The Verb Phrase: a lengthy introduction.

[ Category: Advanced Grammar, Linguistics, Speculation ]

A note on capitalisation:
I have capitalised words where they are technical terms, as proper nouns describing a particular element of Syntax. Where an element is discussed in more general terms, I have left the word uncapitalised, as a common nouns. Occasionally it was difficult to determine whether a noun in a given context was acting as a proper noun or a common noun, so I apologise for any inconsistencies.

A note on terminology:
Linguists will note I misuse the term Noun Phrase below to describe what in Syntax is more properly termed a Determiner Phrase; the term ‘element’ for what is more properly called a Constituent; and that I use common-English terms like ‘word’, not generally used in Linguistics due to their imprecision. The reason for this is both an attempt to make an already fairly complex, jargon-rich subject comprehensible for non-Linguists; and to discuss Syntax and movement in relation to traditional English grammar.

I’ve written this on the assumption that some readers will choose to read only one section. For this reason, certain key ideas are repeated in many places.


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1. Introduction: Syntax as a format for the communication of thought.

The Verb Phrase: Interesting and complicated.

OK, buckle in.

The following is my attempt at an overview of the Verb Phrase.

Verbs are the active heart of language; and the Verb Phrase in English is where the most Syntactic activity takes place. The following is a combination of: various Syntactic theories, particularly the theories (or groups of theories) called Minimalism and Government and Binding Theory (an older group of theories); observations of English grammar and contemporary usage that can be readily made; and some of my own speculation.

Syntax and Thought

In Linguistics, the relationship between pre-linguistic thought and structured language can be imagined as shown in Figure 1.

verb - thought and syntax

Figure 1.

Thoughts first appear without linguistic structure. Our own experience with our own cognition is that thoughts are relational – they connect in a non-linear fashion with many other thoughts –  and they are instantaneous. People and things; their characteristics; possible actions or events; places; times; and all the many elements we use in speech exist alongside other thoughts such as our emotions and intuitions, all as a shifting mass of complex connections. Such an unstructured mass is obviously less than ideal as a format of communication.

Thus, thoughts must be codified – put into a structured form – for communication to and interpretation by others. This codified structure, a blueprint for which exists within every healthy human mind, is known by linguists as Syntax. The translation of thoughts into language and back into thoughts is almost constant, since, even we we aren’t communicating with others, we speak to ourselves inside our minds, in both sentence fragments and complete sentences, all the time.

The structure of language is logical and systematic; Syntax (which corresponds to the grammar of a language) is made up trees of mental data, made up of many small, flexible pieces, called XPs (Where P means a Phrase and X is the generic variable, so the term XP means a ‘Phrase of any sort’. there is more a detailed description of XPs here). XPs and Syntactic movement, especially in the Verb Phrase, are discussed below.

Syntax and grammar

Grammar is the name given to the rules describing the subset of Syntax that is considered most appropriate in formal communication in society; Syntax, however, is a scientific description of language as it is structured in the mind. These two things are very similar, but they are not the same. Numerous constructions that are ungrammatical, for cultural reasons, are Syntactically quite valid.

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2. The relationship between the Subject, Verb, Object and other nouns related to the Verb (Arguments).

Before discussing the Verb Phrase, it is necessary to quickly examine how it fits into the sentence or clause as a whole.

Subject, Verb and the Arguments of the Verb

As with all speech, the Subject, the Verb and the Verb’s Arguments (for example, the Object) are assumed to model some part of our unspoken thoughts (our pre-linguistic thought).

Subject and Predicate

The simplest logical division of a sentence or clause is into Subject and Predicate – the Subject is the thing the sentence is about, the Predicate is whatever information follows and relates to the Subject.

(1) Mummy          is very tired.
(2) Daddy             will make your breakfast.
Subject                 :          Predicate

There are essentially two kinds of Predicates in English:

  • a Noun attribute, known as a Complement (which could be another Noun Phrase, an Adjective Phrase, or Prepositional Phrase or a Location Phrase), connected to the Subject Noun by to “be” Linking Verb*, as in example (1), above;
  • or a Verbal Predicate with a Verb Phrase often including Arguments of some sort (such as the Object). Both types of Predicates can include Adverbs, as in example (2), above.

The Subject is not one of the Arguments of the Verb. We can observe this ourselves this in our own speech: we can utter the subject of a sentence, (“my colleagues and I…“), without needing to have made any decision as to what we are going to say about the Subject; at this point the remainder of the sentence could consist of anything. This is not generally true for the Object and other Arguments. Thus, although it is a noun that relates to the Verb, the Subject is an independent entity.

(* N.B. we call the “be” Linking Verb, a ‘verb, but really isn’t – it is very similar to a Verb, but it is a slightly different thing, with its own properties, more properly known as a Copula.)

The Verb and its Arguments

Verbs are at the heart of language. Verb sentences in English come in great variety, comprising:

  • not merely Transitive and Intransitive sentences,
    • which include those with most Phrasal Verbs as well as with regular Verbs,
  • but also those Verbs that have Arguments that require Prepositional Phrases
  • as well as irregular and idiomatic Verb-like constructions, such as those involving Adjectives; and
  • for each Verb, the many uses of the Gerund, the Present Participle and the Past Participle.

The detailed relationship of Arguments to their Verb is discussed below.

Theta Roles

The form of the Verb Phrase – in particular with reference to the Object and other Arguments – is said to be defined by the Verb’s Theta Role, see Figure 2.

verb - subject and arguments 2

Figure 2.

The Theta Role is a property mentally applied to the Verb, that defines how the mind perceives the Arguments of the Verb. Most Verbs in English have a simple Theta role: they are either intransitive (having no arguments: “I arose”); or transitive or ditransitive (having an Object, “I picked a rose”, or both an Object and Indirect Object, “I gave my love a rose”). Some Verbs have a more subtle relationship with their Arguments – the mind seems not satisfied linking the Argument via the direct relationship offered by an Object, and, in English (other languages have different strategies), the Argument is connected to the Verb with a Preposition (e.g. “the contract allows for an extension”).

The basic parts of the Sentence: the CP, IP and VP

The Sentence in English has a very specific and quite rigid structure (discussed in detail elsewhere). At the start of the sentence are two XPs: the Complementiser Phrase (or CP), which is involved in the construction of questions and certain clauses; and the Inflect Phrase (or IP). As well as these, there is of course, the Verb Phrase, or VP. Surrounding these there may be various Adverb and Prepositional Phrases.

The Subject; and the Verbs, and its Arguments enter the Syntax at particular places: in English, the Subject, being separate from the Predicate (in a Verb sentence, the Verb Phrase), enters independently and in English is always located in the same place – the Specifier (or Spec) of the Inflect Phrase. The Verb and its Arguments enter the Syntax at the Verb Phrase. This is shown in Figure 3.

verb - arguments into syntax 3Figure 3.

In Syntax, Chomsky observed, elements acquire features by leftwards movement (i.e. Syntax is drawn left-to-right, so leftwards movement means they are spoken sooner); The elements in the Verb Phrase have a number of features, such as Tense, Voice, Mood and Aspect for Verbs and Agreement for Nouns. The precise movements that occur within the Verb Phrase are speculative, but Chomsky assures us that movement must have occurred for any such features to be present. Certain elements also leave the Verb Phrase, so their movements can be more precisely observed. These are discussed below.

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3. The basic movements of sentence elements that occur in Syntax.
This is the most difficult and Linguistically-based section of this post.
Skip past if you are not interested in the mechanics of Syntax. 

Before describing the movements that take place in English Syntax, let’s look in general terms at the Syntactic movements that can take place. As will be seen below, there are two kinds of movements that occur in Syntax: Head to Head Movement; and Movement to Specifier.

Syntax and movement

The great complexity of language is constructed on a simple modular framework of small units of language (described as ‘XPs’ -there is more about XPs here), that can combine together in huge trees of structured language. We use these mental structures both to communicate language and to interpret the language we receive through our senses.

As mentioned, ‘XP’ means ‘a phrase of any sort’ (X stands for the ‘any’ variable, x, and P for Phrase). The phrase (or XP) could be a Noun Phrase, an Adjective Phrase, a Verb Phrase; or one of the structural Phrase types only recognised in Linguistics, such as the Inflect Phrase or Complementiser Phrase. Each Phrase (or XP) is a small binary tree with two levels and three main positions: the Specifier (or Spec), a position where another Phrase can appear, or to which other Phrases can move; the Head, where the active content of the Phrase is located; and a point where another Phrase, known as a Complement, may be attached: see Figure 4.

verb - diagram - XP

Figure 4.

Figure 4 just shows two Phrase, but long trees of Syntactic data are connected in this fashion, each Complement having a Complement of its own.

As noted, Chomsky hypothesised that languages acquire their various orderings by leftwards movement. Elements of the sentence move to the left, and in doing so they acquire particular features. This movement takes place by one of a series of processes.

Head-to-Head Movement

One form of movement discovered by Chomsky – and the one most associated with the features of Verbs (such as Tense) – is Head-to-Head movement, shown in Figure 5; he observed that a Head, typically in English Syntax some form of Verb, can move to the next Head position to its left (and onwards, as long as there is no content blocking the way) and acquire a feature, such as Tense or Subject-Verb Agreement (e.g. Third Person Singular) from the Head it moves to. A head with such an attribute, but no content, is called a Functional Head – it contains a thought, but not a word. Words can move leftwards and pick up features, but only if the Head does not already have content. The content will usually be ‘marked’ on the word (i.e., it will change the form of the word, as with the Past Tense), but it doesn’t have to be (as we can see with some irregular Past Tense forms, where the word-form is unchanged).

verb - diagram - headtohead

Figure 5.

All the features of the Verb – the most feature-rich part-of-speech – come from this leftwards movement. The one we use all the time is when we ask questions. This explained in more detail here, but basically, the Verb moves from the Head of the Inflect Phrase (IP) to the Head of the Complementiser Phrase (CP), leapfrogging over the Subject, which remains at the Specifier of the Inflect Phrase (where it virtually always occurs). For example:

                                      You          do       love me !
              Spec          Head            Spec           Head             
          [  CP                               [  IP                                [ Verb Phrase             ]  ]  ]

                        Do         you          (*)       love me ?
                                      < – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
             Spec          Head            Spec           Head             

          [  CP                               [  IP                                [ Verb Phrase             ]  ]  ]

Here, the Head-to-head Movement gives the Auxiliary Verb “do” the ‘question’ feature, and makes a statement into a question. In fact, whenever Subject-Verb inversion occurs in English, this is what is happening. The Subject in English does not move, the Verb often does.

Movement to Spec

The other type of movement that occurs in Syntax is Movement to Specifier. This is where an entire Phrase (an XP), in Complement position, moves leftwards to a Specifier position in a higher Phrase, not necessarily to its neighbour. This is a very common type of movement for Noun Phrases, and explains much of the variation in sentence ordering in the world’s languages.

Some features are passed on by Movement to Specifier. It is possible that Nouns gain Case (e.g. Nominative or Accusative Case) this way. Noun Phrases and other Phrases can also be ‘Topicalised’ (to move to the start of the sentence and gain emphasis) via Movement to Spec.

verb - diagram - tospec

Figure 6.

Some examples of both these kinds of movement, and how they bring about different Clause types can be found here.

Dianne Massam, the Australasian Linguist, noted that in Movement to Spec, an XP can leave behind some of its dependent Complements (phrases attached to it). The implications of this will be discussed below in the section on Adverbs and Prepositional Phrases.

verb - diagram - spec remnant

Figure 7.


Another form of movement I haven’t discussed before is the projection of a Light Head. This type of movement is less well understood, but it seems that a Light Head, or simply another XP, can be projected leftwards, gaining positions to which XPs can move-to-Spec.

verb - diagram - projection

 Figure 8.


As first observed by the linguist Guglielmo Cinque, in his work on Adverbs and Adjectives, it is now known that a successive series of Movements to Specifier can occur, which ‘roll up’ a sequence of phrases, so that they appear in reversed order. This is known as Pied-Piping.

verb - diagram - piedpiping 2

Figure 9.

In Figure 9, the Phrase ZP moves to the Spec of YP, then YP with ZP attached moves to the Spec of XP. In this way, the ordering X,Y,Z becomes Z,Y,X. This process is understood to occur within Noun Phrases in French, which is why French Adjectives follow the Noun and occur in reverse order to English. It is also a process that often occurs between the Verb Phrase and its Adverbs in English.

Projection of an XP, with Movement to Spec

Many Phrases, Adverbs are a notable example, do not have their content in the Head, but at the Specifier. Movement to Specifier, and thus Pied Piping, can still occur with Phrases of this type; and it is believed that this may involve the Projection of another XP above the Phrase to which the moving element moves. When Pied Piping occurs between Adverbs and the Verb Phrase in English, it is believed this may involve the Projection of a Phrase from above the Adverb Phrase, as shown in Figure 10.

verb - diagram - adverbFigure 10.

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4. How the movements described above affect the order of elements, such as Nouns, Verb and Adverbs, in English sentences.
In this post, Syntax meets grammar in a detailed way for the first time.

