8 Case theory

This chapter is devoted to a discussion of case, a morphosyntactic property of noun phrases. We begin by illustrating the basic purpose of case, which is to identify a noun phrase's grammatical relation in the sentence (for instance, whether a noun phrase is a subject or object). We also show that particular lexical items can impose morphological case requirements on noun phrases, a phenomenon known as case government. We then turn to how case is expressed across languages, focusing on various Indo-European languages (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 prepositions or other syntactic 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 feature on a noun phrase that is assigned by a head. As we will show, case assignment is subject to structural as well as nonstructural licensing conditions.

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 structure of German sentences in more detail 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), not the same as (2a)
(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), not the same as (1a)

Since German speakers can't rely on constituent order to identify subjects and objects, how is it possible for them to keep track of which noun phrase expresses which grammatical relation (and more generally, which sentence expresses which meaning)? The answer is that grammatical relations are encoded in German in terms of morphological case marking. In particular, the subjects of finite clauses in German appear in a particular form called the nominative case, whereas objects generally 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

Notice that in (3), the distinction between nominative and accusative case is marked once: on the head of the noun phrase (the determiner).

In certain exceptional cases in German, case distinctions are marked redundantly: on the determiner as well on the noun. This is illustrated in (4). ∅ explicitly indicates a zero nominative suffix; -(en) is the optional accusative suffix.

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

The redundant case marking in (4) is a historical relic from an earlier stage of German where this pattern was more extensive. In certain languages, redundant case marking on the determiner and the noun is the norm. This is illustrated for modern Greek in (5).

(5) a. Modern Greek
O       andr-as vlepi t-o     skil-o.
the-nom man-nom sees  the-acc dog-acc
'The man sees the dog.'
O       skil-os vlepi t-on    andr-a.
the-nom dog-nom sees  the-acc man-acc
'The dog sees the man.'

Finally, case can be marked solely on the noun. This is illustrated in (6) for Latin, a language without articles.

(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.'

To summarize the discussion in this section: noun phrases can be case-marked either on the determiner, or on the noun, or redundantly on both. But regardless of the particular pattern, case marking has the same basic purpose: it visibly expresses a noun phrase's grammatical function in a sentence.

Case government

In many languages, a noun phrase's particular morphological case depends not only on its function in the entire sentence, but also on which particular lexical item it is most closely associated with. For instance, in German, the object in a sentence appears in the dative or the accusative,1 depending on the verb, as illustrated in (7) and (8).

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

In traditional grammar, the verb is said to govern the case of the object. For instance, helfen 'help' governs the dative, unterstützen 'support' governs the accusative, and so on. An attractive hypothesis is that the morphological case that a verb governs correlates with the verb's meaning, the idea being that variation in case government as illustrated in (7) and (8) correlates with (possibly subtle) differences in the semantics of helfen 'help' and unterstützen 'support'. One idea that comes to mind, for instance, is that unterstützen 'support' is a simple transitive verb, whereas helfen reflects the spellout of a VP shell CAUSE someone GET help. Although we will not work out this idea in full in this chapter, we present some related considerations concerning dative and accusative case-marking in VP shells later on in the chapter.

Case government in Latin is illustrated in (9). As in German, each particular verb governs the case of its object, but in Latin, the choice of case ranges over three cases - dative, accusative, and ablative.

(9) a. Dative  
{ femin-ae, *femin-am, *femin-a } { sub-venire, suc-currere }
  woman-dat       -acc       -abl   under-come  under-run
'to help the woman'
b. Accusative  
{ femin-am, *femin-ae, *femin-a  } ad-iuvare
  woman-acc       -dat       -abl  to-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    Krieges
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 (which includes English) which was spoken thousands of years ago, 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, Tom, come on over here).

The original PIE case system is essentially preserved in Sanskrit, although the distinction between the ablative and the genitive is somewhat obscured because ablative and genitive forms were often homophonous in Sanskrit. 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 some Slavic languages (for instance, Czech and Ukrainian). 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, and so 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 six cases. In Latin, the PIE ablative, instrumental, and locative merged into a single case, called the ablative, which serves all three functions. The vocative is mostly merged with the nominative, but not everywhere, so this also leaves six cases. In Ancient Greek, the ablative, instrumental, and locative were lost, leaving five cases. Old English had five cases as well, having lost the ablative, locative, and vocative; in addition, the instrumental had mostly merged with the dative. Another Germanic language, modern German, retains four cases: nominative, dative, accusative, and an increasingly moribund genitive. The developments just sketched for Indo-European are summarized in (12).

