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.

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 constituent not selected by a head.


a type of movement where a new position is formed as a result of the movement creating an adjunction structure, like the (simplified) movement of the PP in the following tree structure representation where the S node is doubled:


a syntactic process whereby certain constituents must share certain features, e.g. subjects must agree with the inflection on the verb in person and number.


a structure is ambiguous if it can be interpreted in more than one way. We differentiate lexical ambiguity from structural ambiguity.


a constituent another constituent without independent reference (such as an anaphor or a trace) takes reference from/is coreferential with. In the sentence ‘Mary is enjoying herself’ the antecedent of herself is Mary. We indicate coreference with coindexation.


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

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.

count noun

a noun that shows number distinction, e.g. one book/two books.

definite determiner

a determiner like the or this that turns a nominal expression into a definite DP.


a category expressing whether a nominal expression is identifiable or not. In the sentences A man was walking in the park with a dog. The man sat on a bench and the dog ran away first we have indefinite individuals but in the second sentence they can already be identified from the context. Identification can also come from the situation or our knowledge of the world (the Sun).


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.


a structure used to express a request or command. An imperative sentence usually has no visible subject: Eat your breakfast, please.

indefinite determiner

a determiner like a or some turning a nominal expression into an indefinite DP.

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.


S-structure constituents do not always appear in the position where they are base-generated in D-structure, they often move from their base positions to other structural positions. There can be various reasons motivating movement, see wh-movement and DP-movement.


a word that names people, places or things that can have a plural form. Feature composition: [+N, –V, –F]

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 contrast between singular and plural as in a shirt/several shirts. The English regular plural marker is s.

phonologically empty

not having phonological, visible realisation, but still present, syntactically active in an abstract, unpronounced form, e.g. PRO is a phonologically empty category, similarly to traces.


a group of words that can undergo syntactic operations (e.g. movement) as a unit.

plural noun

a noun denoting more than one entity, e.g. three teddy bears. Count nouns can be used either in the singular or the plural form.


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.


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)

proper noun

a name, e.g. John, Wendy Smith, the Beatles. Within the DP it appears as an NP (as opposed to pronouns)

reflexive pronoun

a DP without independent reference, e.g. himself. Reflexives always need an antecedent.


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).

singular noun

a noun denoting one entity, e.g. a teddy bear. Count nouns can be singular or plural.

specifier position

a position defined by X-bar Theory. The specifier is sister to X', daughter of XP. It is a phrasal position, the nature of the phrase depends on what it is the specifier of. E.g. the specifier of IP is the subject, the specifier of DP is the possessor in possessive structures.

subject position

the position where subjects appear in the tree. The base position of the subject depends on its theta role. Agents and experiencers are generated in Spec,vP. Theme subjects appear in Spec,VP. These positions are not Case positions, so the subjects move to the canonical subject position, Spec, IP.


moved constituents leave traces in the position where they have been moved from. Once a trace is present in a structure, no other constituent can land in the position occupied by it.

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

4.1 Why the Noun is not the Head of the DP

The following all have the same distributions and hence can all be considered determiner phrases:

(1)athat man

The first consists of a determiner and a noun, which we have so far been describing as a head followed by its complement, in the usual English pattern. The second a pronoun, and we have claimed that pronouns are ‘intransitive’ determiners, i.e. determiners without an NP complement. The third consists of just a proper noun and the last just a plural count noun. These last two examples are puzzling: how can they be considered as DPs when they contain no determiner? Perhaps these are not DPs at all, but simply NPs. But if this is true, as all the examples in (1) have the same distribution, they must all be considered NPs. Thus, the pronoun should be categorised as a noun and the determiner in (1a) is not the head of the phrase, but some other element within the NP, perhaps an adjunct or a specifier (it is on the wrong side to be considered a complement).

This proposal might be supported by two further observations. First, note that even when a determiner is present, the noun seems to be the most semantically salient element, suggesting its greater importance:

(2)athese socks
ban idea
ceach portrait of the Queen

(2a) refers to something of a ‘socky’ nature and (2b) to an idea. In (2c) we are talking about instances of portraits, not instances of each. The determiners obviously do contribute a meaning, but this seems secondary to the meaning of the noun. From this point of view, then we might claim that the noun should be seen as the more important syntactic element, i.e. the head.

