LINGUIST List 10.985

Fri Jun 25 1999

Disc: Person Marking

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. John Lawler, Disc: Person Marking

Message 1: Disc: Person Marking

Date: Thu, 24 Jun 1999 09:41:42 -0400
From: John Lawler <>
Subject: Disc: Person Marking

Mike Maxwell writes in LINGUIST 10-978 (an addendum to 10-856):
And Mark A. Mandel ( recalled

 ...seeing something akin in colloquial American English being pointed to
 me in my time in generative semantics (Berkeley, 73-80). The numbers
 below serve to distinguish the participants in each conversation.

 Example 1:
 1. "Got it?"
 2. "Got it."

 Example 2:
 1. "Coming?"
 2. "In a minute!"
 (several minutes elapse)
 1. "Hurry up!"
 2. "Coming!"

It would seem from this data that the unmarked subject of a question or
assertion is the one who apparently has the most knowledge about the
situation in question: the addressee of a question, or the utterer of an
assertion. (Commands are not about knowledge and so do not figure in
this formula.)

Therefore, the subject pronoun (and auxiliary verb or modal) can be
dropped iff it is first person in an assertion, or second person in a

That was essentially Randy Thrasher's conclusion in his 1974 dissertation:
 "Shouldn't Ignore These Strings: A Study of Conversational Deletion"

The topic came up a long time ago on LINGUIST, under the guise of
Pro-drop, and I summarized the thesis. The issues are 4-121 and 4-227,

The generalization is bent a bit askew by noting that there are situations
which allow virtually any subject pronoun to be dropped, as Schmerling
first pointed out in CLS 9:

 Cut {myself/yourself/himself/ourselves/yourselves/themselves} again?
 Can't do it, can {I/you/he/she/they/we}?

 It would be interesting to relate this English phenomenon to
 evidential marking, which seems to figure prominently in many of the
 languages that have this kind of person marking. If we were still
 doing generative semantics, someone might propose that English has a
 covert evidential system :-).

It seems to me that there simply is a second-person prominence in
interrogative contexts; this phenomenon is surely of a piece with the one
pointed out by Gordon and Lakoff, namely that either
 a) *asserting* a speaker-based felicity condition on a proposition
 b) *questioning* a listener-based felicity condition on it
(but *not* vice versa) produces an effect that they called "indirectness".

As for generative semantics, who says we're still not doing it?
It's just called different things these days, that's all.
And English has lots of covert systems; what's one more?

-John Lawler Michigan Linguistics
"Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a - Edward Sapir
 mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations." Language (1921)
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue