The internal structure of English pronouns*
Phoevos Panagiotidis, University of Essex
Summary: The following points are to be argued for in this paper:|
1. Pronouns are not "dangling"
Ds without lexical complements
2. The locus of Gender is N
3. Lack of descriptive content of N
triggers pronominal interpretation
4. N features, when present, are not interpretable on Determiners
5. There seems to be a correlation between uninterpretability of N features and lack of lexically
6. In English, 1st and 2nd pronouns are Ds, 3rd person ones are N to D elements.
1. Brief overview of the literature
The major works on pronouns include Postal (1969), Abney (1987) and Cardinaletti & Starke (1994). Most
linguists , and linguistics textbooks too, are happy to go by Abney’s assumption that pronouns are Determiners,
albeit with the added clarification that they have no NP complement, unlike Determiners like articles
or, even, the rest of functional heads.|
In this paper I will try to show not only that this assumption
might be wrong, on the basis of empirical and theoretical grounds, but also that English pronouns do
not display a uniform categorial makeup.
Postal was the first to quite convincingly argue that pronouns - or rather: their surface forms - are
"articles" that take a noun like ‘one’ as a complement in Deep Structure. This noun is later deleted,
during the course of the derivation. Naturally, this is true only when pronouns are not complemented
by an overt noun phrase. Thus:|
(1) We linguists tend to be quite parsimonious
(2) We tend to be quite parsimonious
where whether this ‘we’ refers to linguists, bank managers
or butchers is ultimately a matter of pragmatic inference. In both (1) and (2) the pronominal form (we)
and its complement ("deleted" or not) stand for a whole phrase. In Postal’s terms, pronominal forms are
articles with either an overt or deleted noun phrase complement.
Abney recasts Postal’s proposal in terms of his DP hypothesis. Accordingly, pronouns are Determiners,
functional heads of the same category as articles and demonstratives. Thus, we linguists in example (1)
has essentially the same structure as both the linguists and these linguists.|
He argues (pp. 282-3)
that pronouns must be Determiners for two reasons:
1. They stand in complementary distribution with
articles and demonstratives.
2. Assuming that the locus of phi features and Case is Determiners (as
is claimed to be true in German) and not nouns, only pronouns are marked for objective Case and gender
in English .
As for constructions like (2), he claims them to be DPs consisting of a single D(eterminer)
head but, unlike Postal, with no empty NP as a complement. This is justified in terms of the fact that
pronouns are not R-expressions - have no descriptive content - and consistent with his view that puts
all the phi features on D: An NP projection would be both redundant (no features to carry) and undesirable
(would force a referential interpretation).
1.3. Cardinaletti (1994)
In what seems to be an earlier version of the theory put forward in Cardinaletti & Starke (1994), Cardinaletti
(1994) juxtaposes what she considers the two plausible derivations for (strong) pronouns and opts for
the second one that involves movement of N to D:|
(3) a. [DP [D pronoun] [NP [N e]]]
b. [DP [D pronoun] [NP [N t]]]
She argues that strong pronouns can not possibly be generated under
D, as structures like (4) are ungrammatical:
(4) * she calligrapher
2. English personal pronouns
It is interesting to look into the paradigm of pronouns in English as they present a range of properties
that both brings them together with the other Determiners but differentiates them at the same time -
compare (1) with (4). In this paper we will restrict our scope to personal pronouns only. As a first
step, I am going to attempt an answer to the following questions:|
(5) What is the reason for the
contrast between (1) and (4)?
(6) Why are both (1) and (2) available?