This is not a good argument, however, as it is not wise to conclude about the syntactic properties of an element on the basis of its semantic properties. There are many elements which might be considered to be the syntactic head of a phrase which are not the semantically most important word. For example, consider the following:

(3)cups of tea

Semantically, the noun tea is the most important element in this phrase: it refers to something which can be described as tea and not a cup. When one drinks a cup of tea, it is the tea that gets drunk, not the cup! Yet, syntactically it seems that cup should be considered as the head and the phrase containing tea as its complement. This provides us with a straightforward structure:


If, on the other hand, we wanted to claim that the noun tea is the syntactic head of the phrase we would have difficulty fitting in the preposition and the other noun:


Neither of these elements appears to behave like either a specifier or an adjunct and so the analysis is highly problematic.

Another case where it might be argued that the syntactic head of a phrase is not the most important semantic element within it concerns preposition phrases:

(6)ago [to London]
blook [through the tunnel]

In these cases, as in those above, the preposition does contribute something to the meaning of the phrase, though it is not clear that this should be seen as the most important aspect of the meaning of the whole phrase. Indeed London and tunnel seem to contribute just as important, if not more important information. However, it would not make sense to claim that the nouns are the heads of these phrases as they are clearly not NPs, not having the distribution of NPs:

(7)a*go [London]
b*look [the tunnel]

There are syntactic reasons, then, for considering these phrases to be headed by the preposition and thus it seems better to assume that the most important semantic word is not always the syntactic head.

A second observation that might support the assumption that the noun and not the determiner is the head of the phrase is the fact that the noun contributes features which play a role in interpreting the meaning of the whole phrase:

(8)athe mouse
bthe mice

In (8a) the whole phrase is considered to be singular and in (8b) the phrase is plural, as can be observed from facts concerning verb agreement:

(9)athe mouse is eating the cheese
bthe mice are eating the cheese

As is is the form of the verb ‘to be’ that agrees with a third person singular subject and are is the form agreeing with a third person plural one, we can conclude that the phrases sitting in subject positions have these properties. Thus it would seem that the noun projects its number features to the whole phrase. We have said that projection is something that concerns heads and so this might be taken as evidence that the noun is the head.

Again, however, this is not an entirely unproblematic assumption. Many determiners carry number features of their own:

(10)athese people*these person } plural determiners
ball answers*all answer
ceach prescription*each prescriptions}singular determiners
can occasion*an occasions

In these cases both the nouns and the determiners are marked for number and so it is difficult to say where the number feature of the whole phrase is projected from. Indeed, even in those cases such as (8a) and (8b) where it looks as though the number is projected from the noun, we could argue that the determiner the is ambiguously marked for singular or plural and, like the other determiners, when it is singular it can only accompany a singular noun and when it is plural it can only accompany a plural noun. The issue therefore rests on which we take to be the head: the determiner or the noun. For this reason, we cannot use these observations to argue in favour of one or the other having head status but we must look elsewhere to resolve the issue.

The assumption that the determiner is not the head leads to further problems for the analysis of determiners and pronouns themselves. First consider the determiner. If this is not the head then it is presumably an adjunct or a specifier within the NP. We should therefore expect it to behave as such. Determiners do not appear to be adjoined within the NP as they do not behave like adjectival modifiers, which we have analysed as N' adjuncts in the previous chapter. Adjectives are recursive modifiers of nouns and can normally be arranged in any order, as we might expect of an adjunct:


Determiners, on the other hand, are not recursive and have a very fixed position at the beginning of the phrase:

(12)a*the this bookcf. the book/this book
b*some a propertycf. some property/a property
c*boring these lecturescf. these boring lectures

Even if we claimed the determiner to be adjoined to the NP rather than the N', so that it would always precede AP adjuncts, which are adjoined to the N', as in (13), the non-recursiveness of determiners would remain a problem:


A further problem with this analysis is that adjuncts adjoined to XP or X' are phrasal. Only adjuncts adjoined to a head are X0 categories. But the determiner looks suspiciously like a word and to analyse it as a phrase by itself begs the question of why determiners never have complements, specifiers or adjuncts of their own:


This same problem dogs the assumption that determiners are specifiers: the specifier position is a phrasal one, but a determiner does not appear to be more than a word.

The assumption that the determiner is the head of the phrase, on the other hand, captures its position perfectly: it precedes the noun because the noun heads its complement and heads precede their complements in English. Comparing the two options, then, it seems that the one in which the determiner is the head is the more straightforward:


Another problem that arises if we assume that determiners are not heads of phrases is that they do make a contribution to the whole phrase. In chapter 1 we spent some time discussing properties of determiners (section 3.5.2), pointing out that a major contribution determiners make to the phrases that contain them is the definiteness–indefiniteness distinction:

(16)aa house
bthe house

The phrase in (16a) is indefinite while that in (16b) is definite, obviously as a consequence of the determiner. The noun is the same in both cases and therefore does not seem to contribute to this distinction. But if the determiner is not the head of the phrase, how does it project this property to it? Projection, we showed in the previous chapter, is a property of heads, not adjuncts or specifiers so the fact that determiners do project properties to the phrase is an argument in favour of treating them as heads.

