Review of The Syntax of Nonsententials
Editors: Progovac, Ljiljana; Paesani, Kate; Casielles, Eugenia; Barton, Ellen
Title: The Syntax of Nonsententials: Multidisciplinary Perspectives
Series: Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 93
Publisher: John Benjamins Publisher Company
Marina Kolokonte, Department of English Literature, Language and
Linguistics, University of Newcastle, UK
This book is a collection of 12 papers which examine the structure and
interpretation of 'nonsentential utterances', utterances that are smaller
than a sentence. The book opens with an introduction by the editors where
they define the scope of the book and outline the organization of the
chapters. Then, a short overview of the contents of each chapter is given.
The first six chapters focus on the syntactic and semantic analysis of
adult nonsentential data whereas the next six chapters extend the
nonsentential analysis proposed in the first part to describe wide range of
data from language acquisition to pidgin languages and agrammatism/aphasia.
The first chapter by Ellen Barton offers a detailed overview of the major
syntactic approaches proposed in the literature regarding the structure and
interpretation of nonsententials, also known as 'fragments', as in (1)
(Barton's (23) p. 17) and (2) (Barton's (26a) p. 18)
A: The White House staff doesn't visit the Speaker of the House in his
B: Old grudge.
A: Our classmate John is probably making a million a year by now.
B: John a successful business man? Don't make me laugh.
The elliptical approach, advocated by Morgan (1973), maintains that
fragments originate from underlying full sentences which undergo deletion.
The full sentence source is recoverable from the discourse context. Among
the arguments that Morgan had put forward in favor of the ellipsis approach
are certain connectivity effects between fragments and their sentential
counterpart, such as binding effects, and a variety of island phenomena.
The non elliptical approach proposed by Barton (1990, 1991) maintains that
fragments are not derived syntactically from a full sentence form nor can
they be associated with a full sentence for their semantic and pragmatic
interpretation. The key arguments in favor of this approach are of two
types; the first type includes examples where the fragment is acceptable
but the underlying full sentence is not, and the second type includes
examples where there is no available linguistic antecedent from which the
underlying full sentence can be recovered.
There is a third, mixed approach (Barton 1998, Morgan 1989) according to
which both analyses are necessary in order to describe the full range of
data. However, according to the author this compromise is not the most
In the second chapter Ljiljana Progovac presents a non-elliptical analysis
for nonsentential utterances based on adult conversational data, such as
(3) (Progovac's (1) p. 35), (4) (Progovac's (13) p. 35) and (5) (Progovac's
(6) p. 35).
(3) Nice lady!
(4) (What? ) Him worry?!
(5) Problem solved.
Progovac notes that all these phrases surface in an unusual form: the noun
phrases surface without determiners, the subject pronouns are in accusative
case, and no tense elements are present. Furthermore the author argues that
the semantics of such phrases is different from the semantics of the
corresponding full sentences. The analysis puts forward the idea that the
common characteristic of these isolated phrases is the lack of the Tense
projection (TP). Based on the assumptions that only a Determiner Phrase
(DP) can be assigned structural case and that tense is the element that
checks the nominative Case feature, Progovac argues that in nonsententials,
phrases are selected from the lexicon without any structural case or tense
features. Evidence for that is the accusative case of the subject pronoun
-- Progovac presents evidence that accusative is the default case in
English -- and the lack of determiners. Since no formal features of case or
tense need to be checked, then the presence of the TP is unnecessary.
According to the author, this idea of base generation of the nonsentential
utterances can be accommodated within the Minimalist Theory (Chomsky 1995)
since in this framework it is assumed that the building of the structure is
achieved bottom up and that no phrase needs to be projected if there isn't
linguistic evidence that demands its projection.
The third chapter by Jason Merchant is a summary of Merchant (2004) and it
is the only chapter where an ellipsis approach is proposed. According to
Merchant's analysis, the fragment is moved to a clause external position
for focused constituents, the Spec of a Focus Phrase (FP), which hosts the
feature E. This feature then licenses the ellipsis of its sister node, the
TP. The key evidence for the ellipsis approach are the case connectivity
effects. Merchant presents data from various languages with rich
inflectional morphology which show that crosslinguistically a fragment must
have the same case as the wh-phrase it corresponds to in the antecedent
clause. An example from Greek is given in (6) (Merchant's (9) p. 75)
Q: Pjos idhe tin Maria?