Movement in the English Verb Phrase 

To repeat again what has been said above, the syntax of the English Verb Phrase has two XPs in a fixed position at the start – the Complementiser Phrase (or CP), which is only used in questions and clauses; and the Inflect Phrase (or IP), which is the heart of a typical sentence. After the CP and IP, sentence order is subject to a lot of movement, and the precise ordering of elements varies, but before Secondary Movement it follows the basic order:

CP     –     IP     –     Adverbs     –     Verb Phrase     –     Prepositional Phrases

verb - arguments into syntax 3(Figure 3.)

As we saw in Figure 3 (repeated above), the Subject enters the Syntax at the Specifier (Spec) of the IP Phrase. This is virtually always the case – nearly every well-formed English sentence requires a Subject, and it is always in this position.

The Verb and its Arguments (Object etc) enter the Syntax at the Verb Phrase. Within the Verb Phrase it is believed that there is a certain amount of  movement that always occurs. This ‘Obligatory Movement’, as it is known, is different for different languages (though it may be similar); and (as Chomsky observed, and as mentioned above) from it the various elements of the Verb Phrase acquire their features: the Main, Auxiliary and Modal Verbs – are marked for Tense; Person and Number (i.e. third person singular on the present tense); Mood; and the Participle forms that convey Aspect.

Once Obligatory Movement has taken place, Secondary movement occurs. The Verb Phrase and elements inside it undergo both kinds of movement – Head to Head and Movement to Specifier. Head to Head Movement of Auxiliary and Modal Verbs – which undergo leftwards movement, either all the way to the Head of the IP, or stopping before the IP and interacting with any Adverbs preceding the Verb Phrase, is discussed below.

The entire Verb Phrase itself can also move. There are various places the Verb Phrase can move to, but the most common  is for the it to interact with its Adverbs (the natural position for which which is after the Inflect Phrase, but before the Verb Phrase) via Movement to Specifier, or even Pied Piping (both described above), with the result that one or more of the Adverbs may end up after the Verb Phrase. This is shown in Figure 11.

verb - piedpiping sentenceFigure 11.

In Figure 11 (above), the Verb Phrase and one of its arguments (a Prepositional Phrase) has moved to the left of an Adverb, then that Adverb Phrase along with the Verb Phrase has moved to the left of another Adverb. When Adverbs in English appear after the Verb Phrase, this is the process by which they get there; and this process results in Adverbs at the end of a Sentence preferring a reverse order to those at the beginning. When the Verb Phrase moves, it must include its Objects and Result Phrase (if it has them); it prefers to include its Dependent Prepositional Arguments (required or preferred Arguments connect by a Prepositional Phrase); and it may or may not include any subsequent, non-dependent Prepositional Phrases.

For example:
       She has           usually    carefully     guided the project to completion.
          Inflect Phrase       Adverb 1          Adverb  2           Verb Phrase with Object and Argument
      She has            guided the project to completion     carefully      usually.
         Inflect Phrase        Verb Phrase with Object and Argument              Adverb 2              Adverb 1

Since the Verbs Phrase can include non-dependent Propositional Phrases when it moves, or leave them behind, these can mix with Adverbs after the Verb Phrase fairly freely.
For example:
       She                finally    finished the project    with her team       on Friday.
          Inflect Phrase    Adverb        Verb  Phrase                             Prepositional Phrase      Prepositional Phrase
[ VP and Prepositional Phrase prior to moving       ]

      She                 finished the project    with her team      finally   on Friday.
         Inflect Phrase      Verb Phrase with Object        Prepositional Phrase     Adverb      Prepositional Phrase
[ VP and Prepositional Phrase having moved        ]

Semi-formal and casual English prefer a moderate to high degree of tension, and movement induces tension. Furthermore, this tension can produce emphasis (and does when applied Adverbs). Emphasis is often required with Adverbs, and thus the position after the Verb Phrase is the most common position for typical Adverbs in spoken English. Compare the the following:

  • “I expect you to quickly do your work.”
    (adverb in natural pre-VP position, low tension, not emphatic.)
  • “I expect you to do your work quickly!”
    (adverb in post-VP position, some tension, emphatic.)

Basic Sentence Structure

Thus, these basic movements, that the Verb Phrase and its elements undergo, produce the basic sentence structure of English, shown in Figure 12.

verb - resulting sentence2

Figure 12.

Thus, after these types of movements, the basic sentence structure of English has the Complementiser Phrase (CP) and Inflect Phrase (IP) at the start, followed optionally by Adverbs, then the Verb Phrase, followed optionally by Adverbs and Prepositional Phrases. There are obviously many variations to this structure, all a consequence of various Syntactic movements and insertions, but this is the basic sentence structure.

From this basic structure, other sentence orderings can be produced, as shown in Figure 13.

verb - sentence auxiliaries3

 Figure 13.

Some of the movements that occur from the Verb Phrase are discussed below. The movement of the Modal Verb or first Auxiliary Verb to the Head of the Inflect Phrase (the heavy arrow in Figure 13) occurs with almost every Modal or Auxiliary construction. Movement of elements into the Complementiser Phrase (CP), very often involve some sort of clausal change; these movements are discussed elsewhere.

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5. Verbal constructions – how the individual elements within the Verb Phrase move, in more detail.

Now that we’ve looked at the Syntactic movements that affect the Verb Phrase; and had a first look at the Subject, Verb and the Arguments of the Verb, their movements and how this affects English sentence structure, let’s have a look at these movements in more detail.

Obligatory and Secondary movement

The following discussion deals with two types of movements – Obligatory and Secondary. Obligatory Movement, as the name suggests, is required for a sentence to be Syntactically ‘correct’ and capable of being processed without difficulty by and English-hearer. Secondary Movement may follow very regular patterns, but is not essential for a sentence to be capable of interpretation and therefore Syntactically correct.

Formal grammar is natural Syntax; casual grammar is still Syntactic

Before beginning this discussion, an important point needs to be made. In English, by and large  our formal grammar reflects the most Syntactically natural position for elements of the sentence. This is cultural. The ‘natural’ position of an element is the position that produces the lowest tension in language processing. This ordering includes some secondary movement – in particular of the Modal or first Auxiliary to the Head of the Inflect Phrase; and certain formal expressions may involve Secondary Movement, for example for emphasis or structuring of ideas.

However, the natural position for an element is not the only possible position. Anything that can be processed by the language centre of an English-speaker’s mind (without needing to be logically reinterpreted*) is Syntactically ‘correct’. Formal English grammar strongly prefers the natural, lowest-tension sentence orderings; and in formal grammar these are considered ‘correct’; but casual and slang varieties of spoken English are readily processed by English listeners. Certain secondary movements produce more mental tension than formal English; and many casual and slang varieties of English seem to prefer these higher-tension constructions.

(*For example, you may be able to understand, “go him home to morning in,” but only after logically reinterpreting it; whereas, “he went home this morning,” can be interpreted automatically by the brain’s language centre.)

Thus the analysis of sentences which may not be ‘correct’ in formal English, but are readily comprehensible by an English hearer,* can yield many clues as to what is happening in the English Verb Phrase. Several such ‘ungrammatical’ examples are used below.

(*For example, “I done it already,” which is grammatically incorrect according to standard English grammar, but Syntactically perfectly acceptable, as it can be processed by the English-hearer without reinterpretation. Syntax may be similar, but it is not the same as grammar)

 Verb Movement and Projections

As repeatedly noted, Chomsky – the great discoverer of the essential mechanics Syntax – notes that words* gain features by leftwards movement. Any word that possesses or is ‘marked’ for tense, inflection, case or some other feature must have gained it (for example a verb form) by moving to a point in the Syntax where this feature was applied. This is not an abstract thing – it is a cognitive process; these are places in the mind or brain where the mental connection for that feature occurs. All such movement (as Chomsky says) is leftwards movement, which in real terms (since Syntax is transcribed from left to right) means the element is brought forward in time – when we think of the word and feature, we say it sooner than we would have if the feature had not been applied.

(*although you will seldom hear a linguist use the common-English term ‘word’.)

In English, our verbal constructions take three basic forms:

  • A single tensed and/or inflected Main Verb (in English teaching these are called the Simple Present Tense and Simple Past Tense, though these terms are misleading).
  • A Verb with Aspect (Perfect or Continuous) and/or Passive Voice, consisting of a tensed or inflected Aspect or Voice marker (a “be” or “have” verb), and positions for two Participles, one of which can be another Aspect marker, and the last of which must be the Main Verb.
  • A Verb with Mood, consisting of a Modal Verb and a Bare Verb (Bare Infinitive), which may be the Main Verb.
    Mood can also co-occur with Aspect and/or Voice; the two Participle positions are still available and, as above, can be filled by a “be” or “have” Verb or the Main Verb.

In all these cases, the last, or rightmost Verb component must be a form of the Main Verb.

verb - movement main 3

 Figure 14.

As shown in Figure 14, the Verb enters the Syntax from ‘thought’, the pre-linguistic state (represented by the blue cloud!), at a position somewhere in the Verb Phrase. It may be that the Verb and the various Auxiliaries and Modals move straight from the pre-linguistic state into the positions where they gain features, or they may move into an unmarked base position, where they have no features, before moving leftwards and gaining features. The precise movements are still a matter of speculation.

As shown in Figure 14, the natural position for Adverbs is between the Inflect Phrase and the Verb Phrase (although, via the mechanism described in Sections 3 & 4 above, above, they can also follow the Verb Phrase). It is by observing the position of the Main and Auxiliary Verbs relative to their Adverbs that movement can be deduced. This is discussed in more detail below.

A very important point to note is that in English, the Main Verb, whatever its form (tensed and inflected, Bare or Participle) never leaves the Verb Phrase. Only Modal and Auxiliaries can leave the Verb Phrase. English is interesting in this respect. English is a highly Aspectual language: Modals and Auxiliaries (the Aspect markers) experience a strong pull to the Head of the Inflect Phrase (adjacent to the Subject position, as shown in Figure 14). In no variety or register of contemporary English, no matter how casual, is it grammatical for the Main Verb to leave the Verb Phrase and move to the Head of the Inflect Phrase. This makes English unlike all other European languages.

In fact, this is extremely interesting. Inflected forms can occur within the Verb Phrase, which suggests inflection is not applied at the Head of the Inflect Phrase (which many linguists assume to be where it occurs in other European languages); and only Aspect markers and Modals are pulled to the Head of IP. This may be because “be”, one of the two Auxiliary Verbs, is the only verb in English that still inflects on more than just third-person simgular; or it may relate somehow to the highly Aspectual character of English – that there is a Mood and Aspect matching feature at this position, which is unmarked (i.e. it doesn’t change the form of the word).

Take, for example, the  following three sentences:
–  (i)       She normally would have informed me.
–  (ii)      I never have seen him clean the car.
–  (iii)     He usually is asked to clean up. [ungrammatical in formal English]

In each case the adverb (in italics) precedes the Modal or Auxiliary (in bold), suggesting the Modal or Auxiliary probably hasn’t undergone Secondary Movement, and is still within the Verb Phrase. Of these three sentences, (i) is the lowest-tension, the closest to the natural Syntax. (ii) is slightly higher tension, noticeably more than the natural ordering, “I have never seen him clean the car,” and (iii), “he usually is asked to clean up,” with the “be” verb, really quite quite high tension, too far from the natural ordering to be allowable in formal grammar.

The fact that “be” is by far the most inflected Verb in English, and that it experiences the greatest pull to the Head of the IP, suggests that inflection genuinely is an important factor in pulling the “be” Auxiliary to the Head of the Inflect Phrase. This pull is noticeably less in the Modal Verb (which is uninflected) and the “have” Auxiliary (only lightly inflected). It doesn’t completely explain the movement (to my mind), but it is clearly a significant factor.

Furthermore, in Shakespearean and Middle English, inflected formal verbs (say, saith, sayest etc.) do appear move to the Head of the Inflect Phrase (and from there to the Head of the Complementiser Phrase, as in the classic Shakespearean question, “what sayest thou?”), which is further evidence that a certain degree of inflection is the main factor pulls Auxiliary Verbs out of the Verb Phrase – though perhaps not the only one.

It seems to me that inflection cannot be the only pulling factor, as Modal Verbs do not inflect, and yet they are pulled into the IP. It is my suspicion that there are other aspects of Subject-agreement in relation to Mood and Aspect, although not outwardly realised in word-form, also causing the movement of Modals and Auxiliaries to the Head of the Inflect Phrase.

Let’s look now at each of these three verbal structures.

Simple tensed or inflected Verb 

English has two Verb forms, misleadingly* called the Present Simple and the Past Simple. They consist of a single Verb, either unmarked (the Present form, apart from third person singular), or the Past form.

(*these are misleading because the Present Simple does not relate to equivalent Present Tense forms in other languages, but is actually used to express the Habitual Aspect).

verb - movement tensed

Figure 15.

We know the Main Verb never leaves the Verb Phrase, because (barring certain very specific constructions) and Adverb can never appear between the Verb and its Object. Since Adverbs can appear both immediately before and immediately after the Verb Phrase (via the mechanism described earlier in Section 3), the Main Verb must be within the Verb Phrase.

In formal English, the Verb can take the following forms: the Present Tense is unmarked (the same as the Bare form) with the exception of the third person singular; the Past Tense is marked for tense, but not for Person or Number. It is due to this relatively minimal marking that English is referred to as a ‘minimally inflecting’ language; and this is given as one reason the Verb is not pulled out of the Verb Phrase by the Inflect feature at the Head of IP.

