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Syntax of either in eitheror… sentences


I propose an analysis of either in eitheror … sentences that relates to a broader generalization about the syntax of all focus-sensitive operators. I argue that either originates inside the disjunction phrase, c-commanding the leftmost contrastive focus. Then it is internally merged as the sister of the disjunction phrase. Either copy of either may be pronounced. When either appears higher than the sister of the disjunction phrase, bare argument ellipsis has occurred in the second disjunct. This analysis of either is consonant with the generalization that all focus-sensitive operators occupy two positions in a sentence (e.g. Cable 2007; Hirsch 2017; and Quek and Hirsch 2017). If this analysis of either is correct, then it not only indicates that either is a focus-sensitive operator, but also adds another data point to this universal generalization.

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  1. 1.

    As two NLLT reviewers pointed out, the only way that the star with binoculars could be a constituent is if the sentence involves VP disjunction and ATB-movement of V (looked) and the preposition (at) out of the disjunction:

    1. (i)

      John lookedi atj either [VP ti tj the planet with a telescope] or [VP ti tj the star with binoculars].

    While it is possible that V (looked) ATB-moves to v, it is unlikely that there is another head position below v that the preposition can move to, so the star with binoculars can’t be a constituent.

  2. 2.

    In addition, Collins (1988) and Bogal-Allbritten and Weir (2017) discussed the use of other adverbs in conjunction such as perhaps, which applies to either-seems-high sentences and provides evidence for ellipsis as well.

  3. 3.

    As a reviewer pointed out, the ellipsis-based analysis would claim that in either-seems-high sentences, what appears to be surface disjunction will never be one constituent in the underlying structure.

  4. 4.

    As a reviewer pointed out, non-elliptical sentences can have sloppy identity, and thus sloppy identity readings have been suggested to not be a reliable diagnostic of ellipsis (Merchant 2013):

    1. (i)
      1. a.

        Ralph ate his ice-cream with a spoon, and Seymour did the same thing.

      2. b.

        Harvey stubbed his toe on the doorstop, and it happened to Max, too.   (Merchant 2013:5)

    The non-elliptical sentences that have the sloppy identity reading all involve lexical items such as the same thing, likewise and overt pronouns. I take this to indicate that the sloppy identity reading requires ellipsis or such a lexical item. Since the second disjunct in the eitheror… sentence in (16) does not involve any such lexical item, it must involve ellipsis.

  5. 5.

    The reader might notice that (18a) can be improved with some changes:

    1. (i)

      Either Mary voted for Johni, or hei himself.

    This may be surprising under the ellipsis-based analysis because in the ellipsis site John is c-commanded by a co-indexed pronoun, and thus violates Principle C:

    1. (ii)

      Either Mary voted for Johni or [hei himself] hei himself voted for Johni.

    This fact has actually been observed for other cases of ellipsis, such as VP-ellipsis and stripping. Fiengo and May (1994) argued that ellipsis allows for a process called vehicle change, where a pronoun may occur instead of an R-expression in the elided phrase. If the eitheror… sentence in (i) involves ellipsis, then vehicle change should be available to it as well. This explains its grammaticality.

  6. 6.

    There are proposals in the literature for exactly why the derivation in (22) is not possible. See Sauerland (1998) and Fox (2002), for example, for an analysis that depends on the copy theory of movement.

  7. 7.

    As a reviewer pointed out, one can imagine a natural extension of Larson’s account, that is either-seems-high sentences involve a combination of movement of either and ellipsis. For example, (29a) may involve disjunction of two vPs, with ellipsis of the second verb plus movement of either:

    1. (i)

      [TP Eitheri this [DisjP ti pissed Bill tj or pissed Sue tk] offj,k].

    This hybrid analysis still fails to explain the contrast between (29a) and (29b) because if (29a) can be analyzed as vP-disjunction, it should be fine to RNR the particle out of the vPs, contrary to fact. Therefore, the verb particle constructions are evidence against any theory where either in either-seems-high sentences is derived by movement, whether or not ellipsis is additionally available.

  8. 8.

