The PRO-wh connection in modal existential wh-constructions

An argument in favor of semantic control


Recent discussion of obligatory control in the literature mostly concentrates on the issue of which syntactic module (movement, agreement, etc.) is responsible for the establishment of the control relation. This paper looks at the issue of control from a higher order perspective. Abandoning the presupposition that control constituents denote propositions and that, therefore, control must be syntactic, I deliver an argument in favor of the property-type analysis of control constituents and, by transitivity, for a semantic resolution of the control relation. The argument comes from modal existential wh-constructions and in particular from a strong parallelism between obligatorily controlled PRO and wh-expressions. It is revealed that PRO and wh-words form a natural class, to the exclusion of all other types of nominal expressions. This is then turned into an argument of treating PRO (and wh-words) essentially as a logical lambda-operator, naturally leading to the property theory of control. In addition, the article contributes to our understanding of the syntax, semantics, and typology of modal existential wh-constructions. It is argued that at least one type of these constructions, what I call “control MECs”, is embedded (minimally) by a complex predicate BE+FOR which expresses the state of availability (BE) which makes it possible for someone to profit (FOR) from the event characterized by the modal existential wh-construction.

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  1. 1.

    Abbreviations used in glosses: 1 first person, 2 second person, 3 third person, acc accusative, cl clitic, dat dative, fut future, gen genitive, imprs impersonal, inf infinitive, instr instrumental, ms masculine, neg negation, nom nominative, nt neuter, pl plural, pst past, ptcp participle, sbj subjunctive, sg singular, refl reflexive (pronoun/morpheme). In syntactic notations, numerical subscripts track movement chains and letter subscripts track reference. In semantic notations, subscripts identify semantic type.

  2. 2.

    This “minimality-based” account of controller choice will converge here with a theta-role-based account (Jackendoff 1972; Chierchia 1984), since I will also assume a strict locality condition (or in fact one-to-one head-spec mapping) on so called theta role assignment.

  3. 3.

    Note that I use the term coreference in a non-technical sense, encompassing (accidental) coreference and binding.

  4. 4.

    For the first full-fledged analysis of control predicates along these lines, see Chierchia (1984). See also Sect. 5 of the present paper.

  5. 5.

    Wurmbrand (2002) is of a different opinion. She assumes a proposition analysis of (a subclass of) OC and at the same time a semantic resolution of the controller-PRO coreference. Unfortunately, she does not clarify what the “inherent semantic properties of the selecting (OC) verbs,” allegedly responsible for this coreference, should be.

  6. 6.

    A similar division can in principle be applied to the proposition approaches, though it is not really attested. In virtually all proposition approaches, the control constituent is a CP or a TP and the movement of PRO is not motivated by lambda-abstraction (though see Clark 1990 for a notable exception), but rather by some formal requirements, relating to government, Case-checking, or agreement.

  7. 7.

    The following implicational universal holds: If a language has the infinitive mood in its grammar, it uses it to form MECs. Languages with no infinitive mood typically use the subjunctive (or its functional counterpart) instead. No comparable implication holds for the subjunctive mood, i.e. in the class of languages which possess both the infinitive and the subjunctive, there are some which use the subjunctive in MECs productively (e.g. Czech or Hungarian), while others do not (e.g. Polish or Italian).

  8. 8.

    Notably, an analogous infinitival relative clause in English can be used in both situations, showing that the subject of (English) relative clauses is not obligatorily controlled:

    1. (i)

    This difference in the behavior of MECs and relative clauses bears on the precise delimitation of the PRO-wh generalization, as discussed in Sect. 3.2.

  9. 9.

    Testing the availability of de se vs. de re readings is not easy due to the fact that the matrix subject is not an attitude holder.

  10. 10.

    There might be some speaker variation. While Roumyana Pancheva (p.c.) told me that there is no obligatory control in Bulgarian MECs, Kostadin Cholakov (p.c.) finds (i) ungrammatical:

    1. (i)
  11. 11.