In casual English, the Verb can also take the form of a Participle, as in:
       “I done it this morning.”
It’s interesting to speculate whether this is just a morphological (word form) change, or whether the Verb is actually moving to the position in Syntax that applies the Participle feature (which, as can be seen below, is further right than the position for tense and inflection), without projecting an Auxiliary Verb to the left.

This slang variation is interesting, because it can be used as both a classic Present Perfect (describing an event in time from the past until the past), as well functioning as a Past form. For example:

(a)        “I been doing it since I was a kid” (Perfect Aspect)
(b)        “I done it this morning” (Past Tense)

Only the Past Participle can be used this way in casual English, never the Present Participle. For example, “I doing it now,” is never grammatical even in very casual standard English.

What this shows I have no idea, but I find it interesting.

Aspect and Voice

English has more than two Aspects, but only three are expressed using regular Verb forms. The Habitual Aspect is expressed with the Simple Present form (above). The Perfect and Continuous Aspects are expressed with Auxiliary Verbs and Participles. The Passive Voice is also expressed with an Auxiliary Verb and a Participle. English has other Aspects, but they are expressed in different ways, either with irregular constructions or via Adverbs. The three constructions using Auxiliary Verbs are as follows:

  • Perfect Aspect: “have” Auxiliary + Past Participle
  • Continuous Aspect: “be” Auxiliary + Present Participle
  • Passive Voice: “be” Auxiliary + Past Participle.

These three constructions can be combined, in the order above, as long as the Participle positions are available. It is possible that English Syntax allows for three Participle positions, although most constructions with three Participles sound Syntactically wrong (in my experience as an English speaker). For example:

     The car    has                    been        washed.
                                   Inflected Verb        Participle     Participle
     The car    is                       being       washed.
                                   Inflected Verb        Participle     Participle
     The car    would be         being       washed.
                                   Modal + Bare         Participle     Participle
     The car    has                    been        being             washed.
                                   Inflected Verb         Participle     Participle              Participle 

It may simply be that the the “been being” combination is ugly, and there is space for another Participle, as the following, although quite casual, sounds Syntactically acceptable:

       The kid    has                    been        getting          picked on.
                                   Inflected Verb          Participle       Participle             Participle 

Although if “been being” were merely unaesthetic, and not Syntactically wrong, one would expect would “be being” to be equally unaesthetic, which it isn’t (note the third example above). The Participles are also Adjectives; so it may be that a triple-Participle construction like the one above is, in Syntax, a Linking-Verb with two Participles with a further Participle in an Adjective position in the Complement of the Linking Verb; or there may actually be three Participle positions (or even a flexible number of Participle positions). The mind is capable of great flexibility; and language is rich with exceptions. However, for most Verb constructions, it can be assumed that English only allows two Participle positions.

verb - movement aspect 2

Figure 16.

Figure 16 shows the movement of the first Auxiliary Verb to the Head of the Inflect Phrase, which as noted is evident by the usual position of Adverbs relative to this element. Other Auxiliary Verbs are also capable of leaving the Verb Phrase. This is unusual when there is only one Adverb located before the Verb Phrase, but when a sentence has more than one Adverb, particularly in casual English, it is not unusual. For example:

       “We      have                always     been       carefully    using      it.
                               Inflected Verb        Adverb           Participle     Adverb              Participle
[ Verb Phrase       ] 
       “It         has                  always      been       carefully    used.
                               Inflected Verb        Adverb           Participle     Adverb              Participle
[ Verb Phrase      ]

We know that these Auxiliary Verbs have left the Verb Phrase because Adverbs do not appear within the Verb Phrase. When Adverbs are intermingled with verbal elements it is because those other things have left the Verb Phrase. It’s a little complicated, but as Section 3 showed, there is simply no Syntactic mechanism by which an Adverb can enter the Verb Phrase.


verb - movement modal

Figure 17.

Mood, as shown in Figure 17, can be expressed on its own (via a Modal Verb and a Bare Infinitive), or can be combined with Aspect or Voice, with the two Participle positions allowing a combination of any two Aspect/Voice constructions. Just as with Aspect and Voice, the Bare Infinite may leave the Verb Phrase. In fact, with the “have” Auxiliary, it is more common for the Bare Infinitive (“have”) to leave the Verb the Verb Phrase and encliticise (join onto another word) – in the form ” ‘ve “, than to remain a separate word. For example:
       I would‘ve done that.
is a far more common construction than:
       I would have done that.

The other Auxiliaries, although not the Main Verb, can also leave the Verb Phrase, as can be seen in the following examples:

       I   would        have            usually     done        that.
                  Modal Verb     Bare Infinitive   Adverb           Participle
                                                                                                [ Verb Phrase             ]
       I   would        usually    have            been      quickly     doing      that.
                   Modal Verb     Adverb         Bare Infinitive   Participle    Adverb            Participle
                                                                                                                                              [ Verb Phrase             ]
       I   would        have             usually     been      quickly     doing      that.
                   Modal Verb     Bare Infinitive   Adverb           Participle    Adverb            Participle
                                                                                                                                              [ Verb Phrase             ]

It should be noted that these generally sound rather casual,since formal English typically prefers only the tensed and inflected first Auxiliary to leave the Verb Phrase, but they are not Syntactically wrong: an English hearer may note the low register, but will have no trouble interpreting the sentence.

(back to top)

6. The Arguments of the Verb (such as the famous Object and Indirect Object), and introducing the incredibly exciting Result State (an Argument of the Verb) !

Objects and Arguments

The Verb Phrase doesn’t only contain Verbs (and various sub-Verbs), it contains the Arguments of Verbs (the most well-known of these is the Object, but there are others). The Arguments of the Verb are one area where linguistics gives a much more complete picture than traditional grammar. In traditional grammar, we speak of the Object, the Indirect Object and Dependent Prepositions (Prepositions required by a particular Verb), but these are best understood as all being different forms of Arguments of the Verb; and there are Arguments of the Verb understood by linguistics that are miscategorised in traditional grammar.

verb - subject and arguments 2(Figure 2)

As we remember from Figure 2 (repeated above), in linguistics we use the term ‘Theta Role’ to describe the way Arguments (Noun Phrases etc) are connected to the Verb. These relate to the various semantic relationships between Verbs and their Arguments, known as roles*. There is not an exact match between these semantic categories and their treatment in English Syntax; there would appear to be subtle psychological and cultural reasons why certain Arguments are treated in particular ways (particularly in terms of the apparent irregularity of Preposition usage).

(*These roles are: Patient, Theme, Agent, Recipient, Beneficiary, Recipient, Experiencer and so on. Patient and Theme are usually expressed as the Object, Recipient and Beneficiary may be an Indirect Object or expressed via a Dependent Preposition, Agent and Experiencer are typically the Subject, other roles are usually expressed via Prepositional Phrases.)

verb phrase objects arguments 2Figure 18.

Figure 18 shows the various Arguments as they appear in Syntax. At (a) we see the Object and Indirect Object, which are well understood by traditional grammar. At (b) we can see Dependent Prepositional Phrases; these are Arguments of the Verb connected by Prepositions – in other languages such required Arguments might be expressed in a different Case (such as Ablative or Dative in Latin, for example). These are not ordinary Prepositional Phrases, because (although there is some flexibility) they strongly prefer to remain within the Verb Phrase and hence to appear before Adverbs and Prepositional Phrases outside the Verb Phrase. For example:

(i)    I provided      options      for the client              politely         at the office.
                                           Object               Prepositional Argument       Adverb                   Prepositional Phrase
[  Verb Phrase                                                                               ] 
(ii)  I provided      options      politely          at the office              for the client.
                                           Object              Adverb                   Prepositional Phrase          Prepositional Argument
[ Verb Phrase                         ]

Example (i) above, sounds smoothly Syntactic and is easily interpreted. Example (ii), while not recognised as grammatically incorrect, has a great deal of Syntactic tension, and clearly requires a moment’s thought to interpret – I would regard it as Syntactically wrong, or at best borderline (in fact, at this example, “for the client” wants to attach to “the office”.

The Result State – a part of speech unknown in traditional grammar

It is Figure 18 (c) which has the most interesting examples for traditional grammarians. In conventional grammar, certain Location Particles (such as there and out) are classified as Adverbs*, but this is dissatisfying because they act so differently from all other Adverbs. Recent linguistic study (my introduction to this was in the writings of Sigrid Beck) has identified a position in the Verb Phrase referred to as the Result State.

(*In fact, it is one of those ‘true jokes’ that in grammar, anything that cannot be otherwise classified is called an Adverb.)

The analysis I have read has focused on Adjectives in this position that express the result of the verbal action. Beck’s oft-quoted example is:

       Thorin      hammered        the metal          flat.
                                     Verb                             Object                         Result State
                                    [ Verb Phrase                                                                         ]

I would suggest that, judging by their position in the Verb Phrase, Location Particles must be either adjacent to this position, or that they occur in the same position; and they clearly also typically express a goal or outcome. For example

       Thorin      threw        the cat          out.
                                     Verb                 Object                  Location (Result State?)
[ Verb Phrase                                                                         ]

Furthermore, it is possible for both a Location Particle and a Result Adjective to occur at the same time, which suggests there are two positions within the Result State (although it is possible that these represent a phrase occupying a single location). For example, in (i) below, the Location particle and Adjective have independent meaning, whereas in (ii) they could be interpreted as a single two-word element:

(i)     Thorin      spread        the paper          out           flat.
                                     Verb                 Object                           Location        Adjective
[ Verb Phrase                                      [ Result State                    ]   ]

(ii)    Thorin      knocked        Gloin          out cold.
                                     Verb                      Object                Result State
[ Verb Phrase                                 [ Result State ]  ]

Location Particles are particularly interesting as they seem to take their own Adverb-like Modifiers. Traditional grammar regards these modifiers as Adverbs, but I believe they are another different, as-yet-unclassified part-of-speech since they cannot function as regular Adverbs. For example, one can say:
       “I put it straight back,” but
       “I straight put it back,” sounds extremely archaic;
and one can say:
       “I put it right up high,” but
       “I right put it up high,” is completely ungrammatical.
Since neither of these supposed Adverbs can function in the natural position for Adverbs (before the Verb Phrase), this suggests they are Result State modifiers unrecognised by traditional grammar:

        I     put     the cookie jar        right         up             high.
                     Verb       Object                                Modifier          Location        Adjective
[ Verb Phrase                 [ Result State Phrase                             ]  ]

Another interesting fact about the Result State is that the entire Result State Phrase is extremely prone to Topicalisation (movement to the Specifier of the Complementiser Phrase (CP), the first position of the sentence). For example:

                The little boy      ran                       straight back   home.
                       Subject                           Verb                               Modifiers (x2)              Location
            [ CP    [ IP                                [ Verb Phrase               [ Result State Phrase                             ]  ]  ]  ]

               Straight back    home           the little boy     ran.
                     Modifiers (x2) Verb      Location              Subject                         Verb
           [ CP   [* Result State Phrase (topicalised) ]     [ IP                                [ Verb Phrase       (trace*)    ]  ]  ]

I have one final point regarding Result State; although I have not read on this subject, it is my intuition that Phrasal Verbs* also make use of the Result State. This simply seems logical as Phrasal Verbs make use of many of the same particles (out, up etc) and change the meaning of Verbs in somewhat similar ways.

(*or ‘Verb and Particle Constructions’ as they termed in linguistics, somewhat needlessly, since the earlier term Phrasal Verb is both unique and descriptive.)

Phrasal Verbs (Verb and Particle Constructions)

There is a great deal of variation in Phrasal Verbs, they are a very natural verb type, long in use in English, widespread as far back as the early Middle English period (nearly 1000 years ago). Phrasal Verbs are a very natural verb form in English, and feature prominently in spoken English. Unlike the Latinate Verbs, which were consciously adopted, Phrasal Verbs seem to occur almost spontaneously – generally in casual English, occasionally making their way up into the higher registers of Business English and formal English.

phrasal verbs arguments alone

Figure 19

Figure 19 shows just the Phrasal Verb section of Figure 18.

One of the most interesting and striking things about Phrasal Verbs (which I will probably cover in more detail in another article) is the way they interact with Noun and Pronoun Objects. There are two positions in which the Noun or Pronoun can appear, either between the Verb and Particle or after the Verb and Particle. There are two common ways that Phrasal Verbs interact with Nouns and Pronouns. In the first type, the Particle is a Preposition and it relates directly (to some degree) with the Noun.

(i)            Please     put            the picture          up.
                                           Verb                Object                            Result State
(ii)            Please    put up     the picture            (*).
                                            Verb               Object                            Result State
(iii)           Please    put           it                            up.
                                            Verb               Object                            Result State
(iv)          Please     put up       it.
                                            Verb                Object 

The example above shows a classic Phrasal Verb, with a Location Particle as its Particle. The behaviour of Phrasal Verbs of this type is quite regular (though of course not perfectly regular – that would be un-English!) A Noun Object can appear either between the Verb and Particle, or after the Particle, but a Pronoun Object can only appear between the Verb and Particle. What seems to be happening here is that, when the Object is a full Noun Phrase, the Location Particle in the Result State position is able to append itself to the Verb, to form a two-word Verb in the Main Verb position. The exact mechanism for this, and why there is no such movement (if it is Syntactic movement, it may be a morphological, or word-form change), is an interesting question for which I do not know the answer.

