Monday, November 26, 2012

VP Ellipsis inside Islands

Johnson (2001) proposed that VP ellipsis in English involves a first step of VP topicalization prior to deletion. This proposal is heavily criticized by Aelbrecht and Haegeman (2012), but they do not question the data that motivated this proposal in the first place. The most important argument presented by Johnson (2001) is that VP ellipsis is ungrammatical inside islands if the clause it occurs in is non-finite (the dashes represent the elided VP):

(1) *You shouldn't play with rifles because to --- is dangerous. (subject island)
(2) *Mag Wildwood came to read Fred's story, and I also came to ---. (adjunct island)
(3) *Lulamae Barnes recounted a story to remember because Holly had also recounted a story to ---. (complex NP island)
(4) ??Ron wanted to wear a tuxedo to the party, but Caspar couldn't decide whether to ---. (wh-island)

If VP ellipsis requires a first step of topicalization, these facts are explained. Non-finite clauses do not permit topics, as in (5), and topicalization to a higher clause would cross the island boundary, which is also bad (6).

(5) *You shouldn't play with rifles because [play with rifles] to is dangerous.
(6) *[Play with rifles], I am unhappy because to is dangerous.

While the examples in (1) through (4) are indeed unacceptable, I question whether VP ellipsis is generally not permitted inside non-finite islands. The following are some examples that I found on the web and which seem acceptable to me:

(7) ...meaning, I guess, that he is not really healthy enough, because in order to be ---, he needs this surgery.
(8) Loftus, who police say started the attack, was carrying her infant at the time and attempted to hit the other woman with her fist, but in order to ---, she threw her infant to the ground.
(9) Hi, I need to go on a visa run soon and have heard a lot of people disagree as to where the best place to --- is. Any suggestions?
(10) If you're ready to start your explorations, the best place to --- is the free 5-week mini-course, How to Explore.
(11) You have to carry the fire. I don't know how to.

Examples (7) and (8) are adjunct clauses, structurally very similar to (2). Examples (9) and (10) are complex NPs, just like (3). Example (11) is a wh-island, like (4) (wh-islands are frequently quite weak, especially with non-finite clauses, so this is not surprising). Regarding subject islands like (1), I find the following (constructed) example acceptable:

(12) Being arrested once is understandable; twice even; but to have been --- so many times is just unbelievable!

Moreover, when VP ellipsis takes place in a non-finite clause that is embedded in another non-finite clause, it is perfectly acceptable:

(13) To vote Republican is bad; to have to --- is worse.
(14) To play with guns is stupid; to want to --- is just plain dumb.

Since every clause inside the subject island in these examples is non-finite, there should be no landing site for a topicalized VP, without the VP crossing the island boundary. More generally, VP ellipsis seems to be acceptable in non-finite islands, contra Johnson (2001).

If VP ellipsis is actually acceptable in non-finite islands, the main reason for thinking that VP ellipsis is preceded by VP topicalization disappears. The only other reason is that they are both similar in requiring an auxiliary verb, and there are numerous proposals that explain that fact without relating VP ellipsis to VP topicalization derivationally (for instance, the proposal in Bruening 2010).


Aelbrecht, Lobke and Liliane Haegeman (2012). VP-Ellipsis Is Not Licensed by VP-Topicalization. Linguistic Inquiry 43: 591--613.

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

Johnson, Kyle (2001). What VP Ellipsis Can Do, and What It Can't, but not Why. In The Handbook of Contemporary Syntactic Theory, edited by Mark Baltin and Chris Collins. Oxford: Blackwell, pp.439--479.

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