LINGUIST List 13.2369

Thu Sep 19 2002

Disc: New: Do We Need a Replacement for *(...)?

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Joost Kremers, Replacing *(...) with something more practical

Message 1: Replacing *(...) with something more practical

Date: Thu, 19 Sep 2002 15:16:20 +0200
From: Joost Kremers <>
Subject: Replacing *(...) with something more practical

Dear colleagues,

Being a syntactician, I regularly encounter the markers "*(...)" and
"(*...)" to indicate obligatory inclusion and exclusion, respectively.
For example:

1) I see *(the) car
2) I see the (*a) car

(1) indicates that the phrase is ungrammatical if "the" is left out,
whereas (2) indicates that the phrase is ungrammatical if "a" is put

Formally, these constructs are entirely correct, but in my experience,
they are quite impractical, because their meanings are not immediately
obvious. For some reason, it always takes some conscious mental effort
to work out what they mean. I know I am not the only person who
experiences this, and therefore I think it would be a good idea to
discuss the possibility of replacing these markers with something that
is more practical.

In fact, we only need to replace one of them. The asterisk "*" is a
marker for ungrammaticality. What our notational toolbox generally
lacks, is a marker for grammaticality, some character that indicates
that a given phrase is grammatical. If we do not have it, we do not
need it, one might say, but I would argue that in this particular
case, a marker for grammaticality can be very useful.

We can use the plus character "+" for this marker. It is an obvious
choice for several reasons: it is present on a standard keyboard, it
can be used even in ASCII texts (e.g. in e-mails) and it obviously has
some positive association.

With this plus sign we can write the following:

1) I see (+the) car
2) I see the (*a) car

Personally, I find this a lot easier to read. The intended meanings
are immediately obvious.

So what do you think? Is it a good idea to replace *(...) or do you
feel it is not necessary? And would it not be a bad idea to replace
something that has already been in use for (I guess) several decades,
possibly creating some problems for future generations of linguists
when they want to read the older literature? Is it even feasible to
replace something that has been used for so long?

So in short: do we need it, and do we want it?


Joost Kremers

Joost Kremers
University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Department of Arabic and Islam

Erasmusplein 1
PO Box 9103
6500 HD Nijmegen, The Netherlands
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