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Review of  Provocative Syntax

Reviewer: Atakan Ince
Book Title: Provocative Syntax
Book Author: Philip Branigan
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Issue Number: 22.5037

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AUTHOR: Branigan, Phil
TITLE: Provocative Syntax
SERIES TITLE: Linguistic Inquiry Monographs, Monograph Sixty-One
YEAR: 2011

Atakan İnce, Columbia, MD, USA

Phil Branigan’s “Provocative Syntax” offers a new theory of syntactic movement
that does away with (1) Extended Projection Principle (EPP) as a to-be-checked
feature to motivate movement, and (2) Specifier (Spec) position in a phrase as a
position to be filled in. EPP was first introduced as the requirement that each
sentence have a subject and then was transformed into the requirement that each
head have a Spec to be filled in.

The book contains a preface and five chapters. The first chapter is the
“Introduction”. Chapter 2 is called “Provocation”, Chapter 3 “Provocative Case
Studies”, while 4 and 5 are “Force and Provocation” and “Provoking Trace
Deletion”, respectively.

Chapter 1, Introduction, introduces Chomsky’s most recent theory of movement
(Chomsky 2008), which has two components: an Agree relation between Probe-Goal
and EPP. Branigan argues that EPP, as a representational constraint, in
unnecessary to motivate movement.

Chapter 2, Provocation, gives the key proposal of the book. In Branigan’s theory
of movement, unlike Chomsky’s (2008), a separate copy is generated as a result
of the Agree between Probe and Goal. The key concept is provocation, which
generates a copy of the Goal whenever an Agree relation is established between
Probe and Goal. This new copy forms a chain with the original copy and then
merges in the root of the existing structure to ‘form a single phrase marker’.
Thus, Branigan notes, there is no need to fill in a Specifier position. In this
view, movement is a side effect of creating a second copy of the Goal. An
uninterpretable feature is provocative if it requires an external match as well
as an internal match (i.e., one which is in its search domain). The external
match can be either a copy of the internal match or a separate item coming from
the Numeration (wh-expletives in German). In any case, the external match and
the internal match form a chain since they agree with the same Probe.

In this chapter, Branigan also introduces the operation Refine, which turns an
A’-chain into an operator-variable chain. Via this operation, the internal copy
gives up its operator content, and the external copy loses its predicational

As to head movement, he first makes the assumption that the computational system
prefers phrasal movement to head movement, and that, therefore, head movement is
possible only in cases where phrasal movement is not. Head movement, then,
occurs only in cases where the Goal is the head of the complement of the Probe,
complement-to-Spec movement being illicit since a phrase cannot merge with the
same head more than once (Pesetsky & Torrego 2007). Since a head cannot merge
in Spec, it adjoins to the Probe head.

In Chapter 3, Provocative Case Studies, Branigan documents cases where head
movement occurs instead of phrasal movement, and provides a derivation for these
cases under the provocation-based movement theory.
One such case is Quotative Inversion in English:

1. “Who’s on first?” asked Abbott.

In these constructions, an operator (OP) moves to Tense Phrase (TP) since Tense
(T) bears unvalued provocative OP features. Since OP externally merges in TP,
Subject cannot merge in TP to value the unvalued phi-features of T. However,
since agreement occurs between the v-V complex and Subject and this complex
bears the relevant interpretable phi-features, the verbal complex moves to T.

Other constructions where head movement occurs because Subject cannot move are
Negative Inversion constructions (2a-b), topicalization in Germanic (3), root
wh-questions (4) (where A’-movement and A-movement target the same phrase:
Finiteness Phrase (FinP)), and German long topicalization (5):

2. a. No tastier moose stew have I ever sampled.
b. Never would I support such an amendment.

