LINGUIST List 4.160

Fri 05 Mar 1993

Disc: Pro-drop

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Brian D Joseph, More on Pro-Drop
  2. stephen ryberg , English pro-drop data
  3. Joe Stemberger, Re: 4.159 Pro-drop
  4. "CONNOLLY LEO A", RE: 4.159 Pro-drop
  5. Mike Maxwell 6369, English and pro-drop

Message 1: More on Pro-Drop

Date: Fri, 5 Mar 93 16:17:20 ESTMore on Pro-Drop
From: Brian D Joseph <>
Subject: More on Pro-Drop

In the wake of all the discussion lately concerning Pro-Drop, but
especially the recent posting by Jon Aske (in LINGUIST 4.154), let
me make mention of the paper I gave at the January LSA meeting in
Los Angeles entitled "On the Absolute Nature of the Pro-Drop

In it I argued that certain facts from Modern Greek, but also from
other languages, require both some construction-specific stipulations
(thus like Aske's reference to "'lexicalized' phenomen[a]") with
regard to the possibility or impossibility of Pro-Drop (though there
are ways in which this stipulation might be formulated so as only to
indirectly have an effect on Pro-Drop) and a recognition that
Pro-Drop, however conceived, is not necessarily a binary (+ or -)

The former point is made clear by an English idiom like "Beats me!",
in the sense of "I don't know", which in this form (without adverbs,
cf. "That sure beats me!" where a subject pronoun is OK) seems to
reject the possibility of an expletive subject (*It beats me / *??That
beats me), as well as by some Greek facts whereby a special weak
nominative pronominal (having the form "tos" in the masculine
singular, for instance) occurs in just two constructions (with "na"
'Here is' and "pu n" 'where is?' [I am using here an essentially
phonemic transcription] even though Greek otherwise generally
drops nominative pronouns when they would be weak (as in most
languages standardly identified as "Pro-Drop languages", despite all
the difficulties that have been pointed out with regard to defining
"Pro-Drop"). In this way, Greek, a language which normally
suppresses weak subject pronouns, can have such a pronoun (and a
special form, at that) in just a couple of constructions (this is the
converse of the situation described for French "voila'"/"voici" by
Morin in Language 1985, in which French, normally a language
which requires subject pronouns, suppresses them with "voila" and
"voici", which Morin convincingly, to my mind, argues are to be
analyzed as finite verbs).

The latter point about the nonbinary nature of pronominal oppositions
is made by the Greek facts (and by facts from other languages as well,
Hittite being one), for in addition to the special weak nominative
pronouns such as "tos", Greek has a strong (emphatic) pronoun (e.g.
masculine singular nominative "aftos") as well as the null realization
in Pro-Drop contexts; thus there is a three-way pronominal contrast
in the language overall (though particularized to certain
constructions) of emphatic "aftos", weak "tos", and zero ("pro").

I have yet to write the paper up but I do have a detailed handout plus
abstract that I could send to anyone who is interested. Some of the
facts on "tos" and related forms are discussed in the book Irene
Philippaki-Warburton and I wrote in 1987 (Modern Greek,
published by Croom Helm), pp. 118, 214-215) and some reflections
on the diachronic origins of "tos" (which seems to have arisen by a
similar process to that which gave the parallel forms in Hittite--see
an article by Andrew Garrett in Journal of Cuneiform Studies 1990)
are discussed in an article of mine "On the synchrony and diachrony of
Modern Greek na" in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 1981.

Brian D. Joseph (
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Message 2: English pro-drop data

Date: Fri, 5 Mar 93 15:40:30 MSTEnglish pro-drop data
From: stephen ryberg <rybergsGAS.uug.Arizona.EDU>
Subject: English pro-drop data

The whole question of how to account for English Ss without overt subjects is
intriguing partly because the phenomenon is entangled in non-competence in a
way other phenomena are not: there is clearly no grammatical requirement
_for_ a non-overt finite clause subject in any environments of English (that
I know of). This brings up a crucial point I think has been overlooked in the
discussion to date, namely: how do we determine what naturally occurring
data we _do_ need to account for, as part of competence, and what we cannot
and should not attempt to account for, as part of performance (or of
sociolinguistic competence or something similar)?

As a case in point, Alan Munn asked

> To those who think that English is pro-drop: can you cite any example
> of pro drop in English embedded clauses?

and Dick Hudson subsequently seconded the implication that one could not.
But what if there _were_ tokens of such in naturally occurring data? I
know I once heard a NS dismissively utter the following, upon coming to
a troublesome portion of a map she was drawing:

 These are all the lowlands that 0 don't know where they begin.

Perhaps a sweeping study of naturally occurring data would turn up a number
of unusual subjectless clauses, albeit at extremely low frequency. So why
would we not then be obliged to account for them, as well as the more common
examples of subjectless Ss others have brought up? In other words, what
_really_ is the difference between the above and the more common

 0 Can't go tonight. 0 Have to do my homework.

_other_ than frequency? After all, every subjectless S, whether common or
uncommon, occurs due to something _other_ than grammatical requirements. How
do we know that the common examples don't occur for just the reason that
the uncommon ones probably do, perhaps due to your old garden variety
performance error? Indeed, mightn't one just as well take the position
that it is misguided to attempt an account of any subjectless Ss in English
in the first place, since they could all be so viewed? What are the bounds
of competence?

