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Theta criterion

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Subject: Theta role, Thematic roles, Argument (linguistics), Principles and parameters, Syntax
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Theta criterion

The theta-criterion (also named θ-criterion) is a constraint on x-bar theory that was first proposed by Noam Chomsky (1981) as a rule within the system of principles of the Government and Binding Theory, called theta-theory (θ-theory). As theta-theory is concerned with the distribution and assignment of theta-roles (a.k.a. thematic roles), the theta-criterion describes the specific match between arguments and theta-roles (θ-roles) in Logical Form (LF):

θ-criterion: Each argument bears one and only one θ-role, and each θ-role is assigned to one and only one argument.

(Chomsky 1981, p. 35)

The number, types and positions of theta-roles that a lexicon assigns is encoded in its lexical entry.(Chomsky 1981, p. 38). Every complement of a verb is assigned a theta-role by its head, and the subject of this verb phrase(including the verb and its complement) is assigned a theta-role if the verb phrase selects certain syntactic and semantic categories of arguments for its subject position. Both the number and categories of arguments in a sentence need to meet the verb's requirement. In other words, theta-criterion sorts sentences into grammatical and ungrammatical bins based on c-selection and s-selection.


  • Theta-criterion applied 1
  • Cross-linguistic generalizations 2
    • Chinese 2.1
    • Japanese 2.2
  • Special cases and controversies 3
    • Transitivity 3.1
    • Control and PRO 3.2
      • Pro 3.2.1
      • DP Raising 3.2.2
    • Nominal constructions 3.3
  • Notes 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6

Theta-criterion applied

Being a constraint on x-bar theory, the criterion aims to parse out ungrammatical sentences. Thus, if the theta-criterion is not met in any given sentence, that sentence will be deemed ungrammatical. (Carnie 2007, p. 224) It also asserts constraints on syntactic movement. Because theta-role assignment is shared among all syntactic levels (Logical Form, D-structure, and S-structure), if a phrase occupies a theta-position (complement or subject) in D-structure, it cannot move to another theta-position in S-structure or it will receive two theta-roles (Chomsky 1981, p. 46).

A theta-role is a status of thematic relation (Chomsky 1981, p. 35). In other words, a theta-role describes the connection of meaning between a predicate or a verb and a constituent selected by this predicate. This selection of a constituent by a verb based on meaning is called s-selection (semantic-selection) and is coded in the lexical entry of the verb. (Sportiche, Koopman & Stabler 2014, p. 141) In the example below the verb 'love' has two theta-roles to assign: agent (the entity who loves) and theme (the entity being loved). In accordance with the theta-criterion, each theta-role must have its argument counterpart.
(1a).Megan   loves  Kevin.
(Carnie 2007, p. 225 (22))
In Example 1a, Megan and Kevin are the arguments that the verb assigns the agent and theme theta-roles to, respectively. Because there is a one-to-one mapping of argument to theta-role, the theta-criterion is satisfied and the sentence is deemed grammatical. (Carnie 2007, p. 225) Below are two examples where the theta-criterion has not been fulfilled and are thus ungrammatical.
(1b).*Megan   loves.
(Carnie 2007, p. 225 (24))
(1c).*Megan  loves Jason  Kevin.
(Carnie 2007, p. 226 (26))

Example 1b is ungrammatical (marked with *) because there are more theta-roles available than there are arguments. The theta-role theme does not have an argument matched to it. On the other hand, in example (1c), there are more arguments than theta-roles. Both theta-roles are matched to arguments (Megan with Agent and Jason with theme), but there is an argument left without a corresponding theta-role (Kevin has no theta-role). (Carnie 2007) Thus for reasons of inequality in number between theta-roles and arguments, with either having more than the other, the result will be ungrammatical.

Cross-linguistic generalizations

Theta-criterion is realized not only in English, but also in other languages in different families and typologies. Below are some examples.


