Adam An

Syntax cookbook

January 23, 2024

Here’s a “cookbook” of various kinds of English syntax trees. This is my attempt at capturing a happy medium of what’s commonly introduced in introductory texts and my own undergrad syntax class.

Perhaps the most controversial assumption is that morphology is a product of syntax. Not taking sides here - all I’m saying is this is what I was first taught.


Headedness principle
A phrase needs a head; an XP needs an X.
Binarity principle
Everything has two children (which may be empty or host a combination of multiple things due to movement).
The presence of an X necessitates the presence of X' and XP above it.
VISH (Verb-Internal Subject Hypothesis)
The hypothesis that subjects of verbs generate in SpecVP and raise to SpecTP.
Head-Movement Constraint
Heads can only move to adjacent heads.

X-bar structure

X-bar structure

You can have as many nested X’ levels as you want, but some people like to have no adjuncts and only have the one X’ level. The specifier position of XP is abbreviated SpecXP.

“Classic” DP

the cow

Tree for a DP

Possessed DP

the dog’s cow

Tree for a possessed DP

The “subject” generates in the specifier of a lexical phrase before raising to the specifier of a functional phrase, much like SpecVP raising to SpecTP per VISH.

SVO sentence

Cows eat grass.

Tree for an SVO sentence

The subject generates in SpecVP and raises to SpecTP as per VISH. T lowers to V since [present] is not pronounceable on its own; √eat+[present] resolves at a later stage to “eat”.


There are two common ways of doing adverbs. One approach is to make the adverb phrase an adjunct of the verb phrase:

Cows eat grass quickly.

Tree for a sentence with an adverb with the adverb as an adjunct of the VP

The other approach is to make the entire verb phrase move from the argument of the adverb phrase to its specifier position:

Cows eat grass quickly.

Tree for a sentence with the VP moving from the argument to specifier position of the adverb phrase


Cows can eat grass.

Tree for a sentence with a modal

Things that can occupy T are features [past] [present] and modals.

Question with a modal

Can cows eat grass?

Tree for a question with a modal

Questions generate with a phonologically null [question] C that need to combine with something to be pronounced; here, the T raises to C.

Question with do-support

Do cows eat grass?

Tree for a question with do-support

As in the question with a modal, T raises to C, but as the [question] C and [present] T are both unpronounced, the repair strategy is to resolve the combination to “do”.

Negation with do-support

Cows do not eat grass.

Tree for a question with negation and do-support

T-to-V movement, like in the “classic” SVO sentence, is blocked due to the Head-Movement Constraint. The repair strategy is to resolve the unpronounceable [present] to “do”.

Aspect be/have

Cows are eating grass.

Tree for a sentence with aspectual be

As opposed to the “normal” T-to-V movement, this sentence has V-to-T movement. V-to-T movement occurs with the verb be and the auxiliary (but not the lexical verb) have.

Question with aspect be/have

Are cows eating grass?

Tree for a question with aspectual be

Negation with aspect be/have

Cows are not eating grass.

Tree for a sentence with negation and aspectual be

The V-to-T movement here is a violation of the Head-Movement Constraint.

Last updated May 20, 2024