PIE, Sanskrit Baltic,
some Slavic
Other Slavic Latin Ancient Greek Old English German
Nominative retained retained retained retained retained retained retained
Dative retained retained retained retained retained retained retained
Accusative retained retained retained retained retained retained retained
Genitive retained merged as
merged as
retained retained retained retained
Ablative retained merged as
lost lost lost
Locative retained retained retained lost lost lost
Instrumental retained retained retained lost mostly merged with dative lost
Vocative retained retained lost mostly merged with nominative retained lost lost
Number of distinct cases 8 7 6 5 4

(13) shows the complete case paradigms for the Latin nouns femina 'woman' and avus 'grandfather'. These two nouns are each representative of two distinct declensions, or word classes. Latin had a total of five such word classes, each of which was characterized by unique endings for combinations of case and number. For instance, dative singular is marked by -ae on femina and by -o on avus. In the remaining three declensions, the same combination happens to be marked by the same suffix, namely -i (distinguishing three remaining declensions, rather than collapsing them into one, is motivated by other distinctions in the paradigms). For more details, take a look at Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar, available through the Perseus project.

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

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

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

In the descendants of Latin, the Romance languages, case continues to be 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 leur    parler.
I  want 3pl.dat talk
'I want to talk to them.'
Je veux les     voir.
I  want 3pl.acc see
'I want to see them.'

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

(15) a.  
Je veux parler à   vos  voisins.
I  want talk   dat your neighbors
'I want to talk to your neighbors'
Je veux voir vos  voisins.
I  want see  your neighbors
'I want to see your neighbors.'

This case marker has its historical origin in the spatial preposition à 'to', but is distinct from it in the modern language. This is demonstrated by the fact that the pro-form for phrases in which à is a spatial preposition is not leur,, as in (14a) (or lui in the singular), but y, just as it is for 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 five cases, which are illustrated in (18) for three declensions. As is evident, case syncretism is more extensive in Old English than in Latin.

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

Nominative fox fox-as lar lar-a deor deor2
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
Instrumental 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 suffixes were lost, and their 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). Recall that the thorn character (þ) corresponds to modern English 'th'.

þe  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 (N) (king), as it is in (19), but rather analytically case-marks an entire noun phrase (DP) (the king of France). This is clear from the fact that it follows postnominal material 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 the contrast in (20), where the possessive determiner obligatorily follows an element that is not even a noun. For clarity, the noun phrase that is case-marked by the possessive determiner is underlined in (20b); the entire sequence in (20b) from the to cat is of course also a noun phrase.

(20) a. * the guy's that I used to go out with cat
b.   the guy that I used to go out with 's 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 objective case of a full noun phrase are all homophonous 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 continues to be spelled out synthetically on pronouns, just as in French. 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 possessive case is 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). In what follows, we will refer to the case that resulted from the merger as the objective. The distinction between nominative and objective case continues to be expressed synthetically in modern English on most ordinary pronouns, as illustrated in (21).

(21)     Nominative Objective

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  

As the table shows, with the two pronouns you and it, the distinction between the nominative and the objective has been lost, and this is also true for full noun phrases. Finally, it is worth noting that despite the efforts of prescriptive grammarians to keep a distinction alive between nominative who and objective whom, the two forms have merged as who in the vernacular. James Thurber has a diabolically witty essay on the topic.

Case features

In this section, we introduce some concepts and syntactic conditions that enable us to derive the distribution of the various case forms of noun phrases in English and other languages. We begin by introducing the notion of case feature.

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

(22) a. They will help her.
b. 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 objective.

As is evident, both of the subjects in (23) are objective 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 objective, whereas you doesn't. But because case syncretism between the nominative and the objective is not complete in English (in other words, because at least some pronouns still 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 objective 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 objective 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 associate each noun phrase in a language with a case feature. Each case feature has a value that is selected from among all of the various case forms in that language (regardless of whether the case forms are expressed synthetically or analytically). In English, for instance, a case feature can assume the value "nominative", "objective", or "possessive". In Russian, a case feature has a choice among six values (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative, instrumental). If we need to explicitly represent a noun phrase's case feature, we can do so by means of labels as in (27) and (28).

