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Agree constrains Merge: the case of categorial features

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Agree constrains Merge: the case of categorial features

Agree is an operation initiated by an active feature F, (of) the Probe, scanning the accessible part of the derivation (its ‘domain’) for a matching feature F’, (of) the Goal. In Chomsky (2000: 122), and as reiterated in Richards & Biberauer (2005:121), it is explicitly stated that the Probe must c-command the Goal. This follows from the basic assumption that Merge, an incremental bottom-up structure building operation, is responsible for the construction of syntactic structures. Hence: (1) The Probe must always c-command the Goal – never the other way round. In the reverse scenario, we would have a derivation where a potential Probe is merged and has to ‘wait’ for a suitable Goal, effectively scanning the derivation ‘upwards’ after every application of Merge, therefore incorporating look-ahead, a redundant and costly assumption (Collins 1997). The statement in (1) can be conceived as a more special case of the requirement that the Probe project (Chomsky 2000: 133-4; Chomsky 2004: 109; Donati 2006) and that the Probe must be a head: a lexical item (LI) rather than a syntactic object (SO). Thus, after the application of Merge: (2) The Probe, a head, projects. Under the received view that the Probe is a feature uninterpretable at the LF interface, it emerges that (1) and (2) must give rise to a host of far-reaching empirical consequences. One of them has to do with categorial features. Following Panagiotidis (2002) – in turn harking back to Chomsky’s (1995: 269) “affixal features” – let us argue that functional categories carry uninterpretable versions [uN] and [uV] of categorial features [N] and [V], which we can take to be features either on the lexical categories ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ or on Marantz’s (2000) ‘nominaliser’ and ‘verbaliser’. Uninterpretable [uN] and [uV] on, say, D and T respectively, will act us Probes, scanning their Agree domain for suitable Goals. In the standard cases, these Goals will be [N] and [V] on nouns and verbs. Let us informally dub this relation ‘categorial Agree’ and examine its effects. Despite having received little attention so far, e.g. a mention in Baker (2003:269), a robust generalization is that lexical categories, such as nouns and verbs, always appear at the bottom of a projection line and never somewhere in its middle. By (1) above, we can explain this as follows: if the Probe, say an uninterpretable categorial feature [uV], does not c-command a Goal, such as [V], it will fail to agree with it and, remaining unchecked, will lead the derivation to crash.

The above considerations straightforwardly exclude the possibility of ‘late Merge’ of a lexical head in a tree, as its interpretable categorial feature would have to act as a Goal for a Probe in already merged non-c-commanding functional heads, contra (1). The impossibility of mid-projection lexical heads is thus captured in a non-stipulative fashion. Backtracking, consider now the first application of the Merge operation in a given workspace. This will have to involve merging two heads, two LIs. If it is the case that functional categories carry uninterpretable versions of categorial features, then we can predict which head will project in the case when two heads, two LIs, one functional and one lexical, merge. The functional head contains an uninterpretable categorial feature, hence it is a Probe for categorial Agree; as a result, by (2), the functional head will always be the one projecting. Again, no extra assumptions are needed. If the above arguments are in the right direction, we can furthermore elaborate our understanding of the operation Agree in general. Consider the case discussed above again. What would prevent the [uV] feature of, say, will from probing the [uV] one of Asp, establishing an Agree relation with it? In other words, why can the [uV] feature of Asp not act as a Goal for Agree – or the other way round? The above questions abstractly rehearse Abney’s (1987) observation that there are no functional heads “without a complement”: there are no projections without a lexical head (and its interpretable categorial feature). Given the above, a cost-free explanation is that uninterpretable features cannot check off each other (on what happens with Case features, see Pesetsky & Torrego 2004; 2005). We can express the above as a constraint on Agree:

(3) Uninterpretable features cannot act as Goals for Agree.


Abney, Steven P. 1987. The English Noun Phrase in its Sentential Aspect. MIT PhD Thesis.

Baker, Mark 2003. Lexical Categories: verbs, nouns and adjectives. CUP .

Chomsky, Noam 1995. The Minimalist Program. MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam 2000. Minimalist inquiries: the framework. In Martin, R., Michaels, D. and J. Uriagereka (eds.) Step by Step. Essays on Minimalist Syntax in honor of Howard Lasnik. MIT Press. 89-155

Chomsky, Noam 2004. Beyond explanatory adequacy. In Belletti, A., (ed.) Structures and beyond: the cartography of syntactic structures 3. OUP . 104-131

Collins, Chris 1997. Local Economy. MIT Press.

Donati, Caterina 2006. Labels and Merge. Talk delivered at the InterPhases conference, Uni. of Cyprus.

Marantz, Alec 2000. Reconstructing the lexical domain with a single generative engine. ms. MIT .

Panagiotidis, Phoevos 2002. Pronouns, Clitics and Empty Nouns. Benjamins.

Pesetsky, David & Torrego, Esther 2004. Tense, Case and the nature of syntactic categories. In Guéron, Jacqueline & Lecarme, Jacqueline (eds.) The syntax of time. MIT Press. 495-537

Pesetsky, David & Torrego, Esther 2005. Subcategorization phenomena and Case-theory effects: some possible explanations. Talk delivered at LAGB 2005 , Cambridge.

Richards, Marc & Biberauer, Theresa 2005. Explaining Expl. In: Den Dikken, Marcel & Tortora, Christina (eds.) The function of function words and functional categories. Benjamins. 115-153.

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