(v)     Please       hand          your timesheet      in.
                                      Verb                 Object                                   Particle (Preposition)
                                       [ Verb Phrase                                             [ Result State Phrase    ]  ]  
(vi)    Please       hand         it                                in.
                                       Verb                Particle (Preposition)       Particle (Preposition
                                       [ Verb Phrase                                             [ Result State Phrase     ]  ]  
(vii)   Please       hand in   your timesheet        (*).
                                       Verb                Object
                                       [ Verb Phrase                                             [ Result State Phrase      ]  ]  
(viii)  Please       hand in     it                               (*).
                                       Verb                  Object
                                       [ Verb Phrase                                             [ Result State Phrase      ]  ]

Examples (v)-(viii) are structured exactly the same as (i)-(iv), although they have a Preposition in the Result State position. In fact certain Prepositions (in, over, for example) readily act as Location Particles, so these could more accurately be called Location Particles and not Prepositions.

The second type of Phrasal Verb is more interesting, however:

(ix)   Please       look        over                           this email.
                                     Verb              Particle (Preposition)          Noun Phrase
                                                           [ Prepositional Phrase “over this email”    ]

(x)   Please         look        over                         it.
                                       Verb              Particle (Preposition)       Pronoun
                                                             [ Prepositional Phrase “over it”                    ]
(xi)   Please         look        this email               over.

                                       Verb              Noun Phrase                     Particle (Preposition)
                                                                                                          [ Result State                  ]
(xii)  Please         look        it                              over.

                                       Verb              Pronoun                             [ Result State                  ]

In examples (ix)-(xii) above, there are possibly two entirely different things going on. The Verb “look” can take Prepositional Phrases as Arguments, for example: “Please look at this email.” In the case of “look over,” the semantic change in the Verb is relatively slight: “look over” has a sense of ‘scrutinise’, but it may also involve literally ‘looking over’ (in the sense of looking at every part). For this reason, the Preposition “over” is able to combine into a Prepositional Phrase with both the Noun and the Pronoun (examples (i) & (ii)).

However, as shown in Figure 19 (ii), it seems possible that the Particle “over” is also able to occupy the Result State position, with the Noun or Pronoun in the Object position.

Finally, there is another type of Phrasal Verb, that has a Verb and two Particles. For example:

(xiii)   He         looks       up                     to his sister
                                  Verb               Location                  Prepositional Phrase
                                                         [ Result State   ]       [  Other Argument       ]
(xiv)  He          looks       up                     to her.

                                  Verb              Location                    Prepositional Phrase
[ Result State   ]        [  Other Argument     ]

In the example above, what is happening is that an intransitive (i.e. Object-less) Verb and Particle construction is taking an Argument as a Prepositional Phrase. These constructions are very regular, and, as with other Prepositional Phrase Arguments, it’s not impossible for an adverb to appear between the Main Phrasal Verb and the Prepositional Phrase Argument. For example:

He           looks up           adoringly        to his sister
                      Verb and Particle    Adverb                     Dependent Prepositional Phrase
                      [ Verb Phrase   ]                                        [  Other Argument       ]
Please     hold on             tightly             to the guardrail
                      Verb and Particle     Adverb                    Dependent Prepositional Phrase
                     [ Verb Phrase   ]                                         [  Other Argument     ]

I can’t     keep up             easily               with the changes
                      Verb and Particle      Adverb                    Dependent Prepositional Phrase
                    [ Verb Phrase   ]                                         [  Other Argument     ]

There is some tension when a Prepositional Phrase Argument leaves the Verb Phrase, but each is Syntactically correct. Conversational English (unlike formal English) prefers a little Syntactic tension and Phrasal Verbs are generally casual constructions, so the examples above are acceptable in spoken English.

In fact, as we saw earlier in Section 3, what is actually happening here is that the Verb Phrase in each case is moving leftwards, from its natural position to the right of the Adverb to a position to the left of the Adverb, but leaving one of its Arguments behind.   

Right Dislocation: Heavy Noun Phrases and Complement Clauses

Finally, referring back to Figure 18 (above), it should be noted that there is one more quite interesting thing that happens with the Arguments of Verbs, relative to the Adverbs that surround them.

As has been explained numerous times above, an Adverb may not appear between the Main Verb and its Object. This whole long article on the Verb Phrase has explained the mechanics as to why this is so. However, there is an interesting phenomenon, known as ‘Right Dislocation’, the exact mechanics of which are not agreed upon, which can see a Noun Phrase appear to the right of the rest of the sentence, if it is ‘heavy’ (in linguistics jargon); in other words, if it is longer than usual.

In real terms, what it means is that an Adverb or Prepositional Phrase can appear between the Verb and an Object or a Complement Clause, if the Object or Complement Clause is fairly long. This is especially true for Complement Clauses; and it is particularly common when it involves Prepositional Phrases rather than Adverbs. Here are some examples to make it clear.

For example:
       “I scribbled hurriedly a note
is ungrammatical and Syntactically wrong, but:

“I scribbled hurriedly a confusing explanation of the reasons for my hasty departure,”

…is Syntactically acceptable.

For example:
       “She told me, in a hushed whisper, her news,”
is ungrammatical, but:

“She told me, in a hushed whisper, the terrible and blood-chilling news of the disaster,”

…is Syntactically acceptable.

For example:
       “She blurted out, suddenly, her problem,”
is ungrammatical, but:

“She blurted out, suddenly, that it had all been a huge mistake and no one would listen to her,”

…being an example of Right Dislocation of a Complement Clause, is Syntactically acceptable.

Complement Clauses, in fact (e.g. the Statement Clause in Reported Speech) are quite susceptible to Right Dislocation. For example:
       “She told me, angrily, what she knew,”

…is completely grammatical and Syntactic, despite being a very ‘light’ Complement Clause.

One of the theories I have heard discussed is that there is possibly a Zero Pronoun of some sort in the actual object position, and thus the Right Dislocated element is appearing, in effect as, an Adjective Clause (a ‘that’ Complement Clause, such as, “that it had all been a terrible mistake,” can act as an Adjective Clause). For example, it would be grammatical in English it say:

“She told me it, in a hushed whisper, the terrible and blood-chilling news of the disaster,”

… in which the Heavy Noun Phrase is simply an ordinary Adjective Clause; or

“She told me it, in a hushed whisper, that it had all been a terrible mistake.”

…in which the Adjective Clause is a Complement Clause.

Syntax is not grammar, so simply because the rules of grammar do not ‘permit’ something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in the Syntax.  If the Pronoun, it, is Syntactically ‘unrealised’ (i.e. unspoken) in either sentence above, it would produce Right Dislocation quite neatly.

Order of movements

I have described above the various movements that take place to produce the complex verbal structures of English. As we have seen, there are essentially two types of movements – leftwards Head-to-Head Movements of Auxiliary and Modal Verbs; and Movements to Specifier causing the entire Verb Phrase to interact with Adverbs. The interesting question arises: which type of movement occurs first?

One might think that if Head-to-Head movement occurred first, with one of the Auxiliary Verbs moving to a position between Adverbs (which we have seen is possible) and then Movement to Specifier occurred, it ought to be possible for the Auxiliary Verb to end up after the Verb Phrase with the post-VP Adverbs. However, this is completely Syntactically wrong:

He will            usually    be         quickly      walking to work
[ Inflect Phrase ]   Adverb 1      Aux V        Adverb 2         [ Verb Phrase               ]
He will            usually    walking to work              be         quickly
[ Inflect Phrase ]   Adverb 1      [ VP after Movement to Spec ]     Aux V        Adverb 2

This suggests that Head-to-Head Movement may occur after Movement to Specifier, but this is also impossible. The rules of Syntax forbid it; and there is no known case of a Head leaving a Phrase that has undergone Movement to Specifier. So apparently Head to Head Movement occurs first, but some other process prevents the above from being possible.

I will discuss the subtleties of Adverb placement in a future post.


This has been a general discussion of the Verb Phrase. We have looked briefly at the Subject; the Verb; and the Arguments of the Verb; where they enter English Syntax; the basic movements that affect the Verb Phrase and its individual elements (Auxiliaries and Modals); the formation of Tense, Mood and Aspect and what XPs might be involved in the the acquisition of these features; the Arguments of the Verb, including the Result State and Dependent Prepositions.

There are many details to this that weren’t covered – it would literally be impossible to describe all the linguistic subtleties and variations of the English Verb Phrase in anything short of a large book – but I hope it was a useful and interesting overview.

(c) Copyright: Christopher John Watson 2015

Unreality (‘Irrealis’) – Conditionals and Reported Speech – and some Shakespeare!

[ Category: Advanced Grammar, Linguistics, Shakespeare ]

In this post:
     Verbs and their properties
     Irrealis (unreality)
     Use of Modal Verbs (‘touch wood!’)
     Some Conditionals from Shakespeare compared to modern Conditionals

Properties of Verbs

Traditional grammar defines five basic properties of verbs – Person (i.e. First-person, Second-person, Third-person; I, you, she), Number (Singular or Plural), Tense (Past, Present or Future), Voice (Active or Passive) and Mood. Person and Number relate only to how Verbs ‘agree’ with their Nouns (in most inflected languages, including English, this means their Subjects). Person and Number have no effect on meaning and are omitted from the diagram below. This leaves us with Tense, Voice and Mood.

To these, Linguistics adds another property: Aspect. In traditional grammar, Aspect is considered part of Tense, but Linguistics considers these two properties to be different, albeit related.

The other properties will be discussed elsewhere; this post deals with Mood.

properties of verbs A


Irrealis (Real and Unreal Mood)

Mood is the grammatical term for what in Linguistics is called Irrealis, or ‘unreality’. Look at the following examples:

  • “That haircut looks lovely on you,” (which might well be said of a real haircut).
  • “That haircut would look lovely on you,” (which could be said while looking through a fashion magazine).

The first example is making a statement about the real world. It has no Irrealis. In grammar it is described as being in the Indicative Mood, indicating a fact about real life. This post is all about Irrealis.

The second example is describing a hypothetical or imaginary situation. It has Irrealis, marked by a verb of Mood, or Modal Verb. English has three ways to convey Irrealis:

  • Modal Verbs
  • The Subjunctive Mood (a partially archaic verb form), and
  • The ‘Step Back in Time’ – where the tense of the verb is moved one step back: from Present to Past; or from Past to Past Perfect. This is the Irrealis Mood of modern spoken English.

In additional to the Indicative mood (no Irrealis), there are a range of Moods, corresponding in English to various uses of the Modal Verbs (will/shall, can, may would, might, could, should, must). As well as these, grammar recognises the Imperative Mood (for giving commands, like “go to sleep!”); and some other constructions like “let’s go!” (the Jussive Mood). Traditional grammar considers Questions to be a form of Mood (the Interrogative Mood), but due to their quite different Syntactic structure (discussed here), some Linguists tend to regard Interrogatives (or Questions) to be entirely different constructions (I agree with them – Syntactically, Questions are a Clause type –  see here).

Modals in Main Clauses

In an Independent Clause – a Clause not dependent on another for its meaning, such as sentence or a Main Clause – Irrealis in contemporary English can only be conveyed by Modal Verbs.

Modal Verbs all convey Irrealis in some form. Most of them are obvious, they describe ‘counterfactual’ situations (situations that contrary to fact). There is one Modal Verb that is less obvious though, and that is Will. In English, the typical use of Will is to mark the Future Tense, but in fact Will is a minimum-Irrealis Modal Verb. It conveys a mood of subjective certainty.

Dependent Clauses: Step Back or Subjunctive

In Dependent Clauses, Irrealis is not conveyed by the use of Modals. Modal Verbs may sometimes appear in Dependent Clauses, but if so, they always are there for other reasons.

If you would like some more cheese,           you may help yourself.
Condition Clause: Polite Irrealis                                    :    Main Clause: no Irrealis

This example is a First Conditional with a ‘polite-Would‘ in the Condition Clause, which you can think of as being derived from the polite sentence form: “You would like some more cheese.” The Irrealis here (“would”) conveys respect for the autonomy of the hearer, not conditionality. The May Modal in the Main Clause conveys Irrealis, but May is used to convey Irrealis within the Real context, not the Unreal. Thus you can have a Zero Conditional, describing a fact about life, yet it can still have Modal Verbs in both Clauses. They are expressing Irrealis, but not the Irrealis of the Conditional itself  – this is discussed detail below.

Side note: we use this polite Would because at the heart of the concept of politeness in British English is the notion that the hearer is free – they are an autonomous individual. We do not tell them what to do (not Linguistically, anyway) and we do not speak for them; so when we are being polite, we make statements and phrase questions as if they were possibilities, not facts, so as not to be speaking for the other person. In this respect, Linguistic politeness is very deep and reflects a cultural appreciation for freedom and human rights that long predates our actual legal rights.

This comment on politeness strategies is slightly less true for American English, in which – like German, by which it has been so strongly influenced – there is slightly more of an emphasis on being polite by not wasting people’s time, by getting to the point. It still reflects respect for the freedom of the interlocutor (the person you are speaking to), but that respect is conveyed slightly differently.

The two methods of conveying Irrealis in Dependent Clauses are by the use of the Subjunctive Mood (an old verb construction that still exists in places in English), or the Step Back in Time. The two kinds of Dependent Clause in which Irrealis is most often used are Conditionals and Reported Speech (Indirect Statements and Indirect Questions). This post will look at Conditionals – Reported Speech will be addressed in a different post.


