He said so little.

includes the NP so little, which doesn't include any noun.

In the X-bar theory style tree diagram, how do you go about describing the NP? Do you have N' below the NP? Do you have N below N'?

This is of course assuming that you don't follow the DP hypothesis, under which it'd be easy to draw the DP so little.

  • No need to close this one: It contains a concrete question. Mar 11, 2020 at 11:04
  • Call the NPs D-bars, and mark so little as the D that's projected.
    – jlawler
    Mar 11, 2020 at 14:51
  • @jlawler If you're suggesting that I use the DP hypothesis, my question is presented in case the DP hypothesis is not adopted.
    – JK2
    Mar 12, 2020 at 7:11
  • 1
    If you wait until a syntactic hypothesis is adopted, you'll have a long wait. That was the point behind McCawley's title Thirty Million Theories of Syntax; he was referring to al the possible theories depending on one or another unsettled hypothesis.
    – jlawler
    Mar 12, 2020 at 14:31

1 Answer 1


There are a number of possibilities for the X-bar analysis of the phrase so little. A central choice one has to make concerns viewing little as an adjective or as a derived noun, that is, as a noun derived from an adjective. My favored analysis would be to view it as the latter. Given this decision, the next decision one has to make concerns the status of so: should it be viewed as an adjunct or as a specifier? Viewing it as an adjunct might result in the following X-bar analysis:

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Viewing it as a specifier instead might motivate the next analysis:

enter image description here

Concerning the first major decision mentioned above, the analysis would look much different if one chooses to view little as a normal adjective. In such a case, one would probably want to assume noun ellipsis, that is, that the noun has been elided. Such an approach might produce the following analysis, where a special symbol is used to indicate an elided noun:

enter image description here

For me, the difficulty with this analysis is that it is not clear what the noun is that one would understand to have been elided.

The question states that the analysis would be straightforward if the DP-analysis of nominal groups were assumed instead of the NP-analysis. I do not see why that should be the case. The DP-analysis adds an additional category to it all, opening the door to a more layered analyses, with additional projections. That means even more decisions become necessary.

Finally, let me express my personal view about X-bar analyses. I think they are not well motivated linguistically. They are in general overly complex and thus subject to great variation, even among experts. In this regard, consider the simplicity of a dependency grammar (DG) analysis of the sentence:

enter image description here

DG assumes a strict one-to-one correspondence of atomic units of syntax (i.e. words) to nodes in the syntax tree. This principle limits the potential analyses greatly. Dependency grammarians could hardly disagree about the analysis of a simple phrase such as so little.

  • Thanks. Yes, the DP analysis is more layered, but once you draw the DP tree of so little, you'll see what I mean. And I'd go for the ellipted noun tree over calling little a noun, which I don't know how to justify when it's being modified by the adverb so.
    – JK2
    Mar 13, 2020 at 4:18
  • Happy to help. But if a noun has been elided, then what is that noun? When talking about N-ellipsis (also called NP-ellipsis), both versions are typically possible. In this regard, consider the sentence "You took the first train, and I took the second" as compared to the sentence "You took the first train, and I took the second train". Adding the noun is hardly possible in the case of "so little", e.g. "He said so little" vs. "?He said so little stuff." The noun I've added, i.e. "stuff", does not fit well, yet it is the best I can do. Mar 13, 2020 at 5:44
  • I totally agree with you that adding a noun results in a rather awkward NP with "so little". Still, calling little a noun and trying to figure out how to explain the adverb so modifies a noun is I think way more awkward.
    – JK2
    Mar 13, 2020 at 5:49
  • The difficulty seems to arise from the perceived necessity to view "little" as an adjective or a noun. In this case, it does not fit well into either category. A more flexible approach might be warranted, one that grants "little" a unique category status in this case. Consider gerunds in this regard, a category that is situated between verb and noun, e.g. "Trump saying that was ridiculous". The gerund "saying" does not qualify entirely as a verb because it appears where a noun generally appears. Yet it is not a entirely a noun, for it takes the dependents of a transitive verb. Mar 13, 2020 at 6:06
  • I think your example is a bit different for I'd consider 'saying' a full-fledged verb, never a noun. A non-finite verb is a full-fledged verb. What's noun-y is not 'saying' itself but the entire phrase 'Trump saying that'. To be exact, even calling the entire phrase noun-y is not accurate, because it's not noun that functions as subject, it's an NP.
    – JK2
    Mar 13, 2020 at 6:37

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