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.


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.


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.

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.

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]


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


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.

embedded clause

a clause that is part of a larger constituent (I know [that you like him], the man [that you like].

endocentric structure

one that gets its properties from an element that it contains, this element can function by itself as a whole phrase. Such phrases have a head that determines their categorial nature. It is a requirement in X-bar theory that phrases be endocentric. A noun projects a noun phrase, a verb a verb phrase etc.

exocentric structure

one that contains no element that can have the same function as the whole phrase, it appears to have properties that are independent from the elements it contains. E.g. small clauses for a long time were assumed to be exocentric structures.


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.

finite clause

a clause containing a finite verb.

finite verb form

a verb form that is inflected for tense in a visible or invisible form. In English this inflection is visible only in the past tense or in SG3 in the present tense.


(a) a (finite) set of rules which tell us how to recognise the infinite number of expressions that constitute the language that we speak. (b) a linguistic hypothesis about these rules.


a non-finite, uninflected verb form either with or without to.


(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.

inflectional phrase (IP)

in traditional grammars the IP is a phrase headed by an inflectional element which can be a modal auxiliary (e.g. may, should, will), infinitival to or the bound morphemes expressing tense ( ed, s) the latter undergoing Affix Lowering to form a unit with the verb. In the present approach, however, it has been argued that the head position of the IP contains only the modal auxiliaries and the (in English) invisible agreement morpheme, information about Tense can be found in an independent vP hosting infinitival to, and the bound morphemes -ed and -s also appear here. The specifier position of an IP is occupied by the subject (see canonical subject position), the complement of an I is usually a VP or vP (but see small clauses for an exception). IPs are complements of CPs or ECM verbs.


cannot be described with the help of a rule, exceptional.


a system that enables people who speak it to produce and understand linguistic expressions.

lexical entry

a collection of the idiosyncratic properties of lexical items.

light verb

a verb occupying the head of a vP used in combination with another element, typically a noun or verb, where the light verbs 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

main clause

a clause that is not embedded in another clause. In the sentence I know that you are clever the main clause is I know selecting an embedded CP.

missing subject

in terms of the EPP every clause must have a subject, so clauses cannot have a missing subject. In certain structures it seems to be the case, however, it can be argued that these clauses only have a missing visible subject, there is an abstract element occupying the subject position in these clauses as well, either in the form of a trace or PRO.


the smallest meaningful unit. Words can be made up of one or more morphemes. See also bound morpheme, free morpheme.


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.

nominative Case

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

non-finite clause

a clause in which no finite verb is present.

non-finite verb form

a verb form without independent tense interpretation. In the sentences I want to walk and I wanted to walk the embedded clause to walk is non-finite, its tense interpretation depends on the matrix clauses.

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.


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].


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


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 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.


post-movement structure containing the traces of moved constituents.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

X-bar theory

a module of GB containing three very simple rules to describe the structure of the expressions of a language. See also specifier rule, complement rule, adjunct rule.

Basic English Syntax with Exercises

6.1 The structure of IP

Inflectional elements are word level categories such as will, can, may, must, etc. as well as to, ed (and its numerous irregular manifestations) and s. In chapter 1 we argued that these all belong to one category, Inflection (I) because of their complementary distribution:

(1)a*Mike might will see the doctor
b*Bill will to go to work
c*Cathy can watches TV.

In all of the sentences in (1) there are two inflectional elements and each time this produces an ungrammaticality. Therefore not only can we conclude that each of these elements belongs to the same category, but that there is only one position for this category in each clause.

We also suggested in chapter 1 that inflectional elements take verbal complements on the observation that they are always followed by a VP (or perhaps a vP, depending on the properties of the verb). From an X-bar point of view, this suggests that inflections are to be treated as heads as only a head takes a complement. If this is right, then we predict that there will be a phrase that the inflection heads; an IP:


Note that this is a fundamentally different type of structure than the VP that we investigated in the previous chapter. In the VP, apart from the main verb itself, light verbs, both Θ-assigning and aspectual types, select verbal complements and project a verbal phrase. Hence one light verb can take a complement headed by another and a complex VP can be built. Inflections, however, take verbal complements but project an IP. This accounts straightforwardly for why there can only be one inflection per clause as there can only be one IP per clause.

