birleşik cümle) with a verbal subordinate clause (girişik tümce) as its subject:

[Dün ve bugün benimle koşan adam] [pek konuşkandır].

Subject Predicate

The man who ran with me yesterday and today is very talkative.

Since phrases constitute the clausal elements that can function as subjects, predicates, complements (objects), adverbials, etc., in sentences, a basic sentence formula can be expressed as a sum of two phrases:

Simple Sentence = Subject + Predicate = Subject [Noun Phrase] + Predicate [Verb Phrase]



Subject + Predicate


Subject [Noun Phrase] + Predicate [Verb Phrase]


Turkish Subject–Verb Agreement