    I am grateful to an NLLT reviewer for first suggesting stripping as a possibility to me.

  9. 9.

    The only exceptions I can think of are (68a–b), where X only deletes the preposition or the determiner, and is therefore not clausal ellipsis. These examples call for a more precise definition of clausal ellipsis. If the ellipsis operates on the clausal spine, it must delete at least VoiceP. But if it only operates on a simple argument / adjunct (e.g. at MIT), then it is not required to delete VoiceP because there is no VoiceP to delete.

  10. 10.

    Yoshida et al. (2019) found that stripping in some cases can delete an island boundary. However, all of their stimuli involve utterance-final correlates (the correlate is the phrase in the antecedent that contrasts with the remnant, such as the president in (59a)), which were shown by Griffiths and Liptak (2014:fn. 10) and Barros et al. (2014:Sect. 4.5) to ameliorate the island effects. Both of these works showed that once we control for the utterance-final effect (and also the effects created by the so-called evasion strategies, as were suggested by Barros et al.), clausal ellipsis does respect island effects and cannot delete island boundaries. Therefore, I controlled for these effects by using examples that don’t involve utterance-final correlates, and don’t have the evasion strategies.

  11. 11.

    It has also been noted in the literature (e.g. Larson 1985 and den Dikken 2006) that either can’t be separated from the apparent DisjP by a finite clause boundary (either occurs in one of the bracketed positions):

    1. (i)

      <??Either> he <??either> said <%either> that <either> he <either> would <either> eat <either> rice or beans.

    However, an acceptability judgment survey conducted by Hofmeister (2010) indicates no significant difference between the judgment of the high positions of either above C and the judgment of the lower positions below C. These positions are judged to be equally good, which suggests that the restriction on the clause-boundedness of high either may not be correct.

    Similarly, there has been disagreement in the literature on whether stripping across an embedded finite clause is possible:

    1. (ii)

      Every linguist here claimed that NLLT should publish a certain kind of review on his oldest book, but not other kinds of reviews on his oldest book.  (Yoshida et al. 2015:342)

    Lobeck (1995:27), for example, considers it impossible to strip across an embedded finite clause, contra Depiante (2000) and Yoshida et al. (2015). For these reasons, I do not list this as a restriction on X or stripping here.

  12. 12.

    This is actually not a completely faithful illustration of Depiante’s analysis. Depiante assumes that not is constituent negation, and moves together with the PP:

    1. (i)

      John relies on Mary, but [not on Susan]i John relies ti.

    I differ from her in assuming that not is sentential negation and base-generated in its surface position, because the compositional semantics of sentential negation is more straightforward than that of constituent negation (Merchant 2003).

  13. 13.

    If we adopt a licensing condition of ellipsis that is based on the semantic identity of the antecedent and the elided phrase (e.g. Takahashi and Fox 2005; Hartman 2011; Messick and Thoms 2016), then technically this semantic identity should be evaluated based on the meaning of larger constituents that contain the binder for each trace:

    1. (i)

      [On Mary] [A λx John relies x], but not [on Susan] [E λy John relies y].

  14. 14.

    I follow Depiante’s analysis, which is along the same line as Merchant’s (2004). There have been different proposals about stripping in the literature (Fiengo and May 1994; Hankamer and Sag 1976; Reinhart 1991, to name a few), which Depiante discussed in detail, and compared with her proposal. See Depiante for why her proposal fares better than the alternatives, based on which I have chosen to follow Depiante.

  15. 15.

    I am grateful to an NLLT reviewer for pointing this out to me.

  16. 16.

    According to Depiante’s (2000) and Merchant’s (2004) analysis of stripping, the remnant always moves to a focus phrase, which is above the TP. Such an analysis would not allow the derivations in (69b–c), where the remnant moves locally within the PP/DP, and does not land above the TP. Following Yoshida et al.’s (2015) suggestion, I argue in a work in progress that stripping is freer than we thought, and the remnant of stripping can land in various positions, including those below TP. Evidence that the remnant of stripping can target positions below TP involves scope in stripping sentences. Following is a simple argument that an NLLT reviewer suggested to me, inspired by Hirsch’s (2017) discussion of conjunction. Consider (i). If the remnant always moves to above TP, we should only get the derivation in (ia), which would correspond to the reading ‘no one saw Mary, but it’s not the case that no one saw Sue.’ If the remnant could target a lower position (ib), we could get the reading ‘no one is such that they saw Mary but they didn’t see Sue.’

