Dependent-marking language

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A language is dependent-marking if grammatical markers of agreement and case government between the words of phrases tend to appear more on dependents than on heads. The distinction between head-marking and dependent-marking was first explored by Johanna Nichols in 1986,[1] and has since become a central criterion in language typology, whereby languages are classified according to whether they are more head-marking or dependent-marking. Many languages employ both head and dependent-marking, some employ double-marking, and yet others employ zero-marking. However, it is not clear that the head of a clause has anything to do with the head of a noun phrase, or even what the head of a clause is.

Dependent-marking in English

English has few inflectional markers of agreement, which means it can be construed as zero-marking much of the time. Dependent-marking in English is visible, however, in a few constellations: when a singular/plural noun demands the singular/plural form of the demonstrative determiner this/these or that/those and when a verb or preposition demands the subject or object form of a personal pronoun, e.g. I/me, he/him, she/her, they/them, who/whom. The following representations of dependency grammar illustrate some of these constellations:[2]

Dependent marking 1

Plural nouns in English demand the plural form of a dependent demonstrative determiner, and prepositions demand the object form of a dependent personal pronoun.

Dependent-marking in German

Such instances of dependent-marking are a relatively rare occurrence in English; dependent-marking occurs much more frequently in related languages. In German, for instance, dependent-marking is present in most noun phrases. A noun marks its dependent determiner, e.g.

Dependent marking 2.1

The noun marks the dependent determiner in gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) and number (singular or plural). In other words, the gender and number of the noun determine the form of the determiner that must appear. Nouns in German also mark their dependent adjectives in gender and number, although the markings vary across determiners and adjectives. A head noun in German can also mark a dependent noun with the genitive case.

See also


  1. See Nichols (1986, 1992).
  2. Dependency grammar trees similar to the ones that appear here can be found en masse in Ágel et al. (2003/6).


  • Ágel, V., L. Eichinger, H.-W. Eroms, P. Hellwig, H. Heringer, and H. Lobin (eds.) 2003/6. Dependency and valency: An international handbook of contemporary research. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Nichols, J. 1986. Head-marking and dependent-marking grammar. Language 62, 1, 56-119.
  • Nichols, J. 1992. Linguistic diversity in space and time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.