    An anonymous reviewer notes that in the Czech example (i) in which the matrix verb is poslal ‘sent’, partial control is possible: note that the matrix subject is 1st person singular (made visible by the auxiliary jsem) whereas the embedded one is 1st person plural (made visible by the agreeing subjunctive marker bychom).

    1. (i)

    This is in fact expected if verbs like ‘send’ embed non-control MECs and if partial control is a subcase of non-obligatory control (cf. Landau 2000).

  12. 12.

    The reflexive clitic si in (21) belongs to the embedded verb hrát (si) ‘play (for fun)’ rather than to the matrix verb. It is realized in the matrix clause only due to the restructuring nature of the matrix verb neměl ‘neg.had’. Thus, there is no lexical difference between the matrix verb in (21) and (20a).

  13. 13.

    The pattern in (23) is strongly supported by corpus findings. The Czech National Corpus—SYN (2012) was used. The subcorpus SYN contains 1.3 billion words (tokens) of written synchronic Czech, mostly from newspapers and magazines. The search was performed on March 12, 2012. Three conditions were tested, corresponding to the types in (23), the factors being the value of the matrix and embedded subject: (i) a congruent condition (e.g. 1sg+1sg), corresponding to (23a), yielded 333 hits, (ii) an incongruent condition with a wh-subject (1sg+wh-subject), corresponding to (23b), yielded 30 hits, and (iii) an incongruent condition without a wh-subject (1sg+2sg), corresponding to (23c), yielded 1 hit. (I have no explanation for the single exception though I take the effect to be robust enough.) The relatively low overall number of occurrences is presumably caused by the competing and often truth-conditionally identical, infinitival MECs which are much more frequent than the corresponding subjunctive MECs in Czech. The queries took the form “matrix verb wh-word subjunctive morpheme” (e.g. nemám koho bych ‘neg.have:1sg who:acc sbj:1sg’). Only negated present tense matrix verbs were used, but all possible ϕ-feature values of the matrix subject were tested and were controlled for by the agreement on the matrix verb (nemám ‘neg.have.1sg’, nemáš ‘neg.have.2sg’, etc.). Likewise, all possible ϕ-feature values of the embedded subject were tested and were controlled by the agreement on the subjunctive morphme (bych ‘sbj.1sg’, bys ‘sbj.2sg’, etc.). The single case of syncretism (by ‘sbj.3sg’ or ‘sbj.3pl’) was handled manually. The wh-words in the congruent conditions were co ‘what.acc’ and koho ‘who.acc’, the wh-words in the incongruent condition with wh-subjects were kdo ‘who.nom’ and co ‘what.nom’.

  14. 14.

    The same informant has a slight dispreference against using the verb have in these sentences and suggests that they should be replaced by know of or can think of (i.e. predicates which due to their epistemic nature do not really capture the truth-conditions contributed by ‘have’ in MECs, which involve circumstantial modality, cf. Pancheva-Izvorski 2000 and Šimík 2011). This might suggest that, whenever possible, have should be replaced by the more neutral be in the translations of MECs. That, however, would force one to express the matrix subject in some indirect way, e.g. by a for-phrase, leading to potential further unwanted inferences.

  15. 15.

    The generalization arguably does not apply to English purpose clauses either. As I argued in Šimík (2011:Chap. 4), purpose clauses in the narrow sense, i.e. ones containing an infinitival predicate and a gap bound by an empty operator, e.g. Mary brought it [ PC OP 1 to please her parents with e 1] (see Faraci 1974 and Jones 1991 for a taxonomy of purpose clauses) are the closest kin of modal existential wh-constructions. They share a number of important properties, including their distribution and the modal force and flavor. Yet, as shown convincingly by Whelpton (2002), subjects in this type of purpose clauses are not obligatorily controlled. Hence, we witness grammatical examples like Harry bought a steak for Sam to cook for dinner (from Whelpton 2002:170).

  16. 16.

    In technical terms they are syncategorematic (they have no “category” = semantic type). The meaning of a node which dominates lambda does not get computed by function application but rather by the application of a special rule called lambda or predicate abstraction. See Heim and Kratzer (1998) for details.

  17. 17.

