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The Lexicon and Sentence Structure


Syntax from the greek Sýntaxis that means ´putting together in order´, can be
defined as the study of sentence-structure. Syntax is the linguistic component that
analyses how words are combined into phrases, and phrases into sentences, and such
syntactic concepts as order, constituency, movement, or hierarchical organization are
argued to constitute the core centre of natural language description.

Along with the dominant position of syntax within grammar, the Transformational or
Generative model, argues that the study of natural language must go beyond the
descriptive stage in order to reach the level of explanatory adequacy: linguistics facts
must not only be described but also explained according to hypotheses, since it is only
through coherent and comprehensive explanations that the study of language can attain
a truly scientific status.

Transformational grammar thinks of language faculty as an innate ability of the

human being, which means that all languages share basic properties or principles.
The establishment of such properties is known as Universal Grammar (UG) and it has
represented the major goal of Transformational Grammar ever since the inception of the
model known as Government and Binding Theory (or GB Theory) or Principles and
Parameters (P&P) Theory.
The term Principles refers to universal properties of languages, whereas the term
Parameters is understood as the set of possible differences or contrasts between
languages, that is the choices made by each language in particular.

GB or P&P Theory was first developed in the late 1970s, though it was
corroborated as a firmly established model only with the publication of Lectures on
Government and Binding (Chomsky, 1981). It became the dominant transformational
model during the following fifteen years and has come to have the Minimalist Program
(Chomsky, 1995) as its most direct descendant. Though Minimalism is the current
approach in Linguistic Theory and can be considered to be still in the making, many of
its principals and mechanisms are those of GB Theory subject to important restrictions
of economy and simplifications.
GB Theory or P&P is responsible for the division of Grammar into the following
subtheories or modules:
Theta-Theory (Thematic), Government-Theory, Case-Theory, Binding Theory, Control-
Theory, Bounding-Theory and X-Theory or what is the same X´ -Syntax.

Following the generative tradition, we concentrate on sentence grammar, that is,

on principles that distinguish possible English sentences from impossible ones. We will
only rarely refer to grammatical relations involving an element outside the sentence.
This is not because we think that relations between sentences within a discourse are not
interesting. But we assume that the study of discourse phenomena presupposes the
grammar of the sentence, so it is logical to begin with the study of the sentence.

The structure of the sentence (or clause, to use a technical term) is thus, the
object of our enquiry.
We will try to identify the principles which determine the way a sentence is built up
from words and morphemes. We assume that the sentence and all the units which
constitute the sentence, i.e: its constituents, have the same internal organisation.
We adopt the X-bar theory of phrase structure which stipulates that all syntactic
constituents are organized around a head, X. The head, X, is a simple syntactic
constituent drawn from the lexicon and consisting of any word or morpheme category.
X is expanded by the addition of a complement to form a larger unit, X´(bar), which in
turn combines with a specifier to form XP, the maximal projection of X.

The complement ZP and the specifier YP in the diagram have an internal structure
identical to that of XP itself, as shown before.

1.1 The units of syntactic analysis:

Consider the following example:

(1) John will meet his employer at the castle

This is a grammatical English sentence. In the traditional techniques of sentence parsing

(to analyse into parts), words are not the immediate constituents of a sentence, rather,
they are the ultimate constituents. They are organized hierarchically into bigger units
called phrases. In the framework of generative syntax, the constituents structure of a
sentence is represented in one of the following formats:
-by means of the tree diagram
-by means of phrase structure rules
-by means of labelled brackets
These representations give us information concerning the structure of sentence above
mentioned. They indicate, for instance, that the string [his employer] is a syntactic unit,
a constituent. It is a Noun Phrase (an NP), a constituent whose main element (or head)
is the noun employer. Analogously, the constituent [at the castle], is a prepositional
phrase (a PP), whose main element is the preposition (at) and the determiner phrase,
[the castle].
The constituent [meet his employer at the castle] is a Verb Phrase (a VP), whose head is
the verb meet, which is followed by two NPs, [his employer] and [at the castle]. The
structural representations of the sentence John will…….at the castle, allow us also to
describe syntactic operations that may affect this sentence, for example:
At the castle, John will meet his employer
His employer, John will meet at the castle
Meet his employer at the castle, John will (indeed)
They are all paraphrases of the first one. We assume that all sentences have the same
underlying structure and we can see that only constituents such as NPs and VPs can be
preposed. Because we cannot prepose other constituents, that is, we cannot say:
*employer at the, John will meet his castle.
*Meet his, John will employer at the castle

Although words are not the immediate constituents of the sentence, they play an
important role as the ultimate building blocks of the sentence. Words belong to different
syntactic categories, such as nouns, verbs, etc… and the syntactic category to which a
word belongs determines its distribution, that is, in what context it can occur. You
cannot easily interchange words of one category for words of another. Example:
*John will appointment his employer at the castle.

Predicates and arguments:

At least three classes of verbs are traditionally distinguished: transitive, intransitive and
ditransitives. Verbs are classified according to the type of VP in which the verb tipically
occurs. For example: abandon, refers to an activity involving two participants: the one
who abandons or the person or thing that is abandoned. On the other hand, the verb
smile does not express a situation which necessarily relates two participants. Depending
on the meaning of the verb, then, one or more elements will be required in the sentence.
The verb requires a number of participants to engage in a certain state of affairs. We
will say that a verb has an argument structure. When a verb is introduced in a sentence
its argument structure is activated. The verb Abandon, for instance, has two arguments.
Abandon: 1:

Thelma abandons the project

1 2

Argument 1 is the agent of the activity. It is realized by the NP which precedes the verb
in that sentence and which will be labelled the Subject of the sentence. Argument 2
refers to the element which undergoes the activity; this argument is often referred to as
the patient. This argument is realized by the NP which follows the verb and which will
be referred to as the direct object.
The distinct participants roles attributed to the arguments of the clause are referred to as
thematic roles or theta-roles.
The verb Smile has only one argument, the agent, realized as the subject.
Smile: 1:

Mary smiled
Finally, a verb such as give has three arguments: the agent, the beneficiary and the
element which is transferred, the theme (the person or thing moved by the action)
Give: 1:

Mary gave John the text

Mary gave the text to John

We will give you a list of the labels which have been used in the literature to refer to
thematic roles or theta-roles:

-agent/actor: the one who intentionally initiates the action

-patient: the person or thing undergoing the action
-theme: the person or thing moved by the action
-experiencer: the entity that experiences some (psychological) state
-benefactive/beneficiary: the entity that benefits from the action expressed by predicate.
-goal: the entity towards which the activity expressed by the predicate is directed.
-location: the place in which the action or state expressed by the predicate is situated.

Underlying the theta-roles in the following examples:

John gave the detective story to Jane

Mary rolled the ball towards Peter

The ball rolled towards the car

Mary was afraid

Mary is in London
1.1 Theta Theory

Theta Theory is the module within P&P Theory that is in charge of analysing the
semantic relations existing between the constituents of a sentence, that is to say the
module that analyses propositions. The two units of analysis are predicate and
argument. A proposition consists of one predicate and one or more arguments (except
weather constructions that consists of just the predicate, for example: ´It is raining´).
(Remember that Theta Theory has to do with semantic or interpretative properties of
predicates and arguments, so, it ignores dummy or expletive items, that is, elements
devoid of meaning)
The term predicate has a syntactic meaning, and a semantic or interpretative
meaning. According to the semantic or interpretative meaning, predicate is the central
part or head of a proposition. As for the arguments of a proposition, these are the
participants in the event expressed by the predicate itself.
The assignment or saturation of theta-roles by predicates on their corresponding
arguments is regulated by Theta-Criterion, which consists of two statements:

(i) each argument is assigned one and only one theta-role

(ii) each theta-role is assigned to one and only one argument

1.2 The Projection Principle

So far we have seen that the lexical items which are the ultimate constituents of a
sentence play an important part in its syntactic representation. Lexical category of
the head of a phrase determines the category of the phrase and the thematic
structure of a predicate will determine the minimal components of the sentence.
This idea that lexical information determines syntactic structure is summed up in
the projection principle:

