abstract Case

being Case-marked is assumed to be a universal property of overt nominal expressions. Whenever there is no visible marking, we assume there to be invisible Case on the given nominal expression.

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.


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.


a semantic property of verbs expressing how a certain event is viewed. See lexical aspect and grammatical aspect.


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

deverbal noun

a noun derived from a verb, e.g. a bite from the verb to bite.

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.

light verb

a verb occupying the head of a vP used in combination with another element, typically a noun or verb, where the light verb’s contribution to the meaning of the whole construction is less than that of a fully thematic main verb, e.g. to take a shower=to shower. Certain verbs expressing aspectual (be, have) or modal (let) meaning also belong here. According to the proposals in the present book the following constituents can appear within the vP in a visible or abstract form (see also vP-shells):

– agentive arguments in the specifier positions

– experiencer arguments in the specifier position

– goal arguments in the double-object construction as specifiers

– the passive -en morpheme in the head of vP

– the aspectual morphemes -en and -ing in the head of vP

– the tense morpheme in the head of vP

nominative Case

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


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).

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.


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.

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.

vP (pronounced: little vP)

a phrase headed by a light verb taking a VP complement hosting agent or experiencer arguments in its specifier position. For a list of elements that can appear in vp see light verb.

VP-Internal Subject Hypothesis

the hypothesis according to which subjects are not base-generated in the specifier position of IP but move there from within the vP or VP where they are selected and theta-marked by the verb (see also canonical subject position). The movement of the DP is case-motivated.

Basic English Syntax with Exercises

5.2.2 Light verbs

The next class of verbs we will consider is rather small and seemingly insignificant, though we will see that they enable us to understand other VP structures in a more illuminating way. Jesperson (1965) first coined the term light verb to refer to verbs which, though they may have a fuller semantic usage in other contexts, can be used in combination with some other element, typically a noun or verb, where their contribution to the meaning of the whole construction is reduced in some way.

For example, consider the following:

(25)awe had a walk=we walked
bthey did a dance=they danced
cI took a look=I looked
eshe made a comment=she commented
fyou should give it a kick=you should kick it

In each of these examples, the italicised verb clearly contributes less of a meaning to the whole sentence than verbs usually do, the main predicative content coming from the deverbal noun in the complement position. However, it is not that these verbs contribute no semantic content to the whole construction as the two sides of the equals sign in (25) are not identical. This is made clear by the following examples:

(26)aI took a bath=I bathed (myself)
bI gave him a bath=I bathed him

What light verbs actually contribute to the meaning of an expression is a complex and subtle issue. For example, it seems from (26) that they do have something to do with argument structure as the main difference here is to do with the number of arguments. The other examples in (25) demonstrate that the contribution of the light verb can affect aspect (do a dance verses dance) and duration (take a look verses look) of an event.

It seems that these verbs lie somewhere between thematic verbs with a full descriptive content and functional verbs which play no role in the thematic structure of the sentence. This is why they are called light verbs as they make a contribution to thematic and other aspects of semantic structure, though a ‘lighter’ one than fully thematic main verbs.

In the following cases, the light verbs take verbal complements, but function in a similar way to the above:

(27)aI made the glass shatter=I shattered the glass
bthey got the door shut=they shut the door
cwe let the water run=we ran the water

Again in these cases the light verbs do make a contribution to the meaning of the construction and so the sentences on either side of the equation are not identical. Interestingly, there seems to be different degrees to which these verbs contribute a meaning, with make in (27a) contributing very little and let in (27c) far more. Compare:

(28)aI made the door close
bI let the door close

Only in (28a) could it be said that I closed the door, though in both cases I did something that resulted in the door becoming closed.

It has become standard in recent years to represent light verbs with a lower case ‘v’ rather than an upper case ‘V’, which is used for fully thematic verbs. We will adopt this practice here.

What is the structure of the VP containing a light verb? Let us concentrate on the cases in (27). In these we have the light verb itself with a subject to its left. To the right we appear to have a VP containing the main verb and its arguments. Suppose we assume that the main VP is a complement of the light verb. This would give us the structure:


The thematic relationships are straightforward. In the lower VP we have a situation fairly similar to the VP in the previous section. The theme argument, the vase, is in the specifier of the VP as we discovered previously. The verb break therefore looks fairly similar to an unaccusative verb (we will investigate the properties of this type of verb more fully in the next section). The specifier of the vP is interpreted as an agent and therefore the light verb is clearly not unaccusative. This is not surprising as unaccusative verbs either have no complement or prepositional ones, and here the light verb has a VP complement. In terms of the UTAH, we might therefore propose that the agent Θ-role is assigned to the specifier of a (light) verb which has a VP complement.

If we include this complex VP in a sentence, we note that it is the agent that moves to the clausal subject position and the theme appears to remain inside the VP:


As the theme does not move, we can conclude that it gets Case in its original position. Interestingly, there is no Case assigned when there is no light verb forcing the theme to move out of the VP:


This is identical to what happens with unaccusative verbs (compare (31) with (22)): the theme subject receives no Case in its original VP internal position and hence has to move to the nominative subject position. So how does the theme get Case in (30)? The obvious difference is the presence of the light verb and therefore we might assume that it is this verb that is responsible for assigning accusative Case to the theme:


Consider the event structure expressed by this verbal complex. It is fairly clear that there is one (complex) event described by the light verb and thematic verb complex: there is just one clause here with one subject. The event, however, is made up of two sub-events: she does something and this causes the vase to break:

(33)e = e1 → e2: e1 = ‘she did something’
  e2 = ‘the vase broke’

Note that the complex event structure is mirrored by the complex VP structure. There are two sub-events and two parts to the VP, an upper vP and a lower VP. Moreover, the vP corresponds to the first sub-event and the causative connection between the sub-events. The VP corresponds to the sub-event that results from the first. This indicates that there is a connection between event structure and syntactic structure, specifically the more complex the event structure, the more complex the syntactic structure used to represent it.