Who-NOM saw the Maria?
'Who saw Maria?'
a. A: O Giannis.
b. A: *Ton Gianni.
According to the author, the main arguments for the fronting movement of
the remnant come from preposition stranding requirements and island
effects. Furthermore the movement component of the analysis is able to
explain cases of nonconstituent deletion that were problematic for previous
elliptical approaches. Although Merchant also tries to pursue a 'limited
ellipsis' analysis for fragments with no apparent linguistic antecedent,
nevertheless he acknowledges the fact that for some of these examples the
ellipsis analysis may not be appropriate.
In the fourth chapter Robert J. Stainton presents a critical analysis of
Merchant's ellipsis approach. After a brief presentation of Merchant's
theory and its indisputable advantages over previous elliptical approaches,
Stainton raises certain objections regarding the essentials of Merchant
approach, the E feature, the ellipsis component and the movement component.
The objection to the latter includes examples where a fragment is possible
despite the fact that the fronting movement is either blocked by an island
or it is not available in the language for independent reasons. However,
Stainton's main objection concerns the examples where no linguistic
antecedent is present, as in (7) (Stainton's (27) p. 108):
(7) Two black coffees.
The objection is that Merchant's limited ellipsis approach, where it is
assumed that the element elided is either [VP do it ] or [TP this/that is],
is not always applicable to this type of data. According to the author, if
one wishes to maintain an ellipsis analysis, more elements must be
introduced in order to satisfy each individual case. However, that would
require far too much extralinguistic information for what is supposed to be
'a language-internal process' (p.109). Therefore, Stainton reaches the
conclusion that, at least for some types of nonsentential utterances, an
alternative nonsentential approach should be considered.
In the fifth chapter, Eugenia Casielles provides some additional evidence
against Merchant's ellipsis approach. The author focuses on short answers
to questions, as this set of data is more similar to well-known instances
of sentential ellipsis, such as Verb-Phrase ellipsis, since they do not
belong to any special register and linguistically they require the presence
of an immediate antecedent. After revising the classic arguments of the
elliptical approach presented in the previous chapters, such as
connectivity effects, Casielles shows that short answers are not always
sensitive to connectivity and matching effects nor can they always be
considered to be a subset of a corresponding complete answer. Therefore,
according to the author, these data provide evidence for a nonsentential
approach, as the one proposed by Progovac in the second chapter. The author
also notes that this type of phrase can also be found in child speech and
therefore a base generation approach of isolated phrases is a far more
economical solution than ellipsis, where three distinct processes --
production of a full sentence, movement of the fragment and ellipsis of the
TP -- must be assumed.
The focus of the sixth chapter by Kate Paesani is the investigation of
nonsentential data from 'special registers', language varieties used for
specific purposes, such as headlines and cooking recipes. The author
observes that in some of these registers the data exhibit the properties of
adult nonsentential data, such as absence of auxiliary verbs, absence of
tense on lexical verbs, subjects without determiners and default present
time. More interestingly, the data show evidence of the same Tense-Case
correlation that Progovac argued for in the second chapter. In light of
this evidence the author argues that these examples can also be analyzed as
independent base-generated phrases which lack a tense projection. The
author argues that in the few exceptions where noun phrases appear with a
determiner, the determiner is used for referential rather than
In the seventh chapter Christopher Potts and Tom Roeper investigate a
particular type of small clause which has an emotive force and which is
formed with a certain class of expressive predicates, as in (8) (Potts and
Roeper's (1a) p. 183)
(8) Oh, you fool!
