5 Case theory

This is a revised version of the chapter on case. No new material has been added, but I hope I've clarified the discussion of case features. I've also addressed an important question that came up in class in a more satisfactory manner than I did in class (the question was whether we could have V assign nominative case). Finally, by popular demand, I've added trees to the discussion of the case licensing configurations. They're not as fancy as some of you have produced in your homeworks, but at least they exist.


Beginning in Chapter 2, we have been assuming that subjects of sentences originate in Spec(VP) and move to Spec(IP). But although we have argued that subjects move, we have not yet asked what forces them to move. In this chapter, we derive subject movement from considerations of case assignment, and we discuss the structural conditions, or licensing configurations, under which case assignment takes place.

We begin by illustrating the basic purpose of case, which is to identify a noun phrase's function in the sentence (for instance, whether a noun phrase is the subject or object). We also show that particular lexical items can impose specific case requirements on noun phrases, a phenomenon known as case government. We then turn to how case is expressed across languages, focusing on older and more modern stages of Indo-European, the language family to which English belongs. Universal Grammar allows case, just like tense, to be expressed either synthetically (as suffixes on nouns) or analytically (by means of heads that take an entire noun phrase as their argument). As we will see, English allows both ways of expressing case (just as it allows both ways of expressing tense in watch-ed and will watch). It is possible to describe both expressions of case in a unitary way by treating case as a syntactic feature that is assigned by a particular head to a noun phrase in a particular syntactic configuration. In the last section of the chapter, we discuss three configurations in which case can be assigned. It is one of these configurations (specifier-head agreement) that allows us to derive subject movement in English.

A first look at case

The basic purpose of case

In order to understand the purpose of case in human language, it is useful to consider languages in which constituent order is not as fixed as it is in English. In German, for instance, unlike English, the subject of an ordinary declarative clause needn't precede the verb, as shown in (1) and (2) (we discuss the exact structure of German sentences in a later chapter; for now, only the variable constituent order is of interest). In the examples, boldface indicates the subject, and italics indicates the object.

(1) a. German  
Der Mann sieht den Hund.
the  man  sees  the dog
'The man sees the dog.'
Den Hund sieht der Mann.
the  dog  sees  the man
same as (1a)
(2) a.
Der Hund sieht den Mann.
the  dog  sees  the man
'The dog sees the man.'
Den Mann sieht der Hund.
the  man  sees  the dog
same as (2a)

Since German speakers can't reliably identify subjects and objects in terms of their order with respect to the verb, how is it possible for them to keep track of which constituent serves which grammatical function? The answer is that grammatical functions are encoded in German in terms of morphological case marking. In particular, the subjects of finite clauses in German appear in a form called the nominative case, whereas direct objects appear in the accusative. (3) gives a morphological analysis of the noun phrases in (1) and (2).

(3) a.  
d-  er  Mann, d-  er  Hund
the nom man   the nom dog
d-  en  Mann, d-  en  Hund
the acc man   the acc dog

As is evident from (3), the distinction between nominative and accusative case is marked in German on the head of the noun phrase, the determiner.

Although case distinctions are usually expressed only on the determiner in German, there are also certain exceptional nouns that are case-marked, as illustrated in (4). '0' indicates a zero nominative suffix.

(4) a. Nominative  
d-  er  Bär,  d-  er Student-0
the nom bear, the nom student
b. Accusative  
d-  en  Bär-en, d-  en  Student-en
the acc bear    the acc student

In (4), case is marked on the noun phrases redundantly, once on the determiner, and once on the noun. In German, this is a historical relic from an earlier stage of the language where such redundant case marking was more extensive. In other languages, redundant case marking on the determiner and the noun is the rule rather than the exception. This is illustrated for modern Greek in (5). In Greek, any of the six possible permutations of subject, verb, and object (SVO, SOV, OSV, OVS, VOS, VSO) in either (5a) or (5b) is a grammatical declarative clause, though not every permutation is felicitous in every discourse context.

(5) a. Modern Greek
O      andr-as vlepi to      skil-o.
the.nom man   nom sees  the.acc dog acc
'The man sees the dog.'
O      skil-os vlepi ton     andr-a.
the.nom dog   nom sees  the.acc man acc
'The dog sees the man.'