    1. (i)

      No one saw Mary, but not Sue.

      1. a.

        No one saw Mary, but not [Sue]j [TP no one saw tj].

      2. b.

        No one saw Mary, but not [Sue]j [vP saw tj].

    The reading of (ib) is true if many people saw Mary, but those people saw Sue as well, and the reading of (ia) is not true in this scenario. (i) has the reading of (ib), suggesting that the remnant of stripping can land below the TP, contrary to Depiante’s and Merchant’s claim.

  17. 17.

    A reviewer has asked about the acceptability of either below a complementizer in either-seems-low sentences. Here are the reported judgments:

    1. (i)
      1. a.

        ?He said that he either would eat rice or that he would eat beans.

      2. b.

        ??He said that he either would eat rice or claimed that he would eat beans.

    These sentences do not sound so bad to my consultants, which indicates that the covert movement of either is not clause-bound:

    1. (ii)
      1. a.

        ?He said eitheri that he eitheri would eat rice or that he would eat beans.

      2. b.

        ??He eitheri said that he eitheri would eat rice or claimed that he would eat beans.

  18. 18.

    As a reviewer pointed out, another possibility is base-generation of either in Spec, DisjP, followed by lowering of either to somewhere inside the DisjP. This possibility has been suggested by Larson (1985). This lowering operation violates the Extension Condition (Chomsky 1993, 1995), which requires syntactic operations to extend the tree at the root. Therefore, I won’t discuss lowering further in this paper.

  19. 19.

    Two NLLT reviewers have suggested two other possible ways to get around the CSC problem. First, we may posit movement of either to the edge of the left disjunct (A) rather than out of the disjunct. Second, there are other movement types that were argued to obviate CSC violation, such as “exotic” coordination in German (Johnson 2002) and subject movement in gapping (Johnson 2009). Perhaps either’s movement is similar to these movements in being exempt from CSC.

  20. 20.

    I remain agnostic about whether or itself is the disjunction head, or whether there is another covert disjunction head that agrees with both either and or. What is important is that neither and nor do share negative morphological features, which is a byproduct of their agreement with each other or their agreement with the disjunction head.

  21. 21.

    To be precise, Sect. 2.6 has only shown that stripping cannot occur across a complex NP or adjunct boundary. Whether it can occur across negation is less clear, as judgments are not categorical but only degraded. My consultants said that while (i) sounds a bit awkward, (ii) is worse.

    1. (i)

      ?John asked Mary to be vegetarian abruptly, not vegan.

    1. (ii)

      ???John asked Mary not to be vegetarian abruptly, not vegan.

    I use the adverb abruptly as a modifier of the event of asking to make sure that stripping applies across the embedded infinitive, including negation in (ii):

    1. (iii)

      ?John asked Mary to be vegetarian abruptly, not vegani John asked Mary to be ti abruptly.

    1. (iv)

      ???John asked Mary not to be vegetarian abruptly, not vegani John asked Mary not to be ti abruptly.

    Notice that (78a–b) are only reported to be degraded compared to (78c). This can be understood as following from the restriction on stripping, as stripping of negation is likewise considered degraded.

  22. 22.

    Recall from Sect. 2.6 that stripping involves movement of the remnant out of the ellipsis site. For the sake of convenience, I leave out the remnant movement in my illustration in some examples, and simply cross out the deleted part, but the reader should bear in mind that the remnant always moves.

  23. 23.

    As an NLLT reviewer pointed out, having the quantifier a burglar or a thief in the object position leads to a type mismatch. One way to resolve the mismatch is to follow den Dikken et al.’s (2018) analysis of intensional predicates, and decompose looking for into trying to find. The object quantifier can then raise to a position above the covert verb find but below trying to, resolving the type mismatch and generating reading 1.

