I know most of the phrases in English are headed phrases, like noun is the head of NP. But what is non-headed phrase?

  • 3
    Who did you see say anything was a non-headed phrase? In most grammatical systems that's nonsensical.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 12:57
  • Are you perhaps thinking of headless compounds, like pick-pocket or stay-at-home ?
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 13:49
  • Non-headed phrases do not exist in natural languages, but covert-headed phrases do.
    – Tsutsu
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 14:01
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    Coordination is a headless construction since the coordinates are of equal status, e.g. "Ed and Kim" is an NP-coordination, not an NP. And supplementation is like coordination in being non-headed, e.g."Kim Jones, a quite outstanding student, won a scholarship to MIT".
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 15:10
  • 1
    It depends on the theory. For example, exocentric phrases lack categorial heads. In constraint-based (unification) formalisms there are (locally) headless phrases, for example to account for the ISVO order in the Celtic languages. You should specify whether you are interested in categorial or functional (dependency) heads.
    – Atamiri
    Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 19:54

2 Answers 2


A non-headed phrase is a phrase without a head, of course. There is one clear candidate for such a status in modern syntactic analyses. One can, namely, view coordinate structures as phrases that lack a head, e.g.

(1) [Frank and Bob] have arrived.

(2) [The old woman and the young man] are a couple.

The proper nouns Frank and Bob are conjoined in (1), and together they form the subject noun phrase. But should the one be viewed as had over the other? Probably not, although the analysis of such coordinate structures has been debated a lot over the decades. I, for one, assume that such coordinate structures lack a single head, which means they are in fact headless in the relevant sense. Similar comments apply to the conjoined noun phrases the old woman and the young man in (2).

Note, though, that almost all other constructions and structures in natural language are viewed as having heads, and it is even a matter of debate whether headless structures exist at all, as the comments above demonstrate. I think they do, as the discussion of the coordinate structures just above demonstrates.

The issue of headed vs. headless phrases is characterized in terms of endo- and exocentric structures. Wikipedia has a helpful article on this distinction. The next diagrams are from that article:

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As can been seen from these diagrams, an exocentric (headless) structure is one in which the category status of the whole is entirely distinct from that of the parts.

Until about the 1970s, prepositional phrases were viewed as excocentric. Leonard Bloomfield is known for putting forward this stance in his book Language (1933). That changed in the 1970s, though, when the position was widely adopted that the preposition is the head of the prepositional phrase.

More importantly, the traditional analysis of the sentence in phrase structure grammar viewed it to be an exocentric structure, e.g.

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Since the whole, a sentence S, is distinct in its category status from both its parts, an NP and a VP, it is in fact exocentric. Most modern phrase structure analyses no longer view sentences as exocentric constructions, though. They instead view the verb as projecting its category status to the whole in terms of tense (T) or inflection (I).

Before concluding, I would like to address the structures mentioned in Greg Lee's answer. That answer suggests that gerund phrases and free relative clauses are headless phrases or clauses. I disagree with that stance. Certainly given a dependency grammar (DG) approach to syntax, the gerund is the head of the gerund phrase and the wh-word is the head of the free relative clause, e.g.

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Gerunds like discussing in the first tree are a mixed category. They distribute like nouns with respect to their heads but more like verbs with respect to their dependents. The what of the free relative clause in the second tree can be construed as the head of the relative clause by virtue of the fact that it fulfills a grammatical function in the matrix clause (the subject function) as well as a grammatical function in the relative clause (the object function). This fact is more evident in languages that have case, e.g. German:

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Sentence (3a) is good because the nominative pronoun Wer functions as the subject in both clauses. In contrast, sentences (3b) and (3c) are both bad because the interrogative pronouns Wer and Wen cannot be both nominative and accusative at the same time. There is a basic case conflict that arises based upon the syntactic functions that the relative pronoun must fulfill in the two clauses.

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  • Interesting German examples - thanks!
    – Alex B.
    Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 15:13

Noun phrases without a noun head are the most obvious examples of phrases without a head. Gerunds, for example, are clearly NPs, since they occur as subject, direct object, and object of a preposition, yet internally they are VPs -- no noun. Also common are headless relative clause constructions ("What I saw was strange.").

Reading over the comments above, it is remarkable how many people are in the dark about this.

  • The gerund is the head of a gerund phrase. In What I saw _, _What is the head. Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 7:50
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    @TimOsborne Yes, the gerund is the head of the VP in a nomninalized S, but that doesn't make it the head of the NP argument of the main sentence. Iit's a verb, not a noun, so how can it be head of the NP argument to the verb in the matrix S? Compare "Whar I saw" with a relative clause that actually does have a head: "the man who I saw". "Man" is the head; "who I saw" is a modifier. How can "what" be the head? It's inside the relative clause, and is object of "saw".
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 12:01
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    A gerund is a mixed category. It is a noun with respect to its head, but more like a verb with respect to its dependents. In what I saw , the what fulfills two syntactic functions simultaneously, one in the matrix clause and one in the relative clause. In order to do this, it needs to be the head of the relative clause. I will produce an answer to the question that illustrates these matters. Things are rather obvious when viewed from a DG perspective. Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 12:51
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    A lot depends on one's theory of syntax of course and as long as one's explanation is logically consistent within that theory, why not. I wonder why this answer was downvoted though. What you're saying here it all makes sense.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 15:17
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    @TimOsborne I had taken the theory that every phrase has a head of the category characteristic of the phrase type as an empirical theory about how natural language works. Evidently you take it as a doctrine to which there could never be a counterexample. It's okay; this is not uncommon.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 15:47

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