Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Verb Movement in the History of English

It seems I can only manage one blog post a year these days. Again, administrative duties take up way too much time.

Today's post is a note on a fascinating article by Haeberli and Ihsane (2016). This article examines the loss of main verb movement across adverbs in the history of English. Previous work on the loss of main verb movement has concentrated on movement across negation. What is interesting is that the two movement processes were lost separately. I suggest that this historical discrepancy supports the analysis of verb movement and do support proposed by Baker (1991) and developed further in my work (Bruening 2010). It is very problematic for the traditional head-movement analysis of verb movement across adverbs and negation, as represented by, for example, Pollock (1989).

Briefly, the facts are this: The loss of main verb movement across negation is a long process that starts in the 16th century and comes to completion over 200 years later. In contrast, the loss of main verb movement across adverbs starts earlier, in the middle of the 15th century, and is largely completed by the middle of the 16th century, when main verbs are still moving across negation.

This historical development is very strange from the perspective on verb movement in the standard account, represented by Pollock (1989). In that account, verb movement takes place in two steps: the first step moves a verb across adverbs, and the second step moves verbs across negation. The second step is not possible without the first. If the first step is lost, as appears to have happened given the data in Haeberli and Ihsane (2016), then the second step should not still be possible. Yet apparently it was in the history of English. Haeberli and Ihsane (2016) propose to reverse the two movement steps, with the first step being across negation and the second being across adverbs. Then the second step can be lost while the first step still takes place. This is incompatible with the facts of French given in Pollock (1989), and would therefore require cross-linguistic variation in the order of the two steps (and the placement of adverbs and negation within the clause). It is also incompatible with facts of Modern English, where adverbs can and often do follow negation:

(1) The students will not always be told what the answer is.
(2) If landlords have not quickly fixed an issue with the apartment...

This is one reason the standard account has the ordering it does: the auxiliaries will and have must have crossed always and quickly first, and then moved across negation. In fact, adverbs can come on both sides of negation:

(3) The students will probably not always be told what the answer is. (Baker 1991:395–96, ex. 17).

The account in Haeberli and Ihsane (2016) would then have to posit yet more changes in the history of English, so that there are now three movement steps: the first across some adverbs, the second across negation, and the third across yet more adverbs. In the 15th and 16th centuries (and later), the possibility of adverbs coming lower than negation would have had to be absent.

In contrast, the historical facts are expected on the account of verb movement in Baker (1991) and Bruening (2010). In that account, there are two distinct rules. One is a rule that obligatorily moves verbs across negation. In Modern English this only affects auxiliary verbs and not main verbs. In earlier forms of English it was not so restricted; the historical development included the rule becoming restricted to auxiliaries. This restriction took hold over 200 years starting in the middle of the 16th century, as described above.

The second rule is a rule that moves verbs across adverbs. This rule is optional and is related to stress. In Baker (1991), the rule is obligatory for unstressed auxiliaries, while stressed auxiliaries may not undergo it. This appears to have been factually incorrect, and in Bruening (2010) the rule is simply optional. Regardless, in Modern English this rule is restricted to auxiliaries, just like the negation rule. Main verbs may not move across adverbs. However, in the past this restriction did not hold, and again the historical development includes the rule becoming limited to auxiliaries. Importantly, however, the adverb rule is distinct from the rule moving a verb across negation. The two rules are separate rules, with neither depending on the other (unless an adverb happens to follow negation, as in (1-3), then the obligatory negation rule forces the verb to also cross the adverb). It is therefore expected that historical change could affect them differently. In particular, the rule moving verbs across adverbs becomes restricted to auxiliaries before the rule moving verbs across negation. In fact, the change to the adverb rule is largely complete before the change to the negation rule even begins. (One could imagine that the change to the adverb rule is one of the triggers for the change to the negation rule.)

To sum up, the facts of language change in the history of English support an account where verb movement across adverbs is distinct from verb movement across negation, as in the two-rule account of Baker (1991) and Bruening (2010). Of course, it is possible to modify the standard head movement account where they are interdependent, as Haeberli and Ihsane (2016) try to do. However, this runs into complications as described above. I therefore take the historical facts to be strong support for the two-rule account.


Baker, C.L. (1991). The Syntax of English Not: The Limits of Core Grammar. Linguistic Inquiry 22: 387-429.

Bruening, Benjamin (2010). Language-Particular Syntactic Rules and Constraints: English Locative Inversion and Do-Support. Language 86: 43-84.

Haeberli, Eric and Tabea Ihsane (2016). Revisiting the Loss of Verb Movement in the History of English. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 34: 497-542

Pollock, Jean-Yves (1989). Verb Movement, Universal Grammar, and the Structure of IP. Linguistic Inquiry 20: 365-424.