In English teaching, Conditionals are typically categorised into one of four types: First, Second, Third and Zero Conditional (explained below) – a simple classification that covers most of their uses. These four types are definitely very handy to know, but this classification is not the clearest way to fully understand Conditionals. They are best understood by examining them from the perspective of Irrealis, or Unreality.

As noted above, while English has a Future Tense, in the sense that we have constructions we use typically or almost exclusively to describe the future, there are only two ‘natural’ tenses, tenses that are natural to all human language, the Past and Present/Future. The human mind naturally divides events into those that have happened; and those that are happening or will happen – into time before the present moment and time from this point on. Evidence of this can be seen in English Conditionals. Most Conditionals that describe the future can also describe the present; in fact there is no real mental distinction between the unreal present and the unreal future – all unreal statements that that don’t describe an alternative past take place in the unreal present/future. There are some Conditional constructions that typically describe the future, but they are variants of those Conditionals that describe the present/future; and they are just usages that we have when we want to specifically emphasise we are talking about a future event; and even these constructions – in an appropriate context – can be understood to describe the present.

Real and Unreal Conditionals

There are two groupings of Conditionals, one in which Irrealis is applied (the Unreal Conditionals) and one in which it is not (the Real Conditionals). Obviously, the presence of If implies some unreality on its own, but this is not Irrealis – Irrealis is a Linguistic process, not simply a sense of unreality. Within each group, there are basically two Tenses – a Past Tense and a Present/Future Tense, although within each group there are some constructions or markers that suggest or prefer Future Tense and can be thought of as Future Conditionals.

Every Conditional consists of a Condition Clause (which is Dependent Clause, meaning it requires another Clause and is ungrammatical on its own) and a Main Clause, which carries the logical result or outcome of the conditional:

If you add 1+1,     you get 2.
Conditional Clause   :   Main Clause

The following diagram shows the rules applied to Condition and Main Clauses in Real and Unreal Conditionals.

conditional rules_v2


Real Conditionals

As shown above, Real Conditionals have no marker for Irrealis in the Condition Clause and often also in the Main Clause. The Condition Clause is in its natural tense – Past Tense for a past condition and Present Tense for a present or future condition. The same rule can be applied to Main Clause, although the Modal Verb Will is very often used here, but it is by no means required.

Absent any other context, Will is assumed to describe the future. However, Will is not technically a Future Tense marker: it is the marker of subjective certainty – that is to say, the speaker indicates that they personally feel the outcome or prediction is certain. It is not required and the Present Tense can often be used in its place. The Present Tense, a completely unmarked Main Clause, conveys even less Irrealis than Will. Will expresses a subjective state of mind; the natural Tense (usually Present Tense in Real Conditionals) states a fact.

As discussed below, we refrain from using the Present Tense when describing the future, with the exception of quite mundane topics, because we are superstitious about predicting future events with absolute certainty.

For example, one can say:
        “We will leave tomorrow,”
or one can say:
        “We leave tomorrow.”
These are mundane statements, so we don’t worry as much about how precise we are about their reality or unreality.

In a typical Real Conditional , one might say:
        “If my visa is approved, I will start my course next week,”
while it sounds slightly unusual, but not ungrammatical, to say:
        “If my visa is approved, I start my course next week.”

The presence of the Condition Clause itself seems to necessitate a Modal Verb of some sort in most situations. The use of the Present Tense often sounds too real to be appropriate or polite.

For example, one can say:
        “If you finish your chores, we will go to the park,”
        “If you finish your chores, we go to the park,”
sounds ungramatical in English, probably not due to any Syntactic flaw, but to a cultural expectation that there should be Irrealis.

Unreal Conditionals

As a Dependent Clause, Irrealis in the Condition Clause is conveyed with either:

  • the Subjunctive Mood; or
  • the Step Back in Time

Formal English grammar makes much of the Subjunctive Mood, since it is what I call a ‘marker of good speech’. There is no significant difference in meaning when the Subjunctive is used; its purpose is strictly one of Register – it marks formal English or ‘high-class’ speech. Subjunctives are extremely useful for this reason and they are essential in formal or academic written English. However, the Step Back in Time (as I call it) is the standard marker of Irrealis in casual and semi-formal modern spoken English. I predict in 100 years time, Subjunctive Mood will no longer be generally used in English.

The Step Back in Time works as follows. In a Real Conditional we can describe the present with the Present Tense:
        “If you build it, they will come.”
In an Unreal Conditional, we describe the present/future in the Conditional Clause with the Past Tense:
        “If you built it, they would come.”
Real Conditionals in the past are unusual, but only because there is not much need for them, as we seldom make logical predictions about real events in the past. For example we could say:
        “If he met his friends, he had a good time,”
which would express (by the lack of Irrealis) our complete certainty that if the condition was met, the outcome happened. Unreal Past Conditionals are very common, because the human mind has evolved to play over past events and imagine what could have happened differently, thus the Unreal Past Conditional describes something that didn’t happen. The Step Back in Time transforms the Past Tense into the Past Perfect Tense, such as:
        “If he had met his friends, he would have had a good time.”

The Construction of Conditionals

The following diagram shows a more detailed look at the construction of Real and Unreal Conditionals.

conditionals detailedOne thing to note (indicated by the sets of arrows between the clauses) is that any Condition Clause (past, present or future) can be applied to any Main Clause. The only requirement is that they be logical. Certain combinations are rare and unusual, but only because the things they express are uncommon.

For example, in a Real Conditional, one could combine a Future Condition, in the Present Tense, with a Past Main Clause, in the Past Tense:
        “Well, if he comes to work tomorrow, he didn’t die!”
This kind of construction is perfectly grammatical – although isn’t the kind of thing speakers usually have cause to say.

In the Unreal part of the diagram above, bold type indicates that this is the standard form. Italic type indicates various forms the Subjunctive. Grey parentheses indicate that the constructions are uncommon. In all cases, the Subjunctive forms are the more formal forms; and these are the appropriate forms to use in formal and Academic English, although are not as necessary in Business English.

The Subjunctive has three forms:

  • The present Subjuntive:
            “I have one, should you request it;”
  • The Past or  Imperfect Subjuntive:
            “I would give you one, were you to request it;”
    The Past Subjunctive can also be expressed as “if you were to request it,” without the Subject-Verb inversion.
  • And the Past perfect or Pluperfect Subjunctive:
            “I would have given you one, had you requested it.”
    The Past Perfect Subjunctive is simply the Past Perfect with a Subject-Verb inversion.

The Present Subjunctive is quite unusual, and in modern English it is reserved for very polite or formal expressions, though it is frequently used in certain contexts and is common when speaking to hotel guests or to high-status customers or clients (should any guest wish to depart early, please make arrangements with the staff.”)

Note that with “to be” verbs (or the Copula, as “to be” is rightly known), the Subjunctive is the standard form in Conditionals. In casual English one can say:
        “If I was you, I wouldn’t do that,”
but this is not grammatical even in standard English and certainly not in formal English. We say:
        “If I were you, I wouldn’t do that,”
which is the Imperfect Subjunctive form.

The form, “if I were to be,” – the Were Subjunctive plus the Infinitive (were + to be) can be used to describe the present, but is typically used to describe the future, especially when the speaker wishes to emphasise that they do not believe that the condition will occur. This is a useful expression in business English when such shades of meaning with regard to expectation are often necessary.

For example, one could say to a client:
        “If that were to happen, we would implement our contingency plan,”
which emphasises that we do not expect the event to happen. This can be important in a business context, as you often need to discuss possibilities without conceding that they are particularly probable. In fact, when you use the “were to happen” form you are subtly saying, “this is not going to happen!”

No mixing of Real and Unreal

Generally, it is ungrammatical to mix Real and Unreal Conditionals. There are a small number of expressions that allow this, but they are exceptions.

For example, one can say:
        “If you had asked me, I would have helped you,” (Unreal Past);
but it is completely ungrammatical in all Registers to say:
        “If you had done that, I helped you;” (Unreal Past with Real Past).
This example sounds like nonsense (although Shakespeare occasionally uses constructions like this). However, it is also ungrammatical in formal English, although acceptable in spoken (especially casual) English to say:
        “If you do that, I would help you,” (Real Present with Unreal Present).
One might even wish to say:
        “If you were to have problems, I will come to your aid immediately,”
quite logically using an Unreal Condition (to emphasise that you don’t expect this) with a Real Main Clause (to emphasise that you will definitely assist), but it is also ungrammatical in formal English; it sounds wrong, although it doesn’t sound horribly wrong. Shakespeare could do this, but you and I aren’t supposed to.

We can mix Real and Unreal in modern English, but we need to make a break in the Syntax for it to work. Taking one of the examples above, (“if you do that, I would help you,”) which is ungrammatical, we can make it grammatical by saying something like:
      “If you do that , you know that I would help you,”
where the Would-Modal is inserted in a Subordinate Clause within a Real Main Clause. Since it’s no longer directly Syntactically connected to the Condition Clause, the Syntactic requirement for Irrealis to agree doesn’t exist and it sounds grammatical.

As discussed below, this clear distinction between Real and Unreal is a modern phenomenon, and in Shakespearean English, Real and Unreal Conditions were mixed quite freely and beautifully. In contemporary English, there are still a few situations where Real and Unreal Clauses can be mixed, but they are specific and need to be used carefully.

For example, one can say:
        “If you were to need one, I have a car you can borrow,”
which mixes an Unreal Condition Clause with a Present Main Clause. In this instance, the Main Clause is in the ‘perpetual present’ (the Habitual Aspect) and it seems to be the use of this Aspect that allows this class of exceptions. When the Habitual Aspect is not present, the Past Subjunctive is not used. For example, one might say:
        “If you were to need a spare item, there is a delivery in five minutes,”
but it isn’t fully grammatical and it contradicts typical usage (again, it isn’t horribly wrong – it just doesn’t really sound natural).

Another particular set of expressions that are exceptions to this rule are those involving the Present Subjunctive (the Should form of the Subjunctive), which are very polite and old-fashioned, and thus seem to follow the older grammatical rules. For example the following:

Should you wish to depart early,            please make arrangements.
Present Subjunctive (Unreal)                                    :       Simple Present (Real)  

The Main Clause in this  example is in the Imperative Mood (for orders and instructions), so it is not a strictly Real Clause. However, one can also say:
        “Should you need help, tonight the receptionist will be on duty until 11pm,”
which is a clear mixing of Unreal and Real, and yet sounds perfectly grammatical in English. If you need to mix an Unreal Condition Clause with a Real Main Clause, this is the way to do it. In fact, it even possible to construct a Past form of this Conditional:
        “Should you have needed help, the receptionist was available.”
This form is fully grammatical, although it is rare.

The First, Second, Third and Zero Conditional

In English teaching, we generally categorise Conditionals into the First, Second, Third and Zero Conditional; and these are, by far, the four most common Conditionals. The diagram below shows how these constructions relate to Real and Unreal Conditionals generally.

1st2nd3rd4th conditionals

The First Conditional is the usual future Conditional in English:
      “If you call, I will come running.”

The Zero Conditional (second on the diagram) often uses the Habitual Aspect
      “If I wake up alive, it is a good day.”

However, it doesn’t have to use the Habitual Aspect. We can use it to make a single true statement about the world:
      “If she is there, he is there” or “if she is there, he must be there.”
(If-Must Conditionals are usually Present Tense Zero Conditionals). This example is not in Habitual Aspect, it simply expresses logical certainty.

As shown in the diagram, the First and Zero Conditionals are Real Conditionals; and the Second  and Third Conditionals are Unreal Conditionals.

The Second Conditional is the Conditional of the unreal present/future:
      “Even if I explained, you wouldn’t understand.”

The Third Conditional is the Conditional of the unreal past:
      “If things had been different, who knows what would have happened.”

All other remaining combinations (and all combinations are possible, as long as Real and Unreal are not mixed, as described above) are referred to as Mixed Conditionals.

American Double Modals (double-Would-Modals)

Double-Would-Modal Conditional constructions are not grammatical in modern British English, or formal or Academic English generally, but they are a common feature of American English. Similar constructions exist in other European languages, and Europeans who are learning English often need to be careful to avoid these constructions in formal language.

For example, an American speaker might say:
      “If I would have done that, it would have been a disaster,”
but this is completely ungrammatical in British English and in all variants of formal English, although I have seen it here and there in American newspaper and magazine articles. It’s a perfectly logical construction and, as described in the last section of this post, it was grammatical in Shakespeare’s time. In the future, there is a high probability that these constructions will again become grammatical, but as it stands today they are not.

Reported Speech

Reported Speech has its own rules about the use of Irrealis; and the constructions are complex with variations of their own. These will be discussed in a separate post.

Use of Modal Verbs (‘touch wood!’)

All Modal Verbs, even Will, convey some degree of Irrealis, since Will expresses subjective certainty – the attitude that the speaker is certain (or nearly certain) about the truth of a statement. Only the unmarked Verb expresses a complete absence of Irrealis. Will is usually used to talk about the future, but it can be used to talk about the present.

For example, the following two sentences mean the same thing, and are both describing the present:
        “If it is 6 o’clock, they will have left work,”
        “If it is 6 o’clock, they have left work,” 
but the second statement (“they have left work“) expresses more certainty; their leaving work is expressed as bare fact (“they have left work – it’s a fact”), whereas the first (“they will have left work,”) could be rephrased as, “I am personally certain that they have left work.”