2.1. Pronouns and (other) Determiners
In order to answer the questions (5) and (6), it would be useful to consider the distributional peculiarities
of the definite article (7), demonstratives (8) and pronouns (9, 10), as they may provide us with clues
on their derivational history and feature makeup:|
a. The (skilled) calligrapher(s)
b. The (skilled) one(s)
c. The *(skilled)
(8) this/ these
a. This (skilled)
calligrapher/ These (skilled) calligraphers
b. This (skilled) one/ These (skilled) ones
c. This (*skilled)/ These (*skilled)
a. We (skilled) calligraphers
b. We *(skilled) ones
c. We (*skilled)
a. *She (skilled) calligrapher
b. *She (skilled) one
c. She (*skilled)
In (7-10) above different elements in D position
are tested for grammaticality with
a. a full nominal complement
b. a nominal complement headed
by "one" (which behaves quasi-pronominally in the sense that it does not have a fixed referent, although
it appears in N position)
c. No complement
What we see is that:
· 3rd person pronouns do
not tolerate complements or adjectives
· 1st and 2nd plural pronouns and demonstratives do not take
bare adjectives as complements but can stand alone (the reverse is true for the)
2.2. Third Person pronouns
As we have seen, he and she (10) do not tolerate any kind of complement. One could conjecture, staying
within the spirit of Abney’s ‘bare D’ proposals, that he and she need no complement as they are fully
specified for person, number, gender and case (recall that all grammatical features reside on D according
A first empirical problem would be the set in (9): we is as specified, save for one thing:
gender. Nevertheless, it can take a complement and, in Postal’s terms, act as an article.
restrictions on co-occurrence within DP, the presence of gender is a good diagnostic to test the categorial
status of 3rd person pronouns. In all languages that exhibit gender, this can usually be seen marked
morphologically on the noun and/ or it is related with semantic properties of the noun: animacy, sex
and so on. Moreover, there are not attested any languages with gender systems of a purely formal nature,
where the actual semantic properties of the nouns are completely irrelevant . What is more, there are
languages - Slavic ones for example - that have no overt articles, but still exhibit a rich gender system
involving agreement not only with adjectives but with verb forms, too . I think that all these facts
point to the direction that gender is not a property of Determiners, the same way it is not a property
of adjectives. In more technical terms: Gender features are not interpretable on either D or A, gender
can be marked there only as a result of agreement - where applicable . Following Chomsky (1995) we can
claim that Gender is intrinsic (i.e. lexically specified) on N.
So, how can we account for 3rd person
pronouns being marked for Gender?
A possible answer (and to (5) as well) is that he, she and it
are the only instances of overt N to D movement in English . Recall that this is exactly Cardinaletti’s
Now, this explains the ungrammaticality of (4) and (10), i.e. all those attempts of something
to occupy either D or N, as the former is filled with an empty Determiner and the adjoined nominal head
and the latter with this head’s copy/ trace.
As to what kind of denotation nominal heads he, she
and it have, the answer cannot be other than none. Actually, it is going to be argued extensively in
this paper that this null denotation of Ns involved in the derivation of pronouns is responsible for
their "pronominal" interpretation. In English, an example of a noun with no denotation - and thus a quasi-pronominal
status is "one". This indeed is the normal noun (as seen above) counterpart of those pronominal Ns.
2.2.1. Real 3-D, 3rd person pronouns that are Ds
Now, notice that a combination of a 3rd person pronominal Determiner with a complement phrase is not
inconceivable. To illustrate this point, we turn to a language with a phi system quite as impoverished
as the English one, Dutch , in order to demonstrate that nothing in the semantics of a 3rd person pronoun
prevents it from taking a restrictive complement, in other words: pronominality is an output of syntax,
not a primitive.|
Dutch is also interesting in the sense that it presents two series of 3rd person
pronouns. The first consists of ‘common gender’ hej (=he) and zij (=she) that pass (i.e. fail) all
the tests in (10); in other words they can only stand alone. The zero hypothesis here would be that they
are N to D elements, too.
Next to them the ‘neuter’ pronoun het exists in a league of its own. It
is a definite pronoun too and, of course, it can stand by itself. What is more, it can also take nominal
complements like normal Ds do. All these despite its utter impoverishment: it exists only in singular
and it is marked for the default gender: there is no special semantic specification on it (like, say,
‘demonstrative’) to ‘support’ its standing alone (eventually, it is used as an expletive ).
is too similar to both English the - compare (7) to (11b-c) - and we - compare (2) to (11a). I guess
it should come as no surprise that the interpretation it receives with a nominal complement is that of
a definite article.