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

Case licensing

Earlier, we said that the purpose of case is to encode a noun phrase's function in the sentence. In order to make the notion of function more precise, we can think of each noun phrase in a sentence as being licensed by (= linked to) some syntactic head. A common way of putting this is to say that the case feature on a noun phrase needs to be checked against a corresponding case feature on the case-licensing head. In English, case-licensers are either verbs or prepositions (with very few exceptions), but there are languages that routinely allow adjectives and nouns to be case-licensers as well. If the case features on the two participants in a checking relationship don't match up (say, one is nominative and the other is accusative) or if they don't stand in a one-to-one relationship (say, the case feature on a head ends up checking case features on more than one noun phrase), then the sentence is ungrammatical. On the other hand, if every case feature in a sentence stands in a proper (that is, one-to-one) relationship with a matching partner, then all is well with the sentence as far as case theory is concerned. A question that immediately comes to a syntactician's mind is whether case checking is subject to structural constraints. If so, we are of course interested in providing as general a formulation of those constraints as possible.

There is reason to believe that there is more than one type of case checking. We can distinguish between case licensing, which holds between a noun phrase and a head external to the noun phrase (say, a verb or preposition), and case agreement, which holds within a noun phrase (say, between a determiner and a noun). In the current version of this book, we will discuss only case licensing. In this section, we motivate various conditions (primarily structural, but also nonstructural) on the relationship between the two participants in a case-licensing relation. In the first half of the section, we present three structural configurations in which case licensing is possible: the specifier-head configuration, the head-specifier configuration, and the head-complement configuration. Beginning in the 1990's, attempts have been made to simplify the theory of case licensing by identifying a single case-licensing configuration. For instance, it has been proposed that complements of verbs are not directly licensed in the head-complement configuration, but that the complement moves to the specifier of a silent head, so that case is uniformly licensed in the specifier-head configuration. The following discussion will remain somewhat agnostic on this point. However, we will show that all three of the configurations mentioned above are quite similar from a topological point of view. In the second half of the section, we discuss three further nonstructural conditions on case licensing: biuniqueness, exocentricity, and matching.

Spec-head licensing

In what follows, it's important to distinguish carefully between finite clauses on the one hand and finite verbs on the other. In English, finite clauses are clauses that can stand on their own. The clauses in (i)-(iii) are finite; the ones in (iv) are not.

(i)   Finite clause Finite tense + finite verb   I [pres] do that; he [pres] does that;
I [past] did that; he [past] did that.
(ii) a. Finite clause Finite tense + finite auxiliary + nonfinite verb
(present participle)
  I [pres] am doing that; he [pres] is doing that;
I [past] was doing that; he [past] was doing that.
b. Finite clause Finite tense + finite auxiliary + nonfinite verb
(past participle)
  I [pres] have done that; he [pres] has done that;
I [past] had done that; he [past] had done that.
(iii) Finite clause Modal + nonfinite verb (infinitive)   I will do that; he will do that.
(iv) Nonfinite clause Nonfinite verb, no finite auxiliary or modal   to do that; to be doing that; to have done that

Finite verbs are ones that aren't participles or infinitives (see Finiteness in English for details). A finite clause always contains some finite Infl element, either a finite tense morpheme (i, ii) or a modal (iii). A finite tense morpheme in turn is always associated with a finite verb (i) or a finite auxiliary (ii). A modal, on the other hand, is always associated with an infinitive.

From this it follows that if a clause contains a finite verb or a finite auxiliary, the clause itself is finite. But if a clause contains a nonfinite verb, it needn't itself be nonfinite. If it contains a modal, it is finite (iii); only if it doesn't is it nonfinite (iv).

We begin by considering how case is licensed on the subjects of sentences. Since subjects of sentences start out life as specifiers of verbs, one's first impulse might be to propose that nominative case is checked by V. Although we will end up rejecting this approach, let us pursue it for the moment in order to show why it is unsatisfactory. The proposal is that what checks the nominative case of He (or more precisely, its trace in Spec(VP)) is the finite verb understands in (29a) and the bare (nonfinite) form understand in (29b). This putative checking relationship is indicated by the red boxes. (We further assume that DPs whose case feature is checked are free to move on to other positions in the sentence.)

(29) a.       b.  
Finite clause, finite verb form
(to be revised!)
Finite clause, nonfinite verb form
(to be revised!)

Now if verbs were able to check nominative case, regardless of whether they are finite or nonfinite, we would expect the nonfinite verb in the lower IP in (30) to be able to check nominative case on the lower he, on a par with the nonfinite verb in (29b).3

(30) *  
Intended meaning: He claims that he understands Hegel.

However, (30) is completely ungrammatical. We therefore reject the idea that nominative case is checked by V. We conclude instead that it is checked by finite I. The contrast between (29) and (30) then follows directly since I is finite in (29) ([pres], does), but not in (30) (to).

