adjective phrase (AP)

a phrase headed by an adjective. In the complement position we can find PPs and finite and non-finite CPs. DPs and exceptional clauses are excluded since adjectives are not Case assigners. APs are complements of DegPs.


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


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]

constituency test

a test for deciding whether a certain string of words is a constituent or not, e.g. coordination, preposing, extraposition, substitution etc.


a linguistic expression that functions as a unit in grammatical structure. A group of words that undergo syntactic processes together.


one of the constituency tests where two elements of the same type are put together to form a single element using a coordinating conjunction. The coordinated element acts like the two coordinated elements would individually.


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

determiner phrase (DP)

a phrase headed by a central determiner or the possessive ’s morpheme. The complement of a DP is an NP, the specifier the DP the possessive ending attaches to.


the set of positions that the grammar determines to be possible for a given category. Words that distribute in the same way will belong to the same categories, words that distribute differently will belong to different categories.

intransitive verb

a verb without a nominal complement (the object), e.g. ski. Its subject is either an agent or an experiencer, i.e. one of the theta-roles assigned to the specifier of a vP. Occasionally intransitive verbs appear with a cognate object.

noun phrase (NP)

a phrase headed by a noun. Noun heads can take PP or CP complements, DP complements are excluded since nouns are not Case assigners. The specifier position of an NP is occupied by what are generally called post-determiners. NPs are complements of DPs.


a DP complement immediately following the verb. It can move to the subject position in passive sentences. See also direct object, indirect object.


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].

preposition phrase (PP)

a phrase headed by a preposition. It usually takes a DP complement but certain types of CPs can also appear in the complement position of PPs. PPs themselves can be complements of different constituents such as verbs, nouns and adjectives.


those DPs that cannot have a binder within the binding domain. See also anaphor.


a DP that usually refers to another DP, but contains only the grammatical features (number, person, gender) of it (I, you, he, she, etc.). Its interpretation depends on linguistic factors or the situation. Within the DP pronouns occupy the D head position, as they cannot be modified by determiners even on very special readings (as opposed to grammaticality of the John I met yesterday)


a) one of the constituency tests to define whether a certain constituent is the same type as another. If a constituent can be substituted by another one it is assumed to be of the same type. E.g. lexical nominal expressions can be substituted by pronoun forms, so they are both assumed to be DPs: The girl I met yesterday/She will visit her family tomorrow.

b) a type of movement where a constituent is moved into an empty position already existing prior to movement, see also adjunction.

verb phrase (VP)

a phrase headed by a verb. It is in the VP together with the vp(s) that the basic argument structure of the clause is formed, thus, theta-role assignment takes place here. The specifier position of the VP is occupied by the constituent bearing the theme/patient theta role. In passive structures this constituent has to move from the specifier position of the verb to the specifier position of IP in order to get Case. A VP can have different types of complements such as a DP, CP, IP, PP.

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

2.3.1 Substitution

In the previous sections we have presented the sentence as structured into a subject DP followed by a VP, and the VP as structured into the verb and its complements:


We developed this structure by noting certain distributional patterns, such as the subject the bull could be replaced by the pronoun it and the VP worried the china-shop owner could be replaced by the verb charged:

(77)it charged

As we claimed, the distribution of an element shows us that it has a certain status in the sentence and all elements which have the same distribution will have the same status. This is why we could use observations about distribution to demonstrate the structure of the sentence: the fact that the bull has the same distribution as it shows that the bull is a constituent, specifically a DP as, as argued above, pronouns are determiners. Furthermore, the fact that worried the china-shop owner has the same distribution as charged shows that the former is also a constituent, specifically a VP as charge is a verb. In other words, we can use distributional observations such as these to test the structure of any sentence: for any part of the sentence, if we find it distributes like some element that we know what its categorial status is, then we can assume that that part of the sentence has the same status as that element.

Let us consider another sentence to show how this might work:

(78)the bishop that just left was hiding a gun under his mitre

At first glance, you might be tempted to claim that the subject of this sentence is the bishop. But note that this cannot be replaced by a pronoun, though the whole string the bishop that just left can be:

(79)a*he that just left was hiding a gun under his mitre
bhe was hiding a gun under his mitre

Thus we conclude that the subject of this sentence is the bishop that just left, not just the bishop.