(11) a. Het
b. Het (vreselijke) kind
the horrible child
c. Het nieuwe huis en het oude.
The new house and the old
Moreover, it would be plausible to claim that when het stands
by itself, it is in fact complemented by a phonologically null noun of null denotation equivalent to
English ‘one’. Again, we can claim that this is how the pronominal interpretation is triggered in C-I
systems: by the presence of a nominal head with no denotation.
The idea of a phonologically null counterpart
of ‘one’, which we can dub eN, should now be tested on question (6).
2.3. 1st and 2nd person pronouns- Plural
English pronouns of the 1st and 2nd person plural constitute the par excellence paradigm of the analysis
for pronouns as Determiners, since Postal (1969) ; nevertheless, an answer to the anything but trivial
question (6), why both we (skilled) calligraphers and we are available is desirable.|
detail, it is expected that the full NP that complements we in (1) is merged there in terms of feature
checking. More precisely, when we is merged with the NP (skilled) calligraphers, it locally checks features
contained in this phrase (I try to be quite vague at the moment). Merging may come for free but cannot
be gratuitous, otherwise, anything would merge with anything.
Now, in the case of (2), i.e. a we by
itself, the abneian story is that it is a dangling (aka "intransitive") Determiner hanging from a single-membered
DP. The problems are of both empirical and theoretical nature:
In which way is a we by itself
different from that in we linguists?
What happens to unchecked features when we stands by
Are there two homophonous lexical entries with different feature specifications?
D is a functional head. Abney (1987:285) has stipulated that "determiners may differ from other functional
elements in that determiners appear sometimes without complements". Why? Or even better: why only sometimes?
I believe that the postulation of an eN heading an NP complement is in the right direction
in answering these questions. Nevertheless, we should now see if there is something special with eN that
prevents it from co-occuring with adjectives when the head of the dominating DP is we or a demonstrative
2.4. N features
2.4.1. Generalising over the data
Let’s begin with a descriptive generalisation, based on the data from the ‘tests’ to which I submitted
different types of Determiners in (7-10). It turns out that|
(12) Determiners specified for number
do not take bare adjectives as complements.
There seems to be something non-trivial here. As is clear
in (7-10), Determiners specified for number, like we, this, these etc., although they cannot take an
adjective + eN as a complement, they can take full NP arguments - and this differentiates them from he,
she, it that do not take complements whatsoever. The can take adjective + eN as complements and this
is quite a productive process, too: it comprises the instances of nominalisation of adjectives.
think that here is where N features fit into our story. We postulate that N features, although categorial
are uninterpretable on Determiners and Adjectives and also that the is different from the rest of
Determiner heads because it does not bear an N feature at all, and this contrast will be invoked to
explain generalisation (12) .
Now as far as he, she and it and they are concerned, it is understood
that either on D or on N this categorial N feature must be strong, as it triggers overt movement. To
tell on which is not an easy task but, still, feasible assumptions can be drawn.
Recall that empty
Determiners head proper nouns in English, which contrasts it with languages like Italian (that usually
moves proper nouns overtly and adjoins them to this empty Determiner) or Modern Greek (that always inserts
an overt expletive Determiner) - as explained in Longobardi (1994). Let us go by the zero hypothesis
that it is the same empty determiner that he, she and it are adjoined to by Spell Out. This empty definite
Determiner cannot be strong then in English: it would trigger N to D with proper nouns, too. Then it
should be strength of the N feature of N that triggers overt movement .
As for eN itself, it would
be enough to assume that its N feature is uninterpretable at LF. Now, the same should be true for he,
she and it as well. Consequently, both eN and 3rd person pronominal Ns:
1. Cannot stand on their
own (this would incur a crash), without a Determiner. This seems to hold universally, the presence of
eN and other semantically empty nouns is correlated with definiteness, deixis and so on .
