Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Information-Structure Approaches to Islands

There is a strand of research that tries to explain island constraints on movement entirely in information-structural, or discourse, terms. Goldberg (2006) and Erteschik-Shir (2007) are recent examples of this. Both point to some phenomena that they claim are non-syntactic and yet are sensitive to islands, and conclude from this sensitivity that island constraints are not syntactic.

Citing Morgan (1975), Goldberg (2006, 132-133) claims that direct replies to questions are sensitive to islands. In all of the following, try to understand the answer to be "she is dating someone new." This is possible when that phrase does not occur inside an island, but not when it does:

(1) Q: Why was Laura so happy?
a. The woman who lives next door thought she was dating someone new.
b. #The woman who thought she was dating someone new lives next door.
c. #That she's dating someone new is likely.
d. It's likely that she's dating someone new.
e. #John shouted that she was dating someone new.
f. John said that she was dating someone new.
g. #John was hysterical 'cause she was dating someone new.
h. John left Manhattan in order that she could date someone new.

However, as Goldberg herself notes in footnote 3, this phenomenon is not fully general. Direct replies can occur inside complex NPs; example (2) is from Goldberg's foonote, and I add example (3). They can also occur inside initial if-clauses, which are very strong islands (4):

(2) Q: Why was Laura so happy?
A: I heard [a rumor that she was dating someone new].

(3) Q: Why was Laura so happy?
A: I talked to someone who said she was dating someone new.
(cf. * Who did you talk to [someone who said she was dating ---]?)

(4) Q: Why was Laura so happy?
A: If she was dating someone new, I would have heard about it.
(cf. *Who did you say that [if she was dating ---] you would have heard about it?)

It is therefore simply false that direct replies are sensitive to the same island constraints as movement.

Citing James (1972), Goldberg (2006, 133-134) also claims that exclamatives are sensitive to islands. Again, in all of the following try to take what is being remarked upon to be "Laura/she is dating someone new." This is possible if that phrase is not inside an island, but impossible if it is:

(5) a. Ah! The woman who lives next door thought Laura was dating someone new!
b. *Ah! The woman who thought Laura was dating someone new lives next door!

(6) a. Ah! It is likely that she was dating someone new!
b. *Ah! That she is dating someone new is likely!

(7) a. Ah! John said she was dating someone new!
b. *Ah! John shouted that she was dating someone new!

(8) a. Ah! John left Manhattan in order that she could date someone new!
b. *Ah! John was hysterical 'cause she was dating someone new!

Again, though, exclamatives are possible inside complex NPs when they are on a right branch:

(9) a. Ah! John talked to someone who said she was dating someone new!
b. Ah! John heard a rumor that she was dating someone new!

According to Erteschik-Shir (2007, 164), Morgan (1975) actually discussed fragment replies, not direct replies. Erteschik-Shir claims these are also sensitive to islands:

(10) Q: Did the man who Tricia fired leave town?
a. *No, Thelma.
b. No, the man who Thelma fired (left town).

This test seems to work a little better, since fragment replies are impossible with complex NPs on a right branch (11), but the correlation is still not perfect. It seems to me that a fragment reply is possible inside an indefinite subject (12):

(11) Q: Did you see the man who fired Tricia?
a. *No, Thelma.
b. No, the man who fired Thelma.

(12) Q: Was a statue of Tricia built in Poughkeepsie?
a. No, Thelma.
b. No, a statue of Thelma (was).
(cf. *Who was a statue of built in Poughkeepsie?)

Fragment replies also work with clause-initial if-clauses:

(13) Q: Did you say that if you see Tricia at the party, you'll leave?
a. No, Thelma.
b. No, if I see Thelma (I will).
(cf. *Who did you say that if you see at the party you'll leave?)

Once again, then, phenomena that are claimed to be sensitive to the same islands as movement are actually not.

Moreover, it seems to me that any discourse-based account of islands faces an insurmountable problem from sluicing contexts. Consider the following dialogs:

(14) A: Yesterday I met a man who claimed that John stole something.
B1: What?
B2: *What did you meet a man who claimed that John stole?

(15) A: John was furious because his wife had taken something of his.
B1: What?
B2: *What was John furious because his wife had taken?

(16) A: We've been assigned to read a book and write a certain kind of paper.
B1: What kind of paper?
B2: *What kind of paper have we been assigned to read a book and write?

In each of these cases, A makes a statement containing an indefinite. B seeks to determine the referent of that indefinite. B can do that with sluicing in all of the (B1) cases. B cannot do that by repeating the entire sentence, with extraction of a wh-phrase corresponding to the indefinite (the B2 cases). Yet the discourse contexts for B1 and B2 are identical. It is simply impossible to explain the contrast between B1 and B2 as being due to discourse.

I conclude from all of the above that discourse approaches to islands simply do not work, and should be abandoned.

References:


Erteschik-Shir, Nomi (2007). Information Structure: The Syntax-Discourse Interface. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldberg, Adele E. (2006). Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

James, D. (1972). Some Aspects of the Syntax and Semantics of Interjections. Paper presented at the 8th Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society.

Morgan, J.L. (1975). Some Interactions of Syntax and Pragmatics. In P. Cole and J.L. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics Volume 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press, 289-304.

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