Finally, in languages without an article, case can be expressed solely on the noun. This is illustrated for Latin in (6); as in modern Greek, all six permutations of subject, verb, and object were grammatical.

(6) a. Latin
Av-       us  can-em videt.
grandfather nom dog acc sees
'The grandfather sees the dog.'
Can-is  av-         um videt.
dog  nom grandfather acc sees
'The dog sees the grandfather.'

As the examples in this section show, noun phrases can be case-marked either on the determiner, on the noun, or redundantly on both. But regardless of the exact form that case marking takes, it has the same basic purpose: it visibly expresses a noun phrase's function in a sentence.

Case government

In many languages, the case that a noun phrase appears in depends not only on its function in the sentence, but also on particular lexical items that it stands in relation to. For instance, in German, the object of a sentence appears in the dative or the accusative, depending on the verb. In traditional grammar, the verb is said to govern the case of the object. For all practical purposes, the case that a particular verb governs is not predictable and must be learned by rote, since even verbs with similar meanings can govern different cases, as (7) and (8) illustrate.

(7) a. Dative ok
{ d-  em  Hund, d-  er  Frau } { helfen, nachlaufen }
  the dat dog   the dat woman    help    after.run
'to { help, run after } the { dog, woman }'
b. Accusative *
{ d-  en  Hund, d-  ie  Frau } { helfen, nachlaufen }
  the acc dog   the acc woman    help    after.run
(8) a. Accusative ok
{ d-  en  Hund, d-  ie  Frau } { unterstützen, verfolgen }
  the acc dog   the acc woman    support       pursue
'to { support, pursue } the { dog, woman }'
b. Dative *
{ d-  em  Hund, d-  er  Frau } { unterstützen, verfolgen }
  the dat dog   the dat woman    support       pursue

Like German, Latin also has case government, as shown in (9). As in German, each particular verb governs the case of its object, but in Latin, the choice of case ranges over dative, accusative, and ablative.

(9) a. Dative  
femin-ae, *femin-am, *femin-a  { subvenire, succurrere }
woman dat        acc        abl  help       help
'to help the woman'
b. Accusative  
femin-am, *femin-ae, *femin-a   adiuvare
woman acc        dat        abl support
'to support the woman'
c. Ablative  
femin-a, *femin-ae, *femin-am  frui
woman abl       dat        acc enjoy
'to enjoy the company of the woman'

In both German and Latin, prepositions resemble verbs in governing the case of their complement. In German, prepositions govern the accusative, the dative, or (rarely) the genitive; in Latin, they govern the ablative or the accusative.

(10) a. German  
durch   d-  ie  Tür,  bei d-  er  Kirche,  während d-  es  
through the acc door  by  the dat church   during  the gen war
'through the door, by/near the church, during the war'
b. Latin  
de    sapienti-a,  ad rip-  am
about wisdom   abl to shore acc  
'about wisdom, to the shore'

Finally, in both German and Latin, certain prepositions can govern more than one case. In such cases, the accusative marks direction, and the other case (dative in German, ablative in Latin) marks location.

(11) a. German  
in { d-  ie, *d-  er } Bibliothek schicken; in { d-  er, *d-  ie } 
Bibliothek arbeiten
in   the acc  the dat  library    send      in   the dat  the acc  
library    work
'to send into the library, to work in the library'
in { bibliothec-am, *bibliothec-a } mittere; in { bibliothec-a, 
*bibliothec-am } laborare
in   library    acc             abl send     in   library    
abl            acc  work
'to send into the library, to work in the library'

Synthetic versus analytic case marking

In the languages that we have been discussing so far, case is expressed synthetically, by means of morphologically complex words. But Universal Grammar also allows noun phrases to be marked for case analytically; the case marker is then not an affix, but a relatively independent syntactic head. We illustrate these two options of expressing case in connection with a brief overview of case in the Indo-European language family, to which English belongs.

Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the reconstructed ancestor of the Indo-European language family had eight cases, which were expressed synthetically. The nominative marked the subject of finite clauses, the accusative and dative (and perhaps other cases) marked objects (depending on the verb, as just discussed), and the genitive indicated possession. The PIE ablative indicated the source of movement (as in I drove from Chicago), the locative was used for locations (as in I used to live in Chicago), and the instrumental marked instruments or means (as in He cut it with his pocketknife). Finally, the vocative was used to address persons (as in Hey, Joe, come on over here).

The original PIE case system is essentially preserved in Sanskrit (like Latin, a liturgical language that is no longer anyone's first language). The distinction between the ablative and the genitive is somewhat obscured in Sanskrit because ablative and genitive forms were often homophonous. Such homophony among two or more case forms is called case syncretism. Among living languages, the PIE system is best preserved in the Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian) and such Slavic languages as Ukrainian and Czech. In these languages, the genitive and the ablative have merged completely, leaving seven cases. In other words, in the history of these languages, case syncretism affected all forms of the genitive and the ablative, not just some of them. As a result, children learning the language no longer had any evidence anywhere in the language for distinguishing between the two cases. Several other Slavic languages, including Russian, have in addition almost completely lost the vocative, leaving only six cases. In Latin, the PIE ablative, instrumental, and locative merged into a single case, called the ablative, which serves all three functions, leaving six cases. In Ancient Greek, the ablative, instrumental, and locative were lost, leaving five cases. Finally, Germanic languages like German and Old English retained only the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, leaving four cases. The developments just sketched for Indo-European are summarized in (12). "R" indicates that a particular case has been retained, whereas "---" indicates that it has been lost. When a merger of two or more cases has taken place, the table gives the name under which the resultant merged case is known.

PIE, Sanskrit Baltic,
some Slavic
Other Slavic Latin Ancient Greek German,
Old English
Nominative R R R R R R
Dative R R R R R R
Accusative R R R R R R
Genitive R genitive genitive R R R
Ablative R ablative --- ---
Locative R R R --- ---
Instrumental R R R --- ---
Vocative R R --- R R ---

(13) shows the complete case paradigms for the Latin nouns avus 'grandfather' and femina 'woman'. These two nouns are each representative of two word classes, or declensions. Latin had five such declensions, each of which was characterized by unique endings for combinations of case, number, and gender. For instance, in the declensions to which avus and femina belong, dative singular is expressed by -o and -ae, respectively, whereas in the remaining three declensions, the same combination is expressed by -i. Conversely, the remaining three declensions are distinguished by separate endings for, say, the nominative singular.

(13)     Latin o- declension 'grandfather' a- declension 'woman'
Sg Pl Sg Pl

Nominative av-us av-i femin-a femin-ae
Genitive av-i av-orum femin-ae femin-arum
Dative av-o av-is femin-ae femin-is
Accusative av-um av-os femin-am femin-as
Vocative av-e av-i femin-a femin-ae
Ablative av-o av-is femin-a femin-is

As (13) shows, Latin exhibited some case syncretism. For instance, the dative and ablative singular are homonymous for avus 'grandfather', the genitive and the dative singular are homonymous for femina 'woman', and the dative and the ablative plural are homonymous for both nouns.

In the descendants of Latin, the Romance languages, case is still expressed synthetically on pronouns. For instance, the distinction between dative and accusative pronouns is illustrated for French in (14). (Note that unstressed pronouns in French are clitics; unlike full noun phrases, they precede the verb they are construed with.)

(14) a.  
Je veux lui        parler.
I  want 3.ps.sg.dat talk
'I want to talk to { him, her. }'
Je veux { le,     la  }  voir.
I  want   him.acc her.acc see
'I want to see { him, her. }'

With full noun phrases, on the other hand, the same distinction is expressed analytically by the presence or absence of the case marker à.

(15) a.  
Je veux parler à votre { frère,  soeur. }
I  want talk     your     brother sister 
'I want to talk to your { brother, sister. }'
Je veux voir votre { frère,  soeur. }
I  want see  your     brother sister
'I want to see your sister.'