N features of both D and N (being uninterpretable) are eliminated by LF: Pronouns proper are just
a bunch of phi features at LF waiting for the C-I systems, outside the language module, to disambiguate
them. This also accommodates Abney’s objection to having nouns involved in pronouns, because pronouns
have no denotation: no categorial feature of a noun survives at LF.
The whole idea is illustrated
below in the context of the ungrammaticality of (9b):
N features are the only ones portrayed above. The problem causing the derivation to crash is with the
uninterpretable N feature of eN. In normal cases, it will raise covertly to D, where uninterpretable
N features are going to be matched, checked and eliminated. |
Now, in (13=9b) categorial N of eN can
raise only as far as A, as this is the closest potential attractor/ antecedent (in MLC and Relativized
Minimality terms respectively). This leaves the uninterpretable N feature of the Determiner unchecked
and the derivation crashes.
On the other hand, the, being unspecified for N does not face such problems
and that’s why it can be complemented by adjective + eN.
2.4.2. What about 1st and 2nd person singular pronouns?
So far the basic claim that underlies this paper has been that nominals without descriptive content are
the essence of pronominality. In other words, both the phonologically empty eN and he, she, it, they
(and their accusative counterparts, of course) do not have a fixed reference to objects of the real world
(are not R-expressions) as a result of their lexically encoded meaning and this meaning’s manipulation
through the grammatical component but - essentially - because they receive an interpretation beyond LF,
restrictions like Binding Principle B notwithstanding.|
What remains is to see what I and you (sing.)
are. The zero hypothesis is to assume that, like 1st and 2nd person pronouns in the plural, they involve
an overt Determiner - Person seems to be encoded on D universally. Recall also that 3rd person pronouns,
are instances of phonologically filled but semantically empty N heads raising to a D head because of
the strength of their N feature. Pronominal we and you (plural) -like demonstratives- involve covert
feature raising of eN to a filled D. On a par, I and you (sing.) could be like their plural counterparts.
Why then do singular Person pronouns not ‘tolerate’ a complement?
First of all, at least 2nd person
Determiners in languages as Dutch and German actually do take complements. Consider:
(14) *I linguist
resent linguistic discrimination
(15) *You linguist have proved that there exist no ‘superior’ languages
contrasted with German rough equivalents
(16) *Ich Sprächwissenschaftler kann nicht die sprachliche
I linguist can not the of-languages
(17) Du Sprächwissenschaftler hast es bewiesen, daß…
linguist have it proved that…
and Dutch ones:
(18) *Ik saaie
I boring linguist
(19) Jij saaie taalkundige leest alleen
You boring linguist read only
Recall that both Dutch and German display
an identical behaviour to English wrt to 3rd person and 1st and 2nd person plural pronouns.
observation towards understanding the full functionality of du and jij as 2nd person articles might be
that in both languages there are different forms for singular and plural 2nd person Determiners (du vs.
ihr and jij vs. jullie).
As for the 1st person, it must be first noted that restriction of the notion
of the ‘speaker’ is not inconceivable from a semantic point of view . Thus, " I as a university lecturer"
(20) I as a university lecturer demand that more money be put into Higher Education
involves restriction as the speaker here refers to himself/ herself fulfilling a particular kind of role.
The bottom line is that the unacceptability of (14) and (15) ‘feels’ syntactic and neither semantic nor
involving C-I systems.
What I can offer, as a conjecture, to explain the ungrammaticality of (14),
(16) and (18) is the following: perhaps it is the case that Determiners I and you (sing.) are not formally
specified for Number. In other words, they cannot have a NumP - a full fledged nominal phrase, in other
words - as a complement as they lack Number features and this would probably prevent the derivation from
This might fit in nicely with the contrast between (15) on one hand and (17) and (19)
on the other: du and jij are surely specified for Number and, consequently, can have NumP complements…
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