I have a case in which the head of a noun phrase can be omitted.

the taller girl of the two girls

First of all, can I consider taller a new head or should I only notice that the head is omitted (when translated into another language, the translator still has to use an equivalent and he has to write some note). I have read in some book a researcher considers taller a new head but I forgot.

Secondly, is this possible if I remove the second noun girls so we have:

the taller of the two

Or may I delete only girls:

the taller girl of the two

If yes, either case above, there will be no head?

  • They do have heads, and it's nothing to do with ellipsis. In "The taller of the two girls", the adjective "taller" is a fused modifier-head. It serves as head and as modifier at the same time. We understand it to mean "taller girl". In "the taller of the two", "two" is a fused determiner-head.
    – BillJ
    Jul 30, 2017 at 18:29
  • Huddleston & Pullum's 'A Student's Introduction' is excellent. I can also particularly recommend the award-winning 'The Cambridge Grammar Of The English Language' (CGEL), by the same authors. There are a few references to it on the 'Net. Here's one: link In my opinion, the fused-head analysis is far better than anything X-Bar can come up with.
    – BillJ
    Aug 1, 2017 at 7:14

1 Answer 1


Part of this, the part about what can be omitted, is definitely an English grammar question. You can omit either or both of the nouns in this construct. So all of these are grammatical:

the taller girl of the two

the taller of the two girls

the taller of the two (NOTE: This one is grammatical only if the girls are a salient topic, meaning they have already been mentioned earlier in the sentence or paragraph.)

The rest is more of a linguistics question, but in most X-bar theories (ones that refer to Phrases with Heads), all of these structures would omit the head rather than promoting "taller" or "two" to be the heads of their phrases. In some frameworks, this may not be the case. One big topic in syntax today involves proposing alternatives to and derivatives of X-bar theories and arguing for why those alternatives may be better. For this reason there can't be an accepted, universal answer to the question of phrase heads and promotion because there's no one perfect theory that we can use to answer the question. It's possible that X-bar is wrong and "taller" and/or "two" do get promoted, or it's possible that phrases and heads aren't optimal strategies for syntactic analysis, but it's outside the scope of this question and this forum to analyze this any further.

  • I'll just add that when diagramming these sentences, some might choose to put a symbol in representing the absent head (to show where it WOULD go if it were present).
    – MAA
    Jul 30, 2017 at 16:05
  • Yes thanks! I'm not good with syntax here so if you have suggestions about depicting that, or a site/thread to link to instead, I'm open to suggestions. Jul 30, 2017 at 16:17
  • OP certainly needs to be made aware of the different approaches ('alternatives to and derivatives of X-bar theories') that exist (and the fact that more are doubtless going to exist); people often arrive on ELU assuming that everything is done and dusted (if not easy to fully understand). A link to an article examining some of these different approaches would be very useful. // Chomsky's famous 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously' is always claimed to be grammatical but usually claimed to be unacceptable as being nonsense. Isn't an uncontextualised 'the taller of the two' in the same camp? Jul 30, 2017 at 16:33
  • In "the taller of the two", the adjective "taller" is a fused modifier-head. It serves as head and as modifier at the same time. We understand it to mean "taller girl". In "the taller of the two", "two" is a fused determiner-head.
    – BillJ
    Jul 30, 2017 at 18:26
  • @BillJ the point is that this is just one view. It is not "correct" universally, merely correct within the framework in which you're analyzing syntax. In standard X-Bar theories these are headless with a "trace" element. Here's an example: books.google.com/… Jul 31, 2017 at 4:26

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