Stephen Ryberg
University of Arizona
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Message 3: Re: 4.159 Pro-drop

Date: 05 Mar 1993 12:49:34 -0500Re: 4.159 Pro-drop
From: Joe Stemberger <>
Subject: Re: 4.159 Pro-drop

All of this discussion about what is or is not pro-drop raises an
additional issue: how does a learner know whether the language being
learned is pro-drop or not?

The most straight-forward thing would be to assume that a learner looks to
see whether subjectless sentences are possible. That means that a learner
of English, hearing grown-ups say:

 Found you!
 Looks cold out today!

would conclude that English is pro-drop and then go about producing lots
of subjectless sentences. And young children do produce lots of subjectless
sentences. GBers have assumed that English-learning kids are pro-drop
because pro-drop is the unmarked setting of the parameter, and stems from
innateness. But could young children have simply taken the sentences of
English without overt subjects at face value, as evidence that subjects
aren't required in English?

You might counter, and say that the REAL evidence that English is not
pro-drop is that non-emphatic subject pronouns are possible and common. But
this is also true of Russian, which everyone treats as pro-drop.

Lightfoot has tried to sidestep this by saying that the evidence that the
language is pro-drop is whether expletive subject pronouns are
possible. If they're possible, whether optional or not, then the language
is a pro-drop language.

But doesn't this change the phenomenon from one about subjectless sentences
(which is how eveyone talks about it) to something about expletive
subjects, which naively is a very different topic?

What is the role of pragmatics and clarity here? Subject pronouns are common
in Russian probably because the copula has for all intents and purposes
been lost, both in present tense and as an auxiliary in the past tense,
so that person marking (and sometimes number marking) is absent. Pronouns
were needed for copula-less sentences. But, pronoun use has generalized
to all sentences, whether the verb carries person/number information or
not. Slavic languages that have retained the copula (such as Slovenian)
generally don't use non-emphatic subject pronouns very much.

Is Russian no longer a canonical pro-drop language, because it uses too
many subject pronouns? Or is the lack of expletives the only thing that
really matters?

---joe stemberger
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Message 4: RE: 4.159 Pro-drop

Date: 5 Mar 93 14:38:00 CST
Subject: RE: 4.159 Pro-drop

a goofy newfie <hharleyAthena.MIT.EDU> writes:
>I haven't been following all of the discussion on this topic, but
>thought i'd leap in anyway. The other day while
>talking about a prospective research topic with a friend
>we came up with what at least superficially looks like a correlation:
>languages that allow dative-marked subjects are also pro-drop (as
>conceived). Thus, e.g., English, French and German are not pro-drop
>and don't allow dative subjects, while Italian, Japanese, Telugu,
>Irish ... are pro-drop and do allow dative subjects. It's not a
>two-way correlation - there are some languages that are pro drop
>and don't allow dative subjects. (Dative subjects typically show
>up with "experiencer" verbs). If anybody can think of a counterexample
>this trend, or has any thoughts on the correlation itself, i'd love to
>hear them.

A dative in preverbal position does *not* constitute a "dative subject" in
German. In fact, I deny that there's such a thing in any language. Rather,
certain datives (most often experiencers) that are not outranked by an
agent-subject may have what are commonly, but incorrectly, called "subject
properties", the details differing greatly from language. Note that the
morphological subject, if there is one, then has other subject properties, this
time for real. Only morphological subjects control German reflexivization.
Only morphological subjects control German verb agreement. Only morphological
subjects are suppressed in participial constructions. Dative "subjects" do
none of these things.

> (Jon Aske) writes:
>Leo Connolly says:
>>Anyway, German isn't prodrop, and English doesn't seem to be either.
>Alan Munn adds:
>>To those who think that English is pro-drop: can you cite any
>>of pro drop in English embedded clauses? If not, why not? Secondly,
>>languages with pro drop generally *require* pro drop in bound
>>contexts (e.g. bound by a quantifier). Again, this is impossible in
>>English. How come?
>I think these people are missing the point, for the simple
>reason that their theoretical assumptions do not permit them to think
>beyond the terms of [+pro-drop] vs. [-pro-drop] and in terms of core
>grammar vs. periphery.
>I agree with Tom Cravens and others who have argued that what we have
>in English is a functionally related phenomenon to "standard" pro-drop
>subject-ellipsis if you will). The only difference is that in English
>it is an incipient (or "emergent", in Hopper's sense), somewhat
>and "lexicalized," phenomenon that in other languages is more fully
>grammaticalized. Why is that so hard to accept as a possibility?
>Doesn't it make sense?

Why is it so hard to accept the possibility that not every form of truncation
is prodrop? The German truncation has nothing whatsoever to do with subjects
or pro-anything, and certainly nothing to do with the situation of "true"
prodrop langs such as Italian. The question then is: is English more like
German or more like Italian? The answer seems clear to me.