This case marker is etymologically related to the spatial preposition à 'to', but is distinct from it. This is demonstrated by the fact that the pro-form for phrases headed by spatial à is not a personal pronoun likelui 'him/her' in (14), but rather y 'there', just as it is with other spatial prepositions like dans 'in' or sur 'on'.

(16) a.  
Nous avons envoyé le  vin  à  Toulouse; mon ami    habite à  Paris.
we   have  sent   the wine to Toulouse   my  friend lives  in Paris
'We sent the wine to Toulouse; my friend lives in Paris.'
Nous y    avons envoyé le  vin; mon ami    y     habite.
we   there have  sent   the wine my  friend there lives
'We sent the wine there; my friend lives there.'
(17) a.
Le  cadeau  se   trouve dans mon sac; nous avons mis le  cadeau  sur la  table.
the present refl finds  in   my  bag   we   have  put the present on  the table
'The present is (literally, finds itself) in the bag; we put the present on the table.'
Le cadeau   s'   y    trouve; nous y    avons mis le  cadeau.
the present refl there finds   we   there have put the present
'The present is there; we put the present there.'

As mentioned earlier, Old English had four cases, which are illustrated in (18) for three declensions. As is evident, case syncretism is more extensive in Old English than in Latin.

Note that Latin is the ancestor of French, but not of Old English; click here for one recent hypothesis for how Latin and Old English are related.

(18)     Old English Masculine 'fox' Feminine 'learning' Neuter 'animal'
Sg Pl Sg Pl Sg Pl

Nominative fox fox-as lar lar-a deor deor
Genitive fox-es fox-a lar-e lar-a deor-es deor-a
Dative fox-e fox-um lar-e lar-um deor-e deor-um
Accusative fox fox-as lar-e lar-a deor deor

In the course of Middle English (1150-1500), the old genitive case suffix was lost, and its function was taken over by a syntactic head---the possessive determiner 's (in the plural, the possessive is spelled out as a silent determiner that is orthographically represented as an apostrophe). The old synthetic genitive case is illustrated in (19). As in the previous chapter, +t stands for the Middle English character thorn, which represented the voiceless 'th' sound in thin and thorn.

+te king-es  suster of France (CMPETERB,59.593)
the king gen sister of France
'the king of France's sister'

Although the change itself is not yet fully understood, it is clear that the modern possessive marker is no longer a synthetic case suffix on a noun (king), but rather analytically case-marks an entire DP (the king of France). This is clear from the fact that it follows postnominal adjuncts like the prepositional phrase of France in the translation of (19). The difference between the old synthetic genitive suffix and the analytical possessive determiner that replaced it emerges even more sharply from examples like (20), where the possessive determiner must follow an element that is not even a noun. For clarity, the noun phrase that is case-marked by the possessive determiner is underlined in (20a); the entire sequence in (20a) is of course also a noun phrase.

(20) a.   the guy (that) I used to go out with 's cat
b. * the guy's (that) I used to go out with cat

We ordinarily think of the possessive form of singular noun phrases as containing 's. Under the analysis just given, however, the nominative, possessive, and oblique case of a full noun phrase are all homonymous in Modern English, and the determiner 's in the king's is a case marker on a par with the preposition of in of the king.

Although the possessive is marked analytically on full noun phrases, it is spelled out synthetically on pronouns. Much as the combination of a verb like sing and a silent past tense morpheme is spelled out as sang, a pronoun like we (or more precisely, the feature combination first person plural) and a silent possessive morpheme are spelled out as our.

Beginning in late Old English (ca. 1000 C.E.), the distinction between the dative and the accusative weakened, and the distinction was lost completely in the course of Middle English (1150-1500). We refer to the case that resulted from the merger as the oblique. The distinction between nominative and oblique case continues to be expressed synthetically in modern English on most ordinary pronouns, as illustrated in (21).

(21)     Nominative Oblique

1 sg        I        me
2 sg, pl          you        you
3 sg m, f, n        he, she, it        him, her, it
1 pl        we        us
3 pl        they          them  

On full noun phrases, however, as well as with the two pronouns you and it, the distinction between nominative and oblique is no longer expressed synthetically, but by means of constituent order.

