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.


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.

Burzio’s Generalisation

verbs which assign no theta-role to their subjects do not assign accusative Case to their objects.


see abstract Case and morphological case.

Case assigner

a head that has the ability to assign Case, like V(erb), P(reposition) and finite I(nflection).

Case Filter

every overt DP must be assigned abstract Case.

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.

embedded clause

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

finite clause

a clause containing a finite verb.


a structural relationship between a head and its complement. Government is a necessary condition for case-assignment.


(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.

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.

landing site

the position elements move to.

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


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.

non-finite clause

a clause in which no finite verb is present.


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

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.


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.


the assignment of theta-roles.

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.

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.

Basic English Syntax with Exercises

6.3 Movement to Spec IP

Up to this point we have been assuming that the subject of the clause originates fairly low in the clause, inside the VP or a vP just above it. We have said this DP will move from its original position to the specifier of IP to get Case and thus avoid a Case Filter violation which would render the sentence ungrammatical. Two aspects of this analysis are in need of elaboration. First it must be accounted for that the subject’s original position is a Caseless one and second it must be established exactly where in the complex clause structure we have been arguing for the subject moves to and why this is a Case position.

Let us start with the case of a simple transitive verb so that we can compare the situation of the subject and object:


We have said that the light verb which is responsible for assigning the Θ-role to the subject is responsible for assigning Case to the object. This seems to be the locus of Burzio’s generalisation that verbs which assign a subject Θ-role assign an accusative Case. Hence the object is in a Case marked position and need not move away in order to get Case. Consider the subject: why is it not in a Case position? Note that the verbal element above the subject, the tense in this case, does not assign any Θ-roles and hence its specifier position is empty at D-structure. Clearly this is unlike the light verb. We may propose therefore that tense is not an accusative Case assigning head. But why doesn’t the light verb assign Case to its subject? One might attempt to answer this by claiming that the light verb has to assign Case to the object and assuming that accusative Case can only be assigned to one place. While this seems reasonable, it doesn’t explain why the light verb taking an intransitive verb does not assign Case to its subject:


In this case, the light verb assigns agent Θ-role to its specifier and so should be capable of assigning Case and in fact the possible appearance of a cognate object seems to confirm this assumption. But when there is no object, the subject still undergoes the movement, suggesting that it does not get Case from the light verb.

There are a number of possible ways to account for these observations. The simplest is to assume that Case assignment is directional and that accusative Case in English is assigned to the right. Thus, the light verb will be able to assign Case to the object as the object appears to the right. However the light verb will not be able to assign Case to the subject as the subject is in the specifier position and specifiers are to the left of the head.

This is too simple, however, as it is not the case that a light verb can assign Case to any element on its right. Consider a more complicated case in which we have a verb with a clausal complement. The light verb of this verb will be to the left of the complement clause and hence to the left of the subject of that clause. But it cannot assign accusative Case to this subject, allowing it to stay inside its own subject position:

(61)a*they think1-e [VP [IP - will Larry leave] t1]
bthey think1-e [VP [IP Larry2 will t2 leave] t1]

The word order within the embedded clause shows that the subject does not get Case in its original position and that like any other subject, it has to move to get Case in the subject position of the IP. Considering where a light verb can assign Case to, i.e. the specifier of its own VP complement, and where it cannot assign Case to, i.e. the specifier of a VP inside another clause, it is obvious that there is some locality restriction on Case assignment in addition to the directional one. We are not yet in a position to be able to determine the exact nature of this locality condition and so for now we will just assume that a light verb can only Case mark elements within its own clause.

Having put this in place, we can see that the subject will not be able to be case marked in its original position as it is on the wrong side of the local light verb and too far from any other light verb that might have a Case to assign.

Let us now turn to the landing site of the movement. The subject moves to a position to the left of a modal and so the obvious place to assume as its landing site is the specifier of IP:


This must be a Case position as the sentence is grammatical with the subject sitting in it and therefore the Case Filter must be satisfied. If we assume that it is the inflection which is responsible for assigning the Case we account for why this is the landing site for this movement. Moreover, we also account for the difference between the subjects of finite and infinite clauses. Recall that while the subject of the finite clause has nominative Case, the typical Case for the subject of the non-finite clause is accusative:

(63)ashe can sing
bfor him to dance

Presumably the agreement element is different in both these cases. For one thing, modal auxiliaries can appear in the agreement position of finite clauses, but not of non-finite clauses. Moreover, finite inflection selects for a finite tense headed phrase as its complement while the one in (63b) clearly selects for a non-finite complement. I will not have anything to say about the accusative Case of the subject of the non-finite clause at present, leaving this for future discussion. Instead, we will concentrate on the finite inflection, which assigns nominative to the subject.

The Case assigned by the finite agreement element is very different from that assigned to the object. Obviously the former is a nominative Case while the latter is accusative, but the differences extend further than this. For one thing assuming that it is the agreement element which is responsible for nominative Case, this Case must be assigned in a leftward direction:


Furthermore, this case is assigned by a functional element, something that is not involved in Θ-role assignment. For accusative Case the Case assigner necessarily Θ-marks its subject in order to be able to assign accusative Case. But the same is not true for the inflectional assigner of nominative Case.

There are two basic positions linguists take with respect to these observations. One is to assume that nominative and accusative Case are similar and the other assumes that they are fundamentally different. From the first perspective the challenge is to come up with restrictions which define the conditions under which Case can be assigned generally. For example, there are three positions to which we have seen a Case assigned: the specifier of the inflection; the specifier of the complement, and the complement position itself:


The unified relationship that linguists came up with to capture these three cases of Case assignment was called government. Informally this may be stated as:

(66)an element governs everything within its own phrase, but not past a certain point

The point of the ‘but’ clause in this definition is to impose locality on government. If a head governs everything inside its phrase, then it can govern quite a long way if its phrase happens to be a long one. Yet government is clearly a local relationship if it is restricted to the situations in (65) and there seems to be a point beyond which government cannot hold. How this point is identified and defined is a matter for discussion, with a number of positions possible. But one thing we can conclude at this point is that VP cannot be something that blocks government, otherwise the light verb would not be able to Case-mark the object in the specifier of VP.

The other point of view observes that it does not seem to be mere coincidence that the two instances of rightward Case assignment in (65) happen to involve accusative Case while the leftward Case assignment involves nominative. The assumption is then that there are two different processes at work here. For nominative the relevant relationship is supposed to be specifier–head agreement, something we mentioned in the previous chapter. The idea is that the finite inflectional element can assign nominative Case to whatever it agrees with, and this will be its specifier. For accusative Case however, government is the relevant relationship, though defined in a slightly different way as it is no longer required to extend to the subject. Informally, this version of government can be defined as:

(67)a head governs its sister and everything inside its sister, up to a point.

Again, the ‘point’ imposes locality restrictions on the government relationships. From the present perspective there is very little between the two views that allow us to favour one or the other and therefore we will leave the matter unresolved at this point.