Notice, by the way, that the ungrammaticality of (30) isn't due to semantic anomaly, since the intended meaning is both expressible and semantically well-formed, as indicated by the gloss to (30). Neither is the ungrammaticality of (30) due to the split infinitive, since (31) is as ungrammatical as (30).

(31)   *

One might attempt to rescue the idea that nominative case is checked by finite V by replacing (32a) with (32b).

(32) a.   Nominative case is checked by finite I.
b.   Nominative case is licensed by finite V where possible (that is, in clauses that contain a finite V), and by finite I otherwise.

Although there is no empirical argument against (32b), we reject it because it violates conceptual economy (a.k.a. Occam's razor). Our reasoning is as follows. A finite V in a clause implies a finite I (in the form of a silent tense morpheme). The converse is not true, however. Although a finite I in a clause is consistent with a finite V, as just stated, it is also consistent with a nonfinite V (the finite I might be a modal). Clauses with finite I thus form a proper superset of clauses with finite V. This means that (32a) and (32b) are empirically equivalent. However, the statement in (32b) is unnecessarily more cumbersome and therefore less preferable.

The upshot of the discussion so far is that the head that checks nominative case in English is finite I, and that the licensing configuration for checking nominative case in English is the specifier-head configuration. This is shown in (33) (which supersedes (29)).4 As already mentioned in passing in Chapter 4, the term 'specifier' is generally abbreviated to 'Spec' (read as 'speck').

(33) a.       b.  
Finite clause, finite verb form
Finite clause, nonfinite verb form

Nominative case is not the only case to be licensed in the spec-head configuration in English. So is possessive case. Here, the case-checking head is the possessive determiner ('s or its silent plural variant), as discussed earlier.

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 has a case feature of its own that needs to be checked. The lower DP has a possessive case feature. The higher DP generally has a nominative or an objective case feature, but it might itself bear a possessive case feature if it is part of an even larger possessive construction, as it is in (ii).

(34) illustrates the spec-head configuration in its general form. The nodes that bear the case features that need to be checked are the head X and its specifier YP. The path between the two nodes is indicated in red; we return to some properties of this path in connection with the two remaining case-licensing configurations that we discuss (head-spec, head-complement).


Head-spec licensing

A second configuration that licenses case checking is head-spec licensing, which we motivate on the basis of sentences like (35a).

(35) a.   He expected her to dislike him.
b.   He expected that she would dislike him.

In both sentences, what is expected is a state of affairs (= a proposition). Given the semantic parallel between the two sentences, it is reasonable to suppose that expect in (35a) takes a single complement (the entire italicized sequence her to dislike him), rather than a sequence of two complements (the DP her and some constituent dominating to dislike him). Assuming that to is a nonfinite structural counterpart of finite would leads us to give (35a) the structure in (36).


An additional reason for treating the noun phrase following expect as the subject of a complement clause rather than as the object of the matrix clause concerns sentences containing expletive there. Recall from Chapter 3 that expletive there is licensed as the subject of a clause containing a verb of (coming into) existence. If we treat the DP immediately following expect as a subject, the parallel between (37a) and (37b) is expected and straightforward (as is the parallel between (37) and (35)).

(37) a.   He expected [IP there to be a fly in his soup ] .
b.   He expected that [IP there would be a fly in his soup ] .

On the other hand, if we were to treat the postverbal DP as an object, we would have to complicate our statement of how expletive there is licensed. Moreover, even if we succeeded in formulating a descriptively adequate licensing condition, we would still forfeit the structural parallel between (37a) and (37b).

Having motivated the structure in (36), let's now return to our main concern: how objective case is licensed on the embedded subjects in (35a) and (37a). Consider the schemas in (38).

(38) a.       b.  
Spec-head licensing Head-spec licensing

Notice that the head-spec configuration in (38b) is the mirror image of the spec-head configuration in (38a), already familiar from (34), in the following sense. In both cases, the case-licensing configuration can be characterized as in (39).

(39)     A case-licensing configuration is defined as follows:
a. a head X
b. the nonterminal node closest to X (that is, the intermediate projection X')
c. a node closest to X' that is distinct from X
d. the specifier of the node in (c)

The difference between spec-head and head-spec licensing simply concerns the direction that the path takes in (39c). Spec-head licensing chooses the mother of the head's intermediate projection; head-spec licensing chooses the daughter.

Given (39), we can say that objective case is checked on the complement subject in an ECM construction by the matrix verb in the head-spec configuration.