Case theory

In this section, we introduce some concepts that enable us to describe the distribution of the various case forms of noun phrases in English and other languages. We begin by introducing the notion of case feature and then present three structural configurations in which case features can be assigned. There are two basic configurations---namely, specifier-head agreement and government---and a third one that combines these two that is generally referred to as Exceptional Case Marking (ECM).

Case features

Consider the contrast between (22) and (23).

(22) a. ok They will help her.
b. ok She will help them.
(23) a. * Them will help she.
b. * Her will help they.

Why are the sentences in (23) ungrammatical? The answer is that noun phrases in English are subject to the requirements in (24).

(24) a. Subjects of finite clauses appear in the nominative.
b. Objects appear in the oblique.

As is evident, both of the subjects in (23) are oblique forms, and both of the objects are nominative forms. Each of the sentences in (23) therefore contradicts the requirements in (24) in two ways.

Now compare the examples in (22) and (23) with those in (25).

(25) a. You will help her.
b. She will help you.

As we saw in (21), they and she exhibit distinct forms for the nominative and oblique, whereas you doesn't. But because case syncretism between the nominative and the oblique is not complete in English (in other words, because most of the pronouns have distinct forms for the two cases), we will treat you as a nominative form in (25a), equivalent to they and she, but as an oblique form in (25b), equivalent to them and her. For the same reason, we treat the noun phrase my big brother as a nominative form in (26a) and as an oblique form in (26b).

(26) a. My big brother will help her.
b. She will help my big brother.

In order to disambiguate instances of case syncretism like you and my big brother, it is useful to assume that each noun phrase in a language bears a case feature. Each case feature can assume a value from among all the various case forms in that language (regardless of whether the case forms are expressed synthetically or analytically). In English, for instance, there is a choice among three values (nominative, possessive, oblique), whereas in Russian, there is a choice among six (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative, instrumental). We can represent the values of case features as in (27) and (28).

(27) a.   [DP-nom They ] will help [DP-obl her. ]
b.   [DP-nom You ] will help [DP-obl her. ]
c.   [DP-nom My big brother ] will help [DP-obl her. ]
(28) a.   [DP-nom She ] will help [DP-obl them. ]
b.   [DP-nom She ] will help [DP-obl you. ]
c.   [DP-nom She ] will help [DP-obl my big brother. ]

We said earlier that the purpose of case is to encode a noun phrase's function in a sentence. Using the concept of case feature, we can say that every noun phrase needs to be associated with a case feature as an indication of its function. This requirement, often referred to as the Case Filter, is stated in (29). The idea is that sentences containing noun phrases that are not associated with a case feature by the end of the derivation are filtered out as ungrammatical.

(29)     Case Filter
At the end of the derivation of a sentence, every DP (more precisely, every chain headed by a DP) must be associated with exactly one case feature.

The term head has two completely different meanings---don't confuse them. The head of an X' structure is the syntactic category that immediately dominates a word or morpheme and projects an intermediate and a maximal projection. The head of a movement chain is simply the highest element in the chain. In the case of verb movement, the head in the chain sense happens to be a head in the X' sense. But in the cases under discussion here, the head of the chain is a maximal projection.

It is useful to think of a noun phrase's function as being tied to a particular syntactic head. This allows us to think of a noun phrase's case feature as being assigned to it by some head in the sentence. What we mean by this is that heads carry case features that are then copied onto an appropriate noun phrase. As we will show in detail in a moment, this process turns out to be grammatical only in particular structurally defined licensing configurations. The motivation for the term 'licensing' is that the assignment (= copying) of a head's case feature to a noun phrase is licensed, or allowed, only in certain configurations, but not in others.

Given what we have just said, the aims of case theory include specifying which case features belong on which heads and in which licensing configurations they can be assigned. In other words, for English, we would like to fill in the cells of a table like that in (30).

(30)     Case Case-assigning head Licensing configuration

Nominative ? ?
Possessive ? ?
Oblique ? ?

Case licensing configurations

In this section, we present the two basic licensing configurations in which case can be assigned: specifier-head agreement and government. We focus on English, but case in other languages is assigned in these configurations as well. These two basic case licensing configurations can be composed in English and other languages into a third licensing configuration. In the syntax literature, this configuration is generally referred to as Exceptional Case Marking (ECM).

