The VOS Puzzle


  • Nicholas Sobin The University of Texas at El Paso
  • S. Regina Zavala The University of Texas at El Paso



Spanish syntax, VOS word order, top-down derivation, pro


The subject (S) in Spanish sentences may appear post–verbally and even sentence–finally following an object (O). Further, in post–verbal SO/OS pairs, the first element asymmetrically c–commands the second element. Previous analyses of the VOS phenomenon encounter difficulties in accounting for this asymmetric c–command relation and/or for Case and subject–verb agreement involving the VOS subject. We argue here that these Spanish SO/OS pairs operate in parallel to English double–objects (Larson 1988). Based on the work of Phillips (1997) and others, we propose a top–down approach to sentence derivation which resolves the problems with VOS sentences encountered by other analyses and which obviates the need for devices such as pro to account for ‘pro–drop’ sentences.


Chesi, C. (2007). An introduction to phase-based minimalist grammars: Why move is top-down from left-to-right. Studies in Linguistics 1, pp. 49–90.

Chesi, C. (2015). On directionality of phrase structure building. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 44, pp. 65–89. DOI:

Chomsky, N. (2005). Three factors in language design. Linguistic Inquiry 36, pp. 1–22. DOI:

Chomsky, N. (2013). Problems of projection. Lingua 130, pp. 33–49. DOI:

Chomsky, N. (2015). Problems of projection: Extensions, in E. Di Domenico, C. Hamann & S. Matteini (eds.), Structures, strategies, and beyond: Studies in honour of Adriana Belletti. Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 1–16. DOI:

Fernández-Soriano, O. (1999). ‘Two types of impersonal sentences in Spanish: Locative and dative subjects’, Syntax 2(2), pp. 101–140. DOI:

Goodall, G. (2001). The EPP in Spanish, in W.D. Davies & S. Dubinsky (eds.), Objects and other Subjects. Dordrecht, Kluwer , pp. 193–223. DOI:

Jaeggli, O. (1982). Topics in Romance syntax. Amsterdam, John Benjamins. DOI:

Koopman, H. & D. Sportiche. (1991). The position of subjects. Lingua 85, pp. 211-285. DOI:

Larson, R. (1988). On the double–object construction. Linguistic Inquiry 19, pp. 335–391.

Leonetti, M. (2018). Two types of postverbal subject. Italian Journal of Linguistics 30.2, pp. 11–36.

Ordóñez, F. (1998). Post-verbal asymmetries in Spanish. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 16, pp. 313–346. DOI:

Phillips, C. (1996). Order & structure. PhD dissertation. Cambridge MA, MIT.

Phillips, C. (1997). Merge right: An approach to constituency conflicts. In B. Agbayani and S.-W. Tang (eds,), Proceedings of the 15th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics. Stanford (Cal.), CSLI Publications, pp. 381–395.

Rizzi, L. (1980). Negation, WH movement, and the Null Subject Parameter. ms., Universitá della Calabria, Cosenza, Italy.

Rizzi, L. (1982). Issues in Italian syntax. Berlin/Boston, de Gruyter Mouton. DOI:

Sheehan, M.(2010). ‘‘Free’ inversion in Romance and the Null Subject, in Parameter’, in Theresa Biberauer, Anders Holmberg, Ian Roberts &and Michelle Sheehan (eds.), Parametric Variation: Null Subjects in Minimalist Theory. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 231–262

Sobin, N. (2020). Directing syntactic traffic. Syntax 23, pp. 241–274. DOI:

Suñer, M. (1994). V-Movement and the licensing of argumental Wh-phrases in Spanish. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 12, pp. 335-372. DOI:

Teixeira, J. (2016). ‘Locative inversion and stage topics: A cross-linguistic study’. Discours: Revue de linguistique, psycholinguistique et informatique 19. DOI:

Torrego, E. (1984). On Inversion in Spanish and Some of its Effects. Linguistic Inquiry 15, pp. 103–129.

Zubizarreta, M.-L. (1998). Prosody, focus and word order. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Zubizarreta, M.-L. (1999). Las funciones informativas: tema y foco. In Ignacio Bosque & Violeta Demonte (eds.), Gramática descriptiva de la lengua española. Madrid, RAE, pp. 4215–4244




How to Cite

Sobin, N., & Zavala, S. R. (2021). The VOS Puzzle. Borealis – An International Journal of Hispanic Linguistics, 10(1), 131–144.