In generative grammar and related frameworks, a node in a parse tree c-commands its sister node and all of its sister's descendants. In these frameworks, c-command plays a central role in defining and constraining operations such as syntactic movement, binding, and scope. Tanya Reinhart introduced c-command in 1976 as a key component of her theory of anaphora. The term is short for "constituent command".

Definitions and examplesEdit

Tree 1 (use to evaluate standard definition of c-command)

Standard DefinitionEdit

Common terms to represent the relationships between nodes are below (refer to the tree on the right):

  • M is a parent or mother to A and B.
  • A and B are children or daughters of M.
  • A and B are sisters.
  • M is a grandparent to C and D.[1]

The standard definition of c-command is based partly on the relationship of dominance: Node N1 dominates node N2 if N1 is above N2 in the tree and one can trace a path from N1 to N2 moving only downwards in the tree (never upwards); that is, if N1 is a parent, grandparent, etc. of N2. For a node (N1) to c-command another node (N2) the parent of N1 must establish dominance over N2.

Based upon this definition of dominance, node N1 c-commands node N2 if and only if:

  • Node N1 does not dominate N2,
  • N2 does not dominate N1, and
  • The first (i.e. lowest) branching node that dominates N1 also dominates N2.[2]

For example, according to the standard definition, in the tree at the right,

  • M does not c-command any node because it dominates all other nodes.
  • A c-commands B, C, D, E, F, and G.
  • B c-commands A.
  • C c-commands D, F, and G.
  • D c-commands C and E.
  • E does not c-command any node because it does not have a sister node or any daughter nodes.
  • F c-commands G.
  • G c-commands F.

If node A c-commands node B, and B also c-commands A, it can be said that A symmetrically c-commands B. If A c-commands B but B does not c-command A, then A asymmetrically c-commands B. The notion of asymmetric c-command plays a major role in Richard Kayne's theory of Antisymmetry.

Reinhart's DefinitionEdit

Tree 2: used to evaluate Reinhart's definition of c-command (Note: X2 over X1 is equivalent to X' over X)

Reinhart's definition, one of the earlier definitions on this concept, is based partly on the relation of immediate dominance: Node N1 immediately dominates node N2 if N1 is above N2 in the tree and there is no node in between N1 and N2; that is N1 dominates N2 and there is no node dominating N2 that does not dominate N1 because there is no other node between N1 and N2.[3]

Based upon this definition of immediate dominance, node N1 c-commands node N2 if and only if the branching node X1, immediately dominating N1, either:

  • Dominates N2 , or
  • Is immediately dominated by node X2 which dominates N2 (where X1 and X2 are of the same category)[4]

According to Reinhart's definition, a node can c-command itself, sister nodes can c-command each other, and c-command relations involving X’ over X (as in X-bar Theory) can be represented. For example, according to Reinhart's definition, in the tree at the right,

  • Z does not c-command any node because there is no node immediately dominating it.
  • Y c-commands Y, X2, W, X1, V, U, T.
  • X2 c-commands Y, X2, W, X1, V, U, T.
  • W c-commands W, X1, V, U, T.
  • X1 c-commands W, X1, V, U, T.
  • V does not c-command any node because W, immediately dominating V, is not a branching node.
  • U c-commands W, V, U, T.
  • T c-commands W, V, U, T.

A number of variations of the c-command relationship have been proposed, a prominent one being m-command, which is used in defining the notion of government.


The term c-command was introduced by Tanya Reinhart in her 1976 dissertation and is a shortened form of constituent command. Reinhart thanks Nick Clements for suggesting both the term and its abbreviation.[5] However, the concept Reinhart was developing was not new to syntax. Similar configurational notions had been circulating for more than a decade. In 1964, Klima defined a configurational relationship between nodes he labeled "in construction with". In addition, Langacker proposed a similar notion of "command" in 1969.

Criticism and alternativesEdit

The validity and importance of c-command for the theory of syntax is debated.[6] In most cases, c-command correlates with precedence (linear order); that is, if node A c-commands node B, it is usually the case that node A also precedes node B. Furthermore, basic S(V)O (subject-verb-object) word order in English correlates positively with a hierarchy of syntactic functions, subjects precede (and c-command) objects. Moreover, subjects typically precede objects in declarative sentences in English and related languages. Bruening (2014) argues that theories of syntax that build on c-command have misconstrued the importance of precedence and/or the hierarchy of grammatical functions (i.e. the grammatical function of subject versus object). He concludes that what c-command is intended to address is more accurately analyzed in terms of precedence and grammatical functions. Further, the c-command concept was developed primarily on the basis of syntactic phenomena of English, a language with relatively strict word order. When confronted with the much freer word order of many other languages, the insights provided by c-command are less compelling, since linear order becomes less important.