Specifier-head agreement. Subjects of sentences start out as specifiers of verbs, and so one's first impulse might be to propose that nominative case is assigned by V. Although we will reject this approach, let us pursue it for the moment in order to show why it is unsatisfactory. The idea is that what assigns nominative case to He (or more precisely, its trace in Spec(VP)) is the finite verb understands in (31a) and the bare (nonfinite) form of the verb understand in (31b).

(31) a.   He understands Hegel's philosophy.
b. He does understand Hegel's philosophy.

Now if both finite and nonfinite verbs could assign nominative case, then we would expect nominative case to be able to be assigned in finite and nonfinite clauses alike.

In what follows, it's important to distinguish carefully between finite verbs on the one hand and finite clauses on the other. In English, finite clauses are clauses that can stand on their own. Finite verbs are ones that aren't infinitives or participles. All four of the clauses in (i) and (ii) are finite because they can stand alone. But the verbs (in italics) are nonfinite in (i), and finite only in (ii).

(i) a. Modal + infinitive   I will do that; he will do that.
b. Present tense auxiliary verb + present participle   I am doing that; he is doing that.
c. Present tense auxiliary verb + past participle   I have done that; he has done that.
(ii)   Silent tense + finite verb   I [pres] do that; he [pres] does that.

However, this would leave the contrast between (31b) and (32) mysterious, since the nonfinite verb understand should be able to assign nominative case in (32a,b) just as it does in (31b). (We assume that to in (32) occupies the Infl node of the nonfinite clause.)

Notice that the ungrammaticality of (32a) cannot be attributed to 'splitting' the infinitive, since the word order in (32b), where the subject of the nonfinite clause moves to Spec(IP), just as it does in (31b), the infinitive to understand is not 'split' by he,, is equally ungrammatical.

(32) a. * He claims [ to he understand Hegel's philosophy. ]
b. * He claims [ he to understand Hegel's philosophy. ]

For this reason, we conclude that nominative case is assigned not by V, but rather by finite I. The contrast between (31) and (32) then follows directly since I is finite in (31) ([pres], does), but not in (32) (to).

One might attempt to rescue the idea that nominative case is assigned by finite V by proposing (33).

(33)     Nominative case is assigned by finite V where possible (that is, in clauses that contain a finite V), and by finite I otherwise.

There is in fact no empirical argument against such an approach. Nevertheless, we will reject it because it violates conceptual economy. Clauses with finite V always also contain a silent finite tense element in I. The converse is not true, however. A clause can contain a finite I in the form of a modal, in which case the V is nonfinite. Thus, clauses with finite I form a proper superset of clauses with finite V. As a result, the statement in (33) is logically equivalent to (34). Clearly, however, it is unnecessarily more complicated and hence less preferable.

(34)     Nominative case is assigned by finite I.

What structural relationship must hold between the nominative noun phrase and finite I? In English, finite I assigns nominative case to the specifier of its maximal projection, Spec(IP). In other words, the nominative DP and I stand in the specifier-head configuration, a configuration that is also frequently, though somewhat misleadingly, referred to as specifier-head agreement. In both terms, 'specifier' is generally abbreviated to 'spec' (read as 'speck'). The spec-head configuration is shown in (35). It is important to understand that the spec-head configuration holds between a head and the specifier of that head's maximal projection, as indicated by the boxed nodes, and not between any specifier and any head.


The necessity of subject movement from Spec(VP) to Spec(IP) in English is a straightforward consequence of nominative case being assigned by finite I in the spec-head configuration. Nominative case cannot be assigned to Spec(VP) in English because Spec(VP), though a specifier, is not the specifier of I.

Nominative case is not the only case that is assigned in the spec-head configuration in English. Possessive case is assigned in this configuration as well, the case-assigning head being the possessive determiner 's, as discussed earlier. Just like the movement of the subjects of sentences, subject movement in noun phrases---from Spec(NP) to Spec(DP)---follows from possessive case being assigned by possessive D in the spec-head configuration.

