The Oxford English Dictionary defines syntax as the “orderly or systematic arrangement of parts or elements; constitution (of body); a connected order or system of things.”  The word “syntax” was conceived in Ancient Greek to mean composition. Classic Greek and Roman grammarians formulated the "dependency model" of syntax, theorizing that syntactic structure is based on the dependency among words in a sentence, and that a word’s preexisting relations with other words dictate its restrictions for what it could be combined with. The study of syntax in contemporary linguistics emerged in the seventeenth century as a subfield of Grammar. Where grammar on the whole is concerned with the set of rules governing the use of language, the concern of traditional linguistic syntax was the ways in which words and morphemes could be combined into larger units, particularly sentences.
Although the evolution of debates around the role of syntax originated in the field of Linguistics, it was also traditional area of investigation in Philosophy and Psychology, and would later be imported by Semiotics and Film Theory. The changing debates have very much been a reflection of how the widening circumstances of media have historically changed the conception of syntax as a structural unit. The conception of syntax has evolved from the pre-print age when the Cartesian viewpoint understood the sentence to be a pure expression of logical thought, to the audiovisual and technological age we are in now where current theory understands syntax to be as an arbiter of social forces, where determining the basic constitutive unit of a sentence across media proves untenable. Despite these radical shifts, the definition of syntax has steadily referred to formally grouped sets of patterned relations.
The Port-Royal Grammar, or grammaire générale, introduced around 1660 in France maintained the dominant conception of syntax until the nineteenth century. Based on the idea of a universal logic, it understood syntax to be a mirror of the natural reasoning functions of the human mind, equating categories of language with categories of thought. The ‘copula-theory’ analyzed every sentence into Subject, Copula, and Predicate. The idea of syntax as a direct and universal expression of human thought corresponds to the pre-industrial age of print, where words that were spoken or written on the page were considered an unmediated expression of the subject.
Most seventeenth and eighteenth century grammarians proposed an expanded conception of universalist syntax, suggesting that language was a two-pronged system. The basis of all languages was considered to be a set of common categories and rules that were a basic phonetic expression of logical thought; and the secondary aspect of all languages was considered to be an acquired set of habits specific to each language that served either to enforce or oppose the basic language structure. In the nineteenth century, grammarians would begin to distinguish language as an organic system unto its own, rather than simply being an expression of logical thought. Some even took the position that it was language that formed thought instead of the other way around. The nineteenth century saw a crisis in the general grammar (grammaire générale) model, which was premised on the contention that psychology and not simply logic must be involved in the creation of syntax, as well as the contention that formulating a universal syntax wasn’t indeed possible. This resulted in the emergence of the psychologistic model of syntax, which viewed language not simply as a product of social convention but as an expression of the intellectual development of the individual. It also resulted the adoption of the prevailing historical–comparative linguistic paradigm, which suggests that there is an essential diversity among languages. The conception of a globally differentiated as opposed to a universal view of syntax, and the idea that texts worked on their own respective set of rules, were related to the spread of mass-produced print technology for no longer did the written or spoken word appear to be solely the result of an individual’s thoughts.
In 1880, the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt proposed the ‘constituent-structure model’ in place of the dependency model of grammar, which would become the key structural model of the twentieth century. Introducing the graphic tree, he suggested that the basic structure of a sentence isn’t made up of the dependency between words, but rather of the way in which the sentence can be divided into parts.
The book Course in General Linguistics, a compilation of writings by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, was published in 1916, and would be considered the starting point of Stucturalism. In these writings, Saussure introduced the concepts of the signifier and the signified; among the book’s vast implications, it significantly altered the terms on which syntax would be viewed. Saussure’s theory suggested that the process of naming doesn’t operate on an a priori relationship between the name and the thing, but rather that it involves relating a sound-image to a concept through a psychological process of imprinting sound on the senses; the two aspects recalling each other in the process of forming meaning. His concept of syntax was premised on the notion that the auditory signifier represents a spatial line of graphic marks that together form a chain, which substitute for a succession of time. He suggested that the mechanism of language delimits the differences between these auditory signifiers, and that it is through discourse that words acquire their set of relations. Syntagms are the combinations of words that are supported by their part in a linear chain, and are formulated by traditional idiomatic usage.
Saussure differentiated syntagmatic relations, or “Syntagmatics,” which are based on their parts in a discursive series that operates horizontally, from the associative relations of memory, or “Paradigmatics,” which are marked by diverse, nonlinear relations that operate vertically. While the idiomatic and spoken domains differ in terms of their fixity and fluidity, they together produce syntax. Just as the emergence of the print culture had contributed to divorcing syntax from its conception of being an unmediated expression, the emergence of sound recording that took place at the end of the nineteenth century must have been a primary influence that made it clear to Saussure that the auditory played a distinct role in the construction of meaning.
Into of the nineteenth century, the linguistic subfield of Semantics, which studies meanings and their relationship to signs, emerged as an equally prevalent study as was Syntax. The relationship between syntactic structure and semantic meaning has been one of the most prevalent debates in linguistics and for future applications of syntactic theory. Theorists vary both in the degree of similarity they see between the two structures, and in how they believe their uniformity should be mapped. Some theorists take the semantic meanings to operate according to the same formal nature as syntactic structures; some regard semantic meanings and syntactical forms to be of different structural types; and some hold meaning to be basically amorphous. Mapping this relationship varies from one approach that holds that meaning maps transparently onto syntactic structure, where the same meaning always maps onto the same syntactic structure; to another that considers that distortion occurs in the course of derivation where the underlying structure is regular; to another that considers derivation to be uniform.