3. Dat boek heeft Hans gelezen.
this book has Hans read

4. Where should we meet?

5. Den Maler glaube ich, mag Petra t.
the painter think I likes Petra
‘I think Petra likes the painter.’

In Chapter 4, Force and Provocation, Branigan gives the differences between
symmetric and asymmetric Germanic languages with respect to A’-movement and
provides a provocation-based account of these differences. In symmetric Germanic
languages, V2-phenomenon occurs not only with bridge verbs but also with abridge
verbs in embedded clauses as well as in relative clauses. In asymmetric
languages, V2-phenomenon is restricted only to bridge verbs.
He also provides examples of cases where a probe provokes multiple elements (two
phrases or one phrase and one head). One such case is multiple wh-fronting in
Slavic. In these cases, he proposes, the relevant functional heads are
[+multiple provocative], i.e. they can provoke multiple elements. In the other
case, both a head and phrase within its complement move to the head and
specifier positions of a higher phrase, respectively. This gives us the
derivation of embedded wh-questions in asymmetric Germanic languages.

For Branigan, the main difference between symmetric and asymmetric Germanic
languages depends on the base position of complementizers: complementizers merge
in Force position in symmetric Germanic languages and in Finiteness (Fin)
position, as a reflection of interpretable [force] ([iforce]) features of this
head, in asymmetric Germanic languages. In asymmetric Germanic languages, both
Fin and the wh-phrase (and relative operators in relative clauses), both with
[iforce] features, move to ForceP, which is [+ multiple provocative]. In
symmetric Germanic languages (Yiddish, Icelandic), on the other hand, only the
wh-phrase moves to ForceP but Fin cannot because it does not bear [iforce]
features. Branigan also suggests a similar analysis for Subjects and Topics in
these languages: Topics and Subjects both move to Spec, FinP; however, in each
instance, Fin has different feature specifications.

The evidence for Fin-to-Force movement in asymmetric Germanic languages comes
from complementizer agreement (Dutch, German), asymmetric coordination (Dutch),
multiple complementizers (Dutch).

As to the distribution of embedded V2 clauses, he gives a provocation-based
account: when there is an intervening phrase (and its head) between ForceP and
FinP, Force cannot provoke Fin since head movement is blocked, and the
derivation crashes.

The central argument of Chapter 5, Provoking Trace Deletion, is that syntactic
structure produces operator-variable chains, leaving minimal amount of work for
the interface.
In the following example,

6. . . . FcP[ which tent Fc [ the bike was traded for]] (p. 120)

the movement chain includes the provoking Force head and two distinct copies of
‘which tent’:

7. (which tent(1), Force, which tent(2)) (p. 120)

For LF to interpret this chain, certain structure is deleted, providing the

8. (WH x, DP[ D[ x ] N[ tent ]]) (p. 120)

After deletion, the second member of the chain provides the variable.

In the rest of the chapter, he focuses on that-trace effects as well as on how
intermediary copies in successive-cyclic A’-movement are interpreted under
Refine: intermediary copies of a phrase, that function as operator, are
deleted/ignored under his Clause Edge Interpretation Convention:

9. Clause Edge Interpretation Convention (CEIC)
In the left periphery of a clause, only categories external to a
force marker can be
ignored. (p. 127)

That-trace effects are instances of failure of deletion of these intermediary
copies in A’-movement. In the following example (7a, p. 125), the intermediary
copy of the wh-phrase occurs to the left of the force marker ‘that’ (10b) and,
therefore, can be ignored:

10. a. Whom should I say that Pam has invited?
b. FinP[ wh x should I say FcP[ wh x that . . . ] (p. 127)

In the case of that-trace effects, the intermediary copy of the moved phrase
occurs to the right of the force marker and cannot be ignored:

11. a. * Which horse do you think FinP[ t Fin TP[ t will win the
race]]? (p. 129)
b. FcP[ which x that FinP[ which x . . .

Since CEIC cannot ignore the copy of the wh-phrase to the right of ‘that’, the
derivation crashes.

