a constituent with the feature composition: [+N, +V, –F] modifying nouns, e.g. mad in mad cow. These constituents cannot have nominal complements, their semantically nominal complement must appear as a Prepositional Phrase with the rescue strategy of of-insertion.


one of the thematic or theta-roles, where the argument deliberately performs an action, as Jamie in Jamie sang a song or Robert in Robert kicked the cat. In terms of the UTAH the agentive theta-role is assigned to the specifier position of vP, similarly to experiencer arguments.


the participants minimally involved in an action defined by the predicate. The complements and the subject, the latter also called an external argument.


one of the thematic or theta-roles where the argument experiences some physical or mental state, like Mary in Mary was afraid of dogs. The experiencer theta-role is assigned in the specifier position of vP, similarly to the agent role. If both an agent and an experiencer argument are selected by the verb there are two vPs projected and the experiencer occupies the specifier position of the lower vP.


one of the three basic binary features on which all categories can be defined. With the help of these features we can explain why we have the categories that we do and also describe how these categories are related. With the help of the three binary features we can predict what kinds of categories are possible in human language, we can give an exclusive list of them. [±F] is a feature used to distinguish between functional and thematic categories. [–F] categories have thematic content and [+F] categories do not. The categories with [+F] feature are the following: inflections, complementisers, determiners and degree adverbs. Certain categories are unspecified for the [±F] feature, see underspecification.

functional category

categories without lexical content, fulfilling some grammatical function in a given structure: inflections, determiners, degree adverbs and complementisers.

lexical entry

a collection of the idiosyncratic properties of lexical items.

one-place predicate

a predicate with one argument, e.g. walk.


one of the thematic or theta-roles where the argument is affected by the action described by the verb, e.g. in Peter stroked the cat the cat is directly affected by this activity.


the part of the clause excluding the subject giving information about the subject: Mary [is clever/likes chocolate/is waiting for Jamie/was in bed/is a university student].


a syntactic unit preceding its complement, the most often a DP defining a special syntactic and/or semantic relationship between the complement and another constituent: cat in the bag/grapes of wrath/tea without sugar/a reduction of taxes. Feature composition: [–F, –N, –V].


the study of meaning. It covers both lexical meaning and the meaning of sentences with special emphasis on their truth conditions (under what circumstances a sentence is true/false).

thematic category

categories with lexical content: verbs, nouns, adjectives, prepositions.


one of the thematic roles where the argument is not affected by the action described by the verb e.g. in Peter saw John nothing directly happens to John as a result of being seen. In terms of the UTAH the theme theta-role is assigned to the specifier position of the VP.

there-construction: see existential there-construction.


that part of a predicate’s lexical entry which informs us about what theta-roles the predicate has.

theta role

the semantic role of the participants as required by the predicate. E.g. verbs define what kind of semantic relationship is to be established between the verb itself and the arguments of the verb, and arguments are selected accordingly. The verb kick calls for an agent subject, so its subject position cannot be occupied by e.g. my CD-player.

three-place predicate

a predicate with three arguments, e.g. give.

two-place predicate

a predicate with two arguments, e.g. write.

Basic English Syntax with Exercises

1.3.2 Predicates and arguments

To understand the difference between thematic and functional categories we first need to introduce concepts to do with how the elements of a sentence can be related to each other. Take a simple sentence:

(33)Peter chased Mary

This sentence describes an event which can be described as ‘chasing’ involving two individuals, Peter and Mary, related in a particular way. Specifically, Peter is the one doing the chasing and Mary is the one getting chased. The verb describes the character of the event and the two nouns refer to the participants in it. A word which functions as the verb does here, we call a predicate and words which function as the nouns do are called arguments. Here are some other predicates and arguments:

(34)a   Selena      slept
argument predicate
b     Tom       is tall
argument predicate
c    Percy       placed     the penguin    on the podium
argument  predicate      argument       argument

In (34a) we have a ‘sleeping’ event referred to involving one person, Selena, who was doing the sleeping. In (34b) the predicate describes a state of affairs, that of ‘being tall’ and again there is one argument involved, Tom, of whom the state is said to hold. Finally, in (34c) there is a ‘placing’ event described, involving three things: someone doing the placing, Percy, something that gets placed, the penguin, and a place where it gets placed, on the podium.

