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Dependency grammars treat the main verb of a sentence as the root node of a dependency graph. Not all utterances, however, have verbs. (Example: the widely known exclamation "holy shit!")

In these types of phrases, what would be considered the root of the phrase from a dependency perspective?

Why?

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Dependencies are not restricted to verbs and their dependents, rather they exist between all types of nodes. On a conventional understanding, the root is the one node that is not dominated by one of the other nodes.
In your example, then noun shit is the root, because holy, the only other node available, does not dominate it.
Dependencies are typed, i.e. subclassified. For instance, attributive adjectives, such as white in white horses, depend on their nouns. Hence holy should depend on shit.
The Stanford Dependencies take this to be an amod (adjectival modifier) dependency. (The 2008 paper "Stanford typed dependencies manual" lists common dependencies from section 2 on).
Meaning-Text-Theory (MTT) labels branches between nodes with syntactic functions. For an example see Wikipedia: Dependency grammar: Syntactic functions. The dependency between an adjective and a noun is called attr(ibutive) in MTT.

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  • Thanks, but you haven't quite answered my question. Would a root node be at play here at all? Or is this function reserved purely for verbs. – player.mdl Jan 22 '15 at 10:00
  • Please read the first sentence of my answer again. Dependencies exist between all types of nodes. On a conventional understanding, the root is the one node that is not dominated by one of the other nodes. In your example, then noun shit is the root, because holy, the only other node available, does not dominate it. – Thomas Gross Jan 22 '15 at 13:58
  • So if you amend your answer to include this, I can mark it as correct :) – player.mdl Jan 23 '15 at 4:36
  • Surely in "holy shit" the head of the dependency chain between the only two visible syntactic objects must be the noun "shit", but "Holy shit!" has an exclamation mark and does NOT mean just "holy shit". If that is all Dependency Grammar can say about the dependency structures in such 'sentences' (in the Bloomfieldian sense), then it is clear that it is still very far from explaining what every grammar must ultimately account for: the systematic relations between forms and meanings. – Sibutlasi Jan 23 '15 at 9:46
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    @Sibutlasi Yes, holy shit expresses, as linguists call it, non-compositional meaning. The expression of emphatic surprise is certainly not a combination of the meanings of the individual nodes. Dependency Grammar hence attributes the non-compositional meaning to the catena holy shit, rather than assuming composition. That assumption, however, has nothing to do with the internal structure of the catena. kick the bucket has idiomatic meaning, but its internal structure is the same as that of drink the wine. I understand the OP's question to be about roots, rather than idiomaticy. – Thomas Gross Jan 23 '15 at 11:56

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