What is the nature of the IP and what else does it contain? Just as inflections are always followed by the VP, they are also typically preceded by the subject in its surface position, though as we pointed out the subject originates inside the VP (vP) at D-structure and moves to get Case:

(3)aMaggie1 might [vP t1 mend the lawn mower]
bfor Tony1 to [type the letter] (would be helpful)
cHarry1 had [vP t1 helped the police]

A phrasal position to the left of a head could be taken to be its specifier. Clearly the subject is a phrase and it always precedes the inflection at S-structure and hence we might assume that the position to which the subject moves, when it leaves the VP, is the specifier of the IP:


Note that apart from complementisers, which we will discuss in the next chapter, and adverbials, which we will discuss at the end of the present chapter, this structure accounts for all elements of the clause. Specifically we have a subject position, an inflection and a VP predicate: the three obligatory parts of the clause. It seems reasonable to claim therefore that the IP IS the clause. This point of view addresses an issue raised in chapter 3 concerning the exocentric nature of the clause. There we discussed reasons for not considering the subject or the VP as the heads of the sentence as they do not seem to have the right properties of a head. Traditionally therefore it has been assumed that clauses are headless.

However, the traditional assumption is challenged by the analysis in (4), where it is claimed that clauses most definitely do have heads. There is much evidence to support this. Firstly consider the relationship between the inflection and the clause. The inflections come in two basic types: finite and non-finite. The finite inflections consist of the modal auxiliaries and tense morphemes. The infinitival marker to is non-finite, but we also get clauses, traditionally called participles, in which the inflection on the highest verbal element is either ing or en (or one of its irregular versions):

(5)awe are anxious [for Sam to succeed]
bthe crowd watched [the fire brigade rescuing the cat]
cI saw [the cat rescued by the fire brigade]

In the previous chapter, we analysed the morphemes in (5b) and (c) as light verbs heading a vP and so the status of the embedded clauses in these examples is unclear at the moment: they may be clauses (i.e. IPs) or they may be simple vPs. We will not attempt to deal with this issue here, returning to it in a later chapter. But there are some similarities between these clauses and the infinitival clause in (5a) which are useful to consider. Traditionally, those clauses containing a finite inflection are called finite clauses and those containing a non-finite inflection are non-finite clauses. Thus the relationship between the inflection and the clauses has been long acknowledged. I suspect that the relative semantic unimportance of inflections and the lack of recognition of their syntactic importance have contributed to the fact that traditional grammars have failed to recognise them as heads.

It is important to realise that there are differences between clauses headed by finite inflections and those headed by non-finite inflections to see that inflections really do have a contribution to make to the clause. To start, clauses headed by a finite inflection can be main clauses and do not have to be embedded, though they may be:

(6)aWill wont stop the car
bI suppose [Will wont stop the car]

In contrast, clauses headed by non-finite inflections are always embedded:

(7)a*Tim to stop the carI want [Tim to stop the car]
b*Tim stopping the carI watched [Tim stopping the car]
c*the car stolenI saw [the car stolen]

In embedded contexts, we see another difference between finite and non-finite clauses in that a finite clause can act as the complement of the complementiser that, while only infinitival clauses can act as the complement of the complementiser for:

(8)a that [Karen could cook the dinner]
b that [Karen cooked the dinner]
c* that [Karen to cook the dinner]
d* that [Karen cooking the dinner]
e* that [the dinner eaten]
(9)a for [Tracy to teach English]
b* for [Tracy teaching English]
c* for [English taught]
d* for [Tracy can teach English]
e* for [Tracy taught English]

These data not only suggest that there is a difference between finite and non-finite clauses, but also that the infinitive and the participles have a different status, perhaps indicating that while the infinitive has an IP status, the participles are really vPs. The main point is, however, that different clauses distribute differently and this correlates with which inflectional element they contain. All this adds up to the conclusion that the inflection does behave like a head in that it projects its properties to the whole construction and as we saw in chapter 2 it is heads that do this.

So far we have taken the rather simple (perhaps simplistic) view that the VP is the complement of the inflection because the VP follows it. Indeed, if we assume that the VP is the complement of the inflection, this is exactly what we would expect to find as in English all complements follow the head. So this assumption accounts for certain word order facts of English that without it would simply have to be stipulated. Exactly the same is true for the subject. If we assume that this is the specifier of the inflection we account for why the subject precedes both the inflection and the VP, as this is exactly the position in which we find English specifiers.