In his 1965 book, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, the American professor of linguistics Noam Chomsky suggested that every language has a grammar that contains a set of base rules that generates what deep structures are possible in that language. Through a set of transformations, or “combinatorics,” a surface structure related to verbal representation is arrived at. The Chomskian transformationalists generally maintained that syntax was an autonomous system that wasn’t governed by semantic and/or pragmatic features. As had been the focus of the Port-Royal scholars, the Chomskian school sought to find a "universal grammar"; their purpose rather than to suggest that all languages expressed the same categories of thought, however, was to find a "language acquisition device" in human beings that could account for the deep structures of language use. Chomsky’s generative–transformational model became the core linguistic model of the twentieth century.
By the end of the twentieth century, film and media theory sought to establish a theory of syntax specific to its own operations, amidst a wider movement in semiotic film theory. The notion of a "film text" was borrowed from the traditional idea of a literary text, and correspondingly the author was considered as auteur. Although the definition of the syntactic element was preserved, designating what constituted the basic syntactic elements of audiovisual communication would prove difficult. Early film theorists attempted to describe audiovisual syntax according to frames, shots, and reels. Roland Barthes would suggest that the text was “not a line of words releasing a single "theological" meaning…but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings…blend and clash." 
In Christian Metz’s precedental 1974 book, Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema, the author suggested that film was a language with its own syntax and grammar. He altered the concept of filmic syntax by rejecting the common word–shot analogy, which had likened the individual word to the individual shot and the construction of a sequence of shots to the syntactical construction of a sentence. He instead suggested that the shot should be compared to the utterance, and from there a series of shots could be ordered into a coherent discourse. He alternately argued for the filmic text as employing a static, finite discourse, for which it served as a vehicle of communication, and film as a dynamic medium that restructured socially available discourses by writing, modifying, and combining cinematic and noncinematic codes. He suggested that the syntagmatic chain is linked by an association between events across frames, as well as the relationships between elements within a single shot.
The question of whether the utterance could be equated with smaller units than shots was subsequently raised. Jean-Louis Baudry theorized that the discontinuity inscribed by the camera allowed differential elements to be suppressed, bringing only their relations into play. This proposed discontinuity further complicated the attempt to find the basic syntactical unit in audiovisual media. Assuming that even the Metzian equation of the utterance to the autonomous shot wasn’t possible, a new working hypothesis needed to be formed. Various theorists would in turn theorize that basic syntactical phrases couldn’t be analyzed according to their temporal order, but should instead be judged according to their spatiotemporal relationships in and between shots.
A further school of theorists would suggest that audiovisual syntax needed to be reconceived as based on a system of explicit and implicit rules, which together give rise to a system of expectations. Theorists such as David Bordwell argued against textual interpretation as a method of analysis altogether, advocating instead a media-specific consideration of film that didn’t rely on the dissection of narrative, but concentrated more on its conditions of production and reception. This would gain further ground in the intertextual approach of genre theory.
Genre theory is a prevailing syntactic theory of audiovisual media. It essentially attempts to define genre by categorizing historical processes in film, and has generally been divided between opposing semantic and syntactic views. The semantic view groups genres according to common elemental traits, such as attitudes, characters, and locations (i.e., the presence of the desert, or the tough cowboy in the Western film). The syntactic view, on the other hand, groups genres according to the relationships between lexical elements (i.e., between the cowboy who integrated the town’s morals with outlaw skills). Several theories attempt to account for the relationship between the semantic and syntactic elements: one suggests that through syntactic experimentation the semantic elements of a given historical period develop into a coherent and durable syntax; another suggests that preexistent syntactical relationships adopt new sets of semantic elements in different historical periods. The intertextual approach suggests that there is a motivated interrelationship between semantic meaning and syntactical structure, where the linking of semantic elements form syntactical relationships for identifiable historical reasons. This approach theorizes that semantic/syntactic relationships don’t evolve according to an inherent internal unity between elements, but rather that film as a medium is dependent on the negotiation between a specific cinematic apparatus and its audience, thus stressing ideological over ritual uses of genre. As opposed to a one-way notion of the filmic apparatus manipulating its audience, the intertextual approach views genres as going through a period of accommodations in which the public’s desires are fitted to the producer’s priorities, and vice-versa. It is suggested that the successful ritual/ideological fit covers manipulation of the viewer with entertainment. A seemingly "generic" syntax would be constituted by the repeated situating of semantic elements across texts to form an enduring syntactic relationship for a given interpretive community.
The evolution of the conception of syntax from the period when it was seen to exist as a pure, unmediated form of expression, to being considered a structural aspect of its medium, to finally being seen as constituted across texts and indicated only in its conditions of production and reception, reflects the changing historical perspective from the pre-industrial era when the word was seen as a primary expression of the subject, to present where the subject is seen as being determined by the narrative conditions of which he or she is part.