What arguments are involved in any situation is determined by the meaning of the predicate. Sleeping can only involve one argument, whereas placing naturally involves three. We can distinguish predicates in terms of how many arguments they involve: sleep is a one-place predicate, see is a two-place predicate involving two arguments and place is a three-place predicate.

Moreover, the nature of the arguments is also largely determined by the meaning of the predicate. Compare the following:

(35)aHarold hit Henry
bSam saw Simon

In the first case, Harold is the one doing the hitting and Henry is the one getting hit whereas in the second Sam does the seeing and Simon gets seen. However, these arguments play very different roles in the two events. With hit the one doing the hitting consciously performs an action and the one who gets hit is affected in some way by this. We call an argument who deliberately performs an action an agent and one who or which is acted upon a patient. With see, the arguments are not interpreted as agent and patient however: Sam is not performing any action and Simon is not getting acted upon in (35b). Instead, we call these arguments experiencer, for the one who does the seeing, and theme, for the one who gets seen. Collectively, we call terms such as agent and patient, thematic roles, or Θ-roles for short. I will not provide a definitive list of possible theta roles and their definitions here as such a list does not exist. Different linguists tend to make use of different Θ-roles and there is very little agreement amongst them. Fortunately, the identity of Θ-roles has very little bearing on most syntactic processes and we can get a long way without precise definitions (exercise 3 introduces a wider list of Θ-roles than given here).

Given that the meaning of a predicate which determines the nature of the arguments is a lexical property, the Θ-roles that it determines must also be part of its lexical entry. We call the part of a predicate’s lexical entry which informs us about which Θ-roles the predicate has its theta-grid, and this may be represented as follows:

hitΘ-grid:<agent, patient>
seeΘ-grid:<experiencer, theme>
placeΘ-grid:<agent, patient, location>

(36) clearly represents that sleep is a one-place predicate, hit and see are two-place predicates and place is a three-place predicate.

So far we have mostly spoken of predicates that happen to be verbs, but it is not the case that all predicates are verbs. We have seen one case where this was not so, in (34b). Here we said the predicate was is tall. However considering the meaning of Tom is tall, we can see that the main semantic relations exist between Tom and tall and the is part simply expresses that Tom’s being tall is true at the present time (compare this with Tom was tall). Thus, we might claim that tall, which is an adjective also has a Θ-role as part of its lexical entry:


Just like verbs, some adjectives express a relationship between two arguments:

(38)aFred is fond of Fiona
bKevin is keen on karate

In these examples we see two arguments being related by an adjective: Fred is the one who is ‘fond’ and Fiona is the one who he is ‘fond of’, etc. Thus we have the following lexical entries:

(39)fondΘ-grid:<experiencer, theme>
keenΘ-grid:<experiencer, theme>

Nouns, too, can be used as predicates:

(40)Peter is a postman

And again, nouns can be used to express relationships between two or more arguments:

(41)Picasso’s painting of petunias

In this example, Picasso may be interpreted either as the possessor of the painting, or the agent who did the painting, while petunias constitutes the subject matter of the painting. We will consider the thematic status of the possessor in a subsequent section, but for now we will ignore the issue and suppose a lexical entry as follows:

(42)paintingΘ-grid:<agent, theme>

It should be pointed out, however, that nouns tend not to have such a strong relationship to their arguments as verbs do. Often a noun can be used without any mention of its arguments:

(43)athis is Picasso’s painting of petunias
bthis is Picasso’s painting
cthis is a painting of petunias
dthis is a painting

We might therefore state that the arguments of nouns are optionally represented in an expression and indicate their optionality in the lexical entry by placing the elements of the Θ-grid in brackets:

(44)paintingΘ-grid:<(agent), (theme)>

To complete the picture, it should also be pointed out that Prepositions too can act as predicates:

(45)the house is on the hill

In this example, the arguments the house and the hill are related by a relation expressed by the preposition on. Thus we can propose the following lexical entry for this preposition:

(46)on Θ-grid:<theme, location>

With reference to the categorial features introduced in the preceding section, note that it is the [–F] categories that can have Θ-grids. [+F] categories, as we will see below, are not specified in their lexical entries for these.