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In syntax, the head of a phrase is the word that determines the major distributional properties of the phrase. The other elements of the phrase are commonly called dependents.

The notion has been introduced into morphology by Williams (1981a) to account for the fact that a complex word shares most, if not all, properties with one of its constituents. The constituent that determines the properties of the complex word as a whole is called the head of that word. The head of a word is either the rightmost or the leftmost morpheme of a word. This generalization lies at the heart of the so-called Righthand Head Rule.


the English word withstand is a strong verb just like stand. Hence, stand is the head of the complex word withstand. Also see relativized head, and Relativized Righthand Head Rule.

The head of a noun phrase is the noun (e.g. book in the thick new book lying on the table), the verb of the verb phrase (e.g. give in give me that pen), and so on.


See head vs. dependent.


The term head has been unchallenged in English at least since Bloomfield (1933:195). The German and French equivalents (Kopf, tête) have become current in the 1980s, especially in Generative syntax.


  • Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. London: Allen & Unwin.
  • Di Sciullo, A. M. and E. Williams 1987. On the Definition of Word, MIT-press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Spencer, A. 1991. Morphological Theory, Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Williams, E. 1981a. On the notions 'Lexically Related' and 'Head of a Word', Linguistic Inquiry 12, pp. 245-274


other languages

German Kopf

Danish kerne