  24. 24.

    The syntactic condition on ellipsis, as was proposed by Griffiths and Liptak (2014), requires that the variables in the antecedent and in the elided phrase be bound from parallel positions. If there is a variable f in the antecedent but not in elided phrase, then by definition the variable-binding relations in the antecedent do not parallel those in the elided phrase. Therefore, this condition would also force the antecedent to exclude the variable f.

  25. 25.

    I am grateful to two NLLT reviewers for pointing this out to me.

  26. 26.

    Hirsch (2017, 2019) proposed an alternative analysis of the scope facts in (107a–c), which parallels my analysis of either in that it also involves two positions of only.

  27. 27.

    Technically, in (111d) either could right-adjoin to the vP and still c-command the vP. I take the deviance of (111d) to indicate that either can only adjoin to the left edge of a constituent. I’m grateful to an NLLT reviewer for pointing this out to me.

  28. 28.

    Some native speakers don’t accept (118a–b). They can be substituted with the following two sentences respectively and still make the same point:

    1. (i)

      *John looked at either the planet with a telescope or with binoculars.

    1. (iii)

      John looked at either the planet with a telescope or the star with it.

    I suspect that these speakers prefer to keep either closer to the edge of DisjP in either-seems-low sentences, as they generally like either immediately before the verb , such as (4a–b), but not either immediately before the direct object. But this is only a speculation, and I leave this topic to future research.

  29. 29.

    As a reviewer pointed out, Hendriks (2001, 2004), Johannessen (2005), and Zhang (2008) have also offered many arguments that either is a focus-sensitive operator. One of the arguments concerns the origination site of either. Hendriks (2004) noted that focus-sensitive operators must attach to maximal projections. Neither can either nor only attach to non-maximal projections:

    1. (i)
    1. (ii)
  30. 30.

    I’m grateful to an NLLT reviewer for pointing out either-seems-high sentences in general as an issue for Schlenker’s and Charlow’s analyses.

  31. 31.

    I do not discuss either-seems-low sentences because speakers’ judgments are not very clear. However, some speakers have told me that they seem to be able to find (i) grammatical:

    1. (i)

      If John either eats shellfish or he eats tuna, he’ll have an allergic reaction, but I don’t know which.


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I am grateful to Itai Bassi, Keny Chatain, Marcel den Dikken, Danny Fox, Aron Hirsch, Michael Kenstowicz, Richard Larson, David Pesetsky, Bernhard Schwarz, and Roger Schwarzschild for helpful comments and feedback. I want to thank Danny Fox and David Pesetsky especially for their tireless help with nearly twenty iterations of the draft. I am also grateful to the audiences at NELS 49, ECO-5, Goethe, McGill, Stanford, UCSC, workshop and reading groups at MIT. Finally, I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for incredibly detailed and helpful reviews.

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Correspondence to Danfeng Wu.

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Appendix A: Exceptionally wide scope of disjunction out of islands

Appendix A: Exceptionally wide scope of disjunction out of islands

This appendix discusses the fact that disjunction may take scope out of islands in either-seems-normal sentences, as is instantiated by the following sentence:

  1. (143)

    If John eats either shellfish or tuna, he’ll have an allergic reaction, (but I can’t remember which.)

I will review two proposals for driving exceptional scope disjunction. They both resort to semantic tools. Both proposals are compatible with the current syntactic proposal about either, which has been independently motivated. I will also point out some issues with these two semantic analyses, but leave to future research how to resolve them.

The two candidate theories for the semantics of disjunction are Schlenker (2006) and Charlow (2014). Both theories were meant to account for the exceptional scope of indefinites, and were suggested to apply to disjunctions as well.

Schlenker has argued that the exceptional scope can be analyzed with choice functions. A disjunction takes as argument the set of the disjuncts. An existential quantifier can be externally merged out of the island, and binds the choice function inside the island, thus creating the exceptional scope of indefinites. (145) is the derivation for (144):

  1. (144)

    ∃F [If John eats F {shellfish, tuna}, he’ll have an allergic reaction.]