In possessive constructions like (i), there are two noun phrases: a lower one (the possessor) and a higher one (the entire noun phrase that contains both the possessor and the thing possessed).

(i)       (ii)  

It is important to keep in mind that each of the two noun phrases needs to be assigned a case feature of its own. The lower DP is assigned possessive case. The higher DP is generally assigned nominative or oblique case, but it might itself be assigned possessive case if it was part of an even larger possessive construction, as it is in (ii).

Government. A reasonable thing to want to do is to keep case theory as simple as possible by allowing only a single licensing configuration---namely, spec-head agreement (Chomsky 1993, 1995). Accordingly, vigorous attempts were made in the 1990s to handle the assignment of oblique case in a spec-head configuration. However, the key theoretical assumptions necessary to implement this approach to case licensing have been abandoned. As a result, we will present an approach according to which oblique case is assigned in a second licensing cofiguration, government. As we noted earlier, government is a notion of traditional grammar, but it has been adopted by generative grammarians, who have redefined it, as might be expected, in structural terms. A number of several closely related definitions of government have been proposed, of which (36) is representative.

(36)     A governs B iff
a. A is a head,
b. B is a maximal projection, and
c. A and B are sisters (= mutually c-command each other).

Putting (36) more tersely, we can say that head govern their complements. In English, oblique case is assigned under government by V and P; in other words, it is only complements of V or P that can bear an oblique case feature. The government configuration is shown in (37).


It may be helpful to review the section in Chapter 6 on there before reading this section.

Mediated case assignment. Finally, in certain languages, including English, case can be assigned in a way that combines the two simple forms of case assignment just discussed (government and spec-head configuration). Evidence for this in English comes from a special class of verbs exemplified in the following by expect. As (38a) shows, the verb expect can take a DP object (in italics), and as is clear from the structure in (38b), it assigns oblique case to her under government.

(38) a.   He expected her.

Now consider (39).

(39)     He expected her to dislike him.

Here, expect doesn't have quite the same meaning as in (28a). In (28a), it is a person (= an entity) that is expected, whereas in (39), it is a state of affairs (= a proposition), just as it is in (40).

(40)     He expected (that) she would dislike him.

The semantic parallel between (39) and (40) strongly suggests that the complement of expect in (39) is the entire italicized sequence her to dislike him. More specifically, it suggests that to in (39) is the counterpart of would in (40). Assuming for simplicity that expect in (39) takes an IP complement, this yields the structure in (41).


Before addressing our main concern---namely, how oblique case is assigned to the embedded subject, we provide another piece of evidence in favor of the analysis in (41), which is based on the distribution of expletive there (see Expletive elements in English for more information on expletive there). The contrast in (42) indicates that expletive there is restricted to subject position and unable to function as the object of a verb.

(42) a. ok There is a fly in my soup.
b. * I dislike there in my soup.

However, it was noticed early on in generative grammar that examples superficially resembling (42b) are grammatical. This is illustrated by the contrast in (43).

(43) a. ok He expected there to be trouble.
b. * He expected there.

The contrast in (43) would be mysterious if there were a complement of expect in both sentences, but the mystery dissolves if there is the subject of an IP in (34a), just as it is in the paraphrase of (43a) in (44).

(44)     He expected (that) there would be trouble.

The question remains of how the embedded subjects in (41) and (43b) can receive oblique case, given that they are not complements of expect. In order to answer this question, recall the goal of case assignment, which is to copy a case feature from a case assigner to a noun phrase. In the instances of case assignment discussed so far, this transmission is direct (that is, it proceeds in a single step). But in a configuration like (41), the best the verb can do is to transmit its oblique case feature to IP under government. However, the case features are useless on IP, since case needs to be realized on noun phrases.

Let us therefore introduce a simple modification concerning case assignment. We will say that case features are copied not simply to a maximal projection, but to the entire spine of the projection under consideration. In the simple case of government, for instance, an oblique case feature is copied onto the DP sister of the case-assigning V or P, and from there to the D' and D belonging to the DP's spine. This ordinary process is shown in (45).

