ECM verb

ECM verb

ECM, or Exceptional Case Marking is a concept of the Government and Binding (GB) theory of syntax in linguistics.


"Exception case marking" is a concept used in GB theory to analyze certain atypical verbs. Verbs in English which have been analyzed as involving ECM include "believe" and "prove", as in:

*We believe him to be innocent
*The DA proved her to be guilty

This construction is traditionally referred to as accusativus cum infinitivo in the context of Latin grammar.

Under the GB analysis, the boldface portion in these each of these examples, including an accusative noun phrase (NP) and an infinitive verb phrase (VP), forms a syntactic constituent, classifiedas an inflection phrase (IP). The verb is capable of granting accusative case to the NP (analyzed as the specifier of the IP) without the aid of a visible complementizer. According to GB theory, ECM verbs must take an IP-complement; otherwise the overt NP ("him" or "her" in the examples above) would not be assigned any case, which would violate the so-called Case Filter (which states that all overt NPs must have a case). The head I ('to') in the subordinate clause has a [-Tns] feature which cannot assign the case. If the IP were embedded in a complementizer phrase (CP), this would block case assignment; thus ECM verbs are analyzed as taking an IP-complement.

ECM verbs are often studied in the context of control verbs and raising verbs, as all three types of verbs involve relations between the argument of a verb in a main clause and the verb of what is analyzed as an embedded clause. What makes ECM verbs different is that there is no thematic relation assiged by the verb in the main clause to the argument that receives accusative case ("him" and "her" in the examples above). Because there is no thematic relation between the main verb and the subject of the embedded clause, the assignment of the accusative case is unexpected under GB theory. For this reason, this phenomemon is called exceptional case marking.

ECM verbs in Minimalism

Chomsky (1993) reanalyzed earlier interpretations of exceptional case marking in his Minimalist Program. He argues that in such sentences as "John believed Mary to have been nominated" there is a covert movement of the NP "Mary" to the specifier position of the matrix VP, where "Mary" gets accusative case:

[IP John [VP Mary believed [IP t to have been nominated]

Note that this is a covert movement; in other words, it takes place at LF , thus it is invisible to Phonetic Form (for detailed discussion see Lasnik et al., 2005)

Alternative analysis

The motivation for the analysis of the accusative NP and the infinitive VP as forming a constituent relies heavily on assumptions internal to GB and Minimalist theory which are not widely accepted outside these contexts. For instance, in standard HPSG theory, a verb such as "believe" is analyzed as having one subcategorization frame which requires an accusative NP and an infinitive VP, with the additional constraint that the NP must be construed as the semantic subject of the VP:

*We believe [NP him] [VP to be innocent]

Under this analysis, there's nothing "exceptional" about the case marking; it is instead the assignment of the thematic role that departs from the more widespread pattern.

Empirical evidence for this alternative analysis is summarized in Pollard and Sag (1994).


ee also

*Control verb
*Raising verb
*Small clause

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