LINGUIST List 3.452

Tue 02 Jun 1992

Qs: X-bar and VP

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  1. Rick Morneau, X-Bar Theory and the Verb Phrase

Message 1: X-Bar Theory and the Verb Phrase

Date: Thu, 28 May 92 13:07:23 MDX-Bar Theory and the Verb Phrase
From: Rick Morneau <>
Subject: X-Bar Theory and the Verb Phrase

I'm currently reading "On the Definition of Word" by Anna-Maria
DiSciullo and Edwin Williams (MIT Press, 1987) and I'm running into
some problems. Although it was certainly not the authors' intent, the
book raises difficult questions (for ME, at least) about X-Bar Theory
and the validity of the Verb Phrase (VP). I'm hoping that someone on
Linguist List can help.

In one part of the book, the authors discuss the formation of
compounds - how some arguments (i.e., theta roles) are projected from
the head word of a compound to the resulting compound, and how an
argument of the head can be satisfied by the non-head. They use X-bar
theory to explain their conclusions.

The claims they make that are relevant to my confusion are:

 1. The non-head word of a compound can satisfy only the
 INTERNAL argument of the head word - it can NOT fill the
 EXTERNAL argument.

 2. Only the external argument of the head word (but NOT the
 internal argument) can become an argument of the resulting

In other words, the internal argument of the head word can be filled
by the non-head word, and the external argument of the head word can
become the argument of the resulting compound. They use the following
examples to illustrate their points:

 destruction story
 *It was boy-slept.
 John bar tends.
 *tree-eating of pasta

Unfortunately, I did not find their examples very illuminating, so I
came up with a few of my own that illustrate what they say CAN be

 land-grabbing tycoons
 house-hunting newlyweds
 beer-drinking buddies

Note that the external argument of the head word becomes an argument
of the whole compound, while the internal argument of the head word
is filled by the non-head word, as the authors claim.

They justify these conclusions using X-Bar Theory (page 31), stating

 "[A non-head] cannot satisfy the external argument, because
 that argument must pass its index up the X-bar projection to
 the maximal projection, and satisfying the external argument
 within the maximal projection would lead to a contradiction:
 the maximal projection would bear an index indicating that it
 contained an unsatisfied argument, but that argument would in
 fact be satisfied... [The fact that only the external argument
 of the head can become part of the argument structure of the
 resulting compound] follows from the fact that the external
 argument passes up the X-bar projection, but the argument
 structure as a whole does not..."

It all sounds very reasonable. Unfortunately, it is quite easy to
come up with examples which contradict both claims:

 man-made hill
 customer-selected colors
 snake-infested swamp

Here, the EXTERNAL argument of the head is satisfied by the non-head,
and the INTERNAL argument of the head becomes the argument of the new

Thus, it would seem that EITHER argument, internal or external, can
be supplied by the head word to the resulting compound. It would also
seem that EITHER argument of the head word, internal or external, can
be filled by the non-head word. This bothers me because it implies
that the distinction between internal and external arguments may not
be valid. And yet, this distinction is crucial to many current
analyses within Government-Binding Theory. (Actually, what really
worries me is that the explanation is SO obvious that I'll be
embarrassed when I find out what it is. :-)

This whole line of thought reminded me of a directly related problem
that has remained buried in the recesses of my brain since I studied
Transformational Grammar (TG). It bothered me then, but I never
pursued it. Specifically, one of the strongest reasons why a verb
phrase is considered a constituent is because it can appear in
coordinated structures:

 John (washed the dishes) and (vacuumed the carpet).

This example gives credence to the widely (universally?) accepted
assumption that S => NP VP. However, counter-examples come easily to

 (John washed), (Bill waxed) and (Mike buffed) the floor.
 (John just left for) and (Bill just arrived from) Boston.

Which constituents are being coordinated here? More importantly, is
coordination still considered a meaningful test by syntacticians, or
is it just a language-dependent form of elision at S-structure?

I'm not sure why I didn't pursue this earlier. I think I just assumed
that the textbooks were correct about S => NP VP, and that it would
all sink into my thick skull eventually. Now, though, DiSciullo and
Williams have resurrected my earlier doubts about the validity of VP
and the internal/external argument distinction. It also raises the
question (in MY mind, at least) of why we must forsake X-Bar theory
at the sentence level, when it has proven to be so useful everywhere
else. Didn't someone (Ray Jackendoff ???) once try to show that the
main verb is the head of a sentence, and that ALL arguments of the
head (internal, external and adjunct) are sisters? If so, what ever
came of it?

Anyway, I apologize if this is old hat for anyone who reads this, but
it sure would be nice if someone could straighten me out on this

Sincerely befuddled,


*=*= Disclaimer: The INEL does not speak for me and vice versa =*=*
= Rick Morneau Idaho National Engineering Laboratory =
* Idaho Falls, Idaho 83415, USA *
=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*= NeXT Mail accepted here! *=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=*=
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