Syntactic Theory

Case Theory

The module of the grammar concerned with the distribution of Noun Phrases is called case theory. The requirement which regulates the licensing of NPs is called the case filter.

Case filter

Case Filter: Every overt NP must be assigned abstract case.

The Case Filter is comparable to a bouncer in front of a discoteque. A bouncer checks the people who want to enter and says: "You're in. ... You stay out!" In the case of the bouncer, the criterion why he lets someone in or not is not always transparent. Sometimes it's due to some visitor's shoes the bouncer refuses to let him in, another time it's a visitor's hair. In most cases, of course, he waves people through. The Case Filter is similar in that he also says to the audible NPs "You're in. ... You stay out!" Yet his criterion is clear: "If you bear Case, you're in. If you don't, you stay out." The NPs that bear Case and have made it are the ones that enter into grammatical sentences. The ones that don't bear Case and haven't made it don't enter into grammatical sentences.

Abstract Case

Abstract case can be distinguished from morphological case. For more information on abstract and morphological case click here!

There are two types of abstract case: structural case (NOMINATIVE and ACCUSATIVE) and inherent case (the English GENITIVE).

Accusative case is assigned structurally under government. In English V and P assign accusative case via this mechanism. Finite I assigns NOMINATIVE case, either under government or by virtue of specifier-head agreement.


A governs B if and only if

(i) A is a governor;

(ii) A m-commands B;

(iii) no barrier intervenes between A and B;


(a) Lexical heads (V0, N0, P0, A0) and tensed I0 are governors;

(b) maximal projections are barriers.

The adjacency condition constitutes a further reqirement on case assignment.

The case filter operates not as an independent principle of the grammar. The visibility condition relates it to theta theory: an NP needs to be visible in order to be theta-marked; in order to become visible an NP needs to be case-marked.

The notion chain establishes a link between a theta position and a case position. Otherwise we could not maintain the requirement that an NP can only be theta-marked if visible., i.e. when case-marked.

Theta criterion

Each argument A appears in a chain containing a unique visible theta position P, and each theta position P is visible in a chain containing a unique argument A.