Saturday, December 27, 2014

The 4th Hilbert Question: Is There Repair by Ellipsis

There has been a little Evans induced hiatus from the Hilbert Project. This is too bad, for unlike the Evans' stuff, this is both interesting and valuable. At any rate, I will try to be more diligent in posting these more frequently. Today Craig Sailor and Carson Schütze discuss Ellipsis and one of the leading theories we have about it.  Hopefully, this will generate some vigorous discussion.


Is there repair by ellipsis?*

Craig SailorUniversity of Groningen

Carson T. SchützeUCLA
     Ross (1969) observed that an island violation could apparently be overcome or “repaired” if the island were deleted, as in sluicing, where wh-movement occurs out of an elided structure. This could be superficially described as an instance of ellipsis “feeding” an otherwise-illicit application of movement. Over the years, this phenomenon has been thought to extend beyond islands: ellipsis can apparently feed or repair a variety of illicit movements, including unlicensed instances of (multiple) focus movement, head movement, etc. (Merchant 2010).
     Recently, though, several authors have leveled convincing arguments against the original claim that ellipsis can repair island violations, showing apparent examples to be illusory (Barros to appear, a.o.). With the foundation of elliptical repair in doubt, the following question arises: To what extent, if any, can ellipsis make an ill-formed structure acceptable?

        The structure in (1), in which an XP has moved out of some elided YP, has been ascribed to several ellipsis phenomena (some involving more than one moved XP):

(1)       XP … [YP … tXP …]

We refer to this as the “move-and-delete” derivation.
Sluicing was the first phenomenon to be assigned this derivation, following Ross (1969). Sluicing (2) is widely thought to involve wh-movement out of an elided constituent (3):

(2)      Who?
(3)      Whoi [ did he see ti ] ?

English would require this movement of who independent of the ellipsis; thus, sluicing appears to involve incidental co-occurrence of two discrete syntactic operations (movement and deletion).
     Ross noted, though, that the situation might not be this simple. In unreduced wh- questions, wh-movement is prohibited out of islands (e.g. coordinate-structure islands (4)); however, sluiced analogues of such questions are often perfectly acceptable (5).

[Context: John saw Mary and someone else.]
(4)      *Who did he see her and?
(5)        Who?

According to Ross, (4) and (5) differ only in what is pronounced, meaning the two share a structural description containing an island violation (but see below). This led to the proposal that island violations could be mitigated if the offending islands were deleted, which came to be known as “elliptical repair” of island violations (see Merchant 2001 for extensive discussion, and Fox & Pesetsky 2005 for a generalized approach based on “cyclic linearization”).
Since Ross (1969), the scope of elliptical repair has expanded beyond amelioration of apparent island violations. In the ellipsis literature, move-and-delete analyses of many different phenomena invoke movements that would yield ungrammatical sentences if ellipsis were not applied, even without an island present. Consider Merchant’s (2004) influential move-and-delete analysis of fragment answers: Merchant argues convincingly that fragment XPs originate within clausal answers, but escape ellipsis of these clauses via movement (6). Crucially, (7) shows that this movement is ungrammatical without ellipsis.

[Context: How is John feeling?]
(6)       Sicki [ he is feeling ti ].
(7)      *Sick he is feeling.

This ellipsis dependency is common among analyses of move-and-delete phenomena, including pseudogapping (8) (Jayaseelan 2001, echoed by Merchant a.o.) and multiple fragment answers (10) (adapted from Merchant 2004:711):

(8)        John won’t read magazines, but he will booksi [ read ti ].
(9)      *John won’t read magazines, but he will books read.

(10)   Q:    Wer         hat  gestern    wen        gesehen?            German
                      who.nom  has yesterday who.acc seen
                     ‘Who saw whom yesterday?’

              A1:   Der        Manni den       Jungenj  ti  hat gestern      tj  gesehen ].
                            the.nom man     the.acc boy            has yesterday     seen
              A2:  *Der       Mann den       Jungen hat gestern     gesehen.
                      the.nom man    the.acc boy      has yesterday  seen

The same state of affairs arises in well-motivated proposals for gapping (Coppock 2001), stripping (Depiante 2000), apparent non-constituent coordination (Sailor & Thoms, to appear), and other ellipsis phenomena (see Thoms, to appear, and Merchant 2010). Space restrictions preclude exemplifying each phenomenon, but they can all be shown to involve the derivation in (1), and, in each, ellipsis behaves like a well-formedness condition on the ellipsis-dodging movement: it facilitates convergence of a structure that is otherwise ill-formed. This is strongly reminiscent of apparent island repair in sluicing, except that examples such as (6) do not involve islands in the familiar sense.