    The precise manner in which the wh-word contributes the variable restriction is immaterial here. It could either be done via a run-of-the-mill presupposition or by construing their trace as definite descriptions (Rullmann and Beck 1998; Sauerland 1998; Johnson 2012).

  18. 18.

    Some complements of attitude predicates arguably constitute an exception to (34e), as they denote properties rather than propositions (see Chierchia 1989). In that case, the pronominal functions as a sort of resumptive pronoun, being lambda-bound at the edge of the complement.

  19. 19.

    See Šimík (2011:Sect. 4.4.1) for one empirical reason to adopt the logical-lambda approach rather than Caponigro’s type-preserving function approach.

  20. 20.

    It is virtually impossible to paraphrase multiple-wh MECs in English, which is why I only give a technical translation. See Šimík (2011:Sect. 6.3) for a detailed discussion of the exact truth-conditions of multiple-wh MECs.

  21. 21.

    For concreteness, I adopt a system where non-terminal nodes can be spelled out, see e.g. Ramchand (2008), Caha (2009), Starke (2011); but nothing crucial in the proposal hinges on this choice.

  22. 22.

    The semantic format and the syntax-semantics mapping is inspired by Ramchand’s (2008) constructivist approach to event semantics. Here, I introduce an insignificant simplification by replacing Ramchand’s asymmetric causal “leads-to” relation between subevents (→) by a simple Link (1983)-style operator (⊕), assuming that the asymmetry between subevents (the “causation”) can be read off directly from the syntactic hierarchy.

  23. 23.

    Alternatively, the position is filled with a phonologically empty property-type nominal, preserving the existential quantification over the individual variable it introduces. See Šimík (2011:Sect. 6.5) for discussion.

  24. 24.

    The reader will notice that I conflate worlds and events into a single type of situations in this paper, relying on the construal of events as minimal situations (see Kratzer 2008). A relevant consequence of the conflation is that events can enter into modal accessibility relations (for a general discussion, see Kratzer 1991). If such an accessibility relation figures in the restriction of an event-quantifier, as is the case in (42), the quantified event is interpreted as modal (possible/necessary).

  25. 25.

    Two anonymous reviewers wonder whether incorporating the modal component into BE is justified and give three reasons why BE should not be modal. First, as shown by Caponigro (2003: 94), there are two kinds of MECs which are incompatible with modality in BE: MECs which contain an overt modal verb, (ia), and MECs which are not modal at all, (ib):

    1. (i)

    Second, other types of infinitival constructions (such as infinitival questions or relatives) are interpreted in a modal fashion without involving BE or any other clear source of modality, suggesting that the modality stems from the infinitive itself. Third, it is possible to embed BE + MEC under an independent modal, as e.g. in the Czech example (ii).

    1. (ii)

    Even though issues of MEC modality are largely orthogonal to the argument made in this paper, I am convinced that there are good arguments for placing the modal force into BE, and would therefore like to defend this analysis in this extended footnote. By way of addressing the first argument, let me point out that there is a reason to doubt whether the examples in (i) involve instances of MECs at all. The example in (iii) (from Ivano Caponigro, p.c.) demonstrates that existential predicates in Italian can in fact embed ordinary free relatives in Italian.

    1. (iii)

    We can therefore hypothesize that (i) are free relatives rather than MECs. That would explain why their main verb can be in the indicative and why they can contain an overt modal. The only remaining problem would be their interpretation, as it is standard to assume that free relatives can only be definite (Jacobson 1995; Caponigro 2003). Yet, apparently indefinite free relatives are well-known in the literature (e.g. John wants to write what sells well = ‘John wants to write some/??the book that sells well’). These have either been analyzed as genuine indefinites (Berman 1991; Wiltschko 1999) or as definite kinds with existential quantification over kind-instantiations (Hinterwimmer 2008). Note that the definite-kind interpretation is intuitively very plausible for (i): ‘There are the kind of people who always say no’ and ‘A. M. already has the kind of person who takes care of her children.’

