Skip to main content
Log in

Reversibility in specificational copular sentences and pseudoclefts

  • Published:
Natural Language & Linguistic Theory Aims and scope Submit manuscript


In this paper I discuss one property of specificational copular sentences and pseudoclefts, the apparent reversibility of the order of their two major constituents. In English, this manifests itself in reversible surface word order. It has been argued in the literature that reversibility in specificational pseudoclefts does not indicate reversibility in the syntax, meaning that the two word orders are not derivationally related (den Dikken et al. 2000). In copular sentences, on the other hand, the reversal of the order is generally argued to be the result of inversion in the syntax.

Copular sentences and pseudoclefts in Wolof provide us with the opportunity to observe a part of their derivational history, as the focused referential expression A′-moves to Spec,CP, with the other element being topicalized. A′-extraction in Wolof is morphosyntactically marked on the complementizer, which exhibits a subject/non-subject asymmetry, and therefore reveals whether an element has moved there from Spec,IP or another position. This straightforward diagnostic shows that in specificational pseudoclefts either of the two constituents, the FR or the NP, can in fact raise to Spec,IP, contra the claim in den Dikken et al. (2000) for English. The same kind of reversibility is not found in specificational copular sentences; specifically, only the non-referential expression can move to Spec,IP. The focused NP, which is extracted to Spec,CP, cannot move there from Spec,IP.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Unless otherwise noted, the Wolof data in the paper come from my fieldwork in St.-Louis, Senegal, between 2014 and 2018.

  2. In order to express the intended meaning in (18), the quantifier must be embedded inside a phrase such as someone amongst us here, someone in this room, etc.

  3. The wh-clause in pseudoclefts has been argued to be a question (at least in some pseudoclefts) (den Dikken et al. 2000; Schlenker 2003; Romero 2005), or a free relative (Akmajian 1979; Heycock and Kroch 1999; den Dikken et al. 2000; Caponigro and Heller 2007). Wolof distinguishes Cs that head interrogatives and those that head free relatives. Caponigro and Heller (2007) show that specificational pseudoclefts (which exhibit Principle A connectivity) allow only for the free-relative complementizer.

  4. The difference between predicational and specificational pseudoclefts can be clearly seen in the following example (due to den Dikken 2006a: 304), which has two possible meanings:

    1. (i)

      [What John does not eat] is [food for the dog].

      1. a.

        John feeds the things he does not eat (i.e. his leftovers) to the dog.

      2. b.

        John does not eat the following thing(s): dog food.

    As this example illustrates, the two meanings are not achieved by reversing the word order of the two constituents around the copula.

  5. Recall that nominal predicates that are not focused also move to Spec,CP.

  6. A reviewer points out that A′-movement of the NP to Spec,CP in (33) occurs across a free relative that is in Spec,IP. Such movement in specificational sentences is extremely difficult in English and related languages (e.g. *‘Which children is the biggest problem?’; see Mikkelsen 2005 and the references therein for more details). First, note that the left-dislocation of the FR in Wolof is not necessarily derived by movement; it is likely that the FR is base-generated in Spec,TopP, as it involves resumption, which A′-movement to Spec,CP does not. The reviewer suggests this might be an information-structural conflict in English, and that Wolof fixes this by left-dislocating the non-referential term to Spec,TopP. This seems like a reasonable possibility to me, as cliticization has been noted to license movements that are otherwise illicit (e.g. Anagnostopoulou 2003). I thank the reviewer for pointing this out.

  7. A reviewer proposes that this could be the result of a ban on subject extraction. I find there to be no basis for this assumption. Wolof has a subject/non-subject asymmetry reflected in the morphosyntax of its wh-complementizer, meaning that some sort of a mechanism already exists that enables subjects to extract. There is no reason to suspect that this mechanism would fail in just this type of copular sentence, so that Wolof would have an extraction asymmetry on top of an already existing extraction asymmetry.

  8. This does not exclude the possibility that there is another available underlying structure that results in a pseudocleft in Wolof, as is claimed in den Dikken et al. (2000).

  9. This alternative proposal presupposes that a non-subject that moves to Spec,IP could still be pronominalized with the subject pronoun. I have no evidence for this, but also no evidence against it.


  • Akmajian, Adrian. 1979. Aspects of the grammar of focus in English. New York: Garland.

    Google Scholar 

  • Anagnostopoulou, Elena. 2003. The syntax of ditransitives: Evidence from clitics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Arregi, Karlos, Itamar Francez, and Martina Martinović. 2020. Three arguments for an individual concept analysis of specificational sentences. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bochnak, M. Ryan, and Martina Martinović. 2019. Optional past tense in Wolof. In African linguistics across the disciplines: Selected papers from the 48th annual conference on African linguistics, eds. Samson Lotven, Silvina Bongiovanni, Phillip Weirich, Robert Botne, and Samuel Gyasi Obeng, 187–202. Berlin: Language Science Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Caponigro, Ivano, and Daphna Heller. 2007. The non-concealed nature of free relatives: Implications for connectivity in specificational sentences. In Direct compositionality, eds. Chris Baker and Pauline Jacobson, 237–263. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Declerck, Renaat. 1988. Studies on copular sentences, clefts and pseudo-clefts. Leuven: Leuven University Press/Foris.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • den Dikken, Marcel. 1995. Binding, expletives and levels. Linguistic Inquiry 26: 347–354.