Next, consider the status of the pronoun. If this is a determiner heading a DP, its status is quite straightforward; it is simply a head which is the solitary element in the phrase:


This is nothing unusual and we find similar things elsewhere:


These phrases can be found in sentences such as:

(19)abirds [fly]
bthe manager is [out]
cthe trousers were [short]

Of course, if we analyse pronouns as nouns, then we get a similar situation with them heading an NP:


However, the analysis in (17) accounts for the absolute complementary distribution between pronouns and determiners:

(21)a*the he
b*a her
c*every they

If pronouns are determiners, this observation is accounted for. But if pronouns are nouns something else must be said to account for why they cannot appear with determiners. Some nouns do not sit well with determiners. In English, proper nouns are not usually accompanied by a determiner:

(22)a*a Linda leftcf.Linda left
b*I spoke to the Thomascf.I spoke to Thomas

Yet, in some circumstances we can use determiners with proper nouns:

(23)aa Linda that I used to know telephoned me yesterday
bthe Thomas you are thinking of is not the one I am

Interestingly, even in these situations a pronoun is ungrammatical accompanied by a determiner:

(24)a*a she/her that I used to know telephoned me yesterday
b*the he/him you are thinking of is not the one I am

It seems that the evidence all points to the assumption that pronouns are determiners. But, if the noun is the head of the phrase and not the determiner, how are we to analyse a phrase consisting of just a pronoun as this would appear to be an NP that lacks a noun. This brings us full circle to the observations we started with. Under the proposal that the determiner is the head, there appear to be DPs that lack determiners:


And under the proposal that nouns are the head of the phrase, there appear to be NPs that lack nouns:


It seems that whatever option we take we face a problem.

There is a way to solve the problem, either way, which involves a slightly more abstract analysis. Suppose the phrases in question do have heads, but they are unpronounced. The idea of an unpronounced, phonologically ‘empty’ element has been made use of several times already in this book. For example as the understood subject of an imperative or as the trace left behind by a movement. So the idea is not without precedence. Making use of this idea, we have two opposing analyses:


Of course, the assumption of an empty category must have other motivations than just their necessity to make the analysis work. With the empty subject of an imperative we pointed out that this could act as the antecedent of a reflexive pronoun and with the trace we demonstrated how this prevents other elements from moving into a position vacated by another moved element. Is there any independent justification for either of the empty heads in (27) or (28)? If we consider the empty noun in (28), the only justification this has is to provide a head for the NP. The entire semantic content and the grammatical features of the phrase are contributed by the pronoun itself: the NP is third person singular because the pronoun is third person singular and the NP has a reference which is determined by the pronoun. Thus there is no independent support for the existence of this empty noun.

Now let us consider the empty determiner in (27). At first, we might think that we are facing the same situation here. However, this is not so. Certainly, the main semantic content of the whole phrase is provided by the noun. But this is typical: nouns are the main semantic element in such constructions, even if the determiner is visible. Determiners contribute other semantic aspects, as discussed above. The phrase Jackie is definite, as can be seen by the fact that it cannot sit in the post-verbal position in there sentences (see chapter 1 section 3.5.2 for discussion):

(29)*there arrived Jackie

This then can be taken as a reason to think that there is a determiner accompanying this noun which is responsible for the definiteness interpretation on the assumption that it is determiners and not nouns which contribute this property:


This might be extended to other cases of nouns that appear without apparent determiners, as with plural nouns, for example:


Note that in this case the phrase is indefinite, as shown by the fact that it can appear in the post-verbal position of a there sentence:

(32)there arrived visitors from Mars

This suggests that there are two different empty determiners: one which is definite and the other indefinite. The interesting thing is that these empty determiners differ in other ways. The empty definite determiner takes only NP complements headed by proper nouns whereas the empty indefinite determiner takes only NP complements headed by plural nouns. This is perfectly normal behaviour for a head, as heads do place restrictions on their complements.

To conclude the present discussion, while it seems that there is no independent evidence that pronouns are accompanied by an empty noun, there is much evidence that proper and plural nouns may be accompanied by empty determiners. This conclusion itself lends support for the claim that the determiner is the head of the phrase and that the noun is not. From this perspective, the noun is the head of its own phrase which sits in the complement position of the determiner.