As a pro-drop language (Sportiche, Koopman & Stabler 2014, p. 244), Chinese can drop subjects more freely than English. However, theta-criterion does hold in Chinese because without context predicates cannot have more or less arguments than their theta-roles. This can be seen from the Mandarin examples below:

(3)a. tamen gei-le  jingli *(yi-fen baogao).
     they  give-LE manager a-CL report[1]
    'They gave the manager *(a report).'
   b. ta   zou-le (*women).
     he walk-LE us      
    'He walked (*us).'
     (Huang, Li & Li 2009, p. 39)

In (3a), the verb gei 'give'has three theta-roles to assign: Agent, Goal, and Theme. Thus there must be three arguments in the sentence to shoulder them respectively: tamen 'they', jingli 'manager' and yi-fen baogao 'a report'. If yi-fen baogao is omitted the sentence will be ungrammatical because the theta-role Theme cannot be assigned.
(3b) is the opposite type of violation where there are two arguments in the sentence ta 'he' and women 'us' but the verb zou 'walk' can only assign one theta-role Agent. This sentence crashes because the argument women 'us' cannot get a theta-role. [2]


The original position of 'sase' under Kitagawa (1986)'s analysis
In Japanese, theta-criterion triggers affix raising (Kitagawa 1986). For example, in a sentence with -ga, -ni, -o, and -sase like (4) below, sase 'CAUSE' first combines with tabe 'eat' to form a complex lexical item when it is introduced into the sentence, after which it raises to the sister node of the verb phrase [kodomo-ni [okasi-o [tabe]]] (the child eat sweets) to satisfy theta-criterion:
(4) Hanako-ga  kodomo-ni  okasi  -o   tabe-sase ru
   Hanako NOM child  DAT sweets ACC  eat-CAUSE PRES[3]
   'Hanako let the child eat sweets'
   (Adopted from Kitagawa (1986, p. 69))
The landing site of 'sase' under Kitagawa (1986)'s analysis

The motivation behind such movement is that, both sase and tabe need to assign two theta-roles: agent & event and agent & theme, respectively. Theta-criterion thus forces sase to move to the sister node of the verb phrase [kodomo-ni [okasi-o [tabe]]] (the child eat sweets) and take Hanako-ga as subject in LF so that sase can assign "agent" to Hanako-ga and "event" to the verb phrase [kodomo-ni [okasi-o [tabe]]]. tabe, at the same time, assigns "agent" to kodomo 'child' and "theme" to okasi 'sweets'. Both of their theta-marking properties are satisfied and every argument gets a theta-role. If sase doesn't move in LF or land on other sites like a sister node of [okasi-o [tabe]] (eat sweets), the sentence will crash for the violation of theta-criterion.

Special cases and controversies


Verbs that can be either transitive or intransitive at the first glance could present a problem for the theta criterion. For a transitive verb, such as "hit," we assign the theta roles agent and theme to the arguments, as shown in (5)b, c, and d:
(5) a. *John hit.
    b. John hit his sister.
    c. John hit the beach early.
    d. John hit middle-age.
       (adapted from (Rice 1988, p. 207))

The action of hitting here requires an animate subject, an agent, carry out the action. The theme is then someone or something that undergoes the action.

For an intransitive verb, such as "arrive," we assign the theta role theme to the sole argument, since "Mary" is the one the undergoes the action:
(6) a. Mary arrived. 
      (Pesetsky & Torrego 2002, p. 22 (36a))
    b. *Mary arrived an arrival.

The theta criterion assigns the theta role in the underlying structure, as shown by (6)c. The past-tense morpheme then requires a subject at the spec-TP position and forces the movement of "Mary," as shown by (6)d.

(6)c. The underlying representation of "Mary arrived." by a syntactic tree.
(6)d. The surface representation of "Mary arrived." by a syntactic tree. "Mary" is projected to the spec-TP position by the extended projection principle triggered by the [+tense] tense morpheme.
A verb like "eat" can choose to take an object, as shown in (7):
(7) a. John ate.
    b. John ate something.
    c. John ate a big lunch.
        (Rice 1988, p. 203 (1b-d))  
For this type of verb, the potential object is usually semantically limited and therefore can be inferred from the verb at a default value (Rice 1988, p. 203-4). For instance, for (7)a, the listener/reader automatically assumes that John ate "something." What necessitates the object in (7)c is the distinction from the default meaning achieved by specifying what John ate (Rice 1988, p. 208). As a result, this type of verbs can be treated the same as transitive verbs. The theta roles of "agent" and "theme" can be assigned:
(7) a. John ate.
    b. John ate something.
    c. John ate a big lunch.
        (Rice 1988, p. 203 (1b-d))  

In summary, by assigning the correct theta roles, theta criterion is able to tell the real intransitive verbs, such as "arrive" apart from verbs that can appear intransitive, such as "eat."