It is standard to refer to the construction in (35a) and (37a) as the Exceptional Case-Marking (ECM) construction. Given the analysis that we have just presented, the term is a bit of a misnomer. If the construction is indeed exceptional, it is not for structural reasons, but because of the crosslinguistic rarity of heads that take IP complements and are also able to check objective case. Because the term is prevalent in the literature, we will continue to use 'ECM construction' to refer to the construction in question and 'ECM verb' to refer to any verb with the two properties just mentioned (takes IP complement, able to check objective case).

ECM constructions are not the only ones where case is checked in a head-spec configuration. The same configuration is also relevant for the constructions discussed in Chapter 7, VP shells and small clauses. In a language like English, which does not distinguish between a dative and an accusative case, but has only a single objective case, case checking proceeds along exactly the same lines as described above. In (40a) (= (3) of Chapter 7), for instance, the head of the higher VP checks objective case on the specifier of the lower VP. In (40b) (= (7a) of Chapter 7), let checks objective case on the small clause subject there.

(40) a.       b.  

In languages with a dative-accusative distinction, case checking in VP shells and small clauses is a bit more involved than in English, and we therefore defer discussion of these constructions in these languages until the end of the chapter.

In concluding our discussion of the head-spec configuration, let us briefly return to nominative case checking in English. In the previous section, we argued that nominative case is licensed in Spec(IP) by the spec-head configuration. If this is so, then subject movement in English can be derived from considerations of case checking. In other words, the subject must move from Spec(VP) to Spec(IP) because nominative case can't be checked in its original position. However, the availability of head-spec licensing opens up the alternative that nominative case is checked in the head-spec configuration. The case-checking head continues to be finite I, for the reasons discussed earlier. If this possibility is correct, then subject movement in English must be derived from considerations other than case theory, such as predication. Given the word order facts of English, it is very difficult to determine which of the two possibilities just outlined is correct. Currently, many generative syntacticians take the (somewhat odd) position that nominative case is checked in the spec-head configuration, but that subject movement is motivated by considerations of predication.

Head-comp licensing

A third and final case licensing configuration arises in connection with simple transitive sentences like (41). It is the simplest in the sense that it involves the fewest number of nodes.

(41) a.   He expected her.

Here, objective case on her is checked by the verb expected in the head-complement configuration, schematically indicated in its general form in (42).


Notice that the head-complement configuration is a subconfiguration of the head-spec configuration just discussed. This means that a general structural constraint on case licensing, subsuming all three configurations discussed so far, can be formulated as in (43).

(43)     Structural licensing condition:
The nodes bearing the case features in a case-checking relationship as well as the nodes on the path connecting them must all be a (not necessarily proper) subset of the set of nodes in (39).

The head in a case-licensing relationship always corresponds to the node specified in (39a). The noun phrase corresponds to either (39c) (head-comp licensing) or (39d) (spec-head licensing, head-spec licensing).

Further issues

Nonstructural conditions on case licensing

In what follows, we further illustrate the structural licensing condition on case checking in (43), and we introduce three additional, nonstructural conditions on case-licensing: biuniqueness, exocentricity, and matching.

First, consider (44), where we treat their as the spellout of they and possessive 's.

(44) a.   He expected their approval.

In (44), objective case on the higher boxed DP is checked by the verb expected, being licensed by the head-comp relation between them. Possessive case on the lower DP is checked by the possessive morpheme 's, being licensed by the spec-head relation between them. So far, so good.

However, a question that arises in connection with the structure in (44) is what rules out (45) (with the same intended meaning as (44)), where the objective case feature on expected checks the objective case feature on them in the head-spec licensing configuration.

(45) *   He expected them approval.

The answer is as follows. Assume the case-checking relationship between expected and the lower boxed DP them. This leaves the higher DP with a case feature that must be checked. In principle, expected might check the case feature on the higher DP in the head-complement configuration, but then a single case feature (the one on expected) would then be checking more than one case feature in the rest of the sentence. Conversely, any case feature on the silent determiner would not get to participate in case-checking. Because (45) is ungrammatical, we conclude that case-checking is subject to a condition as in (46).

(46)     Biuniqueness condition:
Case features on heads and noun phrases stand in a one-to-one relationship.

Is there any head other than expected that the higher DP in (45) could enter into a case-licensing relationship with? The only head that is close enough is the higher DP's own head, the silent determiner. In particular, just as the head-spec configuration is the mirror image of the spec-head configuration, so the relation between the higher DP and its head would correspond to the mirror image of the head-complement relationship.5 However, assuming a case-licensing relationship between a phrase and its own head is not sensible given that the purpose of case is to signal the relationship between a noun phrase and the rest of the sentence. In other words, we will impose a further condition on case licensing along the lines of (47).

