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Review of  Questions of Syntax

Reviewer: Ferid Chekili
Book Title: Questions of Syntax
Book Author: Richard S. Kayne
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 31.2363

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The book (Questions of Syntax by Richard S. Kayne) is a collection of sixteen Chapters, either previously published, or to appear.

The book contains three parts (labelled, sections A, B and C) preceded by a preface written by the author in which he briefly provides a summary of the contents of the book. Section A includes four chapters, section B, eight chapters, and section C, four chapters. A bibliography and an index complete the volume.


SECTION A: Comparative Syntax

Chapter 1 (‘More languages than we might have thought. Fewer languages than there might have been’) is an excursion into the familiar question of how many languages – actual and possible- there are, and whether we can use the common and different syntactic, semantic and phonological properties of languages to arrive at a possible answer to the question. The author’s conclusion is that, although the number seems astronomical, this is not a problem as “syntacticians do not need (…) to study [all the languages] individually. They do, on the other hand, need to reach an understanding (…) of what the set of parameters is, of what the set of possible syntactic differences looks like…” (p.10).

In Chapter 2 (‘Comparative syntax’), starting with a discussion of the notions of observational, descriptive and explanatory adequacy, Kayne shows how the same notions can be used in comparative syntax, and points to the relative ease/difficulty of achieving these criteria in comparative syntax. He also argues that the “primary importance of comparative syntax lies in the fact that it provides us with new kinds of evidence bearing on questions concerning the general character of the language faculty” (p.21). The rest of the chapter deals with detailed examples of (micro)-comparative syntax which is argued to “provide support for a more general property of the language faculty” (p.26), such as the observation that the language faculty allows for the existence of silent elements.

Chapter 3 (‘Comparative syntax and English ‘‘is to’’’) deals with the comparative syntax of English ‘is to’ and its absence in Germanic and Romance, with the aim to bring further evidence to the claim that the language faculty is so constructed as to allow for the existence of silent elements that are syntactically and semantically active. Explanation of the behavior of ‘is to’ in comparative syntax--i.e. the fact it only exists in English-- is linked to the possibility of an overt or silent FOR, itself only found in English. An analysis of English ‘is to’ is next presented which makes use of the distinction of raising vs. control, silent FOR and a silent matrix predicate argued to be a passive participle of a W-verb such as ‘expect’ and ‘suppose’, which is at the origin of the deontic interpretation of sentences like ‘You are to return home before midnight’.

In Chapter 4 (‘Having “need” and needing “have”’ (with Stephanie Harves)), the authors aim to show how the existence of constructions with transitive ‘need’ in the world’s languages, is dependent on the existence of a transitive verb of possession corresponding to English ‘have’. Data from a number of different languages are presented illustrating the generalization made in ((1), p.80) according to which a language cannot have a transitive verb ‘need’ without having ‘have’. This is accounted for using an incorporation approach to transitive verbal ‘need ” (p.86).

SECTION B: Silent elements

In Chapter 5 (‘The silence of heads’), the author investigates the possibility that projecting heads are always silent elements. He argues that English ‘that’ and Romance ‘che/que’ as well as non-finite clause complementizers, are ‘’determiner-based relative pronouns [rather than complementizers] even when introducing sentential complements’’ (p.97). Consequently, he argues that “there are no visible CP-area complementizer heads” (p.97). He then demonstrates that modal VPs are not headed by ‘need’ but by a silent light verb. The same sort of reasoning is used in the rest of the chapter, yielding the conclusion that “many more heads in the sentential projection line (and elsewhere) are silent than is usually thought” (p.126).

Chapter 6 (‘A note on some even more unusual relative clauses’) describes some unusual cases of relative clauses containing more than one wh-word such as: “(6) (?) Mary Smith, whose husband’s love for whom knows no bounds, is a famous linguist” where the two wh-words are related to the head of the relative, or “ (10) That car over there belongs to my old friend John Smith, whose long-standing attachment to which is well known to all his friends”, where only one relative pronoun is related to the head of the relative. This, he argues, demonstrates that “the familiar relation between the head of a relative and the relative pronoun […is] a special (…) case of a more general relation between a relative pronoun (a stranded determiner) and its antecedent (whose movement has stranded that determiner)” (p.133).

In Chapter 7 (‘The unicity of there and the definiteness effect’), the author argues that all instances of ‘there’(i.e. expletive, locative and others) are the same element, and it is this sameness or anti-homophony approach to ‘there’ that can explain the definiteness effect in existential sentences. He shows, for instance, that locative ‘there’ and the ‘there’ in ‘therefore’ are both the same deictic ‘there’ which co-occurs with silent elements. Regarding expletive ‘there’, it is argued that it originates DP-internally within the associate as a case of deictic ‘there’. The definiteness effect in sentences with expletive ‘there’ comes about as a result of “the fact that certain determiners interfere with the derivation (…) that in effect takes deictic ‘there’ and makes it look like what we call expletive ‘there’” (p.148).