    Let me now address the second argument. If the infinitive itself were responsible for the modal reading of the MEC, one would expect there to be a broad range of root-modal interpretations available—not only possibility but also necessity and not only a plainly cirumstantial modality but also a bouletic or deontic one. At least that is the hallmark of infinitival constructions with no overt modal in them, such as infinitival questions and relatives (see Bhatt 2006 for discussion). Yet, as I show in Šimík (2011:Chap. 4), the modality in MECs is not subject to contextual specification—it is grammatically restricted to plain circumstantial possibility (for a brief discussion of Czech MEC-like constructions involving deontic necessity readings, first observed by Zubatý 1922 and also noted by an anonymous reviewer, see Šimík 2011:Sect. 2.2.6]). This, I argued, can only be explained by relating MECs’ modality to their distribution and their distribution is in turn strictly tied to the availability predicate BE (see also Grosu 2004 for discussion). Finally, addressing the third argument, I would like to suggest that (ii) is simply an instance of modal-quantifier stacking. The phenomenon is not uncommon for combinations of modals (cf. She might have/want to go there) and quite commonplace for combinations of modals with intensional verbs (e.g. She should look for it in the drawer).

  26. 26.

    The difference between control MECs and raising MECs, introduced in Sect. 3.1, is that only control MECs are selected by BE + FOR, whereas raising MECs are selected either by BE only or alternatively by BE + FOR where FOR is semantically impoverished.

  27. 27.

    I adopt a theory of free wh-movement in which wh-movement is not motivated by feature-checking. As a result, wh-movement need not target any specific syntactic projection (such as CP[+wh]), it can freely move to any syntactic constituent, as long as it respects independent locality constraints and interface/interpretability conditions. This theory is sketched in Šimík (2011:Chap. 5) and developed in detail in Šimík (2012a). See also Pancheva (2010) and Pancheva and Tomaszewicz (2011) for related ideas.

  28. 28.

    As also observed by Livitz (2012), the dative subject can be accompanied by a prepositional genitive subject—the canonical expression of possessor in Russian:

    1. (i)

    This is not problematic for the present analysis, since the dative controller does not have possessor but rather benefactive semantics/syntax and as such does not block the presence of independent possessors, which can presumably be introduced by enriching the event and argument structure of the availability predicate.

  29. 29.

    The same restriction applies in other languages, too: (ia) is an example from Spanish and (ib) from Czech.

    1. (i)
  30. 30.

    Animacy restrictions of the kind discussed here are heavily dependent on pragmatics and world knowledge and it is therefore not unexpected to find examples where inanimate subjects will, in the end, not sound all that bad. An example like that is provided by Livitz (2012):

    1. (i)

    I will not speculate why exactly (i) sounds more acceptable than (49), but the prediction is that it is easier to conceive of flowing as profitable for water than it is for destroying something as profitable for wind.

  31. 31.

    The contrast in acceptability between (55b) and (56b) is compatible with a number explanations. One of them makes reference to anti-locality (see e.g. Abels 2003), where in order for the infinitival embedded TP (poučit’sja ‘learn:inf’) in (56b) to move to the matrix CP, it would have to stop at the edge of the embedded CP, i.e. it would have to move from the complement of the embedded C to its specifier—a movement ruled out by anti-locality. The reason why a similar restriction does not apply in (55b) might very well correspond with the fact that MECs (at least in Slavic languages) do not constitute phase boundaries, being structurally relatively small (for discussion see Šimík 2011:Chap. 5), for which reason the embedded infinitive can move to the matrix in a single step.

  32. 32.

    According to Plann (1980), the observation that the existential quantification introduced by BE has narrow-scope only goes back to Bello (1847).

  33. 33.

    The case of multiple-wh MECs requires a special treatment. See Šimík (2011:Sect. 6.3) for discussion.

  34. 34.

    In fact, an analogous analysis can be applied to the class of non-control MECs embedded by ‘be’ or ‘have’, e.g. in Greek. In such MECs, the overt subject of ‘be’/‘have’ would not originate in the specifier of FOR (which would simply host a NOC PRO), but rather higher in the structure, similarly to the argument of FIND. (Such subjects would be parallel to the possessor u menja ‘at me’ in the Russian example in footnote 28.)

