LINGUIST List 28.3791

Thu Sep 14 2017

Review: Syntax: Abels (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 31-May-2017
From: Jeffrey Punske <>
Subject: Phases
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Klaus Abels
TITLE: Phases
SUBTITLE: An essay on cyclicity in syntax
SERIES TITLE: Linguistische Arbeiten
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Jeffrey Punske, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


This volume was originally published in 2012, but is being reviewed now because it was available in softcover in 2016. There are no apparent changes between the hardcover and softcover editions. The volume contains eight substantive chapters of various length (the shortest, Chapter 8, “Phases”, being just under two pages). Many of the core, contentful chapters are organized in pair relations, with Chapters 4 and 5 serving as the theoretic pairs to Chapters 2 and 3, respectively.

Phase Theory, introduced in Chomsky (2000), wherein some sub-part of the syntactic derivation is sent to the interfaces, is a topic of considerable research activity as well as some controversy within syntax. Questions about the (morpho-)phonology, the semantic contribution, and the lexical status of phases (and their heads) are fertile grounds for discussions. In this volume, Abels limits discussion to the interaction of phases and movement. He notes in the first paragraph: “… if the concept of the phase is fundamental to the theory and if it is to be productive theoretically, it should provide the grounds for a unifying formulation of different aspects of syntactic theory” (p. 3). The role and properties of phase extend well beyond limiting movement (see Legate 2003 for a classic discussion). By focusing entirely on movement, Abels is able to avoid an overly muddled discussion while still advancing the topic. For instance, through a discussion oriented primarily through movement, Abels is able to comment on the potential lexical status of phase heads: “These phrase play a central role in the phenomenology of movement. The list includes C, v, P, and D” (p. 277).

Chapter 2 examines the best model for movement dependencies. The fundamental question of the chapter is whether movement paths are punctuated (defined where “some but not all nodes along a filler-gap dependency are affected” p. 16) or uniform (defined where all such nodes are equally affected). Abels argues that frameworks such as HPSG, Categorical Grammar and TAG all required uniform paths where frameworks such as EST, GB and MP (including phases) require punctuated paths. Abels rejects previous evidence for punctuated paths, but concludes, based on Norwegian reconstruction effects, that paths are punctuated.

The most significant empirical discussion comes in Chapter 3 which examines partial Wh-movement, pied piping and secondary Wh-movement more broadly. Abels argues, primarily on Kîîtharaka data, that partial Wh-movement is actually driven by focus. He argues that pied-piping is phase-driven via “feature transmission via phase heads” (p. 73). Though, as he notes, pied-piping of DP and PP are most commonly discussed; pied piping of CP is also quite common. However, this account predicts that vP should also undergo pied piping, but, as Abels notes, that seems quite rare. Abels offers one possible example from German on p. 75, but this gap in the typology is something that demands more explanation. This issue is raised again in Chapters 5 and 6, with some possible solutions discussed, but no final solution is offered.

Chapter 3 is also where Abels introduces the distinction between secondary movement proper and apparent secondary movement. Secondary movement proper is defined as movement which relies on “simultaneous fronting of a larger pied-pied structure” (p. 77). Apparent secondary movement is movement that does not rely on the pied-pied structure. Illustrative examples are given from English, German, Hungarian, Rumanian, French and Tzotzil. While the argumentation is clearly there, this discussion likely would’ve benefitted from some additional space.

Chapter 4 is a highly technical discussion of feature-sharing, locality, phase impenetrability, cyclicity and other similar topics. While this discussion is technical, it is written with precision and clarity. Section 4.4, which discusses morphological parameterization and extraction in Austronesian languages, is likely the part of this chapter to be most relevant beyond the focus of the volume.

Much as Chapter 4 served as a theoretic counterpart to Chapter 2, Chapter 5 does the same for Chapter 3. Thus, it too is rather technical. Again, like Chapter 4, it is precise and walks the reader clearly through the argumentation and assumptions. The goal of the chapter is to demonstrate that the types of languages illustrated in Chapter 3 may be captured under the theoretic system developed throughout the volume.

Chapter 6 examines the stranding generalization with for three phase heads: v, C and P. Stranding being where the complement to a phase head moves, leaving the phase head behind, which is predicted to not occur. The chapter first looks at the problem of VP mobility, since that phenomena appears to be a prima facie case of v stranding. However, Abels shows that instances of VP mobility do not strand v. Abels then provides a similar discussion for TP and C. Abels also presents arguments that Ps are phase heads and subject to the same stranding conditions as v and C. This discussion may seem surprising from the perspective of English (and other similar languages), which does allow prepositions to be stranded; this is the subject of Chapter 7. The idea that Ps are phase heads subject to the stranding generalization was first developed in Abels (2003) and additional discussion from a slightly different perspective may be found in Gallego (2010).