Control and PRO

PRO (pronounced 'big pro') is a null pronoun phrase that occurs in a position where it does not get case (or gets null case) but get theta-roles. PRO's meaning is determined by the precedent DP that controls it (Carnie 2012, p. 429). Below is an example containing PRO in a sentence:
(9) a. Jeani is likely  [ti to leave].
    b. Jean is reluctant [PRO to leave].
       (Carnie 2012, p. 429)

Example (9a) is a raising sentence,and in contrast, (9b) is a control sentence, meaning it does not involve any DP movement. The PRO, which is a "null DP" is in the subject position of the embedded clause.


Pro, also known as small pro, is an empty category that occurs in a subject position of a finite clause (finite clauses must contain a verb which shows tense), pro differs from PRO in that it has case. The DP is ‘dropped’ from a sentence if its reference can be recovered from the context.(Carnie 2012, p. 429)

DP Raising

(10) a. Jean wants Briani [ti to leave].
   b. Jean persuaded Brian [PRO to leave].
      (Carnie 2012, p. 429)

Example (9a) is a subject-to-object raising sentence; "Brian" raises to the object position of the verb wants. In contrast, (10b) is an object control sentence.(Carnie 2012, p. 430) The verb persuade has three theta-roles to assign: "agent" to Jean, "theme" to Brian, and "proposition" to the clause [PRO to leave]. There is no raising, but there is a PRO in the subject position of the embedded clause that takes the verb leave's only theta-role, "agent". Since Brian does not receive theta-role from leave, it only bears one theta-role, nor does PRO receive a second theta-role from persuade. Every argument only receives one theta-role, and every theta-role of the two predicates is assigned to only one argument. The sentence is thus grammatical.

Nominal constructions

Some nouns are derived from verbs and thus assign theta-roles as their verb stems do. For example,
(10) (i) the barbarians' destruction of Rome
    (ii) Rome's destruction (by the barbarians)
   (iii) the destruction of Rome (by the barbarians)
    (iv) *the barbarian's destruction
   ((Chomsky 1981, p. 104))

According to Chomsky (1981, p. 104), the constructions in (10) are analogous to "the barbarians destroyed Rome" and destruction needs to assign theta-roles in line with theta-criterion. It assigns "agent" to the barbarians and "theme" to Rome so (i) is fine. The verb "destroy" alone doesn't obligatorily assign theta-role to its subject so (ii) and (iii) is well-formed, too. However, "destroy" must assign a "theme", so (iv) is ruled out.


  1. ^ LE: a perfective marker or sentence-final particle in Mandarin. CL: classifier
  2. ^ This is the simplest case of theta-criterion in Chinese. For theta-criterion in more complex cases like non-Theme objects and resultative compounds see Li (1990) and Huang, Li & Li (2009)
  3. ^ NOM: nominative, DAT: dative, ACC: accusative, PRES: present

See also


  • Baker, Mark (1997). "Thematic Roles and Syntactic Structure". In Haegeman, Liliane. Elements of Grammar : Handbook in Generative Syntax. Dordrecht [u.a.]: Kluwer. pp. 73–137. 
  • Bittner, Maria (1994). Case, Scope, and Binding. Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 
  • Carnie, Andrew (2007). Syntax: A Generative Introduction (2 ed.). Massachusetts, USA: Blackwell Publishing. 
  • Carnie, Andrew (2012). Syntax: A Generative Introduction (3 ed.). Massachusetts, USA: Wiley-Blackwell. 
  • Chomsky, Noam (1981). Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris Publications. 
  • Huang, C.-T. James; Li, Y.-H. Audrey; Li, Yafei (2009). The Syntax of Chinese. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Kitagawa, Yoshihisa (1986). Subjects in Japanese and English. University of Massachusetts Amherst. 
  • Li, Yafei (1990). "On V-V Compounds in Chinese". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 8 (2): 177–207. 
  • Rice, Sally (1988). "Unlikely Lexical Entries". Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 14 (0): 202–212. 
  • Sportiche, Dominique; Koopman, Hilda; Stabler, Edward (2014). An Introduction to Syntactic Analysis and Theory. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell. 
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