Every language must adhere to universal principles as well as language-specific parameters, in all areas of its grammar. In the study of syntax, we learn that:
- phrases are built as hierarchical structures that consist of a head and all its constituents, i.e., modifiers, complements, etc.
- language-specific phrase structure rules stipulate
a. the constituents that are permitted in a phrase
b. the order in which they are generated
- lexical and grammatical items are generated on the nodes of phrases to show how they are related
In this tutorial, we will discuss the Case Filter, which is the mechanism that regulates the distribution of noun phrases (NPs) within a phrase, primarily referring to Standard English.
The Case Filter states that Every overt NP must be assigned case.
More specifically, an NP cannot be licensed (may not appear) in a phrase unless it is marked with case.
Each language varies in terms of its number of case forms, as well as method of marking NPs with case. For example, Standard English (SE) generally has 3 case forms: nominative (NOM), accusative (ACC), and genitive (GEN). German additionally has dative (DAT) case. Turkish has locative (LOC), ablative (ABL), and absolute (ABS) case, as well as those of English and German.
Case is assigned to each NP in a phrase to show its function (labels an NP as the subject or object of a verb, object of a preposition, etc.) Case markers can be overt or covert and can be generally categorized as structural or non-structural.
In English, only personal pronouns and possessives are morphologically marked for case. This accounts for why (1) a is grammatical, and (1) b is not.
(1) a She bought an apple for him.
b *Her bought an apple for he.
‘She is marked with NOM case, whereas ‘her’ is marked with ACC. (NPs in subject position must be marked with NOM case.)
Most NPs in SE are not overtly marked with case. So how do we know with which case an NP such as ‘Superman’ has been marked, if it can be found in subject position,
requiring it be marked with NOM case (2) a and object position, requiring it be marked with ACC case (2) b, and in both sentences, the form is the same?
(2) a Superman left his plane ticket on the kitchen table.
b Lois called Superman to let him know she’d bring his ticket to the airport.
This example reveals that case can exists regardless of whether it is overtly morphologically marked. This phenomenon is referred to as abstract case. Abstract case can be driven by structural relationships, or by inherent properties, primarily pertaining to theta roles.
Structural case shows the relationship between the Specifier and head of a phrase, which bear features such as NOM and ACC. At the deep structure level, these features must be ‘checked-off’ in order to yield a well-formed, or grammatical sequence of words. In SE, at a more introductory level, finite I head (or T or Agr) marks an NP in Spec IP with NOM case, V head marks its direct object NP with ACC case, and P head marks its object NP with ACC case.
Case is initially assigned at the deep structural level, however can be reassigned after a transformation has taken place.
(3) a He kissed her. (active voice)
b She was kissed by him. (passive voice)
c *Her was kissed by he.
NPs in subject position of a finite clause are marked with NOM case by I head.
Object NPs of verbs and prepositions are marked with ACC case. In (5) ‘The baby’ is the direct object of the verb thus is marked with ACC case.
(5) Sarah holds the baby.
Inherent case accounts for idiosyncratic properties of various heads. It is assigned at the deep structure level by a theta-role assigner, linked to a specific theta role.
“Inherent case condition:
If A is an inherent case assigner, then A assigns case to an NP if and only if A theta-marks the NP”
(Chomsky, 1986: 194).
In SE, there are 2 types of inherent case, genitive and dative, which can be assigned by N or A head.
In (7), the NP ‘his trophies’ is marked with GEN case by the adjective ‘proud’ + ‘of’ since ‘his trophies’ is a complement of ‘proud’ + ‘of’.
(7) Batman is proud of his trophies.
In (8) we see that N head ‘backpack’ marks the NP ‘Jane’ with GEN case, showing possession.
(8) Jane’s backpack.
Dative case is mostly observed when a ditransitive verb such as ‘give’ requires to NP objects. In (9) we see that there are two surface form options.
(9) a Lois gave a stern lecture to Superman.
b Lois gave Superman a stern lecture.
In (9) a, the NP ‘a stern lecture’ is marked with ACC case by V head, and the NP ‘Superman’ is inherently assigned DAT case as the benefactive, as well as overtly marked with case by P head.
In (9) b, even though the NP ‘a stern lecture’ is no longer the object of a preposition, it still maintains the same theta role, benefactive. Due to this theta role assignment, ‘a stern lecture’ is marked with DAT case.
Test your knowledge on by completing the exercise Case Filter 1.1.
Thomas (2016), Bianchini (2017)
 Chomsky 1981
 Some refer to the accusative case as oblique.