English speakers are very unlikely to speak of unknown facts, however probable, with zero Irrealis (i.e. with the natural Verb.) In my opinion, there are cultural reasons for this. When we speak of future events that we hope will happen, using less Irrealis than is logically justified, English speakers sometimes say, “touch wood,” a superstitious ‘magic’ expression that seeks to remove the bad luck that we have incurred in ‘tempting fate’ by claiming to know the future.

For example:
        “I will sign the contract tomorrow – touch wood!”

For this reason, unmarked Verbs, in the natural tense, are typically only used in the Zero Conditional to describe situations about which we have actual certain knowledge based on experience. Thus, they are overwhelmingly used with the Habitual Aspect, a usage that conveys the past, present and future, that (since it includes the past) we have actual knowledge of.

For example, one can say:
        “It is school policy that, if it rains, events are held the following weekend.”
This usage suggests such occurrences have happened in the past and will happen again in the future. (In class, I call this Habitual use of Present Tense ‘infinite time’, but it is also known as the ‘perpetual present’).

It would not sound correct to say:
        “If it rains tomorrow, events are held the following weekend.”
Instead we must say:
        “If it rains tomorrow, events will be held the following weekend.”
However, it is not for purely grammatical reasons that the second sentence sounds wrong, because one can use the natural Verb to say:
        “If you don’t come to work tomorrow, you don’t have a job,”
which sounds grammatical even in formal English, as the natural Verb, conveying the statement as a bare fact, makes cultural sense in the context of a very strong threat or warning.

Modal Verbs and Reality

As we have seen, all Modal Verbs convey some degree of Irrealis, expressing ideas that in some way may differ from reality. We talk about:

  • Things that may happen (possibility or permission) or that could happen (possibility);
  • Things that should happen (obligation or logical necessity);
  • Things that can happen (potential or ability);
  • Things that would happen (hypothetically), but probably won’t;
  • Things that will happen (subjective certainty);
  • And even things that must happen (emphatic obligation or emphatic subjective certainty).

If we think about the Real and Unreal as two frames of reference (similar to Tense), most Modal Verbs describe some Irrealis, but most of them occur within the frame of the Real – they describe uncertainty, but uncertainty about the real world. Only Would, when used as the Modal of hypothetical situations, is exclusive to the Unreal frame.

However, Would has another meaning and another use – it is also the Modal of zero obligation. We use it in polite speech to indicate we are fully respecting the autonomy of the hearer, not speaking for them, not assuming we know what they think and not placing any expectation or obligation on them. For example one can say:
        “If you are meeting Mikhail, I would love to join you.”
In this case, Would is not Unreal and doesn’t place us in the Unreal, hypothetical, frame. This construction is a Zero Conditional, stating a fact about the world; and it could be rephrased as:
        “if you are meeting Mikhail, I want to join you, but there is no pressure.”
In fact, the sociolinguistic pressure to use Would when making such requests is very strong (particularly in British Standard English) and the latter sentence sounds quite forward and a little impolite.

The following diagram indicates the typical uses of Modal Verbs:

real and unreal modals_2

Certain Modal Verbs can be used in both the Real and Unreal frames. Might, Should and Could can be used in an Unreal (hypothetical) frame to add extra nuances that Would does not convey. In the Unreal frame, they have two shades of Irrealis.

In the Real frame (assumed in the absence of a Condition Clause):
        “I could do that,”
means, “I have the choice or power to do that,” (indicating potential.)
In the Unreal frame:
        “If I were richer, I could come with you,”
means, “if I were richer I would have the choice or power to come with you.”
In the Unreal frame, Could expresses two shades of Irrealis: the hypothetical and the potential.

May and Might

I have been asked several times in class to describe the difference between May and Might, since both Modals when used outside of Conditionals mean something almost identical. However, only Might can also be used in the Unreal frame. Thus both the following sentences:
        “He may say yes. He might say yes,”
both mean, “there is a possibility of him saying yes,” although some hearers might infer a slightly greater degree of uncertainty when Might is used.
Whereas the sentence:
        “If you asked him, he might say yes,”
means, “if you asked him, there would be a possibility of him coming,” thus there is a double sense of Irrealis – there is a possibility, but that possibility is hypothetical and only exists if the condition is met. 

Might, therefore, seems to have some innate suggestion of an Unreal frame, hence perhaps a little more uncertainty (although this extra Irrealis is often absent in real-life use), even when used outside of Conditionals. And it is worth noting that in Reported Speech (to be discussed in another post), Might is the Past Tense of May; it is May with the extra Irrealis of the Step Back in Time applied.

– . –

That’s the end of the lesson! For those of you who love literature, here are some examples of Conditionals, drawn from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Examples of Conditionals from Shakespearean and modern English

Shakespeare’s Henry V is written in poetry and prose in Elizabethan English. English at this time had just undergone a transformation so significant that it marks the transition point between two major variants of English: Middle English and Modern English. During this period of Linguistic change, England experienced a period of destructive civil war: termed the Wars of the Roses; and a religious-political revolution involving persecution, artistic and cultural destruction and purges: the Protestant Reformation. Writing Henry V, Shakespeare was looking from a society that had just emerged from this period of upheaval, back at a society that was just about to undergo it.

Shakespearean English was a  grammatically freer and richer variety of English than contemporary English (PDE, or Present Day English). It allows the use of formal Inflections (e.g. “thou thinkest; he thinketh“); it allows for greater variety in sentence ordering, especially more movement of the Main Verb; and overall it has more of the fine quality of brevity than English today. Nevertheless, it contains almost all the elements of contemporary English, including forms of all the modern Conditionals.

Shakespearean Conditionals differ from those of contemporary English in two main respects.

  • The typical Future Conditional in Shakespeare uses the Present Subjunctive in the Condition Clause (and sometimes even the Main Clause). It is an Unreal Present Conditional.
    As noted above, this form is possible in Contemporary English, but only in very mannered speech (“If you should ever have call to visit me at the Palace, I should be delighted to entertain you”). Shakespeare can use the Should-form of the Present Subjunctive (“Shouldst thou bid it, thy servant cometh.”), as well as the bare form (without Should): (be he unruly, my wrath shall fall upon him.”) Contemporary English can only use the Should-form in Conditionals (“Should the need arise, a replacement will be arranged.”)

Rather than an Unreal Future Conditional the typical contemporary English Future Conditional (the First Conditional), uses the Simple Present in the Condition Clause and a Will-Modal in the Main Clause (“If you come round, I’ll make you a coffee”).

Condition Clause;                       Main Clause
If it be thus,                    it be ever thus
Shakespearean: Present Subjunctive in both clauses

It if is this way now,     it will always be this way.
PDE:* Simple Present;                      Will-modal
*Present Day English

  • The second big difference between Shakespearean and Present Day English, is that Shakespeare was free to mix Real and Unreal clauses, which is usually ungrammatical in Conditionals in Contemporary English. There are examples of this below.

Examples from Henry V

The play begins with the clerics, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, discussing Henry’s claim to the French throne.

If it pass against us,
We lose the better half of our possession:

Here is a Future Conditional of the sort mentioned, Shakespeare’s default Future Conditional, using the Present Subjunctive in the Condition Clause (“if it pass” – the bare form of the Subjunctive); and also probably in the Main Clause (“We lose“), although it is the same form as the Simple Present for this verb. In Contemporary English, we would say:
“If it goes against use, we will lose over half our territory.”

If you grow
foul with me, Pistol, I will scour you with my
rapier, as I may, in fair terms: if you would walk
off, I would prick your guts a little,

Here, the commoners, Henry’s fellow rascals when he was wild Prince Hal, fall out over a woman’s affections. Nym threatens Pistol with two different Condition Clauses: the first (“If you grow foul with me, I will scour you with my rapier”) could be a modern First Conditional, or the Condition Clause may be using the Present Subjunctive (they are the same in form).

His second threat (“if you would walk off, I would prick your guts,”) is an interesting example of the WouldWould construction noted above, (“if you would say it, I would do it.”) As mentioned above, this sort of construction is ungrammatical in contemporary British English, but is  a common construction in spoken American English, and is also a grammatical false friend for many European English learners.

If little faults, proceeding on distemper,
Shall not be wink’d at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chew’d, swallow’d and digested,
Appear before us?

In this passage, Henry is exchanging friendly banter with three conspirators plotting to kill him, who are unaware that he and his barons know of their plot. Somewhat similarly to the Would-Would construction above, this is a Shall-Shall construction, (“if faults shall not be winked at, How shall we react?”) . These are also not grammatical modern in Standard English.

We would say:

“If little faults are not to be winked at, how are we supposed to react when capital crimes  are presented to us?”

Where Shakespeare uses “shall” to suggest the future, we can use the “are not to be winked at,” an Infinitive construction which, like the “were to be” Future Unreal Conditional described above, specifically suggests the future (rather than Unreal present/future); or, in plain modern English, we could also say:

“If we don’t turn a blind eye to little faults, how will we react when we encounter capital crimes?”

 Henry V is a favourite Shakespeare hero, but Shakespeare doesn’t shy from showing the side of Henry as a paranoid tyrant. In a long, enraged, raving speech, Henry rails at the conspirators:

If that same demon that hath gull’d thee thus
Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back,

This form has the Should form of the Present Subjunctive with a Might-Modal in the Main Clause (which in Present Day English could indicate either a Real or Unreal Main Clause). This form is still grammatical in Present Day English, and we could express something very similar:

“If that same demon who has deceived you should walk the world, he might even return to vast Tartary.”

Next we are back with Pistol, Bardolph and Nym, Henry’s erstwhile friends. They are lamenting the death of Sir John Falstaff, the comic rogue of the Henry IV plays.

he’s in Arthur’s
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom.

This is a Real Conditional with a Past Condition and a Present Main Clause. In Present Day English, this could be classified as a form of the Zero Conditional, in that it is making a true statement about the world. We would say:

“If ever any man went to Arthur’s bosom, he is in Arthur’s bosom.”

This is a very Real and very modern-sounding Conditional. The low status characters often speak a more modern-sounding form of English to our ears. Both Clauses are in the Third Person Singular, so it can be seen that they are not in any form of Subjunctive.

Therefore in fierce tempest is he coming,
In thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove,
That, if requiring fail, he will compel;

Here Exeter, Henry’s envoy, strides into the French court and threatens the King of France in a warlike and aggressive fashion. This is a typical Shakespearean future conditional, with a little more Irrealis than we would apply in Present Day English, supplied by the Present Subjunctive (“if requiring fail”.) We would probably express this as, “if requiring fails, he will compel.” 

In Present Day English, we can also use the Present Subjunctive, although we would have to use the Should form, (“if requiring should fail, he will compel.”) Shakespeare was free to use natural Tenses in his Condition Clauses (Real Conditionals) and occasionally does, but use of the Present Subjunctive is standard in Elizabethan English. The difference is possibly cultural. Pre-enlightenment society was a more religious and superstitious society, aware that humans have no certain knowledge or power over the future, whereas we live in a scientific and rationalistic culture, more prone to treat the future as a logical equation.

now he weighs time
Even to the utmost grain: that you shall read
In your own losses, if he stay in France.

The menaces continue, and become more menacing! This construction, (“if he stay in France, you shall experience losses.”) is exactly like the previous construction – a Present Subjunctive with a Shall/Will Modal. Despite the use of Present Subjunctive, this is a low-Irrealis construction for Shakespeare and Exeter is making a very real threat.

Let’s jump to the eve of the battle – the most well-known section of the play, containing some of its most profound and beautiful passages. The Welsh officer, Captain Fluellen – a wonderful character, intelligent and thoughtful, who speaks in a Welsh-English dialect, but is not a stereotype – is lecturing some of Henry’s troops about battlefield discipline.

if you would take the pains but to
examine the wars of Pompey the Great, you shall
find, I warrant you, that there is no tiddle toddle
nor pibble pabble in Pompey’s camp;

The Would Modal here is perhaps both a polite and hypothetical Would, and perhaps also ‘hortative’ (exhorting or encouraging). He combines Would in the Condition Clause with Shall in the Main Clause, (“if you would study, you shall find.”) This is not properly grammatical in modern English, but we have variant of the First Conditional that allows Would in a Real Condition Clause; we can say:
        “if you would care to study Pompey, you will find…”
but this does not convey quite the same meaning, being too soft and polite. We would probably say something like, “if you study Pompey, you will find there is no chitter-chatter in Pompey’s camp.”

Our forms are more bourgeois than Shakespeare; the middle classes can’t speak to each other in the elegant, mannered speech of Shakespeare’s characters. This is sociolinguistic, a little bit Protestant perhaps, a deliberate plainness of speech. As beautiful as many of Shakespeare’s constructions are, the Elizabethan use of Irrealis would sound socially wrong and overwrought in modern English.

Still on the eve of battle, the action moves to Henry himself, who is wandering incognito among his troops. He gets into conversation with one of his officers, who, not knowing he is talking to the king, blames the king (and monarchs generally) for the ‘bad deaths’ of those who die in battle without having confessed their sins.

Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of

This may well be a straight, modern First Conditional, (“if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king”), nice and strong, uttered by a lower-class character speaking a modern form of English. However, the Present Subjunctive is almost identical in form to the Present Tense (except in the Third Person Singular), so the Condition Clause could also be in the Present Subjunctive. However, the phrasing is very modern – I feel if it were the Present Subjunctive, it would be phrased more like, “if these men die not well.”

