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This paper offers new evidence for covert focus movement in two areas of Chinese syntax, concerning A’-extraction and the distribution of anaphoric definite bare nouns. A left-right asymmetry in Mandarin topic and relative structures has long been observed (since Huang in Linguistic Inquiry 15: 531–574, 1984) whereby apparent extraction from an island is possible if the island occurs as a subject or fronted object, but not if it occurs postverbally. The definite interpretation of a bare noun exhibits a similar asymmetry (Jenks in Linguistic Inquiry 49:501–536, 2018): a bare noun may have anaphoric definite interpretation if occurring as a subject or topic, but not as a postverbal object. In both patterns, the occurrence of focus may exceptionally cancel the asymmetry, allowing extraction from a postverbal island and the anaphoric definite interpretation of a postverbal bare noun. We argue that these patterns of exception are explained if the phrases associated with focus undergo covert movement in LF.

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  • 06 May 2024

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  1. The name was suggested in Higginbotham (1980). Various alternative formulations of the LP have been suggested since Chomsky (1976), with Bianchi (2001) being likely the most adequate to date. There have been various attempts to replace the principle with the stronger version that a variable must c-command a pronoun in order for the pronoun to be interpreted as a bound variable, but Barker (2012) has collected substantial convincing evidence that this stronger requirement is not necessary.

  2. Although the original formulations of the generalizations and arguments in support of the movement approach have been subjected to criticisms and revisions, some versions of the covert movement hypothesis continue to play a role in current research. See Wagner (2006), Erlewine and Kotek (2014), Lu et al. (2020), among others, though it is fair to say that the debate still goes on continually. In some works, the overt-covert movement difference has been formulated in Chomsky’s (1995) copy-theory terms, according to which all languages have overt copying of wh-phrases but differ in which copy (the head or the tail) gets deleted in PF. We do not go into details of such different versions of the same idea that all QNPs evoke operator-variable configurations but ‘externalize’ them in different ways in the sense of Chomsky’s view that the faculty of language has a very simple structure along guidelines of the strong minimalist thesis (SMT), a ‘miracle creed’ that has proven productive in theoretical investigations (Chomsky 2023).

  3. Erlewine and Kotek (2018) offers additional arguments for focus association by movement from the behavior of so-called Tanglewood sentences (Kratzer 1991). But see Bassi and Longenbaugh (2020) for a different conclusion.

  4. Abbreviations used in the glosses: perf = the perfective or perfect le; de = prenominal modifier marker de; dur = durative aspect; exp = experiential aspect; cl = classifier.

  5. The occurrence of the (a) and (c) examples has led some earlier researchers to call into question the supposed validity of Subjacency and other principles of bounding. Such a view was faced with the need to rule out the ill-formed (b) examples involving a postverbal island, and to explain the asymmetry and the Chinese-English differences.

  6. In an example like (i) the object gap could not be merged as pro taking the topic as its antecedent since this would violate the minimal distance requirement:





    mei-ge ren



    xihuan [e]










    ‘Zhangsan, I know that everyone likes [him].’

    Its grammaticality indicates that the movement route, subject to standard island constraints, must also be available in Mandarin.

  7. The discussion of the following sentences and of Zhang’s (2009) observation of the relevance of information structure overlaps with a part of Huang and Yang (2024), which compares the patterns of topic drop and pro drop. We have repeated the relevant description so as to make this section more self-contained.

  8. Zhang’s article is published in Chinese, and here we shall summarize his points by free translation of the relevant parts of his article. Besides elements carrying identificational focus, Zhang also pointed out that other factors contribute to the ‘activation’ that facilitates the connection between the extraction target and extraction site.

  9. (28a) is our own example, provided here to show a full range of possibilities.

