Surface structure and deep structure

By Gordon Rugg

The concepts of surface structure and deep structure are taken for granted in some disciplines, such as linguistics and media studies, but little known in others. This article is a brief overview of these concepts, with examples from literature, film, physics and human error.

The core concept

A simple initial example is that the surface structure of Fred kisses Ginger is an instantiation of the deep structure the hero kisses the heroine. That same deep structure can appear as many surface structures, such as Rhett kisses Scarlett or Mr Darcy kisses Elizabeth Bennet.

There are various ways of representing surface and deep structure. One useful representation is putting brackets around each chunk of surface structure, to clarify which bits of surface structure map onto which bits of deep structure; for example, [Mr Darcy] [kisses] [Elizabeth Bennet].

Another useful representation shows the surface structure mapped onto the deep structure visually. One way of doing this is as a table, like the one below.

Showing similarities and showing differences

This approach is useful for showing where the surface differences are masking underlying identical deep structure. It applies to a wide range of fields, and has far-reaching implications for teaching and training, because novices tend to focus on the surface structure and to miss the deep structure. For instance, a novice might focus on the surface structure difference that one accident involves a car whereas another involves a train, and miss the deep structure similarity that both were caused by a strong but wrong error. Similarly, students learning introductory maths and physics are often misled by the surface form of a problem (e.g. calculating the area of a room versus calculating the area of a playing field), and miss the deep structure commonality between the two problems.

The surface structure/deep structure distinction is also useful in the opposite direction, where very similar or identical surface structures are based on very different deep structures. For instance, there’s a scene in the original 1982 Blade Runner where the female replicant Pris kisses the male human character Sebastian. This surface structure description looks much the same as the surface structure descriptions above for heroes kissing heroines, apart from being gender-reversed.

However, the deep structure in the Blade Runner case is very different. Pris is a replicant with superhuman strength, who has already participated in the killings of numerous humans on a spacecraft before she appears on screen; whether she is a heroine or an anti-heroine or something else is one of the many debatable points of the film. When she embraces and kisses Sebastian, she is menacing him via her physical proximity. Sebastian is a minor character, rather than a hero, and has no romantic link to Pris. We can show this with a table like the one below.

The complexity beneath

With the classic romance examples, the mapping between surface structure and deep structure was pretty straightforward.

The Blade Runner example, however, raises a lot of interesting questions about what a deep structure analysis can or should tackle. For instance, one possible deep structure involves the power dynamic of a female character kissing a male character, as opposed to vice versa. Another possible deep structure involves one character kissing another character against their will. Yet another possible deep structure involves Pris being a character in the uncanny valley between human and non-human, who is kissing someone who is definitely human.

This isn’t a simple case of which is the “correct” interpretation; the choice of which deep structure to use is a reflection of assorted social and ideological beliefs, assumptions and values. That’s a fine, rich, topic for analysis, but it leads away from the central theme of this article, which is about how the concepts of surface structure operate.

The next example shows how you can map the surface/deep distinction onto a distinction that I’ve written about previously, namely the distinction between leaf level and twig/branch level within graph theory.

A well-known example of deep structure mapping is that the friendship between Han Solo and Chewbacca in Star Wars is based on a well-established trope of [human adventurer] [with] [semi-human companion]. This trope goes back to the Epic of Gilgamesh over four thousand years ago, where the human hero Gilgamesh has a semi-human companion called Enkidu.

This trope can in turn be treated as a subset of the trope [protagonist] [with] [companion who is the opposite of the protagonist in key features]. In the case of the protagonist Sherlock Holmes, for instance, his companion Watson is portrayed as a foil to Holmes in terms of Holmes’ most striking characteristics, such as his intelligence and his unconventionality.

We can show this visually via decision trees such as the one below. I’ve used pairs of examples for each surface structure box, to show how both examples map onto the same deep structure. The Maturin/Aubrey examples are from a set of novels by the late Patrick O’Brian, where Jack Aubrey is a larger-than-life Nelson-era sea captain, and Stephen Maturin is his small, intellectual companion.

One interesting result of mapping deep structure onto some form of graph theory is that this fits well with facet theory. This is a significant advantage because it provides a formal, rigorous representation which gives a solid infrastructure for examining the same topic from different perspectives. For instance, one facet for analysing fiction might be power dynamics, and another might be gender roles, while another might be social class.

That, though, takes us outside the scope of a basic introduction…

So, in summary, the distinction between surface structure and deep structure is simple in its essence, but is powerful and useful, with far reaching implications.

Notes and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

You might also find our website useful:

Overviews of the articles on this blog:




3 thoughts on “Surface structure and deep structure

  1. Pingback: Mental models, and making sense of crazy uncles | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: Content analysis, part 2 | hyde and rugg

  3. Pingback: Tacit knowledge: Can’t and won’t | hyde and rugg

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