Endocentric and exocentric

For the types of virtual reality user interfaces, see Endocentric environment and Exocentric environment.

In theoretical linguistics, a distinction is made between endocentric and exocentric constructions. A grammatical construction (e.g. a phrase or compound word) is said to be endocentric if it fulfills the same linguistic function as one of its parts, and exocentric if it does not.[1] The distinction reaches back at least to Bloomfield's work of the 1930s.[2] Such a distinction is possible only in phrase structure grammars (constituency grammars), since in dependency grammars all constructions are necessarily endocentric.[3]

Endocentric construction

An endocentric construction consists of an obligatory head and one or more dependents, whose presence serves to narrow the meaning of the head. For example:

big house - Noun phrase (NP)
sing songs - Verb phrase (VP)
very long - Adjective phrase (AP)

These phrases are indisputably endocentric. They are endocentric because the one word in each case carries the bulk of the semantic content and determines the grammatical category to which the whole constituent will be assigned. The phrase big house is a noun phrase in line with its part house, which is a noun. Similarly, sing songs is a verb phrase in line with its part sing, which is a verb. The same is true of very long; it is an adjective phrase in line with its part long, which is an adjective. In more formal terms, the distribution of an endocentric construction is functionally equivalent, or approaching equivalence, to one of its parts, which serves as the center, or head, of the whole. An endocentric construction is also known as a headed construction, where the head is contained "inside" the construction.

Exocentric construction

An exocentric construction consists of two or more parts, whereby the one or the other of the parts cannot be viewed as providing the bulk of the semantic content of the whole. Further, the syntactic distribution of the whole cannot be viewed as being determined by the one or the other of the parts. The classic instance of an exocentric construction is the sentence (in a phrase structure grammar).[4] The traditional binary division[5] of the sentence (S) into a subject noun phrase (NP) and a predicate verb phrase (VP) was exocentric:

Hannibal destroyed Rome. - Sentence (S)

Since the whole is unlike either of its parts, it is exocentric. In other words, since the whole is neither a noun (N) like Hannibal nor a verb phrase (VP) like destroyed Rome but rather a sentence (S), it is exocentric. With the advent of X-bar Theory in Transformational Grammar in the 1970s, this traditional exocentric division was largely abandoned and replaced by an endocentric analysis, whereby the sentence is viewed as an inflection phrase (IP), which is essentially a projection of the verb (a fact that makes the sentence a big VP in a sense). Thus with the advent of X-bar Theory, the endocentric vs. exocentric distinction started to become less important in the theory of syntax, for without the concept of exocentricity, the notion of endocentricity was becoming vacuous. In theories of morphology however, the distinction remains, since certain compounds seem to require an exocentric analysis, e.g. have-not in Bill is a have-not. For a class of compounds described as exocentric, see bahuvrihi.

The distinction in dependency grammars

The endo- vs. exocentric distinction is possible in phrase structure grammars (= constituency grammars), since they are constituency-based. The distinction is hardly present in dependency grammars, since they are dependency-based. In other words, dependency-based structures are necessarily endocentric, i.e. they are necessarily headed structures. Dependency grammars by definition were much less capable of acknowledging the types of divisions that constituency enables. Acknowledging exocentric structure necessitates that one posit more nodes in the syntactic (or morphological) structure than one has actual words or morphs in the phrase or sentence at hand. What this means is that a significant tradition in the study of syntax and grammar has been incapable from the start of acknowledging the endo- vs. exocentric distinction, a fact that has generated confusion about what should count as an endo- or exocentric structure.

Representing endo- and exocentric structures

Theories of syntax (and morphology) represent endocentric and exocentric structures using tree diagrams and specific labeling conventions. The distinction is illustrated here using the following trees. The first three trees show the distinction in a constituency-based grammar, and the second two trees show the same structures in a dependency-based grammar:

The upper two trees on the left are endocentric since each time, one of the parts, i.e. the head, projects its category status up to the mother node. The upper tree on the right, in contrast, is exocentric, because neither of the parts projects its category status up to the mother node; Z is a category distinct from X or Y. The two dependency trees show the manner in which dependency-based structures are inherently endocentric. Since the number of nodes in the tree structure is necessarily equal to the number of elements (e.g. words) in the string, there is no way to assign the whole (i.e. XY) a category status that is distinct from both X and Y.

Traditional phrase structure trees are mostly endocentric, although the initial binary division of the clause is exocentric (S → NP VP), as mentioned above, e.g.

This tree structure contains four divisions, whereby only one of these division is exocentric (the highest one). The other three divisions are endocentric because the mother node has the same basic category status as one of its daughters. The one exocentric division disappears in the corresponding dependency tree:

Dependency positions the finite verb as the root of the entire tree, which means the initial exocentric division is impossible. This tree is entirely endocentric.

A note about coordinate structures

While exocentric structures have largely disappeared from most theoretical analyses of standard sentence structure, many theories of syntax still assume (something like) exocentric divisions for coordinate structures, e.g.

[Sam] and [Larry] arrived.
She [laughed] and [cried].
[Should I] or [should I not] go to that conference?

The brackets each time mark the conjuncts of a coordinate structure, whereby this coordinate structure includes the material appearing between the left-most bracket and the right-most bracket; the coordinator is positioned between the conjuncts. Coordinate structures like these do not lend themselves to an endocentric analysis in any clear way, nor to an exocentric analysis. One might argue that the coordinator is the head of the coordinate structure, which would make it endocentric. This argument would have to ignore the numerous occurrences of coordinate structures that lack a coordinator (asyndeton), however. One might therefore argue instead that coordinate structures like these are multi-headed, each conjunct being or containing a head. The difficulty with this argument, however, is that the traditional endocentric vs. exocentric distinction did not foresee the existence of multi-headed structures, which means that it did not provide a guideline for deciding whether a multi-headed structure should be viewed as endo- or exocentric. Coordinate structures thus remain a problem area for the endo- vs. exocentric distinction in general.


  1. Matthews (1981:147) provides an insightful discussion of the endo- vs. exocentric distinction. See Falk (2001:43ff., 49ff.) as well.
  2. See Bloomfield (1933).
  3. Concerning the lack of exocentric structures in dependency grammar, see Osborne et al. (2011:325).
  4. Concerning the status of S as an exocentric construction, see Emonds (1976:15).
  5. See for example Chomsky (1957).


See also

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