The rest of the sentence was hiding a gun under his mitre can be replaced by a single verb:

(80)[the bishop that just left] disappeared

Hence we may assume that this part of the sentence constitutes the VP:


Turning to the VP, we note that the word a gun can also be replaced by a pronoun it and hence this is also a DP – this time it is a DP complement, i.e. the object:

(82)[DP the bishop that just left] was hiding it under his mitre

Furthermore, the part of the sentence his mitre can also be replaced by a pronoun and so this must be a DP too:

(83)a[DP the bishop that just left] [VP was hiding [DP a gun] under it]
b[DP the bishop that just left] [VP was hiding [DP a gun] under [DP his mitre]

Next, we note that under his mitre can be replaced by the word there:

(84)[DP the bishop that just left] [VP was hiding [DP a gun] there]

This shows us that the string of words, under his mitre forms a constituent of the sentence, but the category of this constituent is not so easy to determine from the category of its replacement. We might suppose that there is a pronoun and therefore it replaces DPs, but this constituent is made up of a preposition (under) followed by a DP (his mitre) which does not distribute like a DP:

(85)a*[under his mitre] disappeared
b*the bishop was hiding [under his mitre]

(85b) is ungrammatical if we take under his mitre to name what it is that is being hidden, equivalent to a gun in (78) (though it is grammatical with the interpretation that it names the place where the bishop was hiding! In this case it does not function as the object and hence is not distributing like one). We called this kind of constituent a prepositional phrase above and we will continue to assume this and therefore we can conclude that there is in fact a pronominal preposition phrase as this is what it seems to replace.

Turning to the structural position of the auxiliary verb was note also that the part of the VP that follows this can also be replaced by a verb:

(86)[DP the bishop that just left] was smiling

We concluded above that if something can be replaced by a verb it has the status of a VP and hence we have one VP inside another in this case, which tallies with our description of auxiliary verbs that they take verbal complements.

Putting this together, we have now derived the structure:


Turning to the subject, we note that the part of this DP bishop that just left can be replaced by a single noun:

(88)[DP the impostor] [VP was [VP hiding [DP a gun] [PP under [DP his mitre]]]]

We may conclude, therefore that this part of the structure is also a phrase, presumably a noun phrase, as the word impostor is a noun. This NP is constructed of a noun followed by that just left, which as it is introduced by a complementiser we can conclude is some kind of a clause, though admittedly it doesn’t look much like a clause and a lot more needs to be said to show that it is. For now, let us just accept that it is a clause and stop our analysis at this point. What we have therefore is the following structure:


In our discussion so far we have shown that whole DPs can be replaced by a pronoun and, indeed, that a PP can be replaced by the prepositional ‘pronoun’ there. But for VP we have used intransitive verb to demonstrate the distributional properties of the phrase. Is there a ‘pronoun’ for a VP? I may be that the words do so function as a kind of pronominal replacement for VPs, though its use is a little more restricted than other pronouns:

(90)the bishop hid his gun and the verger did so too

In this example, we have two sentences: the bishop hid his gun; the verger did so too. These two sentences are made into one sentence by placing them either side of the word and. The phenomena is known as coordination, about which we will have more to say in a little while. Given that the words did so in (90) are interpreted as meaning hid his gun, we can see that they replace the VP in the second sentence, forcing this VP to be interpreted the same as the VP of the first sentence. This is similar to the use of the pronoun in the following:

(91)the bishop hid his gun and he jumped into the getaway car

Given this similarity, we might take the words do so to be a pronoun which replaces VPs and hence we can test whether a constituent is a VP by seeing if it can be replaced by do so.

The NP inside the DP may also have a pronominal replacement. Consider the following:

(92)this robbery of a bank was more successful than that one

In this sentence the word one replaces robbery of a bank, which is an NP. Note that it does not replace the whole DP, as do pronouns such as it, that, him, etc. We can therefore claim that one is a pronoun which replaces NPs and hence anything that can be replaced by one is an NP.

Pronominalising adjective phrases is more restricted than the other phrases we have considered. It appears that only APs functioning as predicates can be pronominalised and not those which are modifiers:

(93)athe bishop was guilty and so was the verger
b*the guilty bishop and the so verger

As we can see the pronoun for APs is so, though as it is restricted to predicative APs and it also plays a role in Pronominalising VPs, we might consider it as a general pronoun for replacing predicates. Nevertheless it can still be used as a constituent test as anything that functions as a predicate is a constituent of one type or another.

Finally in this section, let us consider pronouns which replace clauses. In some cases, the pronoun it can be used for this purpose:

(94)they said the bishop robbed the bank, but I don’t believe it

Given that the it stands for the bishop robbed the bank and that this is a clause, this word can be claimed to be a clausal pronoun (as well as a DP pronoun).

The word so can also replace whole clauses:

(95)they said the bishop is dangerous, but I don’t think so

Thus, besides being a general predicative pronoun, so can also be a clausal pronoun. Like other pronouns, then, it can provide us with evidence as to what counts as a constituent in a sentence.