active voice

a structure with no passivisation, where the subject of the clause does not originate in the object position but in the specifier position of the vP. Compare with passive voice, see also voice.


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.


a constituent with the feature composition [+N, +V, F] used to modify a verb (as in everything went smoothly) or a sentence (as in Unfortunately, I did not pass the first exam). In this approach adverbs and adjectives belong to the same category, the difference between them being what they modify.


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.

aspectual auxiliary verb

those dummy auxiliary verbs that participate in forming the progressive (different forms of be as in They are waiting.) or the perfective aspect (different forms of have as in I have read this book.). They are not generated in the head position of IPs (as opposed to modal auxiliaries) but in vP, and can undergo upward movement to the head position of IP. Feature composition: [N, +V]


a structure containing a (visible or invisible) subject and a predicate.

comparative form of adjectives

this form is used for comparison to a higher (or in the case of less lower) degree when two constituents are compared: He is taller than I am. This sentence contains inflectional comparative, but there is another, periphrastic way of comparison: This car is more expensive than that one.

complementary distribution

two constituents are in complementary distribution if one of them never appears in any of the environments where the other appears. If two constituents are in complementary distribution it indicates that they compete for the same structural position. E.g. we cannot have both an inflectional ending and a modal auxiliary in the same clause as these two occupy the head position within an IP, thus the ungrammaticality of *She can dances.


a constituent introducing a sentential complement. The complementisers in English are that, if ,and for. They occupy the head position of CP and have selectional restrictions on the force and finiteness of the clause. Feature composition: [+F, N, V]

degree adverb

a subclass of adverbs which specifies the degree to which some property applies, e.g. very and extremely. Feature composition: [+F, +N, +V]


the head of a Determiner Phrase, a closed class item taking an NP complement defining its definiteness. Feature composition: [+F, N, +V]


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.


(a) a morpheme added to the end of words of a given category in sentence structure as required by the given structure, e.g. s in Peter like s his dog or er in Peter is clever er than Tony.

(b) the head of an Inflectional Phrase. It can be realised as a modal auxiliary or a zero agreement morpheme. Information about tense can be found in a separate vP directly under IP.

lexical entry

a collection of the idiosyncratic properties of lexical items.

measure noun

a non-thematic, non-functional noun indicating quantity, e.g. loaf in a loaf of bread.


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. Since we want to define verbs and nouns as polar opposites the abstract binary features [N] and [V] were introduced, though obviously they do not mean noun and verb and are used to define other categories besides nouns and verbs. A property linked to the [N] feature is the ability to have a nominal complement. The categories with [+N] feature are the following: a. thematic: nouns, adjectives; b. functional: determiners, degree adverbs; unspecified for the [F] value: post-determiners, measure nouns.

perfect aspect

an action is viewed as being completed, e.g. in I have written my homework.


traditionally it is a determiner following a central determiner but within the framework of Government and Binding Theory it can be claimed that it is actually an AP that acts to quantify over a noun, and occupies the specifier position of NPs, e.g. many, few.


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].

progressive aspect

the event is viewed as being in progress, e.g. I was having a bath when my sister arrived. Having a bath was an activity in progress when the other past activity happened.


a determiner that expresses a definite or indefinite amount or number of the nominal expression it modifies, e.g. all, both, some, many, four.


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).

subcategorisation frame

that part of the lexical entry that states the categorial status of the complement.

superlative form of adjectives

comparison to a higher (or in the case of least lower) degree when there are more than two agents involved: He is the tallest of us. The periphrastic way of forming the superlative is with the help of most: He is the most sophisticated man I have ever met.


a syntactic category with the help of which we can locate an event or situation in time. In syntactic representation information about tense can be found within the vP appearing directly under the IP in the form of -s, -ed or the zero tense morpheme.


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


a feature can have values which are not determined. [F] is supposed to be such a feature in the classification of word categories. The categories with underspecified features are the following: aspectual auxiliaries [N, +V], measure nouns [+N, V], post-determiners [+N, +V], the non-thematic, non-functional uses of the prepositions of and by [N, V]


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. Since we want to define verbs and nouns as polar opposites the abstract binary features [N] and [V] were introduced, though obviously they do not mean noun and verb and are used to define other categories besides nouns and verbs. The categories with [V] feature are the following: a. thematic: verbs, prepositions; b. functional: inflections, degree adverbs, aspectual auxiliaries; unspecified for the [F] value: aspectual auxiliaries, post-determiners.

word category

a set of expressions that share certain linguistic features, a grouping of words that cluster together, e.g. noun, verb. See also functional category, thematic category.

Basic English Syntax with Exercises

1.3.6 Functionally underspecified categories

We have now discussed all eight of the categories that we listed at the start of this section. However, there are some categories that we have not yet discussed and some members of the categories that we have which do not seem to fit well in them. In this section we will briefly discuss the possibility or four extra categories which differ from the previous ones in that they are not specified for the [F] feature. This means that they differ from each other in terms of the specification of the [N] and [V] features, but they differ from the other categories in that they are neither functional nor thematic.