Although the authors do not compare their data with Progovac's adult
conversational data, they nevertheless point out some common features, such
as the omission of functional material, the impossibility for these small
clauses to embed and the fact that their semantics is not reproducible with
full sentential forms. According to the authors, this type of clause
provides evidence for the direction of acquisition. Their thesis is that
children start with small clauses (Radford 1990) to which they ascribe
various meanings. As children acquire more complex structures, they start
narrowing down this vast range of meanings by assigning some of these
meanings to the new structures. Subsequently the small clauses that survive
in adulthood are those whose meaning cannot be associated with a full
sentential form, such as the expressive clauses. The authors argue that the
expressive content is unable to act as a semantic argument and thus a small
clause that has as its predicate an expressive type is unable to proceed to
the composition of a higher functional projection.
In chapter eight, Nicola Work presents nonsentential data found in early
second language (L2) learners' varieties. According to certain L2
acquisition theories, L2 learners pass several stages when acquiring a new
language. This type of interlanguage often exhibits properties which are
not based on either the learner's first language (L1) or L2. One such
variety is the Basic Variety (Klein & Perdue 1997). Work analyses
nonsentential data from this Basic Variety and shows that these share many
similarities with adult nonsentential speech. Both types use tenseless
forms of the verb, noun phrases without determiners and phrasal instead of
sentential negation. According to the author, these similarities argue in
favor of a nonsentential analysis, such as the one proposed by Progovac.
The infrequent use, in certain examples, of nominative case instead of the
default accusative is analyzed as influence from an L1 where nominative,
instead of accusative, is the default case. The author also examines a
language variety that teachers use when addressing second language
learners, 'teacher talk'. The sentential properties it exhibits, such as
the inflected verbs, point to the direction of an elliptical/ sentential
In the ninth chapter Herman Kolk presents nonsentential data from
agrammatism. He shows that some of the characteristics of agrammatic speech
are the nonexistence of subordination, omission of functional categories
such as auxiliaries, and slow rate of speech. However, the frequency that
these symptoms occur is systematic neither in the patient group
(between-patient variation) nor in the same speaker, (within-patient
variation). This probabilistic character of aphasic speech can be explained
under Kolk's adaptation theory. The author argues that the basic problem in
agrammatic production is the fact that patients are not able to process
simultaneously all the parts of a syntactic tree when constructing a full
sentence. The degree of this deficit in individuals accounts for the
variability between speakers. The author also argues that patients try to
compensate for these processing difficulties either by reducing the
speaking rate or by resorting to simpler syntactic forms, which he calls
'telegraphic utterances'. The first choice results in the slow rate symptom
observed in agrammatic production whereas the second choice results in the
production of utterances without functional elements and inflection. The
degree of use of this telegraphic grammar depends on the requirements of
the language task in question as well as the communication settings; thus
these two facts account for the within-individual variability.
Taking as the basis Kolk's adaptation theory, Patricia Siple, in the tenth
chapter, examines the precise structure of those telegraphic utterances.
She shows that telegraphic utterances produced by agrammatic people exhibit
many of the properties of adult nonsentential speech, such as omission of
tense and inflection, lack of determiners, and subject pronouns in
accusative case instead of nominative. According to the author, these data
constitute evidence that the telegraphic utterances found in agrammatism
conform to the syntactic analysis proposed by Progovac (ch. 2). Furthermore
the fact that agrammatic people tend to overuse these nonsentential
utterances shows that these must be less complex that the full sentential
constructions. This provides further support to the idea that an elliptical
approach should not be maintained for nonsentential utterances.
In chapter 11 Donald Winford brings data from prototypical pidgin languages
which 'have arisen in limited contexts of trade and marginal contact
between speakers of different languages'(p. 283). These pidgin languages
have some of the properties of nonsentential grammar, such as the lack of
functional categories (e.g. tense), absence of any inflectional morphology
and any type of embedding. These characteristics seem to be systematic
independently of the properties of the source language, something that was
also observed in the L2 acquisition data presented by Work in chapter
eight. The author shows that the stages of pidginization are strikingly
similar to the stages of L2 acquisition. These observations suggest that
prototypical pidgins, as L2 varieties, must not be considered
simplification of the target or dominant language or a reduced form of the
source language. Instead, the hypothesis put forward is that early pidgins
show all the characteristics of a nonsentential grammar, similar to the one
found in L2 acquisition data and adult conversational data.
