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Lecture | Com(parative) Syn(tax Series

[POSTPONED] A new look at full, no and partial pro-drop

Thursday 26 March 2020
Drinks afterwards at Café de Keyser
Com(parative) Syn(tax) Series - 2019/2020
van Wijkplaats
Van Wijkplaats 2
2311 BX Leiden


A new look at full, no and partial pro drop
Olaf Koeneman & Hedde Zeijlstra
Some languages allow subjects to remain absent, whereas other languages do not:

a. (Lui) parl-a Italian
    I speak.1SG
    ‘I speak’
b. *(She) speak-s English

Setting aside so-called ‘radical pro drop’ languages for the moment (cf. Neeleman &
Szendrői 2007), there is a general consensus that rich agreement in some way plays an
important role. The devil is - as always - in the details. The 3SG -s in English is as informative
about the missing subject as the 3SG -a is in Italian, yet only Italian allows null subjects. A
common solution is to refer to the whole paradigm (Rizzi 1982, Jaeggli & Safir 1989, among
others): Italian allows null subjects because the paradigm as a whole is rich, and English is
poor overall, despite the “rich” affix in 3SG contexts.

Such a paradigmatic account faces two problems, one theoretical, one empirical.
Theoretically, a paradigm is epiphenomenal, has no status in the grammar and can therefore
not be consulted during the derivation. How, then, can we derive paradigm effects without
reference of the grammar to the paradigm? Empirically, the paradigmatic account fails in the
light of so-called ‘partial pro drop’ languages. In Bavarian and Frisian (to name two
examples), null subjects are possible but only in 2SG contexts. Here, reference to the whole
paradigm is apparently not at stake, which begs the question why it would be in English and

In this talk, we are going to look at full, no, and partial pro drop languages with the aim to
develop a theory that makes predictions about the distribution of these distinct language
types. A central claim will be that null subjects can only be licensed by an affix which
expresses the same agreement features as those of the missing subject. Although it is quite
standard to assume that an affix may not be underspecified with respect to the properties of
the null subject, we will argue that an affix may also not be overspecified, where pro drop is
effectively blocked if an affix spells out agreement and tense features at the same time.


  • Jaeggli, Osvaldo & Kenneth Safir (1989). The null-subject parameter and parametric theory. In: Jaeggli, Osvaldo & Kenneth Safir (eds.), The Null Subject Parameter. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1– 44.
  • Neeleman, Ad & Kriszta Szendrői (2007). Radical pro drop and the morphology of pronouns. Linguistic Inquiry, 38 (2007), 671–714.
  • Rizzi, Luigi (1982). Issues in Italian Syntax. Dordrecht: Foris.
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