To see the advantage of this analysis, consider what happens if we do not assume that the inflectional element is the head of the clause. English is often described as an SVO language, based on a way of classifying languages in accordance with the typical ordering of the major elements of the sentence (subject, verb and object). Without X-bar theory and the notions of head, complement and specifier, however, this is just a description of the facts which tells us nothing beyond what can already be observed. Assuming X-bar theory we have a way of accounting for word order patterns by using general statements about the relationships between elements in an X-bar structure and so this is a step in the right direction. However, if we do not assume that the inflection is a head, it is not easy to think of how we can use X-bar generalisations to account for the basic word order of English. This is especially so if we take the traditional view that sentences are exocentric and therefore stand outside of the set of facts that X-bar theory can account for. Only if we assume that sentences are endocentric can X-bar generalisations be used to account for word order facts concerning sentences.

Thus we seem to be inevitably drawn to the conclusion that sentences have heads and that the elements of the sentence are organised in terms of X-bar relationships to the head. The only question that remains is what is the head of the clause? and there seem to be very few options available. The only two real contenders are the inflection and the verb and of these only the inflection really satisfies all the conditions with the minimal number of assumptions.

More supporting evidence for the head status of the inflection comes from its relationships to the other clausal elements. As a head we should expect the inflection to impose restrictions on its complement and specifier positions. Of course, we would not expect these to be based on Θ-roles as the inflection is a functional element and plays no role in Θ-role assignment. Instead we would expect these restrictions to be similar to those found within the DP discussed in chapter 3. Recall that determiners always take NP complements and no other phrase can appear in this position. The complement of an inflection is always a verbal phrase, be it vP or VP and again no other phrase can appear in this position. We can make this more precise if we use categorial features to describe the situation. The phrase that sits in the complement position of the inflection must be headed by an element with the categorial features [(F), N, +V], that is, by a non-functional verb including V and v. We can therefore suggest a very restrictive template for the lexical entries of all inflections:

(10)category:[+F, N, +V]
subcat:[(F), N, +V]

Inflections also impose restrictions on their subjects. Again these restrictions are not thematic in nature but similar to those imposed by determiners on their specifiers. Recall that only a certain kind of determiner allows a specifier: the possessive determiners. The possessive position is restricted to genitive elements, as shown below:

(11)a[DP his Ø [NP car]]
b*[DP he Ø [NP car]]
c*[DP him Ø [NP car]]

Inflections similarly impose Case restrictions on their subjects. For example, when there is a finite inflection, the subject is always nominative though this is not so with non-finite clauses:

(12)a that he will hew the rock* that him will hew the rock
b that he hewed the rock* that him hewed the rock
c for him to hew the rock* for he to hew the rock
d him hewing the rock* he hewing the rock
e him hewn* he hewn

As we can see in (12) the subject of the non-finite clause appears in the accusative. There is a further possibility with non-finite clauses which is not available with finite clauses and that is to have a missing subject:

(13)aPeter prefers [- to be dressed]
bLucy likes [- being dressed]
cthe artist painted the model [- dressed]
d*they think that [- dressed the model]
e*they hope that [- will dress the model]

We will discuss the nature of these restrictions in a later section. For now the important observation is that the inflection imposes these restrictions and hence is demonstrated to have head-like properties.

A final head-like property of the inflection can be seen in the following:

(14)aLarry dislikes citrus fruits
bwe likeØ them

The form of the inflection in (14) depends on properties of the subject. This phenomenon is known as agreement (see chapter 1). In English, agreement is very restricted, visible only in the case of the present tense morpheme and the present and past tense forms of be. We saw in chapter 4 that the possessive determiner also shows a similar pattern, having one form for pronominal possessors and another for non-pronominal possessors:

(15)a[DP Carl s [NP car]]
b[DP his Ø [NP car]]

For inflections what determines the agreement form of the inflection is the person and number properties of the subject. With a third person and singular subject the inflection is realised as (e)s and with any other subject it has a null realisation:

(16)a[IP Carl does [VP not have a car]]
b[IP we doØ [VP not have a car]]

If we take agreement to be a relationship established between a head (perhaps limited to functional ones) and its specifier, these observations again lead us to the conclusion that the inflection is a head.