  35. 35.

    Sluicing was long thought to be possible only in wh-questions (see Merchant 2001 and the literature cited therein). Recently, however, sluicing has also been observed in focus-fronting constructions (see van Craenenbroeck and Lipták 2006). That sluicing is also possible in MECs was first observed by Rudin (1986) and the implicit assumption has been that it does not significantly differ from sluicing in wh-questions (for discussion see Šimík 2011:Sect. 5.5).

  36. 36.

    The same anonymous reviewer also suggests an alternative analysis of wh-subject MECs, namely one in which there is no FOR/FOR′ whatsoever and where the MEC is selected by BE alone, all other things remaining equal. An analysis along these lines was proposed by Caponigro (2003) and is sketched in Sect. 5.1 of the present paper. Admittedly, such analysis would be much simpler than the one proposed in this paper and would account for the fact that wh-subject MECs exhibit no obligatory control. However, such an analysis would face some serious problems, too. First of all, there would be no clear relation between PRO-subject and wh-subject MECs—the two types would be independent constructions and one would therefore expect to find wh-subject MECs independently of PRO-subject MECs, apparently contrary to fact. Another, more serious problem, would be the failure to account for the PRO-wh generalization. This is because once BE is allowed to select for wh-subject MECs directly, there would be no reason why wh-non-subject MECs should be excluded from being selected.

  37. 37.

    See footnote 29 for evidence that animacy restrictions apply to non-wh-subjects in Czech control MECs. Unfortunately, one cannot test the same on Spanish, as inanimate wh-subjects are simply ungrammatical there.

    1. (i)

    While it is unclear what makes subject (lo) que ungrammatical in Spanish MECs, from a cross-linguistic perspective it is not unusual for MECs to behave selectively with respect to which wh-words they tolerate; see Šimík (2011:Sect. 2.2.2) for discussion.


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An earlier and shorter version of this paper appeared as Šimík (2012a, 2012b). For financial support I owe thanks to the Ubbo Emmius Fellowship provided by the University of Groningen (particularly the Center for Language and Cognition Groningen/CLCG) and to the German Research Foundation/DFG (particularly the Collaborative Research Center/SFB 632 at the University of Potsdam). The research presented in this paper was initiated during the work on my dissertation. I would like to thank to my advisors and colleagues from the University of Groningen for their help and support, especially Mark de Vries, Jan Koster, Jan-Wouter Zwart, Aysa Arylova, and Zhenya Markovskaya. The paper was written at the University of Potsdam, where I received valuable feedback and advice from Gisbert Fanselow, Luis Vicente, and Marta Wierzba. I also profited from discussions with Mojmír Dočekal and Daniel Hole. Ideas from this paper were presented at two conferences: Syntax, Phonology, and Language Analysis (SinFonIJA) 3 in Novi Sad (October 2010) and Formal Description of Slavic Languages (FDSL) 8.5 (November 2010). I am grateful to the audiences and in the latter case also to two anonymous reviewers of an earlier version of this paper for their critical remarks and observations. The paper has undergone a substantial improvement during the NLLT review process. I am very grateful to three NLLT anonymous reviewers for their sharp observations and their unwillingness to accept half-baked arguments. The work on this paper would not have been possible without the tremendous help of my informants. While most of the data have been collected for the purposes of my dissertation (see the acknowledgements there), I had to bother a lot of people with further data questions while writing this paper. I am grateful to Aysa Arylova, Ivano Caponigro, Kostadin Cholakov, Joseph DeVeaugh-Geiss, Lena Karvovskaya, Anikó Lipták, Paula Menéndez-Benito, Maša Močnik, Serena Nuzzi, Aynat Rubinstein, Morag Segal, and Luis Vicente. All remaining errors and inadequacies are mine.

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Šimík, R. The PRO-wh connection in modal existential wh-constructions. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 31, 1163–1205 (2013).

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  • Modal existential wh-constructions
  • Obligatory control
  • PRO
  • Wh-words
  • Syntax-semantics interface