All in all, Branigan’s book is a great achievement in that it accounts for a
vast set of phenomena from different languages, especially Germanic languages.
It is a study that researchers and students working in the framework the
Minimalist Program needs to read. The work puts forward quite challenging ideas
such as (i) elimination of EPP, (ii) copies as distinct elements (tokens),
elimination of Specifier (Spec) position as a position-to-be-filled-in, among
others. It also gives a very neat theory of head movement in Narrow Syntax. I
now point out one implication and a few problematic aspects of Branigan’s theory.

One aspect of the theory presented in the book is that Specifier positions are
not positions that need to be filled in and, therefore, motivate movement. They
are rather created as a result of the movement operation. In a sense, this
eliminates the difference between movement (to Spec) and adjunction in terms of
phrase structural representation. In adjunction, neither is there a position to
be filled in. Nor is it required to assume that adjunction creates segments. It
also eliminates the question ‘Why is Spec always leftward?’, requiring a new
explanation for why A-movement and A’-movement are leftward.

However, Branigan’s theory has some wrinkles with respect to theta-role
assignment. In the case of A-movement, Branigan assumes that theta-role
assignment can occur at two levels: Narrow Syntax (NS) and Logical Form (LF)
(see the discussion on p. 16). This is a non-minimalistic assumption and
reminiscent of a similar problem with Government-Binding theory: in GB the same
theta role was assigned to the DP member of an expletive-associate chain in Deep
Structure (DS) and then to the chain itself in Logical Form (LF), for instance
(Brody, 1993).

As to expletive-associate chains in partial wh-movement in Germanic languages,
Branigan contends that the wh-expletive in a higher position is pronounced
because it is not homophonous with its associate. Under this view, if there is
more than one wh-expletive in a structure, only one of them is supposed to be
pronounced. However, the data shows the opposite (ex. 12). Therefore, his
analysis requires some refinement with respect to (conditions on) which members
of a chain can be pronounced in PF:

12. Was glaubst du was er sagt wen Irina liebt?
what believe you what he says who Irina loves
‘Who do you believe that he says that Irina loves?’ (p. 18)

Also, in his theory, A-movement occurs due to the provocative unvalued
phi-features of the Probe, EPP being eliminated. However, in the following data
from Catalan, Fin agrees with a Nominative object when the Dative Experiencer
sits in Spec, FinP (ex. 13); similarly, Fin agrees with a Nominative Object when
the Subject is non-Nominative in Icelandic (ex. 14):

13. Li agraden les pellicules.
3sg-dat like-3pl the films
‘He likes films.’
(Fortuny 2008: 82)

14. Mig sækir syfja.
me-ACC seeks-3sg sleepiness-NOM
‘I am/feel sleepy.’
(Woolford 2003: 543)

Under Branigan’s theory, it is unclear what motivates movement of non-Nominative
Subjects to the canonical Subject position. If it were phi-features, Fin would
not be expected to agree with the object. I believe his theory will be much
neater if he develops an analysis for the puzzling data above.

All in all, Branigan’s work is a good read and meticulous study.

Brody, Michael. 1993. Θ-theory and arguments. Linguistic Inquiry, 24(1): 1-23.

Chomsky, Noam. 2008. On phases. In R. Freidin, C. P. Otero, and M. L.
Zubizarreta, eds., Foundational Issues in Linguistics Theory: Essays in Honor of
Jean-Roger Vergnaud, 133-167. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fortuny, Jordi. 2008. The Emergence of Order in Syntax. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Pesetsky, David and Esther Torrego. 2007. The syntax of valuation and the
interpretability of features. In S. Karimi, V. Samiian, and W. Wilkins, eds.,
Phrasal and Clausal Architecture: Syntactic Derivation and Interpretation,
262-294. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Woolford, Ellen. 2003. Nominative objects and case locality. In W. Browne et.
al., eds., Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics 11: 539-568. Ann Arbor:
Michigan Slavic Publications.

Atakan İnce is a freelance linguist and translator. He received his PhD in linguistics from the University of Maryland. His research interests are in ellipsis and agreement in Turkish within a generative framework.

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