(47)     Exocentricity condition:
Case licensing is a relationship between a head and an 'outside' noun phrase (that is, a noun phrase distinct from any projection of the case-checking head).

For completeness, let us note that (45) is impossible even if we were to assume that the silent D bears no case feature. This is because D heads that do not bear case features (like a or the in English) don't license specifiers. In other words, there are no elementary trees of the form in (48), which would be needed to derive the higher DP in (45b).


An important joint consequence of the biuniqueness and exocentricity conditions is given in (49).

(49)     Minimality condition on case licensing
When a case-checking head has the possibility in principle of entering into a case-licensing relation with either of two noun phrases, it is the minimal configuration (the one involving the shorter path) that is the grammatical one.

The third and final nonstructural condition on case licensing is one already mentioned informally at the very beginning of our discussion of case licensing. For ease of reference, we now give it a name.

(50)     Matching condition:
A case feature on a head and the corresponding case feature on a noun phrase must match in value.

In the remainder of this section, we illustrate the interplay of the various conditions that we have proposed, both structural and nonstructural, with reference to the German examples in (51). The verb kennen 'know' governs the accusative, and the preposition mit 'with' governs the dative. (Unbelievable as it may seem, German speakers, including children learning the language, really do pay attention to the tiny difference between dem and den, and have been doing so for centuries!)

(51) a.  
d-  en  Mann mit  d-  em  Hut kennen
the acc man  with the dat hat know
'to know the man with the hat'
b. *
d-  em  Mann mit  d-  en  Hut kennen
the dat man  with the acc hat know
c. *
d-  en  Mann mit  d-  en  Hut kennen
the acc man  with the acc hat know
d. *
d-  em  Mann mit  d-  em  Hut kennen
the dat man  with the dat hat know

The schematic structure for all four verb phrases is given in (52) (recall from Chapter 4 that verbs are head-final in German, whereas (most) prepositions are head-initial).


In (51a), kennen checks accusative case with the higher DP, and mit checks dative case with the lower DP, each in the head-comp licensing configuration. In other words, each head checks the case feature of the DP closest to it.

(51b) is ruled out because it violates the matching condition in (50). Specifically, even though kennen and the higher DP would stand in a legitimate licensing configuration (head-comp), the accusative case feature of kennen doesn't match the dative case feature on the higher DP. Moreover, the accusative case feature of kennen is unable to check the matching accusative case feature on the lower DP, because the verb and the lower DP are too far apart (a checking relationship between these two nodes would violate the structural licensing condition in (43)). Analogous considerations hold for mit and its potential checking relationships with the lower and higher DPs, respectively.

(51c) is ruled out as follows. Case checking on the higher DP is unproblematic; accusative case is checked by kennen in the head-comp configuration. However, case cannot be checked on the lower DP. Checking accusative case with mit in the head-comp configuration would violate the matching condition (dative and accusative don't match), and checking accusative case on the lower DP with kennen would violate both the structural licensing condition and the biuniqueness condition on case checking. (51d) is ruled out for analogous reasons.

The dative-accusative distinction

This section will not be covered in the exam. Resume reading at Notes.

In this section, as promised, we return to the issue of case checking in languages that, unlike English, distinguish dative and accusative case.

(53) gives a double complement sentence in German.6

dass ich   den     Roman an den     Jungen schicke
that I-nom the-acc novel to the-acc boy    send
'that I am sending the novel to the boy'

(54) gives the structure for (53); for completeness, we give the structures both before and after GO moves to CAUSE.

(54) a.       b.  

From (53), we conclude that CAUSE checks accusative case, and we would therefore expect the recipient in the double object counterpart of (53) to appear in the accusative case as well. But (55) shows that the recipient must instead appear in the dative case.

(55) a.  
dass ich   dem     Jungen den     Roman schicke
that I-nom the-dat boy    the-acc novel send
'that I am sending the boy the novel'
b. *
dass ich   den     Jungen den     Roman schicke
that I-nom the-acc boy    the-acc novel send

The structure for (55) is shown in (56); once again, we give both pre- and post-movement structures.

(56) a.       b.  

The ungrammaticality of (55b) is reminiscent of the double o constraint of Japanese mentioned in Chapter 7; recall the contrast in (57).