There is another modal within the Main Clause, not connected to the Conditional but in a Relative Clause attached to the Main Clause, (“…for the king that led them, whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.“) We might express this as, “…for the king, whom to disobey would go against their role as subjects.” It would not be grammatical to use the Were Subjunctive (the Imperfect or Past Subjunctive) in this Clause, because it is not a Condition Clause, which is the only place this Subjunctive can be used in modern English.

In fact, the phrasing, “whom to disobey would be,” sounds archaic these days. In contemporary English we would probably phrase this in a sort of Cleft Construction, using a dummy subject (“it”), “…for the king, whom it would go against the nature of their subjecthood to disobey.”  This is an ugly disjointed construction with an unnecessary break in the Syntax, compared to the smooth Syntax of Shakespeare, but it is the kind of thing we often say.

This is not a true Cleft Construction, but a type of one. A true Cleft Construction has a dummy subject with connected to a Noun Phrase in a Subordinate Clause, such as:

It                          was                   money          that he wanted.
Subject (Dummy)         Copula (verb)           Predicate            Subordinate Clause (with a tensed verb)

The example I provided:

It                          would be         against their subjecthood          to disobey.
Subject (Dummy)         Copula (verb)         Predicate                                                        Non-Finite Dependent Clause

So it isn’t a true Cleft Construction, as the Non-Finite Clause (the Infinitive “to disobey”) isn’t a full Subordinate Clause, not having a tensed verb. I’m not entirely sure what kind of Clause this is – it isn’t a Complement Clause or a Purpose Clause, which are the usual Clause types that contain an Infinitive. It’s actually a very interesting construction – it is Cleft, in the sense that one of the Arguments of the Copula (“to disobey,”) has moved from Subject position into the Dependent Clause) – but it uses an Infinitive Clause. It is not one of the commonly listed Clause types that use the Infinitive; and yet it is a common English construction.

Anyway, enough of this tangent that has nothing to do with Shakespeare or Conditionals…

King Henry replies with a wisely philosophical and slightly legalistic argument; and a relevant argument in an age in which many try to justify their crimes by claiming they were only following orders. He explains that kings and soldiers are each responsible for their own sins, kings for giving sinful orders and soldiers for committing sinful acts; and that neither can blame the other. The following Conditional comes from this speech:

Besides, there is no
king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to
the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all
unspotted soldiers:

This is yet another typical Shakespearean Conditional: the Present Subjunctive in the Condition Clause and a Can Modal standing in for a Will Modal in the Main Clause, (“if it come to the decision of swords, no king can try it out with all unspotted soldiers.”) As with the previous examples, to convey the same meaning in Present Day English, we would have to use a Real Conditional (with the Can Modal this could be described as either a First or Zero Conditional – I would simply describe it as a Real Conditional), with a “to be” marker emphasising a future event; and again we would be likely to add a pointless, modern dummy subject (“things”), “if things are to be decided by swords, no king can attempt battle with morally-untainted soldiers.”

Williams, the soldier he is conversing with then replies that if they (the soldiers) all die and the king subsequently allows himself to be ransomed, which he promised he wouldn’t, they would never know; to which Henry replies ironically that if that were to happen, he would never trust the king again (i.e. himself) – a classic dry Shakespearean joke. Williams is not in on the irony and becomes angry, yelling, “’tis a foolish saying.”  Henry then reprimands him (still incognito):

Your reproof is something too round: I should be
angry with you, if the time were convenient.

This form, a Second Conditional with a Should Subjunctive in the Condition Clause, is still used in polite constructions. Modernised slightly, this exact construction could be used, although it would sound a little old-fashioned and Jane Austen-ish: “Your reproof is somewhat too bold. I should be angry with you if it were a convenient time.” Again I’ve used an ugly disjointed construction with a dummy Subject, (“if it were a convenient time,” as opposed to, “if the time were convenient,”) as these are simply common constructions in contemporary English.

The sun rises; the battle-lines are drawn; and Henry addresses his troops. This is the part of the play that audiences have loved for generations – and that made Laurence Olivier’s film version, produced during the Second World War, such an effective piece of wartime propaganda.

God be wi’ you, princes all; I’ll to my charge:
If we no more meet till we meet in heaven,
Then, joyfully, my noble Lord of Bedford,
My dear Lord Gloucester, and my good Lord Exeter,
And my kind kinsman, warriors all, adieu!

As with the earlier examples, though the Condition Clause, (“if we no more meet,”) looks like the Present Tense (like a modern Real Conditional), it is actually the Present Subjunctive. The Main Clause has no Verb – it is an expletive: “adieu!” (and ironic that it should be in French, given they are fighting the French.)

“If we no more meet, warriors adieu,” the basic sentence, is grammatically acceptable in modern English (though it sounds very archaic). Present Day English has a more restrictive Syntax than Shakespeare’s flowing lines; and when spoken, we need a distinct pause to allow the expletive (“adieu”) to act as Main Clause.

Present Day English has a very rigid Syntax, including in Conditionals. We need some sort of connector to allow a non-standard Main Clause, even if that connector is simply a pause. A modern equivalent (the First Conditional) “if we do not meet again: goodbye,” works, with a dramatic pause after “again.”, Alternatively, one could say, “if we don’t meet again, then goodbye!” This would not require the pause, as the insertion of a “then” connector between Clauses allows us to put a greater variety of constructions, such as expletives (like “adieu”, “goodbye,” or “what a waste of time!”), in the Main Clause.

For example:
        “If it doesn’t work… what a waste of time!”
requires a spoken pause between Clauses, whereas:
        “If it doesn’t work, then what a waste of time!”
can be expressed without such a marked pause.

Anyway, back to the battle!

We’re on the very edge; the tension is at its height! Henry exhorts his men one last time with a lovely simple Conditional:

All things are ready, if our minds be so.

This is a classic line! And an interesting Conditional. The Condition Clause (“if our minds be so”) again has the Present Subjunctive; but the Main Clause (“all things are ready,”) is in natural Tense – the Present Tense. This is a very effective combination of Real and Unreal. The Irrealis in the Condition Clause puts the burden on the hearer – our minds may or may not be ready, that is up to you – but the Real Main Clause makes the outcome certain and is highly encouraging: “if our minds should be made ready, then all things are definitely ready.” Furthermore, with the Condition Clause following the Main Clause, there is a lovely surprise – “all things are ready,” without Irrealis, is a plain statement; so we only realise it is a Conditional when the Condition Clause follows it. The mind feels, yes! it’s all ready; then he pulls us back slightly, adding Irrealis, snatching our certainty from us; certainty that can only be regained if our minds should be ready too!

We can use this combination of Moods in polite modern English, but it doesn’t express in modern English what it expresses for Shakespeare. “All things are ready, if our minds should be ready” sounds far weaker in modern English. We could use the straight Zero Conditional, “all things are ready if our minds are ready,” but it lacks the nuance and the juxtaposition of Real and Unreal that Shakespeare’s version has. We simply lack the Linguistic flexibility to make this simple and stirring statement in modern English with the same subtlety and power as Shakespeare could.

The battle is fought; the French are defeated. There are some final patriotic speeches (a little laughable some of them); and then Shakespeare, the master of portraying the complexities of the world, does something surprising. The Duke of Burgundy, as mediator between France and England, gives a beautiful and eloquent plea for peace, movingly condemning the destructive irrationality of war.

Henry replies with his demands, including this conditional, with clause piled upon clause like a contract:

If, Duke of Burgundy, you would the peace,
Whose want gives growth to the imperfections
Which you have cited, you must buy that peace
With full accord to all our just demands;
Whose tenors and particular effects
You have enscheduled briefly in your hands.

For the discerning reader, viewer or audience member, Shakespeare’s Henry V is far from a simple hero – he is a very complex character, beloved by his people, but with an extremely dark side. The totality of the play is a subtle portrayal of the relationship between the architypical charismatic but deeply troubled autocrat and his too-often too-adoring subjects.

The Conditional here, (“if you would peace, you must buy it with full accord to our just demands,”) is rendered a little opaque by the use the verb Would. This is not a modal here; it is the Elizabethan form of “want” (bearing in mind “want” in Elizabethan English means “lack”), although it probably does have have some innate Irrealis (like “wish” in modern English). This is just another Zero Conditional, very Real, quite modern and not especially chivalrous. We would say:

“If you want that peace, the absence of which is the cause of your grievances, you must buy it by being in full accordance with our just demands, the details of which you have, briefly laid out, in your hands.”

Audiences must have a happy ending, and what better happy ending than a love story. Henry woos Princess Katherine of France, a charming and naive maiden. There’s some irony here, too, since she herself later evolves into a cruel and bitter autocrat in the Henry VI plays; but for now, it’s all candlelight and roses. The final love scene is wonderful, and includes this Conditional at its climax.

If thou would have such a one, take
me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier,
take a king. And what sayest thou then to my love?
speak, my fair, and fairly, I pray thee.

There’s a polite-Would Modal in the Condition Clause again (“if you would have such a one,”), more polite and courtly than hypothetical (expressing the Irrealis of respect for the hearer’s autonomy), but with a bit of both Moods. The Main Clause is a glorious lover’s Imperative, (take me!”)

Shakespeare’s construction:
        “If you would have such a one, take me,”

is a standard form in Shakespearean English and is still grammatical in modern English, although it sounds far too mannered to sound like a genuine passionate lover. In modern English there’s no perfect way to be as romantic as this. We could say:
        “If you would like to have such a one as me, take me,”
but it sounds terribly weak, like she’s being offered a drink. Or we could say:
        “Were you to want such a one as me, take me,”
which is grammatical and sweet, though also weak, and painfully old-fashioned and Anthony-Hopkins-ish. Or we could say:
        “If you wanted someone like me, take me,”
which is standard modern English, somewhat plain and a little unromantic, but not too bad to the modern ear. Alternatively, an English speaker may even say something very bourgeois and plain, with a self-deprecating Could-Modal in the Condition Clause, like:

        “If you could take someone like me, take me.”

So that’s the end of the play. They live happily after, but not ever after, just briefly – the last days of calm before the massive storm that tore England apart (the Wars of the Roses, brilliantly documented in the Henry VI plays and Richard III).

Present Day English has nothing on Early Modern English (Shakespeare’s English). Compared to the language of Henry V, our English is inflexible, plain and overly structured – Shakespeare’s English is flexible and flowing. He could apply shades of meaning, including combinations of Real and Irrealis constructions that would sound alien and mediaeval today.

(c) 2015 Chris Watson

Sentence structure and Clauses

[category: Linguistics]

Grammar and Syntax

Grammar and Syntax are not the same thing, but they are very closely related. Syntax and Morphology (or ‘Morpho-Syntax’, even) are the sciences of how the mind interprets and produces language; Syntax is mainly concerned with sentence structure, not the form of the words (the realm of Morphology). Grammar is the name we give to the rules within each culture that describe what we consider to be the most proper use and ordering of words. However, unsurprisingly, given that language is a natural, not man-made, phenomenon, formal grammar in English corresponds closely to the most Syntactically natural ordering of words.

When the  word-ordering in a language differs from what is most Syntactically natural, it creates tension (i.e. a small amount of extra mental processing is required), which gives one word or phrase more emphasis than others. The most Syntactically natural word-ordering, with the least tension, is not necessarily the most common or natural in everyday speech, because conversational speech involves a lot of emphasis and many stylistic effects – which make use of tension. The most Syntactically natural form of English, with the lowest cognitive tension, is formal English.

To create tension, the speaker can re-order words, and the brain accepts certain re-orderings; but some it cannot process, or they’re just too arduous to process, and they sound ungrammatical. There is a certain grey-area, a point at which the speaker can break the rules, which causes a ‘double-take’, an extra amount of processing by the hearer, but the hearer’s mind still accepts the speech as meaningful and grammatical.

Linguists are often condescending of Grammarians, but I believe you can think of English formal grammar as (among other things) the empirical science of the natural ordering of English Syntax.

Recap and basics

I explained some of the basics of Syntax diagrams and  how Linguists believe the mind structures language in the post on X-bar theory.

That post contained two points relevant to this one:

1) That language is structured into trees of small phrases (known as XPs), each of which essentially has three positions:

  • a Spec, which can (but doesn’t have to) contain a phrase, or XP, which often moves there from somewhere else. This XP is often from further down the tree (for example, as we will see below, a pronoun moving to the clause-initial position in a relative clause), in other words, another XP.
  • a Head, which contains a single element, usually a single words.The Head position is where the active constituent of the XP appears. In a Noun Phrase, the Head is a noun, in a simple Verb Phrase, it is a verb, and so on.
  • a Complement, on the right which can contain a ‘daughter’ XP. The entire tree is made of linked XPs, each (prior to movement) a Complement of the element before it – a Noun may be the Complement of an Adjective or Article; the Object may be the Complement of a Verb in a simple Verb Phrase, and so on.

Here’s a simplified representation of such an XP. This is not how XPs diagrams are drawn in Linguistics – in Syntax, researchers are concerned with the details of movement, ‘Command’ and ‘Governance’, but in these posts I’m interested in sentence structures, so this is a simplified diagram such as would not be used in a Linguistics research paper.