  10. As pointed out by Reviewer 1, a question arises as to how DP3 technically combines with zhi in the process. Details aside, we shall take zhi as an adverbial adjunct (a traditional view), adjoined to vP and c-commanding the relevant phrase that is in focus, i.e., DP3, which moves to it to form an only-DP. (An alternative is to take it as a specifier of some FP above vP, as in (11) above.) The resultant only-DP then moves as a QNP and adjoins to TP as an instance of QR. This means that the adverb somehow turns adjectival at this point. The distribution of an overt only-DP (e.g. zhiyou or zhishi na-ge ren ‘only that person’) is strictly limited to preverbal positions, and this parallels the distribution of negative DPs (e.g., meiyou ren ‘nobody’) in Mandarin. Following Christensen’s (1986) treatment of Norwegian ingen ‘nobody’, Huang (2002) proposes that Chinese negative NPs are formed post-syntactically, when (adverbial) negation is immediately followed by an indefinite nominal (recalling early work by Edward Klima on the origin of English negative quantifiers, not anybodynobody). That hypothesis would hold for overt only-NPs in the same way it does for overt negative NPs. The process of moving DP3 to zhi is thus the covert counterpart of this post-syntactic process that creates a suitable candidate for QR. This last aspect of the analysis, though at variance with some recent works (e.g., Sun 2021; Hole 2022), is inconsequential to our main theme, so we shall not discuss it further.

  11. In the examples under consideration, we assume that the postverbal noun phrase (with a pro subject) is the noun phrase in focus that ‘agrees’ with zhi ‘only’. Sometimes, what is focalized may be some other constituent, e.g., the verb. In the following example, the verb following zhi is focalized as marked by heavy stress:







    [proi mingzi],













    ‘That student, I only heard of his name, but did not write it down.’

    If only the verb undergoes movement, the structure will not allow the object to be interpreted as ‘that student’s name.’ Yet, at least for some speakers, this reading is still available while, for us, it is weaker than when the object is stressed. We thank Reviewer 2 for pointing this out and for the suggestion that, in cases like (i), Focus movement must be able to pied-pipe the entire VP including the verb and its object.

  12. The appearance of dou ‘all’ in (28d) and henduo ‘many’ in (27d) clearly facilitates a quantificational reading that triggers QR, explaining the higher acceptability of these examples.

  13. It has been observed that the generic verb xihuan ‘like’ (e.g. in (36)) may independently favor the generic, non-anaphoric reading, thus ruling out the anaphoric reading in (36a). Yet in other examples below with non-generic, episodic verbs, the pattern remains.

  14. In Saito’s words, in examples like (45)-(46), to embeds a paraphrase of a direct discourse. We surmise that when a wh-clause is directly embedded under to, it denotes the ‘answerhood’ to the question that the clause otherwise conveys. This reminds us of Karttunen’s (1977) well-known example It is surprising who won the game. See Dayal (2016) for a detailed discussion of answerhood semantics.


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One part of this paper originated quite early, in our joint presentation at the 2013 LSA Annual Meeting in Boston and at TEAL-8 at Tsing Hua University in the same year. The paper has undergone substantial development since then, resulting in presentations at the TEAL-12 conference at the University of Macau in 2019, as well as NACCL-22 at the University of Connecticut in 2020. We are grateful to the many people whose comments and questions at various points helped clarify important parts of the paper, including Henry Chang, Chris Hsieh, Nick Huang, Min-Joo Kim, Luther Liu, Shigeru Miyagawa, Dylan Tsai, Changsong Wang, Niina Zhang. Mingming Liu, who pointed out the relevant facts concerning the distribution of anaphoric definite bare nouns and Jenks’s (2018) discussion, deserves a special word of thanks for the development of the second argument for focus movement. Zhuo Chen’s detailed comments on our NACLL-22 handout were very helpful too, though we may not have written a version that meets all her expectations. Finally, we are grateful to the two anonymous reviewers who read the paper as first submitted to JEAL. As noted in several points above, the reviewers’ remarks and suggestions were positively helpful in bringing about a better and stronger version of this paper than it would otherwise have been. During the final stage of the paper’s completion, one of the authors (Huang) was supported by a Yushan Fellowship of the Ministry of Education and a visiting professorship at National Taiwan Normal University. The second author (Yang) was supported by grants from the National Science and Technology Council, Taiwan (NSTC 112-2410-H-239-001).

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Huang, CT.J., Yang, B.CY. Locality, focus and covert movement. J East Asian Linguist (2024).

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