accusative Case

the case of DPs appearing after verbs, prepositions and visible subjects of infinitival clauses. In English it is visible only on certain pronouns, e.g. him/her.


a constituent not selected by a head.


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.


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


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

Case position

a position where (nominative or accusative) Case can be assigned.


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

cognate object

objects that are strongly related to the verb (mostly intransitive), usually they repeat the meaning of the verb: smile an evil smile, live a happy life.


the structure before movement takes place, a representation of thematic relations.

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.

event structure

verbs can express simple or complex events. Event structure describes what sub-events an event expressed by a certain verb is made up of. This has an effect on the syntactic organisation of elements within the VP. There is supposed to be an isomorphism between event structure and the structure of the VP: a VP breaks up into sub-vPs/VPs in a one-to-one correspondence with the sub-events.

existential there-construction

a structure where there is used as an expletive, introducing a nominal expression as in There were three girls waiting for me. In such structures the emphasis is on the existence (or non-existence) of the situation/the participants.

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.

locative inversion

a structure where a PP locative argument apparently sits in subject position while the DP theme sits behind the verb, as in In the corner sat a shadowy figure.


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.

nominative Case

the Case assigned to DPs in the subject position of finite clauses. The Case assigner is the finite Inflectional head.


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


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.

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 movement

the movement of the subject from its base position (Spec,vP or Spec,VP) to a Case position (Spec,IP).

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.


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.

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.

transitive verb

a verb with a nominal complement, e.g. read, buy. The agentive subject occupies the specifier position of vP, the theme object occupies the specifier position of VP.

unaccusative verb

a verb taking one argument to which it assigns a theme theta-role in the specifier position of a VP. They may also optionally take a location or path argument expressed by a PP. Some of the unaccusative verbs in English are arrive, appear, sit, they are typically verbs of movement or location. Unaccusative verbs can appear in the existential there construction or locative inversion structures. They do not take objects of any kind, see also cognate object.

Uniform Theta-role Assignment Hypothesis (UTAH)

a Θ-role is assigned in the same structural position in all structures in which it is present.

Basic English Syntax with Exercises

5.2.1 Unaccusative verbs

Perhaps the simplest verb type, seen from a lexical perspective, is a group known as unaccusative verbs. At first sight, these look like simple intransitive verbs, though we shall see that they are in fact simpler than intransitives (or at least, intransitives are more complex!). Unaccusatives take one DP argument to which they assign a theme Θ-role. They may also, optionally in most cases, take a location or path argument expressed by a PP:

(8)aa letter arrived (in the mail box) (from the tax office)
bthe train departed (from the station) (to Helsinki)
cthe disease spread (to other towns)
dthe table sat in the corner
ethe heater stood against the wall
fthe gas appeared (from nowhere)
gthe snow settled (on the roof)
hthe Picts lived in Scotland
ithe water ran (down the wall)

These verbs are typically verbs of movement or location. Some of them are ambiguous, having an unaccusative sense and an agentive sense. For example, the verb sit can simply mean ‘be situated in a particular location’ (perhaps with a particular orientation), as in (8d), or it can mean ‘to adopt a posture in which most weight is supported by the rear end’ as in (9):

(9)Sam sat on the sofa

In this usage, the verb is not unaccusative as it involves an agent argument: only something which is capable of volitional action can ‘sit’ in this sense, but virtually anything that is capable of being located can ‘sit’ in the unaccusative sense.

Unaccusative verbs have a certain range of properties by which we can identify them. One is that they may appear in there sentences, which we have mentioned several times in the previous chapters. These have a there subject and the theme argument sits behind the verb (and must be indefinite):

(10)athere arrived a letter
bthere departed a train
cthere spread a disease
dthere sat a table in the corner

We will have more to say about the analysis of this structure later, but for now we will simply note it for its diagnostic use.