We will start with the aspectual auxiliaries. We have pointed out that these auxiliary verbs do not behave like modals as they are not in complementary distribution with them. In fact, aspectual auxiliaries are not in complementary distribution with any I element:

(187)ahe may have been shopping
b for him to have been shopping
che had been shopping

This would suggest that they are not categorised in the same way as inflections. They appear to be verbal elements as they inflect for almost the same set of things that verbs do (perfective have inflects for tense (has/had), progressive be inflects for tense (is/was) and perfect aspect (been) and passive be inflects for tense (is/was), perfect aspect (been) and progressive aspect (being)). However, they are clearly not thematic elements in that they play no role in the thematic interpretation of the sentence. Aspectual auxiliaries therefore share properties with verbs and inflections, but they cannot be categorised as either. We can capture this situation if, like verbs and inflections, we categorise aspectuals as [N, +V] elements, but simply leave the [F] feature undefined. In common with inflections, aspectual auxiliaries also take only verbal complements and they never precede any other category. However, they may precede either verbs or other aspectual auxiliaries:

(188)ahe has [eaten the sandwich]
bhe has [been eating the sandwich]

Given that verbs are categorised as [F, N, +V], we cannot claim that this is the category that aspectual auxiliaries subcategorise for as this would exclude them from taking non-thematic verbal complements (i.e. other aspectual auxiliaries). On the other hand, if we claim that they select complements of the category [N, +V] they would only be able to select for auxiliary complements and not main verbs. The solution to the problem is stating that the category they select as their complement is optionally specified for the [F] feature, which correctly predicts that they cannot have an inflectional complement.

Thus aspectual auxiliaries might have lexical entries such as the following:

(189)havecategory:[N, +V]
subcat:[(F), N, +V]
becategory:[N, +V]
(prog)subcat:[(F), N, +V]
becategory:[N, +V]
(pass)subcat:[(F), N, +V]

If there is a non-functional non-thematic verb, then it is predicted that there must be non-functional non-thematic nouns, adjectives and prepositions. To what extent is this prediction fulfilled? There are nouns which do not appear to behave like thematic nouns and yet are clearly not categorised as determiners either. Consider the following examples:

(190)aa bottle of wine
ba cup of tea
ca group of tourists

The italicised items in these examples appear to be nouns and yet they do not behave like other nouns. If we compare these examples to the following we can see some obvious differences:

(191)aa picture of the president
bthe disposal of the evidence
cthe door of the house

The nouns in (190) do not function as the main semantic element of the expression as do those in (191). Note that the expressions in (191) refer to a picture, a disposal and a door respectively, but the referents of the expressions in (190) are wine, tea and tourists respectively. One can pour a bottle of wine and drink a cup of tea, but what is poured and drunk is not the bottle or the cup but the wine and the tea. On the other hand, if one breaks a picture of the president or deplores the disposal of the evidence, it is not the president that gets broken nor the evidence that is deplored. The kind of nouns in (190) are called measure or group nouns and they differ from other nouns in terms of their relationship to their complements. The complements of the nouns in (191) are arguments of those nouns and as such stand in a thematic relationship to them. In other words, these nouns are thematic elements which have Θ-grids in their lexical entries. Measure nouns do not stand in the same relationship to their complements at all and in fact they appear to have a similar relationship to their complements as quantifying determiners do to their nominal complements. This is not a thematic relationship and hence it appears that these nouns are not thematic nouns. Clearly they are not determiners either and hence they seem to be prime candidates to be analysed as non-thematic non-functional nouns.

The complements of measure nouns are always prepositional, though specifically the preposition of is always involved. We are not yet in a position to clearly see the details of what this implies, so we will not pursue the issue at this point. The following lexical entries are an approximation of what is necessary to more precisely capture their true nature:

(192)bottlecategory:[+N, V]
cupcategory:[+N, V]
groupcategory:[+N, V]

Next, let us consider possible non-thematic non-functional adjectives. Recall that post-determiners are elements which seem to have adjectival properties in that they have comparative and superlative forms and may be modified by adverbs:

(193)athe many/more/most people
bthese extremely few advantages

It is clear that these elements are not thematic and hence should not be analysed as adjectives such as pink, certain or keen, for example. For one thing, they cannot be used predicatively as adjectives can, making them more like degree adverbs:

(194)athe outcome was certain/irrelevant/stupid/etc.
b*the people were more/most/several/etc.
c*the idea was so/too/as

However, degree adverbs do not have comparative and superlative forms and so it would be inaccurate to categorise the post-determiners as functional adjectives (i.e. as [+F, +N, +V]). Therefore we propose that these elements be categorised as [+N, +V] elements. It seems that post-determiners always select nominal complements, which is why they have been confused with determiners and hence they have the following lexical entries:

(195)manycategory:[+N, +V]
fewcategory:[+N, +V]
severalcategory:[+N, +V]

Finally, we turn to non-thematic non-functional prepositions. There are elements which appear to be prepositions, but which do not play a role in the thematic structure of the clause. For example, we have introduced the use of the preposition of in situations such as the following:

(196)aa picture of Mary
bfond of his grandmother

As we pointed out, nouns and adjectives seem not to be able to take nominal complements and hence the preposition of is inserted so that the complement is prepositional instead. This preposition plays no role in the thematic interpretation of these constructions however, the thematic relations hold between the noun or the adjective and the following nominal element. Another such preposition is the by which is found in passive clauses:

(197)aPeter hit the policemanthe policeman was hit by Peter
bLucy received a lettera letter was received by Lucy

Note that in the passive structures the nominal following by is interpreted the same as the nominal preceding the verb in the active. It is, of course, the verb which determines how to interpret this nominal, agent in (197a) and recipient in (197b), and hence, presumably, the verb which determines it in the passive examples. If this is so, then by plays no role in the thematic interpretation as this is entirely determined by the verb.

However, these prepositional elements, though apparently non-thematic, are not complementisers, as they do not introduce clauses. We therefore categorise them as prepositions which are unmarked for the F feature. Thus, they are non-thematic, but also non-functional prepositions, categorised as [N, V]. Like most prepositional elements they take nominal complements:

(198)ofcategory:[N, V]
bycategory:[N, V]

This concludes our typology of word categories. Although it has not been exhaustive, as there are one or two categories that we have not discussed (conjunctions such as and and or for example), we have covered all of the categories that we will be concerned with in the rest of this book and nearly all of those made use of in the English language. How to include those we have not dealt with within the system we have developed is not something we will touch on in this book.