    Google Scholar 

  • den Dikken, Marcel. 2006a. Specificational copular sentences and pseudoclefts. In The Blackwell companion to syntax, Vol. 4, 292–409. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • den Dikken, Marcel. 2006b. The syntax of predication, predicate inversion, and copulas. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • den Dikken, Marcel. 2017. Pseudoclefts and other specificational copular sentences. In The Wiley Blackwell companion to syntax, 2nd edn., 1–138. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • den Dikken, Marcel, André Meinunger, and Chris Wilder. 2000. Pseudoclefts and ellipsis. Studia Linguistica 54(1): 41–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dunigan, Melynda B. 1994. On the clausal structure of Wolof. PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

  • Heggie, Lorie. 1988. The syntax of copular structures. PhD diss., University of Southern California.

  • Heycock, Caroline. 1991. Layers of predication: The non-lexical syntax of clauses. PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania.

  • Heycock, Caroline. 1992. Layers of predication and the syntax of the copula. Belgian Journal of Linguistics 7: 95–123.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heycock, Caroline. 1995. The internal structure of small clauses: New evidence from inversion. In Proceedings of the 25th North East Linguistics Society.

    Google Scholar 

  • Heycock, Caroline, and Anthony Kroch. 1999. Pseudocleft connectedness: Implications for the LF interface level. Linguistic Inquiry 30: 365–397.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heycock, Caroline, and Anthony Kroch. 2002. Topic, focus, and syntactic representations. In Proceedings of the 21st West Coast conference on formal linguistics, eds. Line Mikkelsen and Chris Potts, 101–125. Somerville: Cascadilla Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Higgins, Francis Roger. 1973. The pseudo-cleft construction in English. PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

  • Higgins, Francis Roger. 1979. The pseudocleft construction in English. New York: Garland.

    Google Scholar 

  • Martinović, Martina. 2015. Feature geometry and head-splitting: Evidence from the morphosyntax of the Wolof clausal periphery. PhD diss., University of Chicago.

  • Martinović, Martina. 2017. Wolof wh-movement at the syntax-morphology interface. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 35(1): 205–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Martinović, Martina. 2019. Interleaving syntax and postsyntax. Spell-out before syntactic movement. Syntax 22(4): 378–418.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Martinović, Martina. 2021. Feature geometry and head-splitting at the Wolof clausal periphery. Linguistic Inquiry Online Early.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mikkelsen, Line. 2005. Copular clauses: Specification, predication and equation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Moro, Andrea. 1997. The raising of predicates: Predicative noun phrases and the theory of clause structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Partee, Barbara. 2000. Opacity, coreference and pronouns. In Semantics of natural language, eds. Donald Davidson and Gilbert Harman, 415–441. Dordrecht: Reidel.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rizzi, Luigi. 1986. On the status of subject clitics in romance. In Studies in romance linguistics, eds. Osvaldo Jaeggli and Carmen Silva-Corvalan, 391–419. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Rizzi, Luigi. 1997. The fine structure of the left periphery. In Elements of grammar: Handbook in generative syntax, ed. Liliane Haegeman, 281–337. Dordrecht/Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Romero, Maribel. 2005. Concealed questions and specificational subjects. Linguistics and Philosophy 28: 687–737.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schlenker, Phillipe. 2003. Causal equations (a note on the connectivity problem). Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 21: 157–214.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stowell, Timothy Angus. 1981. Origins of phrase structure. PhD diss., Massachussetts Institute of Technology.

  • Stowell, Timothy A. 1983. Subjects across categories. The Linguistic Review 2: 285–312.

    Google Scholar 

  • Torrence, Harold. 2003. Verb movement in Wolof. In Papers in African linguistics 3 (UCLA working papers in linguistics 9), ed. Jason Kandybowicz, 85–115. Los Angeles: Department of Dept of Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles.

    Google Scholar 

  • Torrence, Harold. 2005. On the distribution of complementizers in Wolof. PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

  • Torrence, Harold. 2012a. The clause structure of Wolof: Insights into the left periphery. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    Google Scholar 

  • Torrence, Harold. 2012b. The morpho-syntax of silent wh-expressions in Wolof. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 30(4): 1147–1184.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Torrence, Harold. 2013a. A promotion analysis of Wolof clefts. Syntax 16(2): 176–215.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Torrence, Harold. 2013b. The morpho-syntax of Wolof clefts: Structure and movement. In Cleft structures, eds. Katharina Hartmann and Tonjes Veenstra, 187–224. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Verheugd, Els. 1990. Subject arguments and predicate nominals: A study of French copular sentences with two NPs. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

    Google Scholar 

  • Williams, Edwin S. 1975. Small clauses in English. In Syntax and semantics, ed. John P. Kimball, Vol. 4, 249–273. New York: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Williams, Edwin. 1983. Semantic vs. syntactic categories. Linguistics and Philosophy 6(3): 423–446.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


I am deeply grateful to my consultants in St.-Louis, Senegal, without whom this work would not be possible. Thanks to Karlos Arregi and Itamar Francez for extensive discussion of various topics related to specificational sentences, and Vera Gribanova and three anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback. Research related to the topic of this squib was presented at a number of conferences over the years; I thank audiences at the 86th LSA, 39th BLS, 44th ACAL, and the workshop Current Issues in Comparative Syntax: Past, Present, and Future held at the National University of Singapore in 2018. All errors are my own.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Martina Martinović.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Martinović, M. Reversibility in specificational copular sentences and pseudoclefts. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 41, 249–266 (2023).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: