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Syntax. Lecture 3: The Subject. The Basic Structure of the Clause. Recall that our theory of structure says that all structures follow this pattern:. It therefore must be the case that clauses have this structure too they must have a: Head Complement Specifier. The Contents of the Clause.

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Lecture 3:

The Subject

The basic structure of the clause
The Basic Structure of the Clause

  • Recall that our theory of structure says that all structures follow this pattern:

  • It therefore must be the case that clauses have this structure too

  • they must have a:

    • Head

    • Complement

    • Specifier

The contents of the clause
The Contents of the Clause

  • Generally it is accepted that clauses contain three obligatory elements:

    • A subject

    • A predicate (= VP)

    • A category (referred to as ‘Inflection’) which is made up of one of the following:

      • A modal auxiliary (will, could, shall, must, etc.)

      • The marker of the infinitive (to)

      • A marker of tense (tense inflection on verbal element)

The contents of the clause1
The Contents of the Clause

  • For example:

    • [the bomb] [may] [destroy the building]

    • (they want) [the bomb] [to] [destroy the building]

    • [the bomb] [destroyed the building]

The contents of the clause2
The Contents of the Clause

  • Each of these elements are obligatory

    • * may destroy the building (no subject)

    • * the bomb may (no predicate)

    • * the bomb destroy the building (no inflection)

The head of the clause
The Head of the Clause

  • Given that the subject and the predicate are phrases, the only possible head of the clause is the inflection as:

    • It is a word

    • It comes in the middle of the clause

    • The inflection determines the ‘type’ of the clause

      • Finite if it contains a modal or a tense

      • Infinitive if it contains ‘to’

How the clause fits x bar theory
How the clause fits X-bar theory

  • Heads determine the nature of the phrase, therefore the clause is an inflectional phrase

  • As the VP follows the inflection, it seems to be in the complement position

  • As the subject precedes the inflection, it seems to be in the specifier position

Properties of the subject
Properties of the subject

  • The subject is in specifier of IP

    • This accounts for why it is the first element of the clause (specifiers precede X1 in English)

  • The subject is usually an argument of the verb

    • The ice will melt

    • He will read the paper

  • But it is the only argument that is not inside the VP

    • Why is the subject special in this way?

Properties of the subject1
Properties of the subject

  • For some verbs, the subject is not an argument:

    • It would seem that the ice melted

    • It could turn out that he will read the paper

  • This suggests that the subject position is empty semantically, but filled for syntactic reasons

    • The must be a syntactic subject (specifier of IP must be filled)= Extended Projection Principle

Properties of the subject2
Properties of the subject

  • Sometimes we find subjects inside VP:

    • The heat made [the ice melt]

  • ‘the ice melt’ is like an IP (clause)

    • The heat caused [the ice to melt]

  • ‘the ice melt’ is not an IP (clause) because it doesn’t contain an I:

    • * the heat made [the ice to melt]

    • * the heat made [the ice will melt]

    • * the heat made [the ice melted/melts]

  • The only other thing it could be is a VP – containing a subject

Questions arising
Questions arising

  • Why is the subject special?

    • All other arguments are inside VP

  • Why is the subject position an argument position in some cases but not others?

  • If there is a subject position inside the VP, why do we never have two subjects?:

    • * John will Mary read the paper

The passive
The Passive

  • In passives, the subject position is filled by what is interpreted as object:

    • The paper will be read (by everyone)

  • This raises problems as object usually can’t occupy this position – they usually have to occupy the object position:

    • Everyone will read the paper

    • * the paper will read (by everyone)

The passive1
The Passive

  • A more uniform analysis would be to assume that object always occupy object positions

    • But in passives they move to the subject position because this position is underlyingly empty

    • The subject position must be filled (EPP)

The passive2
The Passive

  • This accounts for why the object position must be empty in the passive:

    • * the paper was read the book (by everyone)

  • That the subject position is underlyingly empty is supported by:

    • Everyone thought [that the ice had melted]

    • The ice was thought [to have melted]

    • It was thought [that the ice had melted]

Consequences for grammatical theory
Consequences for Grammatical Theory

  • If elements move from one position to another, there are two ways to describe a structure

    • Before the movement takes place (D-structure)

    • After the movement takes place (S-structure)

Consequences for the subject position
Consequences for the Subject Position

  • There appear to be three ways to fill a subject position:

    • Fill it with an argument

    • Fill it with a meaningless element (it)

    • Move the object into it

  • This is a bit complicated – it would be better if the subject position could be treated more simply

Collapsing meaningless subjects and moved objects
Collapsing meaningless subjects and moved objects

  • Given the two structural descriptions of a sentence (D- and S-structure), it is possible to view meaningless subjects and moved objects in a similar way

  • Suppose that at D-structure in both cases the subject position is empty

    • – may seem [that the ice melted]

    • – was read the paper (by everyone)

Collapsing meaningless subjects and moved objects1
Collapsing meaningless subjects and moved objects

  • At S-structure the subject must be filled, so:

    • The object moves in the passive

      • was read

    • ‘it’ is inserted when there is no object

      • may seem [that the ice melted]

the paper


Unifying all subjects
Unifying all subjects

  • There are two remaining problems:

    • Some subjects are filled without movement or insertion = arguments

    • Some subject arguments appear inside VP

  • But, if we suppose that all subject arguments start off inside the VP, we end up with a remarkably uniform theory:

    • The underlying subject position is always empty

    • It gets filled by things moving to it or being inserted

    • All arguments of a verb originate within the VP


  • Subject position is vacant (waiting for something)

  • Verb has all its arguments near by

    • So verbs can’t have arguments just anywhere

    • John said Bill saw Mary


  • Argument moves to vacant subject position


  • In passives there is no subject argument at D-structure

  • The subject position is still vacant and needs to be filled


  • Therefore a different argument has to move – i.e. the object.


  • With verbs like seem, there is no subject or object argument at D-structure


  • So at S-structure a grammatical subject is inserted


  • All arguments of the verb start off inside the VP

  • The specifier of the IP must be filled

  • If there is an argument inside the VP (subject or object) that can move, it will move to the specifier of IP

  • If there is no argument, a meaningless subject (it) will be inserted