I'm drawing some x-bar syntax trees. These seem highly prescriptivist in that it says that you can only do x,y & z. For example the sentence "Because I'm lazy means I'm more efficient" could be used by someone because some people start sentence with conjunctions. However this doesn't seem to fit in the X-Bar theory system because it doesn't start with a determiner phrase.

Is X-Bar Theory inherently prescriptivist or is there a way to add exceptions to X-Bar theory trees?

(I'm quite new to linguistics)

  • 2
    It's prescriptivist about the theory (you have to do this and you can't do that in drawing trees) but not about the language it describes. You just have to learn the rules that go with the trees and modify them. Oh, and don't confuse Generative with X-bar. X-bar theory is a small component of some generative theories (not all), and there are many, many generative linguistic theories. Every generative syntactician generates one.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 17:16
  • so, taking the example where some people use 'because' at the beginning of the sentence...would it be correct to say that the normal X-Bar rule for english, where we are required to have a Determiner Phrase at the top of a sentence, would change. So, where a dialect that permits a conjunction such as 'because', would be something like (DP or conjunction)?
    – atreeon
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 17:26

1 Answer 1


X-bar theory is prescriptivist in a certain sense. It prescribes certain things about the structure of syntax trees: that all branching is binary, for example, and that every XP level dominates an X' level dominates an X level.

However, these are all properties of the syntax trees, theoretical constructs postulated to explain the data. This generally isn't what linguists mean by "prescriptivism", which is about declaring utterances correct or incorrect against native speakers' intuition.

The goal of X-bar theory (and any other theory of syntax) is to explain the data: which utterances native speakers consider grammatical versus ungrammatical. A theory that claimed sentences can't start with conjunctions would simply be incorrect (for most dialects), because native English-speakers do that all the time. It might claim that sentences can't start with conjunctions in the underlying form, and then some sort of movement, deletion, or other transformation happens. But the data indicates pretty clearly that surface structures can start with a conjunction, and these theories are descriptivist in the sense that they're meant to explain the data rather than prescribing it.

  • thank you all so much for such great explanations :)
    – atreeon
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 17:37

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