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On head movement and the verbal identity condition in ellipsis

  • Vera Gribanova (Stanford University)
Wednesday 14 December 2016
Matthias de Vrieshof
Matthias de Vrieshof 2
2311 BZ Leiden


In this talk I present recent developments in our understanding of the mechanisms that yield head movement configurations (Gribanova and Harizanov, in progress) and use these developments to explain otherwise mysterious contrasts involving the verbal identity condition in verb-stranding ellipsis (VSE) across languages. Such configurations involve verb movement out of an ellipsis domain that is TP/AspP/vP sized (depending on the language).

Although constituent ellipsis typically requires identity of the elided constituent with respect to some linguistic antecedent, phrasal extraction is special: when there is phrasal movement out of an ellipsis site (1), the extracted element need not match its antecedent:

1. I know how many cats John owns <how many cats>, but not how many dogs [he owns <how many dogs>].

The usual way of understanding this observation is that the extraction leaves a variable in the base position, and variables are considered identical for the purposes of the licensing condition on ellipsis (Rooth 1992, Heim 1997, Merchant 2001).

Early work on VSE in Irish (McCloskey 2012, 2011) and Hebrew (Goldberg, 2005a,b) demonstrated the verb, when head-moved out of an elided constituent, behaves unlike the phrasal cases in (1), never permitting any sort of mismatch with its antecedent. This gave rise to the Verbal Identity Condition, stated in (2):

2. The Verbal Identity Condition:
The licensing condition on ellipsis requires identity between parts of the morphosyntactic (verbal) complex that originate inside the ellipsis site and the corresponding antecedent parts.

This observation, in turn, has been used to support the idea that head movement is postsyntactic (Schoorlemmer and Temmerman, 2012): if the parts of the verbal complex unify postsyntactically, they will be inside the ellipsis site in the narrow syntax and at the time of ellipsis licensing, necessitating a strict matching between those parts and the antecedent. On this view, as far as the syntax is concerned, there is no movement and therefore no possibility for mismatch, explaining the contrast with genuine syntactic phrasal movement in (1).

The more we learn about VSE crosslinguistically, however, the more it becomes apparent that the VIC is not a universal property of these constructions. In languages like Russian (Gribanova 2013, To appear), Hungarian (Lipták 2013), European Portuguese (Santos 2009), and Swahili (Ngoyani 1996), the stranded verb in VSE need not match its antecedent, if the two involve contrast. A Russian example is provided in (3):

3. Violations of the VIC with contrasting verbs:
a.Našel                li  Paša knigu          v   biblioteke,       i        žurnal                 v   stolovoj?
find.PST.SG.M  Q Paša book.ACC   in library.PREP  and  magazine.ACC   in cafeteria.PREP
'Did Pasha find a book in the library and magazine in the cafeteria?'

b. Net, ne      našel,                    a      poterjal.
No,  NEG   find.PST.SG.M, but lose.PST.SG.M
No, he didn't find (...), he lost (...).'

c. Našel,              no   potom poterjal
find.PST.SG.M  but then     lose.PST.SG.M
'He did (...), but then he lost (...)'

Such patterns lead to a paradox: on the one hand, the absolute application of the VIC in languages like Hebrew and Irish points to a postsyntactic status for head movement. On the other hand, the ability to mismatch verbs under contrast in languages like Russian suggests that head movement in such cases is acting more like the phrasal movement in (1) --- suggesting that it takes place in the narrow syntax.

I present a solution to this paradox that relies on a recent set of proposals by Gribanova and Harizanov (in progress). The core idea is that  the phenomena we attribute to ‘head movement’ can be bifurcated into two groups: i) post syntactic amalgamation of heads, which is morphophonologically driven, and ii) genuine syntactic movement, which yields word order permutations but not word formation. This view gives us a point of leverage to start thinking about the paradoxical VIC patterns, the idea being that mismatches in VSE are permitted when ‘head movement’ is syntactic, but not when it is postsyntactic. I present independently motivated analyses of Irish and Russian clause structure which support exactly this conclusion. Verb movement in Irish involves postsyntactic amalgamation only, predicting  that the VIC should always be observed. By contrast, head movement in Russian involves both the syntactic and the postsyntactic types, with the last movement step being syntactic and giving rise to the possibly of verbal mismatches like (3) in VSE.


Goldberg, Lotus. 2005a. On the identity requirement in VP ellipsis. Presented at the Identity in Ellipsis workshop at UC Berkeley.
Goldberg, Lotus. 2005b. Verb-stranding vp ellipsis: A cross-linguistic study. PhD diss, McGill University.
Gribanova, Vera. 2013. Verb-stranding verb phrase ellipsis and the structure of the Russian verbal complex. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 31 (1): 91–136.
Gribanova, Vera. To appear. Head movement and ellipsis in the expression of Russian polarity focus. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory.
Gribanova, Vera, and Boris Harizanov. In progress. Whither head movement? Stanford University.
Heim, Irene. 1997. Predicates or formulas? Evidence from ellipsis. In Proceedings from Semantics and Linguistic Theory VII, ed. Aaron Lawson, 197–221. Cornell, Ithaca: CLC Publications.
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McCloskey, James. 2012. Polarity, ellipsis and the limits of identity in Irish. Workshop on Ellipsis, Nanzan University. http://ohlone.ucsc.edu/~jim/PDF/nanzan-handout.pdf
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Schoorlemmer, Erik, and Tanja Temmerman. 2012. Head movement as a PF-phenomenon: evidence from identity under ellipsis. In Proceedings of the 29th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, eds. Jaehoon Choi, E. Alan Hogue, Jeffrey Punske, Deniz Tat, Jessamyn Schertz, and Alex Trueman, 232–240. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

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