Hanako-ga  Taroo-ni  ringo-o   tabe-sase-ta   koto
       nom       dat apple acc eat  caus past that 
'that Hanako made Taroo eat an apple'
Hanako-ga  Taroo-o   ringo-o   tabe-sase-ta   koto
       nom       acc apple acc eat  caus past that 

However, the situation in the two languages is not completely identical; indeed, the case marking facts for the German counterpart of (57) are exactly the reverse of those in Japanese.

(58) a.  
dass der     Stefan den     Manfred einen  Apfel essen liess
that the-nom        the-acc         an-acc apple eat   made
'that Stefan made Manfred eat an apple'
b. *
dass der     Stefan dem     Manfred einen  Apfel essen liess
that the-nom        the-dat         an-acc apple eat   made

The challenge facing us is how to make sense of three separate and apparently contradictory case-marking facts:

  1. the alternation between accusative and dative case-marking on the lower specifier in (53) and (55),
  2. the parallel constraint on double accusative marking in (55) and (57), and
  3. the contrasting case-marking pattern between (57) and (58).

So far, we have been assuming that when a head and a noun phrase occur in some case-licensing configuration, this state of affairs both licenses the noun phrase's occurrence in its particular syntactic position (spec or comp position) and determines the particular case that appears on the noun phrase (nominative, accusative, etc.). Let us now weaken this latter assumption somewhat. In particular, we will allow the case that appears on a noun phrase to be only partially determined by the case features of the head that licenses its position in the structure; the case can also reflect further details of the structure, including the case features of other heads. In (53) and (54), case licensing proceeds as before. GO takes a PP complement and has no case feature. Not surprisingly, therefore, when GO adjoins to CAUSE, there is no effect on the accusative feature of CAUSE, which we will assume gets shared by the V node formed by adjunction (the V that dominates both GO and CAUSE in (54b)). In (55) and (56), on the other hand, GET has an accusative feature of its own. What we propose is that once GET adjoins to CAUSE, the presence of the case feature on GET is able to change the value of the case feature on CAUSE from accusative to dative. This dative feature then percolates up to the V node formed by adjunction (the V dominating both GET and CAUSE in (56b)). Because small clauses are structurally analogous to VP shells, moving the lower verb tabe- 'eat' to the higher causative -sase- in the Japanese causative has the same effect, changing the accusative case feature on -sase- to dative. This still leaves us with the case-marking contrast between (57) and (58). What could it be due to? Recall that in the previous chapter, we motivated verb movement in the Japanese causative on the grounds that the causative morpheme -sase- is a bound morpheme. The German verb lassen 'let', on the other hand, is not a bound morpheme and there is no reason to assume that the lower verb moves to it. We can therefore derive the contrast between (57) and (58) by permitting case features to be changed in the way that we have just proposed only in connection with the movement of a case-checking head. This is schematically illustrated in (59) (headedness irrelevant).

(59) a.       b.  
No verb movement Verb movement
Double accusative case marking Dative-accusative case marking

Case agreement

(coming eventually...)

Resume reading here.


1. A very small number of German verbs governs a third case, the genitive. These are felt to be archaic by present-day speakers, so we don't discuss them here, but they could clearly be treated along lines analogous to those proposed here for the dative.

2. 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 declension to which deor 'animal' belonged.

3. The structure in (30) is analogous to that of its grammatical counterpart, He claims to understand Hegel. Details of the structure (for instance, the presence of the CP) are motivated in the next chapter.

4. The spec-head configuration is also frequently, though somewhat misleadingly, referred to as spec-head agreement. The reason for this 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 that the term is misleading is that morphological agreement doesn't necessarily imply 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.

5. The relation between the silent determiner and the higher boxed DP in (44) is a mirror image of the head-comp relation in the following sense. The path between the silent determiner and its NP complement involves a first segment from D to D' and a downward turn at D' to give the second segment from D' to NP. Now imagine taking an upward turn at D'. The resulting second path segment ends at the higher boxed DP.

6. We use subordinate clauses because German main clauses involve a complication, already mentioned in Chapter 3, that is irrelevant here. See Chapter 14 for details.

Exercises and problems

Exercise 8.1

According to the analysis in the text, why are the sentences in (1) ungrammatical?

(1) a. * He claims to he understand Hegel.
b. * He claims he to understand Hegel.

Exercise 8.2

A. Using the grammar tool in ***, build a ternary-branching structure for (1) (= (37a)) along the lines that was mentioned, but rejected, in the text.

(1)     He expected there to be a fly in his soup.