Note that agentive verbs cannot be used in this construction:

(11)there sat a man on the chair

This sentence can only be interpreted as having the man situated on the chair and not with him performing the action of sitting. Compare the following:

(12)aa man deliberately sat on the chair
b*there deliberately sat a man on the chair

Another structure in which we find unaccusatives is known as the locative inversion construction. This involves the PP locative argument apparently sitting in subject position, while the DP theme again sits behind the verb:

(13)a[from platform 9] departed a train to Minsk
b[in the corner] sat a shadowy figure
c[down the walls] ran some muddy water

Like the there construction, locative inversion seems to be available only for unaccusative verbs and cannot be used with other verbs which have locative arguments or adjuncts:

(14)a*[on the table] put he the book
b*[in the garden] smiled a boy
c*[on the chair] deliberately sat a man

It is not entirely clear that the PP in these structures occupies the subject position as it can be combined with a there subject:

(15)a[from platform 9] there departed a train to Minsk
b[in the corner] there sat a shadowy figure
c[down the walls] there ran some muddy water

For the time being, however, we will not worry about the complexities of the analysis of this particular structure, but again use its presence as a diagnostic for unaccusative verbs.

Another distinguishing fact about unaccusatives is that they do not take objects of any kind. You might wonder how this fact distinguishes unaccusatives from intransitives which also do not have objects, but the fact is that intransitives may appear with a limited set of objects:

(16)ahe smiled a rueful smile
bshe laughed an evil laugh
cthey died a mysterious death

These objects are clearly strongly related to the verb themselves and are called cognate objects. Unaccusative verbs, however, do not take cognate objects:

(17)a*the letter arrived an arrival
b*the magician appeared an appearance
c*the kettle sat a sit on the stove

Apparent exceptions to this can probably be accounted for in terms of the ambiguity of the verb. For example:

(18)she lived an eventful life

The verb to live can mean something similar to reside as in (19):

(19)she lived in Paris

But it is clear that this is not what is meant in (18) and indeed it cannot have this meaning in the presence of a cognate object. Thus, when it has the meaning reside the verb cannot take a cognate object and this is precisely the meaning it has as an unaccusative:

(20)athere lived Picts in the Highlands
b*there lived a woman an eventful life

Again, for the moment, we will not be concerned about why unaccusative verbs do not take cognate objects, but will use this as a diagnostic for determining whether a verb is unaccusative or not.

In the most straightforward case, ignoring the complexities of the there construction for the moment, the theme argument is always the subject. If there is a prepositional argument, this always appears behind the verb, presumably in complement position. Thus the simplest assumption we could make for the structure of a VP involving an unaccusative verb is:


Following the UTAH we might now claim to have discovered the position to which the theme Θ-role is assigned: the specifier of the VP.

It is important to point out at this stage that what we are looking at here is the VP at D-structure, i.e. prior to any movement process and not the complete analysis of a full sentence. We will see that this is more complex, involving more structure and a greater number of syntactic processes. In particular, it is common for the subject not to remain in the VP, but to move out into a higher position in the clause:


The position to which the subject moves is typically a nominative position and so we might assume that the movement has something to do with placing this argument in a Case position. The reason why these verbs are called ‘unaccusative’ is because unlike with transitive verbs, which share the possibility of having theme arguments, the theme of the unaccusative cannot normally remain inside the VP to receive accusative Case.

As far as the event structure is concerned, unaccusative verbs have a very simple interpretation involving a simple state or relationship between the theme argument and the location. To see this, compare the unaccusative and agentive use of sit again:

(23)athe water sat on the work surface
bthe old man sat (himself) on the chair

In (23a) the event expressed simply involves the relationship between the water and the work surface, i.e. that the water was on the work surface. In (23b) on the other hand, the event involves the old man doing something which results in him being situated on the chair. Thus the two can be analysed in the following way:

(24)ae = e1: e1 = ‘the water was on the work surface’
be = e1 → e2: e1 = ‘the old man did something’
  e2 = ‘the old man was on the chair’

The simple event structure corresponds with the simple VP structure of the unaccusative. We will see that more complex event structures lead to more complex VPs.