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On subject reference and the cartography of clause types

A commentary on the paper by Biswas


In this commentary, I will critically discuss Priyanka Biswas’ contribution to this volume (2013), in which she examines the properties of five types of clauses headed by participial verb forms in Bangla and proposes an account of their sometimes novel properties in terms of Landau (2004)’s theory of control. I will take Biswas’ empirical analysis as a starting point for a broader discussion of finiteness and the relationship between different types of embedded clauses and the kinds of subjects they allow. I will argue that the theoretical treatment Biswas herself adopts does not allow a proper explanation of the connection, and will propose a distinct approach in terms of differential clause sizes. While this approach will remain highly speculative, I will argue that it at least allows us to formulate falsifiable hypotheses with testable predictions, and thus could serve as the foundation for a truly insightful theory of the distribution of subject types.

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  1. 1.

    Actually, there might be an even smaller structure if we adopt Wurmbrand (2001)’s analysis of certain kinds of control structures as being simply VP without vP, i.e. not even projecting a position for agentive subjects. Such clauses might, at first blush, look anaphoric, since they will never allow disjoint agentive subjects, but they should allow ‘subjects’ of unaccusatives to appear. This may be what is going on with the Bangla perfective clauses which, as Biswas notes, do not allow disjoint subjects unless the predicate is non-volitional and hence unaccusative.

  2. 2.

    ECM and raising infinitives may fit in here as well, though it’s less obvious that they show dependent behavior. The crucial assumption is that, what is relevant is not the distribution of pro alone, but of [−R] DPs, which also includes anaphors. The relevant fact then is that ECM clauses allow both clear [+R] subjects like R-expressions and [−R] subjects like anaphors. Raising (and passivized ECM) infinitives allow the trace of either a [+R] or [−R] subject, depending on the nature of the matrix predicate:

    1. i.

      Bill i believes himself{i,∗j}/Geordie j to be a genius.

    2. ii.

      Bill i hopes pro {i,∗j} to seem <pro> to be smart.

    3. iii.

      Bill seems <Bill> to be smart.

    ECM and raising infinitives thus allow the equivalent of an alternation between overt subjects and pro, and should be considered dependent.

  3. 3.

    ECM and raising infinitives are usually thought to be intermediate, standardly TPs.

  4. 4.

    There is variation in the details, both across languages and between specific sub-types of independent and anaphoric clauses, but the generalization is that specific independent clause types often contain elements that are lacking in specific anaphoric clause types, while the reverse is quite rare.

  5. 5.

    As noted above, ECM and raising structures could be included as TPs, between (11a) and (11b).

  6. 6.

    I am assuming that the interpretive dependency is mediated by a syntactic one, i.e. by an Agree relation which must be established locally. But the main points of the discussion should hold equally well if it were a purely interpretive relationship holding at LF, as long as LF interpretation is also done phase-by-phase.

  7. 7.

    Alternatively, anaphors are always bound by functional heads like C Ana , which are in turn bound by the DP antecedents, i.e. that there is never direct binding of one DP by another (as proposed for long-distance anaphora in Tamil and languages like it, by Sundaresan 2012). This may even be a point of variation (say between the so-called self- and se-anaphors).

  8. 8.

    See also Sundaresan (2012:Part III) on the need for such functional material in order to implement local anaphora in certain languages.

  9. 9.

    One way to allow this is if functional sequences cannot have gaps (i.e. must be monotonic), but can be truncated at the upper end of each phase. So, just as heads at the top of the C domain can be missing, so can ones at the top of the v domain, but if a given C or v head is present, all heads below it in the same phase must also be present.

  10. 10.

    One possibility is that Big Dependent clauses involve head movement of C Ana to C Con , bringing the former into the phase edge and thus allowing it to be bound by something in the next phase up. The extra C Loc in independent clauses would place the phase edge out of the reach of even a moved C Ana .

  11. 11.

    Of course, the current theory can also correctly handle the Little Dependent clauses which clearly lack the relevant temporal specification, yet still allow [+R] subjects.


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I would like to thank Priyanka Biswas, Gillian Ramchand, Sandhya Sundaresan and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, as well as Rajesh Bhatt, Janne Bondi Johannessen, Per Erik Solberg, Tarald Taraldsen, Susi Wurmbrand and the audience of a recent talk given at UMass Amherst for discussion of related work presented in other forms. Special thanks are also due to the participants of the FiSAL conference in Tromsø for stimulating papers and discussion, and especially to Priyanka Biswas for the careful and thought-provoking paper that led to this commentary.

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McFadden, T. On subject reference and the cartography of clause types. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 32, 115–135 (2014).

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  • Finiteness
  • Cartography
  • Subjects
  • Case
  • Control
  • Embedding
  • Clause-size
  • Bangla