As noted, Chapter 7 is the complement to Chapter 6 examining how adpositions can be stranded if Ps are phase heads. The chapter is quite expansive, touching on a number of issues relevant to the syntax of adpositional phrases. Here, Abels tests three different hypotheses for why some languages allow P-stranding: i) an analysis based on null resumptives; ii) through parameterizing P-phases; iii) introducing a null morpheme in stranding languages which separates the P and its (seeming) complement. Abels rejects (i) based on data from Hebrew, English and Irish. Abels rejects (ii) for conceptual reasons. Abels ultimately argues for (iii). He argues that this null morpheme is equivalent to a German filler morph (termed DR). The presence of this null morpheme licenses “movement to SPEC,PP in conformity with phase impenetrability and last resort conditions” (p. 269).

Chapter 7 also contains a detailed discussion of displaced locatives (such as German ‘wo’ and ‘da’—‘where’ and ‘there’ respectively). These were termed R-pronouns in Riemsdijk (1978) but Abels reterms them R-words. Abels shows that R-words are not pronouns and cannot be complements to P. There is a similar discussion of special clitics. In this discussion, Abels clearly outlines the predictions that his account makes but the data is still murky. However, the presence of this discussion, even though it does not necessarily fully support the overall account is most welcome. Chapter 7 also contains one of the most comprehensive and general conclusions of any of the chapters.

Chapter 8 provides a very brief conclusion. Though this conclusion is less than two complete pages, it clearly articulates the core arguments (and their limits) that have been presented throughout the earlier text. In particular, Abels is very clear in stating that certain types of phrases (a list including C, v, P, and D (p. 277), are associated with movement phenomena. A natural explanation of this association is to “singl[e] them out as special: the phrases projected by these heads are the phases” (p. 277). This chapter also provides further discussion about what properties associated with phases need not necessarily be tied to phases.


This volume is a well-constructed syntactic argument. Abels utilizes wide-ranging set of languages to construct and test his arguments. Throughout the text he is clear about his assumptions and the limitations of his approach when such limitations arise. The frequency by which Abels alerts the readers to the limits of his analysis or the potential drawbacks of his assumptions is most welcome and refreshing. Abels provides a model for clear and honest linguistic analysis. While there are certainly various points of contention for future scholarship, it is difficult to find any serious fault with the volume.

One minor complaint is that, while there are certainly good reasons to not alter the text (for reference and citation purposes across editions), since the publisher took the step of printing in a new format it would have been nice if they could have corrected the minor typographic errors (repeated words, spacing errors, minor misspellings) that occasionally occur without altering pagination or content.

Looking beyond the volume, there are a number of avenues for future work. As Abels noted if phases are fundamental they should “provide the grounds for a unifying formulation of different aspects of syntactic theory” (p. 3). Here, he has provided a persuasive case for phases as the locus of cyclic movement, a similar exploration into other aspects of phasehood would be most welcome. Similarly, the question of the relative scarcity vP pied-piping remains an open problem.

Overall, this book belongs in the collection of any syntactician working on issues related to movement or phase theory. The discussion throughout is crisp. This volume would be an excellent text in an advanced graduate seminar because of the clear nature of the argumentation and the historic context provided in the earlier chapters. Its availability in paperback means that its use within the classroom is much more reasonable.


Abels, Klaus. 2003. Successive cyclicity, anti-locality, and ad-position stranding. PhD dissertation. University of Connecticut: Storrs, CT.

Chomsky, Noam. 2000. Minimalist inquiries: The framework. In: Step by step: Essays on minimalism in honor of Howard Lasnik, by Roger Martin, David Michaels and Juan Uriagereka (eds.). MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. 89-155.

Gallego, Ángel. 2010. Phase Theory. John Benjamins Publishing: Amsterdam.
Legate, Julie Anne. 2003. Some interface properties of the phase. Linguistic Inquiry 34: 506-516.
Riemsdijk, Henk van. 1978. A case study in syntactic markedness: The binding nature of prepositional phrases. The Peter de Ridder Press: Lisse.


Jeffrey Punske is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, specializing in morpho-syntax. He has previously served at Kutztown University and the University of Oklahoma. He earned his PhD from the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona in 2012.

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