Case Theory

Linguistics 322

Intermediate Syntax

Contents: Case Theory | Government

Case theory deals with a special property that all noun phrases are assumed to have. If they lack this feature, the sentence which contains the phrase is rendered ungrammatical. It is a theory of the Government and Binding framework and its successors. There are two Cases that are generally recognized in English--the nominative Case and the accusative Case--the latter is also called the objective Case.

Case is assigned under terms of government, or at least the nominative and the accusative Cases are assigned this way. The accusative Case is assigned to the complement of a verb, unless the verb is marked to assign (or check for) another Case. The complement of a head is governed by the head. The nominative Case is assigned to the specifier of [+Tense]. If this theory of Case assignment is correct, then Case assignment is asymmetrical. What is worse is that it is not clear that a head governs a specifier. Worse still, is our view that there is no specifier. For the moment, we will just assume that the nominative Case is assigned to the subject NP of a sentence if tense is [+Tense].

We will assume here that all NPs are Case-inherent: [-Case_Inherent]. This means that we must find a value for Case--which we call [±Nom], following the traditional name. The default Case seems to be the accusative Case = [-Nom].

Case is copied from the governor. Initially, we assume that Case is inherent in Verbs and Preposition but is never phonetically realized. The value of
Case is a;ways [-Nom] in English verbs and prepositions.

Government is a special case of c-command. Although there are several variant definitions of government, we will adopt the following definition:

1.        X governs Y iff

a)  X is a head
b)  X c-commands Y
c)  there is no governor of Y such that X c-commands the governor of Y (the intervening governor condition)
d)  X is [+G]
  1. By special definition T governs the NP adjoined to TP.

The second part of government seems flaky at best. It is imposed by the eory that [+Tense] assigns the nomintve Case to its left.. To illustrate this consider the following phrase:

  1. kick the green door.

Green is the head of the project of A which modifies door and green c-commands door . However, a modifier must not govern its modificand. The green door is the complement of kick and is thus governed by kick. Door cannot governed twice. In (d) below proud takes the complement of ones achievements and it governs the complement. Therefore, we must alter Ouhalla's definition of government to restrict c-command to what we could call complement-command.

In the general definition of government, a head always governs its immediately adjacent complement:

  1. see the cat: see governs the cat.
  2. on the waterfront: on governs the waterfront.
  3. the ruler of the country: ruler governs of the country.
  4. proud of ones achievements: proud governs of ones achievements.

Condition (c) on the general definition prevents multiple government. A node may be governed by one and only governor. Consider (3) and (4) above:

Therefore, ruler cannot govern the country. Ruler governs the PP, but not the NP governed by the P of.

Similarly proud does not govern ones achievements; only the PP containing it:

Note that the two nouns (heads) take no complements; hence they govern nothing.

There are two kinds of Case--structural Case and inherent Case. We will consider only structural Case here. In the standard theory only two nodes may assign Case: V and P. V assigns the accusative (objective) Case to the item it governs, and P assigns the accusative or oblique Case to the item it governs. English does not appear to differentiate between the accusative and the oblique Cases--hence we will call it the accusative Case. There are languages that do differentiate between them.

In the four consecutive sentences above see governs and assigns the accusative Case to the cat, on assigns the accusative Case to the waterfront, and of assigns the accusative Case to the country and ones achievements in (3) and (4), respectively. Ruler and proud govern their PP complements, but they do not assign Case to them. It has been proposed by Tim Stowell that prepositions and verbs, which assign Case, cannot be assigned Case. This seems to be a reasonable hypothesis and constraint on natural languages. Let us adopt it here.

Case is formally assigned to the maximal projection. In many languages including English Case percolates down to the head of the projection and may be expressed as a morphological ending on the head:

Now the troublesome case. Chomsky considers the Nominative Case to be assigned by [+Tense]. [+Tense] assigns the nominative Case to the right. In the three level X-bar theory, the Nominative Case is assigned Spec-N by T:

  1. John is proud of his achievements.

John is raised from AP to the subject position


First note that John is not a complement of V or any other head. It cannot receive Case in its L-structure position. It must move to a Case-marked position. NP is created in the subject position and the features of JOHN are copied to it Now, according to the conventional theory of Case assignment, the nominative Case is assigned to John by [+TENSE]. The origninal position, the trace of NP, is not Case marked and is assigned NULL.

One way we can view Case is in a feature matrix. It is assumed that parts of speech are made up of features in a feature matrix. Suppose Case is a feature in this matrix and it is unfilled:

BOOK   lexical item
 +N, -V category
 +Count  Count
 ____  subcategorization

The values for Count and Bounding are inherent features. The value for Case is not. NP is not legitimate until a value has been established for Case. When the accusative Case is assigned a noun, this value is satisfied and the noun becomes legitimate:

 book  lexical item
 +N, -V category
 +Count  Count
 -Bound  Bounding
 ____  subcategorization
 Acc  Case

Note the Cases are not represented in binary form when listed as Nom and Acc. Since English has only two visible Cases (in pronouns), the default is assigned a minus value. Which caseform is the default? Probably the accusative Case. It is assigned by verbs and adjectives, whereas the nominative Case is assigned by plus tense. Thus, [+Nom] stands for the nominative Case, and [-Nom] for the default accusative:

 book   features
 +Count  Count
 -Bound  Bounding
-Nom  Case

Government and Case assignment go beyond complements. Otherwise, government would be a sister relationship. Consider the following example:

  1. John considers Mary to be a bright person.

First note that (1) contains two basic propositions:

  1. John consider X
  2. X = Mary (be) a bright person



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This page last updated 4 FE 2002.