Why the Noun is not the Head of the DP – Basic English Syntax » Luyện thi Gò Vấp
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Why the Noun is not the Head of the DP

The following all have the same distributions and hence can all be considered determiner phrases:

  • that man (a)
  • he
  • Henry
  • men

The first consists of a determiner and a noun, which we have so far been describing as a head followed by its complement, in the usual English pattern. The second a pronoun, and we have claimed that pronouns are ‘intransitive’ determiners, i.e. determiners without an NP complement. The third consists of just a proper noun and the last just a plural count noun. These last two examples are puzzling: how can they be considered as DPs when they contain no determiner? Perhaps these are not DPs at all, but simply NPs. But if this is true, as all the examples have the same distribution, they must all be considered NPs. Thus, the pronoun should be categorised as a noun and the determiner in (a) is not the head of the phrase, but some other element within the NP, perhaps an adjunct or a specifier (it is on the wrong side to be considered a complement).

This proposal might be supported by two further observations. First, note that even when a determiner is present, the noun seems to be the most semantically salient element, suggesting its greater importance:

  • these socks (a)
  • an idea (b)
  • each portrait of the Queen (c)

(a) refers to something of a ‘socky’ nature and (b) to an idea. In (c) we are talking about instances of portraits, not instances of each. The determiners obviously do contribute a meaning, but this seems secondary to the meaning of the noun. From this point of view, then we might claim that the noun should be seen as the more important syntactic element, i.e. the head.

This is not a good argument, however, as it is not wise to conclude about the syntactic properties of an element on the basis of its semantic properties. There are many elements which might be considered to be the syntactic head of a phrase which are not the semantically most important word. For example, consider the following: cups of tea

Semantically, the noun tea is the most important element in this phrase: it refers to something which can be described as tea and not a cup. When one drinks a cup of tea, it is the tea that gets drunk, not the cup! Yet, syntactically it seems that cup should be considered as the head and the phrase containing tea as its complement. This provides us with a straightforward structure: cups of tea

If, on the other hand, we wanted to claim that the noun tea is the syntactic head of the phrase we would have difficulty fitting in the preposition and the other noun.

Neither of these elements appears to behave like either a specifier or an adjunct and so the analysis is highly problematic.

Another case where it might be argued that the syntactic head of a phrase is not the most important semantic element within it concerns preposition phrases:

  • go [to London]
  • look [through the tunnel]

In these cases, as in those above, the preposition does contribute something to the meaning of the phrase, though it is not clear that this should be seen as the most important aspect of the meaning of the whole phrase. Indeed London and tunnel seem to contribute just as important, if not more important information. However, it would not make sense to claim that the nouns are the heads of these phrases as they are clearly not NPs, not having the distribution of NPs:

  • *go [London]
  • *look [the tunnel]

There are syntactic reasons, then, for considering these phrases to be headed by the preposition and thus it seems better to assume that the most important semantic word is not always the syntactic head.

As is is the form of the verb ‘to be’ that agrees with a third person singular subject and are is the form agreeing with a third person plural one, we can conclude that the phrases sitting in subject positions have these properties. Thus it would seem that the noun projects its number features to the whole phrase. We have said that projection is something that concerns heads and so this might be taken as evidence that the noun is the head.

The assumption that the determiner is not the head leads to further problems for the analysis of determiners and pronouns themselves. First consider the determiner. If this is not the head then it is presumably an adjunct or a specifier within the NP. We should therefore expect it to behave as such. Determiners do not appear to be adjoined within the NP as they do not behave like adjectival modifiers, which we have analysed as N’ adjuncts in the previous chapter. Adjectives are recursive modifiers of nouns and can normally be arranged in any order, as we might expect of an adjunct.

Determiners, on the other hand, are not recursive and have a very fixed position at the beginning of the phrase:

  • *the this book                               the book/this book
  • *some a property                         some property/a property
  • *boring these lectures                these boring lectures

This same problem dogs the assumption that determiners are specifiers: the specifier position is a phrasal one, but a determiner does not appear to be more than a word.

If pronouns are determiners, this observation is accounted for. But if pronouns are nouns something else must be said to account for why they cannot appear with determiners. Some nouns do not sit well with determiners. In English, proper nouns are not usually accompanied by a determiner:

  • *Linda left                                Linda left
  • *I spoke to the Thomas        I spoke to Thomas

Yet, in some circumstances we can use determiners with proper nouns:

  • a Linda that I used to know telephoned me yesterday
  • the Thomas you are thinking of is not the one I am

Interestingly, even in these situations a pronoun is ungrammatical accompanied by a determiner:

  • *a she/her that I used to know telephoned me yesterday
  • *the he/him you are thinking of is not the one I am

It seems that the evidence all points to the assumption that pronouns are determiners.

There are two different empty determiners: one which is definite and the other indefinite. The interesting thing is that these empty determiners differ in other ways. The empty definite determiner takes only NP complements headed by proper nouns whereas the empty indefinite determiner takes only NP complements headed by plural nouns. This is perfectly normal behaviour for a head, as heads do place restrictions on their complements.

To conclude the present discussion, while it seems that there is no independent evidence that pronouns are accompanied by an empty noun, there is much evidence that proper and plural nouns may be accompanied by empty determiners. This conclusion itself lends support for the claim that the determiner is the head of the phrase and that the noun is not. From this perspective, the noun is the head of its own phrase which sits in the complement position of the determiner.