The What and Who of Headedness

February 24, 2011 / by Kimberly Cortes

Hello again! My last syntax blog left off in the middle of a discussion of how some words draw other words to them in order to form a more complete thought. Recall the verb ate. Ate has to draw to it “the someone” who did the eating and “the something” that was eaten, in order to be a complete thought. You may wonder why ate is the element that draws the others to it. Well, ate, as we discussed before, describes a relationship between something and someone, that is, something was eaten by someone. Apple, on the other hand, does not describe a relationship or anything for that matter. Apple is a just a noun. We could say, “The apple is red” or “I ate the apple.” The same logic applies to any other noun.

We also briefly discussed the definite article the and how it also draws other elements to it in order to be complete. The begs the question, “The what?” Similar to how ate begs the question, “Who/What ate what?” I hope this better clarifies why certain types of words do the drawing, or assigning of thematic roles, while others do not. Remember, thematic roles are simple: the jobs that need to be filled by some word in order for the predicate, or word/phrase doing the assigning, to be a more complete thought.

In these syntax blogs, we have determined that some groups of words belong together, and we call these groups constituents. We have explored that within constituents there are even smaller groups referred to as phrases. I mentioned the names of some phrases--determiner phrases, verb phrases, etc.--and I also briefly mentioned that phrases are given different titles depending on the “head” of the group. So, we now return to this question: How do we determine the head of a phrase? The head of a phrase is the element that assigns thematic roles, or selects other words to complete it, and consequently causes movement of these words to merge with it. This is why in the phrase “ate the apple,” ate is the head. Ate selected the argument “the apple.” Or, said in a different way, ate assigned a thematic role to “the apple.” Additionally, the is the head of the phrase "the apple" because it selected its argument, apple.

Can you figure out which is the head of the following phrases: Cindy’s mother; blue house; small annoying child?

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Kimberly Cortes

Written by Kimberly Cortes

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