Simplified XP


2) The basic XPs that make up an English sentence or clause are as follows:

Sentence and clause - tree structure

In simplified (non-standard) form, clause/sentence structure has the following phrases, or positions.

simplified sentence

The English Verb Phrase (or VP, as Linguists call it) is complicated. It actually consists of a number of XPs, with automatic movement of elements within the Verb Phrase, so the structure is not just a simple XP. Adverbs each have their own XP, and there can be strings of them. I will look at the Verb Phrase and Adverbs in a different post. In this post I am interested in the top of the clause, the bits on the left: the CP and IP – the Complementiser Phrase and the Inflect Phrase.

The English sentence

The Inflect Phrase (the IP) is the heart of the sentence. In English, in a normal statement, the IP is the top of the sentence. It always contains the subject, in its Spec position, which never moves. The Head of the IP also contains the first Auxiliary Verb or Modal Verb (if the clause has one), but it never contains the Main Verb*. The Head of the Inflect Phrase is where inflection occurs (inflection is where verbs ‘agree with’ their subjects, e.g. “he has done” “they have done”).

[* the Main Verb  (or Lexical Verb, in Linguistics) is the verb that carries the meaning. For example: “she has left“, “she departed – the bold-italic verb is the Main or Lexical Verb”].

The Complementiser Phrase (the CP) is where things happen to make a sentence something other than a simple statement. As we’ll see below, it’s where questions are formed, and it’s also the part that connects a Clause onto another XP, in other words, that makes it a Subordinate Clause (or at least, certain types of Subordinate Clauses). Finally, a process called Topicalisation can occur, where elements from the sentence move into the CP for emphasis.


In ordinary speech, the most common Syntactic process that uses the CP is the formation of questions. The simplest way for this to happen is for the Auxiliary or Modal Verb to move from the Head of the IP to the Head of the CP (Head-to-Head movement, explained here), in the first example below. In grammar this is called an inversion, but that isn’t accurate – the subject of the sentence in English is very stable: it almost always appears and it seldom moves – in questions, only the Verb is moving.

Alternatively, an Interrogative Pronoun (the Question Word, as we say in English teaching, or a Wh-word, as Linguists call them), can appear in the Spec of the CP. What actually happens is that one part of the sentence is replaced by a pronoun, that then moves to the CP, at the same time as the Auxiliary or Modal Verb moves.

sentence - question

Note the difference between the Head, that contains a single ‘active’ element, which can only move from a Head position in a neighbouring phrase, and the Spec position, which can accept a phrase from anywhere. In fact, Phrases can enter the Spec position from ‘out of nowhere’, which they do when there is no Auxiliary or Modal Verb to move, such as when:

We went
Did you go?

In Syntax, this is call do-insertion, and it occurs because the Main Verb is unable to leave the Verb Phrase.

A pronoun standing in for any part of a statement can appear in the Spec of CP. The Spec can even contain a phrase with two pronouns. Here are some examples:

sentence - question2

In each case, some part of the sentence is changing to a pronoun and moving to the Spec of CP; and a Modal or Auxiliary Verb is moving to (or appearing in) the Head of IP.


Sometimes, some elements in the Clause can move into the CP for emphasis. There are some interesting aspects to this, which will be discussed in a separate post.

My Mother I gave a box of chocolates and my father I gave a bottle of wine.

This is an extremely common place to find Prepositional Phrases and other Adverbials, although – as will be discussed elsewhere – some of these may actually lie outside the Clause.

Here are some examples:


There are all kinds of Topicalisations, and these are just a few. I believe that certain Adverbials (such as the Prepositional Clause in the second example above) are not topicalised, but lie outside the Clause, but that is a topic for another post.

Complement Clauses (such as in Reported Speech)

In Syntax, anything that is located in the Complement position of the XP (above) – in other words, usually immediately to the right of it in English Syntax – is called a Complement; so the Complement of a simple Verb Phrase may be a Noun Phrase, the complement of an Adverb Phrase might be an Adjective  Phrase, and so on; but in grammar we use the word  Complement Clause to describe a clause (with a verb of some sort) that is the Complement of another verb. The type of Complement Clauses discussed here are finite Complement Clauses, because they contain a tensed (or finite) Verb, not an Infinitive or Participle (the other types of Verb complements). Finite Complement Clauses are most common in what, in English teaching, we call Reported Speech.

For example, in the sentence:
She explained everything,
“everything” (a noun) is the Object of the Verb.

Whereas in the sentence:
She explained that she was leaving.
“that she was leaving” is the Complement of the Verb, and is a Finite Complement Clause, which in this post I will just refer to as a Complement Clause.

A Complement Clause typically has a Pronoun in the Spec position of the CP; and it can’t have any content in the Head position. The exact same type of Clause can act as the Subject of a sentence (the first example below), or the Complement, the equivalent of the Object.

I tell my students that – in grammar terms – this process (placing the pronoun at the start of the Clause) Nominalises the Clause – in other words it turns it into a Noun Phrase. It isn’t really a Noun Phrase, but a Complement Clause can do most of the things a Noun Phrase can do (act as the subject of sentence, for example), so it’s a useful analogy.

complement clause

In a Complement Clause, the pronoun may replace another element in the clause, or it may (first example above, with the pronoun that), simply connect the whole clause, with all its constituents, to the verb.

The pronoun that is not required, of course, in many sentences. All English speakers and above-Intermediate learners know that you can usually leave out that with verbs of speech. In addition, however, it’s important to note that that nothing can be in the Head position of a Complement Clause, the reason for which I will explain below.

Relative Clauses

Relative Clauses also typically have a Pronoun in the Spec position, but also often don’t require them; and they also cannot have anything in the Head position. In Relative Clauses, the pronoun is formed by removing an element from somewhere else in the Clause.

relative clause1

In fact, Relative Clauses are formed in exactly the same way as Complement Clauses. There are some variations in usage and construction that apply to each type, but the the main real difference is simply that Complement Clauses attach to Verbs and Relative Clauses attach to Nouns.

She told me where she is living.
(Complement Clause, attaching to a Verb)

That’s the town where she is living.
(Relative Clause, attaching to a Noun)

Because the Spec position of the CP is filled, certain things that are theoretically allowed in formal English grammar sound strange and not quite natural. For example (see below), if a speaker tries to Topicalise a Prepositional Phrase in a Relative Clause the position it wants to move to – the Spec of CP – is already filled. This construction doesn’t break the rules of grammar (in fact you can squeeze a lot into a Spec position, they are designed to be flexible), but it causes a lot of tension, and is in the ‘grey-area’ in terms of mental processing – in other words, it doesn’t sound completely natural and requires a ‘double-take’ in processing, but the brain still accepts it as grammatical. As a result, it often needs to be spoken with one or more short pauses.

relative clause2

Functional Content in the Head of CP

The only content that can go in the Head of CP is the Auxiliary Verb, moving there from the Head of IP to form a question. However, Linguists assert that there is a type of content called ‘Functional Content’, which is unspoken (or ‘not realised’ as we say in Linguistics) – basically a thought, which is not expressed with a word or words, that can occupy a Head position (since the Head position is a very ‘active’ position). If there is Functional Content in the Head, nothing else can move to occupy it – so question forms are not possible in Complement or Relative Clauses.  The question requires movement of the Auxiliary or Modal Verb which is blocked by this unspoken Functional content.

This is why constructions like:
            …the man whom met I in the park?
are not possible.

functional head

Thus in plain English, in a Relative Clause or Complement Clause, the Head of the CP is filled with the ‘thought’ of it being a Clause, so that position must remain empty of spoken content. This explains the question students sometimes ask – why a Relative Clause can never take the form of a question.

relative clause3

Note also: you can squeeze things into a Spec position (the initial phrase position of an XP), because evolution seems to have designed it to be flexible, and apart from holding content it doesn’t do anything active (you can miss things out, double them up, and so on); but the Head position is a Syntactically active position – it’s where things ‘happen’, and the rules of what can and can’t go there are not flexible – you either have the ‘right’ content in the Head for the Clause type (even if it’s unspoken content), or the Clause doesn’t make sense.


There are a great many variations within these Clause types, whcih I hope to discuss elsewhere, but questions, Topicalisation, Relative Clauses and Complement Clauses are the main Clause types in English that make use of the Complementiser Phrase (CP), the topmost phrase of an English sentence. There are only two positions in the CP, so the number of variations are limited – the main variations being:

  • what goes in the Spec position, if anything;
  • whether there is content in the Head position;
  • what kind of phrase the Clause is a complement of (i.e. a Noun Phrase, for the Relative Clause; or a Verb Phrase for the Complement Clause).


X-bar theory: the shape of language in the mind.

Words in different languages are very different, but sentence structures show a lot of similarities. It was Noam Chomsky who discovered that there are underlying cognitive structures (structures in the mind), shared by all humans, that define sentence and clause structure and allow us to interpret and create structured language. The term for this is Universal Grammar.

Syntax is a science, and the purpose of science is to discover the detailed inner of workings of natural or physical phenomena, so syntactic analysis can get very complicated. For example, here is a diagram showing some of the theorised inner structure of the Verb Phrase from my research project on the adverb ‘again’. This a very simple diagram compared to many in the Linguistic literature.


What follows is a highly simplified explanation of current theories of Syntax (in Linguistics, that’s capital-S ‘Syntax’). It’s intended to add some detail to the discussion on English sentence structure that can be found here. However, you don’t need to read or understand this page to read that page, so you can skip straight there if you prefer.

X-bar theory

Currently, the dominant theory of Syntax is called ‘X-bar Theory’. It states that language is mentally structured in a huge tree, comprised of individual components (in Syntax we call these ‘constituents’, but I’ve avoided that term here), organised into structures known as XPs. XPs are phrases. The letter X is a generic variable that indicates that this phrase could be anything – a verb phrase, a noun phrase, a prepositional phrase or any other kind of phrase.

XP structure looks like this:


XPs are binary, and they join onto one another in a hierarchical tree. In the example pictured below, the ZP is simply another XP (given a different variable name). Each of them could be any kind of phrase. The ZP is known as the complement of the Head of the XP. As mentioned above, these mental structures are binary: there are two branches at every position, though neither one is required to contain an element.


Every XP, whether it’s a verb phrase, a noun phrase, an adjective phrase, a prepositional phrase or whatever other kind of phrase, has the following structure.

  • The XP is at the top, on one side there is a Specifier (or ‘Spec’, as we call it).
  • The Spec can contain another phrase. This is a very common position for a Noun Phrase to appear. XPs often move into the Spec position from somewhere further down in the tree (to the right).
  • Opposite the Spec is an X’ (or X-bar) branch. There can be more than one of these. If there is, the second one is called X” (X-bar-bar) On one side, the X-bar contains a Head. A Head may be a single word – in a Verb Phrase (VP), the Head is a verb, in a Noun Phrase (NP), a noun, and so on. A head can also contain something not verbally expressed, such as ‘tense’.
  • Opposite the Head is a position where another X-bar or a new XP can appear.

Here is a very simple example of an XP, in this case a basic verb phrase. Actually the Verb Phrase in English doesn’t look like this – the subject is elsewhere. This is just a simplified example to show what a basic XP can look like.


The most well-established theory of Syntax, known as GB or Government and Binding Theory), also states that an XP, or phrase, can have another XP as an ‘adjunct’, also known as a modifier. Adjectives and adverbs have been considered to be in this position. Newer theories suggest this may be an over-simplification of what is really happening, so this part of the theory should be taken with a little skepticism. Adjuncts can attach as follows:



The key discovery that Chomsky made was that Syntax is defined by movement. This is what makes gives one language a different sentence structure from another; and it is by movement that tense, case and other attributes are applied to a word. In Syntax the position an element has moved from is called its ‘trace’. the trace and the new position are marked with subscripts.


Many elements move in human Syntax — this is what makes the sentence structure of language different from that of another. There are two main kinds of movement:

  • Head-to-head movement
    In head-to-head movement, a Head (a single word) moves to the Head position of the XP above it. Having moved, it can move again. It cannot move if the Head is occupied, though sometimes it can merge with the element in that Head. Head to head movement is common with elements that inflect*, such as verbs. (In fact, most Linguists believe such movement must happen for inflection to occur).

(*Inflection is when a word-form changes depending on Tense (e.g. give /gave) or Case (e.g. they/them). 

  • Moving to Spec
    An XP can move to another Spec position to its left (higher up). XPs can also appear in Spec position without having moved from anywhere. In English, the Subject of the sentence is believed by some Linguists to appear in the Spec of the Inflection Phrase (IP), while other believe it moves there from within the Verb Phrase. Phrases can also leave behind bits of themselves when they move. Moving to Spec is especially common for Noun Phrases.

Here is a simplified version of a the top-level XPs found in a clause, showing where things appear. It contains most of the XPs that will be presented, in an even more simplified form, in the post on sentence structure.


There is a lot of detail missing in this diagram; some XPs are present or used in some languages but not others; some aspects are not fully understood or agreed on; and Complementiser Phrases (CPs, the highest structure in a clause) can be embedded within other CPS (which is what a relative clause is, for example); but the XPs above: CP, IP the Verb Phrase and so on, are universal to all languages — in fact to every human brain. They are the building blocks of Universal Grammar — the cognitive structures in every mind. These five XPs are also the building blocks of every English sentence or clause.

What makes one language different from another is how sentences and clauses make use of these elements. Movement is the key to this, and different elements will move to different positions in different  languages. That is the subject of my next post.