As just suggested, the phenomena that c-command is intended to address may be more plausibly examined in terms of linear order and a hierarchy of syntactic functions. Concerning the latter, some theories of syntax take a hierarchy of syntactic functions to be primitive. This is true of Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG),[7] Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG),[8] and dependency grammars (DGs).[9] The hierarchy of syntactic functions that these frameworks posit is usually something like the following: SUBJECT > FIRST OBJECT > SECOND OBJECT > OBLIQUE OBJECT. Numerous mechanisms of syntax are then addressed in terms of this hierarchy.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Terms to represent the relationships between nodes is taken from Sportiche et al. (2014;2013, p. 24)
  2. ^ The definition of c-command given here is taken from Haegeman (1994:147). The same or similar definitions of c-command can be found in numerous textbooks on syntax, e.g. Radford (2004:75) and Carnie (2013:127).
  3. ^ Definition of immediate dominance is taken from Sportiche et al. (2014;2013, p. 120)
  4. ^ Definition of c-command is taken from Reinhart (1981, p. 612)
  5. ^ Carnie (2002:57) mentions this point, i.e. that Reinhart thanked Clements for suggesting the term c-command. The term c-command may also have been chosen so as to contrast with the similar notion kommand (often read as "k-command"), proposed by Lasnik (1976). See Keshet (2004) in this regard.
  6. ^ See for instance Bruening's article in Language (2014). This article challenges the validity of c-command on more than one front.
  7. ^ HPSG addresses the c-command effects in terms of o-command (obliqueness command). The syntactic functions are ranked in terms of their level of "obliqueness", subjects being the least oblique of all the functions. See Pollard and Sag (1994:248) and Levine and Hukari (2006:278f.).
  8. ^ LFG addresses the c-command effects in terms of a straightforward ranking of syntactic functions associated with f-structure (functional structure). See Bresnan (2001:198).
  9. ^ Concerning DGs emphasis on the importance of syntactic functions, see for instance Mel'c̆uk (1988:22, 69).


  • Barker, C. (2012). Quantificational Binding Does Not Require C-command. Linguistic Inquiry, (pp. 614–633). MIT Press.
  • Boeckx, C. (1999). Conflicting C‐command requirements. Studia Linguistica, 53(3), 227–250.
  • Bresnan, J. (2001). Lexical functional syntax. Blackwell.
  • Bruening, B. (2014). Precede-and-command revisited. Language, 90(1), 342–388.
  • Carnie, A. (2002). Syntax: A generative introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Carnie, A. (2013). Syntax: A generative introduction, 3rd edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
  • Cho, K. (2019). Two Different C-commands in Intra-Argument Structures and Inter-Argument Structures: Focus on Binding Principles B and A. British American Studies (pp. 79–100). Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
  • Chomsky, N. (1995). "The Minimalist Program". MIT Press.
  • Frawley, W. (2003). C-command. "International Encyclopedia of Linguistics".
  • Haegeman, L. (1994). Introduction to Government and Binding Theory, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Kayne, R. (1994). The antisymmetry of syntax. Linguistic Inquiry Monograph Twenty-Five. MIT Press.
  • Keshet, E. (2004-05-20). "24.952 Syntax Squib". MIT.
  • Klima, E. S. (1964). Negation in English. In J. A. Fodor and J. J. Katz (eds.), The structure of language: Readings in the philosophy of Language (pp. 246– 323). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
  • Langacker, R. W. (1969). On pronominalization and the chain of command. In D. A. Reibel and S. A. Schane (eds), Modern studies in English: Readings in transformational grammar(pp. 160–186). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
  • Lasnik, H. (1976). Remarks on coreference. Linguistic Analysis 2, 1-22.
  • Levine, R. and Hukari, T. (2006). The unity of unbounded dependency constructions. Stanford, Calif.: CSLI Publications.
  • Pollard, C. and Sag, I. (1994). Head-driven phrase structure grammar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Radford, A. (2004). English syntax: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Reinhart, T. (1976). The syntactic domain of anaphora. Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Available online at http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/16400).
  • Reinhart, T. (1981). Definite NP anaphora and C-command domains. Linguistic Inquiry, 12(4), 605–635.
  • Reinhart, T. (1983). Anaphora and semantic interpretation. London: Croom Helm.
  • Reuland, E. (2007). Binding Theory. In M. Everaert and H. van Riemsdijk (eds.), The Blackwell companion to syntax, ch.9. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Sportiche, D., Koopman, H. J., and Stabler, E. P. (2013; 2014). An introduction to syntactic analysis and theory. Hoboken: John Wiley.

External linksEdit

  • c-command and pronouns
  • Node relations, University of Pennsylvania
  • Some Basic Concepts in Government and Binding Theory
  • Isac, Daniela; Charles Reiss (2013). I-language: An Introduction to Linguistics as Cognitive Science, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-953420-3.