This issue has confused me for years, and I still at this level unable to find an accurate account or even an empirical logic with which I can grasp it. The conceptual logic of this matter, however, exists. Let me explain.

In generative syntax, a finite (tensed) clause TP, which agrees with the subject, is argued to licence a nominative subject. This has been the tradition since 1981 (and probably before). Empricial evidence for this matter is not problematic:

(1) She likes him
(2) She thinks that she likes him

The subject agrees with the verb by virtue of tense T which is finite and consequently license the nominative subject in the clause. This is not the case in infinitival clauses:

(3) To like him would be nice
(4) She seems [to like him]
(5) She wants [him being liked]<br/>

This logic has been lumped up under the notion of Probes in Phase Theory (Chomsky, 2000, 2001, 2008 et seq.). The premise of this theory states that T is a probe which values features on the DP subject. If this T is finite (strong), it values agreement and nominative case feature on this DP subject, otherwise it's defective (e.g., Raising/ECM). In Raising (4) the DP subject had to find another candidate to value its nominative. This cannot be the infinitival to like him, but it should be seems to like him which is tensed. This is why it moves there, or it remerges there. In (5), being liked which is participial has no subject candidate, this is why the DP there is accessed by V which values only accusative (in fact it's v which values it, V is lexical it does not do the job).

There's no problem with this (for me). What is puzzling is the fact this logic is carried over to vP/DP object relation. The object, say Bukowski, in (6) is valued as accusative (replaced by him) due to the fact that v probes it.

(6) Lydia likes Bukowski
(7) Lydia likes him

The verb like in (6)/(7) is dominated by a v giving:

[vP v' [v PROBE [VP [V' {DP GOAL}]]]]

The logic in Phase Theory says that as T probes the DP subject and values its nominative/agreement features, this logic can be carried over to the relation between v and DP object, on which basis?

As far as I know it follows only from something called Virtual Conceptual Necessity, it's like derivative. We derive an assumption of v-DP object dependency from T-DP subject. Is there an empirical ground which could lump up v and DP object apart from this conceptual motivation, because I find it rhetorical in this sense as Postal (2003) argues.

  • Not sure if I understood your question. Are you asking based on what language data do we assume that a transitive vP is a phase? You may want to re-read Radford 2004, section 10.9 Questions about phases. Among other things, he specifically discusses the relation between EPP-hood and phasehood.
    – Alex B.
    May 16, 2020 at 2:55
  • And of course there's Legate 2003 jstor.org/stable/4179245 ,Citko 2014 etc.
    – Alex B.
    May 16, 2020 at 3:08
  • @Alex B. No. My question doesn’t concern vP phase. It’s about the parallelism between T-DP & v-DP (obj). Read the comments on the answer below. Thank you.
    – Tsutsu
    May 16, 2020 at 10:39

1 Answer 1


I'm not sure I fully understand the question, but maybe Burzio's generalization is relevant? There is argued to be a "weak" v, which appears in unaccusatives and passives, and a "strong" v, which appears in transitives and unergatives. Only "strong" v can assign accusative case; "weak" v can't. The idea would then be that in passives, for example, because weak v can't assign accusative case to the object, that's what forces the object to raise. The same will hold for unaccusatives like arrive:

(1) [TP LydiaDP [T' T[+NOM] [vP v[-ACC] [VP arriveV LydiaDP ]]]]

This kind of parallels the case of defective T, like the raising case you mentioned:

(2) [TP1 LydiaDP [T'1 T1[+NOM] [VP1 seemsV1 [TP2 LydiaDP [T'2 to[-NOM] [vP likeV himDP]]]]]]

It might also be relevant that "strong" v, in transitives and unergatives, is considered to be a phase, while "weak" v, in unaccusatives and passives, is considered not to be a phase, according to e.g. Chomsky (2008).

But maybe this is all background to your question, and I missed what you are really asking. If so, are you asking what the evidence is that (strong) vP is a phase?

  • yes it's relevant, and it's frequently used as a diagnostic. Chomsky (2001) rethought the status of passives/unaccusative as being weak phases due to critiques. Are you sure he doesn't acknowledge the status of these two as being weak/defective in 2008? The problem with Burzio's generalization is that it doesn't mirror the T-DP dependency. This latter is based on Case/agreement pattern, whereas v-DP is based on Case/theta patterns. Are you aware of any reference in this regard?? I read McGinnis and Richards (ed.s) (2005) and Gallego (2012) (ed.) & others..but they didn't help much
    – Tsutsu
    May 15, 2020 at 11:19
  • @Tsutsu my understanding is that it's critical for chomsky's 2008 analysis of subject islands that passive/unaccusative v is weak. May 15, 2020 at 13:23
  • @Tsutsu as for the problem you mentioned with burzio's generalization, i think i see your point. i think a couple things might be relevant. one is the issue of feature inheritance, where T gets its features from C, and v actually passes its features to V. then the parallelism is between C/T and v/V. then i think the parallelism has a clearer basis: C/T values NOM and agrees for phi with the subject, v/V values ACC and agrees for phi with the object. May 15, 2020 at 13:23
  • You're right, I thought about it too. The problem is that feature inheritance follows from A-A' distinction. Agree on the head T creates A (e.g., EPP/raising etc,), and Edge feature on C creates A' (wh-movement). This can't be extended to v-V. v's edge/agree creates both positions in Spec,vP, hence a complication. You said that v/V agrees for phi with object, how can we prove this empirically? I asked this question about this issue here: (linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/36048/…)
    – Tsutsu
    May 15, 2020 at 13:43
  • I found a paper by Mark Baker that seems to address this question exactly. Baker finds Amharic has the property you asked about in the question you linked, with some interesting results. He also mentions some other cases that might be worth looking at in the conclusion. Baker: On the Relationship of Object Agreement and Accusative Case: Evidence from Amharic. Linguistic Inquiry, 43(2), 255–274. May 15, 2020 at 14:17

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