Under this analysis, either’s surface position in (144) could mark the position of the choice function, or the first disjunct that enters the set in the argument of the choice function.

Charlow (2014) has proposed a different analysis of the semantics of indefinites, which can be extended to disjunctions. According to him, indefinites (and possibly disjunctions) denote alternatives. If we allow point-wise composition, these alternatives-denoting expressions percolate their alternative-denoting property all the way up to the levels above the island, creating the effect of exceptional scope. If we only use function application as Charlow does, then the exceptional scope of alternative-generating expressions arises via “scopal pied-piping”. The disjunction moves to and takes scope at the island’s edge, turning the island’s denotation into a set of alternatives. Then the island itself is turned into a scope-taking element, and takes scope at the matrix level. Because the island’s alternatives result from the disjunction’s alternatives, this creates the effect of expanding the disjunction’s alternatives beyond the island.

Following is an analysis of (144) à la Charlow, where the whole sentence denotes alternatives through two movements: movement of the disjunction to the edge of the adjunct island, and movement of the island to a scope position above the conditional:

  1. (145)

    [[either shellfish or tuna]i John eats ti]j If tj, he’ll have an allergic reaction.

The first movement turns the island itself into a set of alternative propositions about different seafoods John eats: {John eats x | x ∈ {shellfish, tuna}}. Then the island is turned into a scope-taking element, which turns the entire sentence into a set of alternative propositions: {if John eats x, allergic reaction | x ∈ {shellfish, tuna}}. Under this analysis, either’s surface position in (144) could mark the point at which the alternative-denoting property starts to percolate.

Having introduced a natural extension of Schlenker’s and Charlow’s semantic analyses to disjunctions, I will now discuss a few data points that they fail to cover, which suggests future research directions.

First, neither analysis takes into account the surface position of either. As we saw in Sect. 4, the scope of disjunction in either-seems-high sentences is fixed at the surface position of either, and does not take exceptionally wide scope. Take (85a) as an example, replicated below, which crucially does not have the widest scope of disjunction:Footnote 30

  1. (146)

    Sherlock pretended to either be looking for a burglar or a thief.

    Only reading (pretended > DisjP > looking for): Sherlock pretended to do one of two things: (1) be looking for a burglar; or (2) be looking for a thief.

    Missing reading (DisjP > pretended > looking for): One of two things happened: (1) Sherlock pretended to be looking for a burglar; or (2) he pretended to be looking for a thief.

Neither is Schlenker’s nor Charlow’s analysis constrained enough to prevent the disjunction in (147) from taking the widest scope. Consider Schlenker’s analysis for example. Nothing prevents a choice function binder from being merged at matrix TP, creating the wide scope of disjunction:

  1. (147)

    ∃F [Sherlock pretended to F { be looking for a burglar, be looking for a thief }.

This problem with either-seems-high sentences occurs again when the disjunction is embedded in an island. While my consultants agree that disjunction can scope out of islands in either-seems-normal sentences, it cannot in either-seems-high sentences. The following sentence differs from (144) only in the surface position of either. Whereas in (144) either appears before the DP, it appears preverbally below, and the disjunction loses exceptional scope.

  1. (148)

    #If John either eats shellfish or tuna, he’ll have an allergic reaction, but I don’t know which.

Thus, we can make the following generalization about the scope of disjunction: in either-seems-normal sentences, disjunction can take scope at various positions in the structure, even outside islands. In either-seems-high sentences, the scope of disjunction is frozen at either’s surface position.Footnote 31 Neither analysis along the lines of Schlenker or Charlow depends on either’s surface position, so they do not have an account for this.

In sum, a full account of exceptional scope of disjunction is still lacking, but the two accounts available from the literature are compatible with the syntax that this paper has been defending.

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Wu, D. Syntax of either in eitheror… sentences. Nat Lang Linguist Theory (2021).

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  • Syntax
  • Either
  • Or
  • Disjunction
  • Ellipsis
  • Stripping
  • Bare argument ellipsis
  • Movement
  • Scope
  • Islands
  • Focus-sensitive operators
  • Focus