B. Given the ternary-branching structure, how would the licensing condition on expletive there have to be reformulated?

Exercise 8.3

In the chapter, we stated that nouns and adjectives aren't case-licensers in English. Provide evidence for that statement. One piece of evidence for each category is sufficient.

Exercise 8.4

A. Using the grammar tool in x-bar ch8, build structures for the sentences in (1).

Originally a preposition, for in modern English can also be a complementizer. Assume that the complementizer retains the case-licensing ability of the preposition.

(1) a.   I waited for her.
b.   I waited for there to be a sale.
c.   It would be convenient for daycare to be available for the children.
d.   It would be convenient for the parents for daycare to be available.
e.   I suspect the class to be difficult.

B. How is case checked on each of the DPs in (1)? Your answer should include which case is checked, by what head, and in what configuration.

Exercise 8.5

As (1) illustrates, there are no ECM adjectives or nouns in English. Is this a statistical accident, or is there a more principled reason?

(1) a. * I was expectant there to be a problem.
b. * the expectation there to be a problem

Exercise 8.6

A. Using the grammar tool in
Welsh case checking, build structures for the Welsh sentences in (1) (data from Borsley and Roberts 1996:19, 31).

(1) a.  
Gwelai          Emrys     ddraig.
see.conditional Emrys-nom dragon-obj
'Emrys would see a dragon.'
Disgwyliodd Emrys     i  Megan     fynd          i  Fangor.
expected    Emrys-nom to Megan-obj go.infinitive to Bangor-obj
'Emrys expected Megan to go to Bangor.'

B. How is case checked on each of the noun phrases in (1)? (As in English, nominative case cannot be checked in nonfinite clauses in Welsh.) Your answer should include which case is checked, by which head, and in which licensing configuration.

C. Proto-Indo-European (the ancestor of Welsh) is reconstructed as having had rich agreement, and so it presumably had verb raising. The Celtic languages, which are descendants of Proto-Indo-European and to which Welsh belongs, have lost agreement, yet they still exhibit verb raising. Why didn't the loss of agreement lead to the loss of verb raising in Celtic as it did in Mainland Scandinavian?

Exercise 8.7

Given the discussion in the textbook so far, exactly one of the following statements is true. Which is it? Briefly explain your choice.

(1) a.   All subjects are agents.
b.   All agents are subjects.
c.   All subjects check nominative case.
d.   All noun phrases that check nominative case are subjects.

Exercise 8.8

Both sentences in (1) are intended to have the same meaning. In a sentence or two, explain why they contrast in grammaticality.

(1) a. It appears that they may solve the problem.
b. * Theyi appear that ti may solve the problem.

Problem 8.1

On the one hand, German appears to have a double accusative constraint ((55b) is ungrammatical). On the other hand, it appears not to ((58a) is grammatical). Can you resolve the paradox?

Problem 8.2

A. Use the grammar tool in
x-bar ch8 to build structures for the gerunds in (1) and (2). You can reuse structures for (1a,b) if you have already built them in connection with Exercise 5.8. On the basis of the structures you build, explain how case is checked on the subjects of the gerunds (the noun phrases in boldface). Your answer should include which case is checked, by what head, and in what configuration.

(1b) and (2a) are not identical.

(1) a.   I disapprove of Kim's impulsive hiring of incompetents.
b.   I disapprove of Kim's impulsively hiring incompetents.
(2) a.   I disapprove of Kim impulsively hiring incompetents.
b.   I'm concerned about there not being time.
c.   I watched them running down the street.

B. Why are the sentences in (3) ungrammatical? Build trees if necessary, but where possible you can explain your answer with reference to trees that you have built for (A).

(3) a. * I disapprove of Kim's impulsive hiring incompetents.
b. * I disapprove of Kim impulsive hiring of incompetents.

C. Some speakers accept the gerunds in (4), though not the one in (5). Explain how case is checked on the subject of the gerunds in (4), providing the usual details, and also explain what rules out (5).

(4) a. Kim impulsively hiring incompetents is unfortunate.
b. There not being time is unfortunate.
c. Them running down the street is unfortunate.
(5)   * Kim impulsive hiring of incompetents is unfortunate.

D. Can the analysis that you propose in (C) be extended to cover the facts in both (B) and (C)? Why or why not?

Problem 8.3

In the text, we list several conditions on case checking: the structural licensing condition (43), the biuniqueness condition (46), the exocentricity condition (47), and the matching condition (50). Is it possible to eliminate at least one of these? For example, is it possible to derive the biuniqueness condition from the structural licensing condition and the exocentricity condition?