(45) a.       b.  
Case feature copied from head to complement under government (= (37)) Transmission of case feature to entire spine of complement

The counterpart for case assignment in the spec-head configuration is shown in (46). Note that (45) and (46) differ only in the configuration in which case is assigned; the transmission of the case feature in step (c) is identical in both cases.

(46) a.       b.  
Case feature copied from head to specifier in spec-head configuration (= (35)) Transmission of case feature to entire spine of specifier

Let us now return to the issue of how to assign oblique case to the complement subject in (41). Clearly, the oblique case feature of the matrix verb can be copied to its sister, the embedded IP, and from there to the embedded I' and I, just as in (45). This is shown in (47a,b). Once on the embedded I, however, the oblique case feature is in the right configuration to be copied onto the DP in the embedded Spec(IP) position, given that they stand in a spec-head relation. This is shown in (47c).

(47) a.       b.       c.  
Case feature copied from expect to complement IP under government Transmission of case feature to entire spine of complement IP Last-resort transmission of case feature to embedded Spec(IP)

Be sure that you understand that the specifier and the head that stand in the spec-head relation are the Infl and the Spec(IP) of the embedded clause, as indicated by the boxes in (47c). The embedded Spec(IP) and the matrix V do not. The reason is that the embedded Spec(IP), though a specifier, is not the specifier of the matrix V.

(47) is repeated in more schematic form in (48). Again, the first two steps are just ordinary case assignment under government. The last step can be thought of as a last-resort measure that allows the verb's case feature to be transmitted to a noun phrase that would otherwise remain without one. It is important to note that the embedded I, being nonfinite, has no case features of its own to conflict with the oblique case feature from the matrix verb.

(48) a.       b.       c.  
Case feature copied from head to complement under government Transmission of case feature to entire spine of complement Last-resort transmission of case feature to specifier of complement

The process just illustrated (or any equivale way of assigning case from a head to the specifier of the head's complement) is often referred to as exceptional case marking (ECM), and verbs that belong to the same syntactic class as expect are called ECM verbs. One aspect of ECM that is undeniably exceptional is that it assigns oblique case to subjects, which are generally assigned nominative case. An immediate consequence is that subjects of clauses cannot be defined as noun phrases that are assigned nominative case. But this is not a serious problem, because a simple alternative definition is available—namely, that subjects of clauses are those noun phrases that occupy Spec(IP). It is important to recognize, however, that ECM is not completely exceptional and idiosyncratic. This is because it is composed of both of the licensing configurations introduced earlier—government and the spec-head configuration. In order to highlight this aspect of it, we can refer to it as mediated case assignment. Ordinary case assignment requires a single case-assigning head. Mediated case assignment, on the other hand, requires two heads: the original case-assigning head and a mediating head. The mediating head does not itself assign case, but serves as a conduit for the case feature of the case-assigning head.

At this point, we are in a position to fill in the blanks in the table in (30), yielding (49).

(49)     Case Case-assigning head Licensing configuration

Nominative Finite I Spec-head
Possessive Possessive D Spec-head
Oblique V, P Government
Oblique V, P Mediated case assignment


in German, the object of a sentence appears in the dative or the accusative
A very small number of German verbs governs a third case, the genitive, but the verbs in question are very formal, and the option is being lost from the language.

Note how the -s-less plural of deer, which is exceptional in modern English, goes back to Old English, where it was simply the ordinary plural form for the word class to which deer belonged.

the contrast between (31b) and (32a,b)
The grammatical counterpart to (32a,b) is He claims to understand Hegel's philosophy. This sentence involves control, a phenomenon discussed in Chapter 6.

though somewhat misleadingly
The reason the configuration is called spec-head agreement is that subjects and verbs of sentences, which are in the spec-head configuration in the VP, agree in number (the man runs/*run; the men run/*runs). The reason the term is misleading is that not all agreement relations of this sort must be instantiated in a spec-head configuration. For instance, determiners agree in number with the head of their NP complement (that woman/*women; those women/*woman), but the D and the N aren't in a spec-head configuration.

the key theoretical assumptions
The attempts to handle oblique case assignment as licensed in a spec-head configuration postulated a special head (called Agr-O) that was distinct from V that assigned oblique case and into whose specifier the object moved.