Projection principle
Lexical information is syntactically represented

1.3 Main verbs and Auxiliaries

So far we have implied that all verbs assign thematic roles. However, the class of
verbs can be divided into two sets: (a) Lexical verbs or main verbs like eat, sleep, walk,
and (b) auxiliaries: be, have, do, and the modal auxiliaries will, shall, can, may, must,
ought. All these elements are inflected for tense. In the present tense, verbs and the
auxiliaries have and be are also inflected for person and number. Modals are not
inflected for person and number.

The formal differences between main verbs and auxiliaries and copula be are
matched by a semantic property: neither auxiliaries nor the copula be assign thematic

1.3.1 Verb ´be´

According to Theta-Theory is not a real predicate.
Examples: I consider John (to be) very smart
He seemed (to be) exhausted

In these constructions the optional status of ´be´ is a strong argument in favour of

considering this verb as a semantically vacuous predicate, that is to say, a verb
assigning no theta-role.

In cases like: John is tall or Jane is in Cambridge we have that what is actually
predicated is a quality or a location. We can say that adjectives and prepositions too
can be argued to have argument structure.

1.4 The Extended Projection Principle (EPP)

Our discussion reveals that sentence constituents may be required for two reasons:

A) In the first place, the argument structure and the theta-role of the predicate
determine the minimal composition of the sentence. Sentence structure is thus
partly lexically determined. This property of syntactic representations is
summed up in the projection principle.
B) Second, expletive elements are required to fill the subject position in certain
constructions. Consider the following sentences:

It surprised John that the dog had been stolen

There are three dogs escaping

It and there are expletive elements in those sentences, which means that they
lack of meaning.
The structural requirement which necessitates the insertions of expletives is that the
subject position of a sentence must be filled, i.e. sentences must have subjects. This
requirement is a general grammatical property to all sentences. Not only must lexical
properties of words be projected in the syntax, but in addition, regardless of their
argument structure, sentences must have subjects. The latter requirement has come to be
known as the extended projection principle (EPP).

Extended Projection Principle


Jane accused John
*Accused John Jane

Explain why the first one is grammatical and the second one is not.
Consider the possibility of inserting the expletive it or there.
- Discuss the argument structure of the verbs in the following sentences:

John promised Mary the job last week

John is walking the dogs

That John had left disappointed the crowd immensely

The huge man frightened the spectators

I have received the books this morning

Consider the following sentence and its tree diagram representation:

John will abandon the investigation

The presence of the NPs John and the investigation is required by the argument
structure of the predicate abandon. The presence of the subject NP is also required by
the extended projection principle which requires
The syntactic categories of phrasal constituents such as VP. NP, etc…are also
determined and required by ……………………………………: VP is a constituent
whose head is a V, the NP is headed by an N, etc…

When talking about tree diagrams it is useful to have a number of technical terminology
which will be used throughout the book to describe structural relations. First we can
think of the vertical relations between the elements in a tree. We use the term
dominance to characterize such relations.


Node A dominates node B if and only if is higher up in the tree than B and if you can
trace a line from A to B going only downwards.
Then, in the sentence John will abandon the investigation IP dominates the NP John and
VP dominates the NP the investigation, but it does not dominate the NP John.

Let us focus on the structure of VP. VP immediately dominates V and NP. If we

compare the tree diagram representations of syntactic structure with genealogical trees,
then it is as if both V and NP are children of the same parent. Linguistics refer to this
relationship as one of sisterhood: V and the object NP are sisters. Similarly we can say
that VP is the mother of the NP the investigation.
The verb abandon has a close connection with its object, witness the fact that the object
cannot be omitted.
Using terminology from traditional grammar we will say that the verb governs the
object and more generally that the head of a phrase governs the complement. The
element which governs is called the governor; the element that is governed is called the

Government (1)

A governs B if

(i) A is a governor;
(ii) A and B are sisters.
Governors are heads