I'm a first-semester student in linguistics and I need clarifications regarding the following trees:

(1) (NP (N' (det the) (N car))) and (2) DP (D' (D the) (NP ∆ car)))

My course notes seem to stick with the first kind of notation but when I read about X-bar, I find both being used in different books.

I would appreciate some clarification of the different notations - or if they're indeed really the same.

  • 1
    Hello sanlike and welcome to Linguistics. I took the liberty of actually making the trees. If you needed the text notations, you can click on "edited ... ago" and roll back. By the way, the notations you added had a bad brackets count (both 4 opening brackets and 3 closing brackets).
    – Alenanno
    Commented Feb 5, 2013 at 22:22
  • Tree (1) is not right. The first X' level of projection is the territory of the head N and its arguments (complements) if any. Higher X' levels (to the extent they were allowed in the 1970's and early 1980's) can contain adjuncts (APs, PPs, Relative Clauses), but never Determiners. Only N'' = NP can contain Determiners, usually in 'specifier' position.
    – user6814
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 12:57

2 Answers 2


In traditional Principles and Parameters Framework 1, noun phrases (NP) are considered the topmost lexical head.

This approach had some disadvantages regarding determiners and how they work with, for example, inflections. Compare:

[NP [N' [det the] [N car]]]  
[NP [Spec [N' [det the] [N car's]]] [N' engine]]

Here, the determiner the is treated as a part of a genitive phrase the car's.

Abney 2 suggested an idea that the NP is headed with a determiner (D) to solve the problem with determiners.

So these notations simply reflect two different frameworks.

1 Chomsky, Noam. (1995). The Minimalist Program.
2 Abney, Steven. (1996) A Grammar of Projections.

  • 3
    Two very similar frameworks, both developed by Chomsky at different times. There are plenty of others, too. Generally everybody will recognize NP, but using DP makes a specific doctrinal claim and marks one as belonging to a particular orthodox sect.
    – jlawler
    Commented Feb 5, 2013 at 23:25
  • 3
    Abney made the DP proposal in his doctoral dissertation in 1987.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 1:22
  • 1
    @Alex B. Abney is credited wih the DP proposal. However, Richard Hudson was aleady arguing for DPs in his 1984 book on Word Grammar -- see pages 90-92. I'm not a fan of DPs, but if one is going to adopt DPs, one should give Hudson some credit. His stance on DPs preceded Abney's dissertation by at least three years. Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 0:53
  • 1
    @jlawler People across frameworks use DP. DP might not be the mainstream in HPSG and LFG, but there are certainly people who use it in those frameworks. There are also variants of Categorial Grammar which can be argued to use DP. Tim Osborne pointed out Richard Hudson's work; this also adopts the DP, but is not part of the "orthodox sect" I assume you're referring to. Further, there are also members of this very "sect" (including Chomsky) who disavow the DP analysis. Use of DP rather than NP is not a "doctrinal claim." Commented May 20, 2020 at 13:43
  • Oh yes it is. It simply doesn't aver faith in all possible doctrines; merely one variant. That's the real norm. Every syntactician gets their training at some place and time and that's where the basic ideas are fixed; the current result is that there is a multidimensional spectrum of heresies around, all different but all claiming to be the (generative) norm.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 20, 2020 at 14:44

These are two different representations that depend on your assumption. Some linguists believe that noun and determiner make a Noun Phrase, while others believe that noun and det constitute a Determiner Phrase. The second group assumes that in such languages as English determines are overtly presented while in such languages as Russian they are covert or null. It is a rough explanation. Let's be a little bit more specific.

According to the X-bar theory every head must project into a phrase. A determiner does not seem to be a phrase, thus the representation in (1) causes a trouble. That's why many linguists reject the representation in (1), where the det is a specifier of an NP. On these grounds, the representation in (2) is theoretically more acceptable. It was firstly proposed by Abney (1987).

Now, let's look into some empirical evidence toward 2. Here are two genitive phrases:

  1. Helen's book
  2. The girl with a telescope's book

In the first example, it looks like the genitive suffix attaches to the noun head, however the second example clearly shows that it is not the case. That genitive suffix is actually attached to something bigger. It attaches to the whole phrase and it is actually a determiner:

[DP Helen [D' 's [NP book]]]

It is also impossible to say Helen's the book.

In introduction courses many instructors prefer to use the first representation in order to keep things simple.

  • 1
    It doesn't follow that adopting the DP-hypothesis for English entails that the DP-hypothesis be adopted for languages without definite articles, such as Slavic. In fact, a very prominent recent hypothesis (first proposed in Boskovic, 2005, i think: web.uconn.edu/boskovic/papers/leftbranch.pdf), is that languages with definite articles have DPs, whereas languages without, like Russian, have NPs. This is meant to correlate with certain other properties, such as the possibility of Left Branch Extraction - Russian allows LBE, whereas English doesn't.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 14:25

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