In most theories of grammar, sentences can be broken into smaller chunks called phrases and these phrases can be broken into smaller chunks, smaller phrases still. So in the sentence:

  • He is happy.

We see two phrases, a noun phrase he functioning as Subject, and a verb phrase is happy functioning as Predicate:

  • [He] [is happy]

I am wondering, however, what the verb phrase/predicate is in the sentence:

  • Is he happy?

This sentence does not divide easily into two straightforward chunks.

The plethora of references regarding syntactic (as opposed to semantic) Predicates, and the enormous online literature on verb phrases (VP's) seems to ignore cases where the auxiliary verb has been moved to a position before the Subject.

This is the situation in the example above. In such sentences, what is the structure of the verb phrase, and is the auxiliary verb still part of the verb phrase?

Is there a standard grammar of English which allows for discontinuous verb phrase Predicates?

  • 2
    Why do you say moved? It is simply an interrogative, as opposed to a declarative or imperative or exclamatory sentence, or with those functions....And why do you call it an auxiliary verb? It is only verb. be there is copulative.
    – Lambie
    Apr 19, 2018 at 19:14
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    @Lambie: In the context of English, the word "auxiliary" may be defined as referring to words with certain special properties, regardless of whether they are used alongside a "main verb" or not.
    – herisson
    Apr 19, 2018 at 19:19
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    "Be" is always an auxiliary verb, even when it's the only verb in the sentence, copular clauses or otherwise.
    – BillJ
    Apr 19, 2018 at 20:13
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    Ooh, you do enjoy setting the cat among the pigeons! Apr 19, 2018 at 20:27
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    @BillJ's absolutely right, as far as the syntax is concerned. No matter what the construction, be always acts like an auxiliary verb. As far as the original question is concerned, nobody ever expects constituent labels to survive transformations. In the transformed question, the node marked VP is reduced to the NP my friend; whether you want to prune that VP to an NP is a matter between you and your confessor. And, as for "predicate", I'd say it was friend if I were limited to one word, or (λx)(Friend (x, me)) if I were allowed logical notation. Apr 19, 2018 at 21:14

4 Answers 4


The equivalent of

Is he happy?

for grammatical analysis purposes is

He is happy.

The subject is "He".

The predicate, or full verb phrase, is "is happy".

(Or is this discussion beyond that level of analysis?)

  • 1
    Yes, kinda. This Q basically assumes that everyone already agrees that "is happy" is the VP in the corresponding declarative :) Apr 19, 2018 at 23:19
  • Thanks for clarifying. A lot of the lingo in this thread is admittedly beyond me, so I got the feeling that it was very likely that I was missing the crux of the debate at all haha. Apr 19, 2018 at 23:27
  • The predicate is everything other than the subject. Inversions don't affect that. The subject's function is as a pointer to where the predicate will be stored.
    – AmI
    Apr 19, 2018 at 23:43
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    @Araucaria Can you edit your OQ to explicitly say that assumption? It's hard to tell as is.
    – Mitch
    Apr 20, 2018 at 18:03
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    @Mitch Now edited. Apr 22, 2018 at 11:30

Is he happy?

Here is a tree diagram showing how the elements are diagrammed. Note the function label of 'prenucleus' for the verb which is co-indexed to the predicator function represented by 'gap':

enter image description here

Thus the prenucleus "is" functions as part of predicate consisting of "is happy".

  • I think the brain moves the prenucleus to fill the gap (using trust=0 to identify it as a question). Would you state explicitly that this prenucleus is part of the predicate? {Trees classify surface structure -- I wish they continued and showed some deeper processing: crossovers, copies, antecedents, and elided determiners}
    – AmI
    Apr 20, 2018 at 0:14
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    Yes, I would say that. If you look carefully, you'll see that I've co-indexed with the i notation the prenucleus to GAP in predicator position in the VP. The predicate is thus "is happy".
    – BillJ
    Apr 20, 2018 at 6:13
  • @BillJ +1 Could you put the comment below your post into your post proper (or add in a quote from CamGEL), please? Apr 20, 2018 at 8:54
  • Sorry, @Araucaria do you mean AML's comment? The bit about the co-indexing is already in my tree.
    – BillJ
    Apr 20, 2018 at 13:52
  • I mean the bit where you say I would say that [this prenucleus is part of the predicate] and The predicate is thus "is happy. Just so it's nice and explicit :) Apr 20, 2018 at 14:19

The, by now, classic, old-fashioned Chomskyan method of analysis here would be that 'is (x) happy' is definitely the VP and predicate because it is a simple question-transformation from 'he is happy'. Since that doesn't seem to be convincing to you from the beginning, I attempt to give a non-transformational justification.

The idea of subject and predicate is all about how the elements of a statement map to logical expression. The predicate is the logical form with a variable and the subject is the instantiation of that variable.

Things like NP and VP are purely syntactic (Or as purely syntactic as they can get since the whole point of syntax is to determine what order or construction of elements imply about the semantic relations of those elements as compositionally as possible.

Must a logical statement implied by a particular utterance correspond directly to a contiguous sequence of words or phrases? Obviously not. Must a syntactic constituent, a node in a parse tree, correspond to a contiguous sequence? This depends on how you define constituent, but I think it is better to allow non-contiguous segments to be constituents, as that allows easier rules for formation.

These are words to describe parts of statements. A question is not a statement. It surely shares a lot with a statement, and in the situation you're describing is a straightforward syntactic transformation of a statement.

All this is to say that for "Is he happy?":

  • questions don't have predicates.
  • But that is too definitional. Whatever one might say about a question that corresponds to predicate, 'is' and 'happy' somehow together make up that thing corresponding to predicate.
  • syntactically, the VP, which happens in this case to correspond to the thing that corresponds to predicate, is 'is (x) happy'.

Whatever all this is, what do you get out of determining for this sentence what the predicate is? I think you get more out of determining what the VP is.

  • In most theories of syntax the term predicate is the grammatical relations label for the matrix clause VP. In such grammars, what is the VP and what is the predicate are basically the same question. (Though not if one is not using the term predicate solely as a grammatical relations label, admittedly.) Feb 11, 2021 at 22:59

The question simply employs a subject-verb inversion. Without the inversion it would be the declarative statement, "he is happy".

In that case, the predicate, stated as an infinitive, is "to be happy".

  • Miles off! Think again.
    – BillJ
    Apr 19, 2018 at 19:29
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    @BillJ, an explanation trumps an accusation.
    – Octopus
    Apr 19, 2018 at 19:31
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    The infinitive is: be happy.
    – Lambie
    Apr 19, 2018 at 20:08

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