The existence of a nonsentential grammar is also shown to exist in Creole
languages, as Walter Edwards shows in chapter twelve. The author
investigates the Guyanese Creole (GC) and African American Vernacular
English (AAVE). The data analysis from two types of GC, the Rural GC and
the Urban GC, shows that in both varieties the copula is optional when in
present tense but obligatorily absent before a predicative adjective or a
verb form in –ing. Data of AAVE also seem to exhibit the same properties;
the present tense copula is absent before an –ing form and before
adjectives. Based on these findings the author puts forward two interesting
hypotheses. The first is that the omission of the present tense copula in
all three varieties in similar environments may constitute evidence for a
linguistic connection between GC and AAVE. Secondly, the data provide
additional support to Progovac's claim that speakers may be equipped with a
nonsentential grammar composed of small clauses and isolated phrases where
a Tense projection is not necessary.
In the epilogue of the book the four editors discuss some of the issues
presented in the twelve chapters which draw these papers together.
Furthermore, they make a general comparison of the elliptical and
nonelliptical approach focusing on certain crucial criteria, such as case
matching effects. Finally, they show directions for future research.
Overall this book provides an excellent introduction to the structure of
nonsententials. The book does not go into many technical details and
therefore it is relatively easy for a non-specialist audience to follow the
basic arguments and the analyses proposed. The organization of the chapters
also helps the reader to follow the discussion and to observe the data, all
skillfully built on the central hypothesis of the existence of a
Furthermore, as it is suggested in the cover text, the book succeeds in
''bringing data that many in formal linguistics have dismissed as peripheral
straight to the core of syntactic theory.'' Therefore, the use of these data
may be proven very valuable in opening new directions in research.
Although Progovac's nonsentential approach is certainly an impressive one,
many technical details of the analysis need further elaboration: the status
of the default case, the implications of the existence of two different
cases (a structural and a default one) on the lexicon, and the exact
process of selecting one over the other.
However, although the book does not offer a solution to the current debate
of whether the nonsentential analysis must be considered as the only
appropriate approach to describe the full range of data, as it sometimes
argued in the literature (Culicover & Jackendoff 2005), it succeeds in
offering precisely what the title suggests: multidisciplinary perspectives
on the syntax of nonsententials.
Barton, E. (1990). Nonsentential Constituents: A Theory of Grammatical
Structure and Pragmatic Interpretation. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Barton, E. (1991). Nonsentential constituents and theories of phrase
structure. In K. Leffel & D. Bouchard (Eds.), Views on Phrase Structure
(pp. 193–214). Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Barton, E. (1998). The Grammar of telegraphic structures: Sentential and
nonsentential derivation. Journal of English Linguistics, 26, 37–67.
Chomsky, N. (1995). The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Culicover, P. & Jackendoff, R. (2005). Simpler Syntax. Oxford: OUP.
Klein, W. F. & Perdue, C. (1997). The Basic Variety: Or, couldn't natural
languages be much simpler? Second Language Research, 13, 301–347.
Merchant, J. (2004). Fragments and ellipsis. Linguistics and Philosophy,
Morgan, J. (1973). Sentence fragments and the notion 'sentence'. In B.
Kachru, R. Lees, Y. Malkiel, A. Pietrangeli, & S. Saporta (Eds.), Issues in
Linguistics: Papers in Honor of Henry and Renée Kahane (pp. 719–751).
Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Morgan, J. (1989). Sentence fragments revisited. In B. Music, R. Graczyk, &
C. Wiltshire (Eds.), CLS Parasession on Language in Context (pp. 228–241).
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Radford, A. (1990). Syntactic Theory and the Acquisition of English Syntax.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Marina Kolokonte is currently a 3rd year Ph.D. student in the School of
English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University, United
Kingdom under the supervision of Prof. Anders Holmberg and Dr. Dimitra
Kolliakou. Her first degree is in Greek Philology and Linguistics and her
MA is in Applied Linguistics with Translation. The precise topic of her
research is the investigation of Bare Argument Ellipsis with special
reference to Modern Greek. Other research interests include informational
vs. contrastive focus, focus movement, phrasal vs. sentential negation and