Bob Frank <> writes:
>Heidi <hharleyAthena.MIT.EDU> speculates on the existence of a
>correlation between languages which allow dative subjects and those
>that allow pro drop. A counter-example that springs to mind is
>Icelandic which does not, as far as I know, allow pro-drop like that
>in Italian or Japanese (but see below), but emphatically does allow
>>dative subjects.
>I wonder whether this discussion couldn't benefit a bit from what
>Alexis Manaster-Ramer calls for: a precise definition of pro-drop. In
>the course of this discussion, German has been branded a non-pro-drop
>language. But German indeed tolerates, and in fact requires, the
>"deletion" of expletive subjects, such as occur in impersonal passives
>and `there-insertion' contexts:
> Wurde (*es) gelacht im Rathskeller?
> Was there laughed in rathskeller

(This should read: Wurde (*es) im Ratskeller gelacht? -- LAC)

> Standen (*es) voriges Jahr noch zwei Baeume im Garten?
> Stood there last year still 2 trees in the garden
>The overt expletive is possible when in initial position of a matrix
>clause, but the point remains that so-called "non-referential
>pro-drop" is possible in certain contexts. For discussion, see den
>Besten (1983) from which these examples are taken.

Come, come! In German these expletives have no subject properties whatsoever,
since preverbal position can't possibly be one, and that's their only claim to
the title. They serve to fill a hole before a second-place verb. No hole,
either because the gap is filled or because the verb is elsewhere, then no
_es_. What the hell does prodrop have to do with it? (R. Moorcroft) writes:
>Icelandic allows nominative, accusative, genitive and dative subjects
>and is not pro-drop.

Ah, but are they subjects? (I admit, the situation is more complex than in
German, since these NPs have serious syntactic properties, but I consider the
question open. Wait for my magnum opus, which will treat them.)

>As in German sentence-initial subject pronouns can be dropped in

"As in German?" Mensch, seit wann soll das etwas mit Erzaehltechnik zu tun
haben? Vielmehr kommen diese Saetze im Deutschen eben dann vor, wenn man aus
irgendwelchem Grund Selbstverstaendliches bzw. Unwichtiges auslassen will.

TB0NRN1NIU.bitnet writes:
>German does have genuinely subjectless sentences like:
> Mich friert. Mir schwindelt. Mir ist kalt.

I agree. They're subjectless. Unfortunately, others do not.

>where an indefinite third person pronoun can appear:
> Mich friert es. Mir schwindelt es. Es ist mir kalt.

Very few permit non-initial _es_, though your first two examples seem correct
to me. But _*Mir ist es kalt_ is much more typical: no _es_ is possible.

>And there are subjectless passives like:
> Jetzt wird getanzt.

Yup, though these permit _es_ as well:

 Es wird jetzt getanzt.

>As late as the Eraly Modern period, English had subjectless
>constructions with THINK, as in:
> Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.
>and with PLEASE, as in:
> If you please,
>which is fossilized in this form. In all this cases,
>what's missing is the thrid person singular neuter ES or IT.
>This feels quite different to me than the conscious avoidance
>of the first person in written texts like:
> Am in the library. Will be back at noon.

You're right: it's quite different, because only the latter even resembles
prodrop in the slightest.

>I don't think we're done looking at this matter yet.

Probably not.

--Leo Connolly
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Message 5: English and pro-drop

Date: 05 Mar 1993 17:42:00 -0600English and pro-drop
From: Mike Maxwell 6369 <>
Subject: English and pro-drop

To add to Tom Cravens' note that "Aux deletion is by no means
necessary for the (pseudo-?)pro-drop of AmE", the original
examples of such sentences were NOT formed by Aux deletion.
Unfortunately, I erased my copy of the original message, nor can I
come up with the sender's name, but I recall sentences like the
 Can't fix it, can't buy a new one.
Unless you believe there's some AUX that goes to the left of
modals (might could be...:-), or that there's some deleted AUX
between the modal and the main verb in these sentences, then AUX
deletion can't have applied.

So these aren't just VPs (unlike, one might argue, imperatives).
On the other hand, Alan Munn is quite right (I think) in saying
that this only takes place in root clauses (*I think that can't
fix it), where all sorts of other stylistic strangeness takes
place. My feeling is also that it's much more felicitous with
understood first person subjects, although others may disagree.

Finally, (contra Jon Aske) I don't see any conflict in principle
between the notion that English is [-pro-drop] in some genuine
sense, and the notion that English is incipiently pro-drop. In
theory, one generation of speakers might allow these pro-drop-like
constructions for some reason that has nothing to do with a
"pro-drop" parameter, while the next generation restructured their
internalized grammar to make English [+pro-drop] (with
concomitant, but perhaps minor, changes to the set of sentences
admitted). (The current grammar might include some sort of
inter-sentential coordination construction, for instance.) BTW,
were OE and the oldest attested forms of Germanic non-pro-drop?

My original posting asked about other languages of the world that
might be non-pro-drop (however that term is construed!). I will
post replies shortly, but I've only seen a handful. Aren't there
any other linguists out there who have studied such languages?

Mike Maxwell
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