     There are, however, good reasons to question Ross’s (1969) initial claim that ellipsis can repair island violations (cf. Merchant 2001:ch. 4 and references therein). Recent work by Barros (to appear) and others provides compelling arguments that apparent cases of island repair in sluicing (qua TP ellipsis), e.g. (11), are actually illusory: they always and only arise when the missing material is recoverable either as some subpart of the island in the antecedent (the “short source” strategy: (11a)) or as a simple cleft (the “pseudosluicing”/“pseudofragment” strategy: (11b)), neither of which involves an island violation, as full recovery would (11c) (see Merchant 2001; example adapted from Barros (51)):

(11)   They hired someone who speaks a Balkan language, but I don’t know which one.
a.     …which onei [ they speak ti ].                                                                    Short source
b.     …which onei [ it was ti ].                                                                Pseudosluice
c.     …which onei [ they hired someone who speaks ti ].                                 Full recovery

Given that the appearance of island repair only arises in environments where (11a) or (11b) is an available parse, there is no reason to believe that the parse in (11c) is ever available. As Barros and others point out, ellipsis sites are widely believed to contain silent structure, which in turn predicts that ellipsis should be unable to repair island violations. This prediction is maintained if (11c) is simply ruled out for the same reason its non-elided counterpart is.
That being said, if ellipsis is incapable of repairing island violations, then the analytical foundation of elliptical repair in general is called into question. Thus, our contribution to this volume—the core set of open questions we wish to pose—is:

(12)   Can ellipsis ever rescue an illicit derivation, or are all apparent cases illusory?
a.     If elliptical repair is real:
 i.   Is it a uniform phenomenon, perhaps operating on a natural class of structures or movement types within the general schema of (1), or is the appearance of uniformity accidental, and (1) perhaps too restrictive?
1.   If it is a uniform phenomenon, what is the proper analysis of it?
2.   If it is non-uniform, how can each case be accounted for without egregious additions to the grammar?
ii.   Why is ellipsis able to repair the underlying deviance of move-and-delete derivations such as (6), (8) and (10), but unable to repair island violations?
b.     If elliptical repair is illusory:
i.   What mechanisms do the apparent cases reduce to?
ii.   If some or all of the move-and-delete approach is to be maintained:
1.   Are the movements indeed illicit (and therefore need repair), but repaired by something other than ellipsis?
2.   Or are the movements actually not illicit, and we simply do not understand the underlying structure that is obscured by ellipsis (cf. pseudosluicing)?

We close with commentary on some of these questions.

It is commonly held that islands are not uniform phenomena, meaning any successful approach to (12a.ii) would presumably require uniformity of (some subpart of) the move-and-delete phenomena, part of the open question in (12a.i). Thus, those two questions may be implicationally related. That islands cannot be repaired is significant: it reins in the theory of repair, and potentially makes predictions about the nature of the repairable movement(s).
Regarding (12a.i), a comparative inversion phenomenon described in Merchant (2003) poses a challenge for unification of elliptical repair (13). It exhibits the same ellipsis dependency as the move-and-delete phenomena discussed above, but it differs from them by not obviously involving the move-and-delete derivation in (1). First, the illicit movement being repaired is head movement (T-to-C), not phrasal movement; second, the trace of this illicit movement is apparently outside the elided constituent:

(13)    Abby can speak more languages than cani her father ti [ speak ].
(14)   *Abby can speak more languages than can her father speak.

Perhaps such cases (and others, including as-clauses: Merchant 2003) can be related to the move-and-delete phenomena we have been discussing; if so, a uniform approach to elliptical repair may be achievable.

Barros, Matthew. To appear. “A non-repair approach to island sensitivity in contrastive TP ellipsis.” In Proceedings from the forty-eighth Annual Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society.
Coppock, Elizabeth. 2001. “Gapping: In defense of deletion.” In Mary Andronis, Christopher Ball, Heidi Elston & Sylvain Neuvel (eds.), Proceedings from the thirty-seventh Annual Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, CLS 37–1: The Main Session, 133–148.
Depiante, Marcela. 2000. The Syntax of Deep and Surface Anaphora. Doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut.
Fox, Danny and David Pesetsky. 2005. “Cyclic linearization of syntactic structure.” Theoretical Linguistics 31: 1-45.
Jayaseelan, K. A. 2001. “IP-internal topic and focus phrases.” Studia Linguistica 55: 39–75.
Merchant, Jason. 2001. The Syntax of Silence. Oxford University Press.
Merchant, Jason. 2003. “Subject-auxiliary inversion in comparatives and PF output constraints.” In The Interfaces: Deriving and Interpreting Omitted Structures, eds. Kerstin Schwabe and Susanne Winkler, 55–77. John Benjamins.
Merchant, Jason. 2004. “Fragments and ellipsis.” Linguistics and Philosophy 27: 661–738.
Merchant, Jason. 2006. “A taxonomy of elliptical repair.” Handout from École d’Automne de Linguistique 2006, École Normale Supérieure, Paris.
Ross, John Robert. 1969. “Guess who?” In Robert I. Binnick, Alice Davison, Georgia M. Green, Jerry L. Morgan et. al. (eds.), Papers from the fifth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, 252–286.
Sailor, Craig and Gary Thoms. To appear. “On the non-existence of non-constituent coordination and non-constituent ellipsis.” In Proceedings of the 31st West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics. Cascadilla Press.
Thoms, Gary. To appear. “Constraints on exceptional ellipsis are only parallelism effects.” In NELS 43: Proceedings of the forty-third Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistic Society. GLSA.
* Future updates at lingbuzz/002181

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  1. In my view, there are way too many dubious assumptions in here for this to be a proper "Hilbert question." It is simply stated, for instance, that while "[s]pace restrictions preclude exemplifying each phenomenon, [...] they can all be shown to involve the derivation in (1)" -- but this is not clear at all. (See, e.g., Bruening's recent refutation of the Sailor & Thoms analysis.) The claim that ellipsis must in all cases be implemented as constituent deletion has never been properly justified, to my knowledge. (Merchant's main motivation was the E-feature, but that is an ad hoc, descriptive device.) And the question if ellipsis can "repair" islands can only be asked once we have an idea what islands are -- and we currently don't. The central question, "To what extent, if any, can ellipsis make an ill-formed structure acceptable?" is substantial only to the extent that the notions "ill-formed" and "acceptable" are given some meaning; as it stands, those are just informal notions.

    1. Not sure I agree: that's a very high bar for a Hilbert Question, and I am told that even Hilbert's questions didn't always meet such a bar.

      In fact, it seems that Bruening did not find the question too abstruse to provide evidence against it.

      As for the rest, it sounds to me like the question raised a lot of good issues: for example is deletion generally of constituents. You seem to be suggesting that it is not. I am less sure than you are about this. It certainly seems like a good 0th assumption given the role that constituents play in other parts of the grammar. You also question the link between 'ill-fomred' and 'acceptable.' As a methodological observation this seems reasonable. But as a matter of practice, do you really want to claim that there is NO relation between unacceptability and ungrammaticality? Is the former not a prima facie indicator of the latter in the kinds of cases linguists look at? If not, then more than the ellipsis stuff is at risk, no? And as for islands, yes they are theoretically opaque given current assumptions. But doesn't how else to investigate better theories than to consider cases where apparent generalizations are violated. This has been the Merchant-Lasnik strategy and I for one find it to be a perfectly coherent one. In fact, I cannot think of another that won't benefit from these sorts of inquires.

      Btw, what are Bruening's counter arguments. These would be worth knowing., for if B is right, then at the very least the problem has to be reframed, if not discarded. Why not post a few of them and let's see what Sailor and Schutze have to say.

    2. I imagine Craig and I will want to engage the substantive discussion after he gets back from LSA, but in the meantime let me address some apparent presuppositions behind Dennis's comments.

      1) While Haider & van Riemsdijk did invoke Hilbert in their invitation that led to our squiblet, they wanted to select 100 questions from a larger pool of submissions, while Hilbert apparently only managed 23 questions in total, so they/we weren't necessarily aiming for Hilbert(i)an heights to begin with. In abandoning their book project, they said most submissions failed to even pose questions in the way they had in mind, but we believe we did, which is why we submitted the squiblet to Norbert. You may think his standards for posting these are too low, but I think his reply speaks for itself.

      2) They imposed a 1400 word limit. Norbert imposed a 4-page limit. We barely/sort of stayed within those limits, so we really *didn't* have space to say more.

      3) We were using "islands" the way most people now use the term--as a way to refer to constraints on extraction that have been rigorously defined and established empirically, e.g. in experimental work by Jon Sprouse and colleagues. In fact, Jon and Norbert edited a volume about islands recently, so we can defer to it/them for justification of the notion. If no one has a good *explanation* of islands at the moment, that shouldn't preclude talking about them, otherwise we couldn't talk about much of anything.

      4) Someone who is unwilling to accept that "ill-formed" and "acceptable" can be part of a "substantial" discussion of syntax must believe that such discussion is impossible, as far as we can tell. Some readers may be aware that a great deal of ink has been spilt on this topic since the mid-90s, but this isn't the place to delve into that.