Chapter 8 (‘Notes on French and English demonstratives’ (with Jean-Yves Pollock)) investigates demonstratives in English and French. A generalization requiring the presence of an “overt (reduced) relative clause” when a definite article “accompanies a light element such as ‘ones’ or THING” (p.169), allows Kayne to account for the acceptability of sentences containing demonstratives (e.g. 17,12,8) and the unacceptability of others (e.g. 16). He demonstrates the difference in acceptability between “(41) This is my friend Bill” (where ‘this’ originates within a DP containing ‘my friend Bill’) and “(44) That friend of mine often discusses syntax with this *(one)” (where ‘this’ cannot be linked to ‘that friend of mine’) by the fact that in specificational sentences such as (41), the two phrases surrounding the copula originate as one phrase, whereas in sentences such as (44), “the two relevant phrases correspond to distinct arguments and do not originate as one complex NP” (p.176).

In Chapter 9 (‘Some thoughts on one and two and other numerals’), Kayne demonstrates the non-homogeneous nature of numerals which are argued to consist of three categories, namely, ‘one’, ‘two, three, four’, and ‘five’and up. Following an idea in Cheng and Sybesma (1999), he suggests that an English DP containing ‘one’ must contain a singular classifier. He further argues that numeral ‘one’ is the same element as non-numeral ‘one’, and both constitute a complex determiner, not a syntactic primitive. In addition, numeral ‘one’ is accompanied by silent or overt ‘single’ or ‘only’. Based on the behavior of ‘both’, phrases with ‘two’ are argued to be instances of coordination with silent elements. Coordinate structures are, also, argued to be involved with the numerals ‘two’, ‘three’ and ‘four’. With numerals ‘five’ and up, Kayne posits the presence of a silent SET. He concludes that phrases of the form numeral + noun do not involve direct merger of the two elements; rather, the derivations involve additional factors such as the presence of a classifier together with pronounced and unpronounced material.

In Chapter 10 (‘English one and ones as complex determiners’), following Perlmutter (1970), Kayne argues that all instances of ‘one’ (traditionally analysed as a determiner), are the same element, including less obvious cases such as the ‘ones’ in his “(10) I have red cars and you have blue ones” which looks like a noun. Similarly, he argues for a relationship between ‘a/an’ and ‘one’, the former being a reduced form of the latter. To do so, and account for the superficial differences between constructions containing the two elements, he proposes “(33) An English DP with ‘one’ contains a singular classifier”. In other words, ‘one’ is a complex determiner consisting of a classifier and an indefinite article. Using data from Spanish ‘unos’ and French ‘uns’ and ‘quels’ as well as other data, he argues that ‘ones’ is also a determiner.

Chapter 11 (‘Once and twice’), continues the exploration of the language faculty through the investigation of ‘once’ and ‘twice’. ‘Once’ is analyzed as “one TIME-ce”, with –ce argued to be a postposition and hence ‘once’ is a preposional phrase (PP). He analyses ‘twice’ in a parallel fashion with ‘time’ also analyzed as singular. The singular nature of silent TIME is due to its being antecedentless and to the presence of a preceding numeral and more importantly, for him, to the fact that TIME is a classifier which is “universally not pluralizable” (p.250). He concludes that the study of silent elements such as TIME with ‘once’ and ‘twice’, ”provides us with a privileged window onto the invariant core of the language faculty itself” (p.257).

In Chapter 12 (‘A note on grand and its silent entourage’), Kayne discusses the American colloquial lexical item ‘grand’, and demonstrates its adjectival nature despite appearances to the contrary. To do so, he argues that sentences such as his “(23) It’ll cost you a grand just to get into the game” can be analyzed as “(26) It’ll cost you a grand TOTAL THOUSAND BUCKS (…)”, with three silent elements. He further argues that “It’ll cost you ten grand (…)” can best be analyzed as “It’ll cost you ten THOUSAND BUCKS IN grand TOTAL”. This analysis is shown to have “implications for the licensing of silent elements, for constraints against synonyms, for left-branch constraints and for the movement of silent elements” (p.ix).

SECTION C: Ordering and doubling

In Chapter 13 (‘Why are there no directionality parameters?’), Kayne begins by providing evidence for his claim that there are no symmetries in syntax and consequently, no directionality parameters. Evidence comes from the non-existence of mirror-image languages and from other predictions which follow from the antisymmetry hypothesis. He then gives examples of cross-linguistic asymmetries. These examples, he argues, point to the antisymmetry nature of “our linguistic universe” (e.g. p.281). Kayne, also, deals with the question of why the language faculty does not allow for directionality parameters and is asymmetric. He first shows that the language faculty only allows Head-Complement order. He further argues that the “initial plausibility” of the directionality parameter is due to the fact that the specifier was taken to merge, not with a head, but with a phrase and demonstrates that “[T]he merger of two phrases is unavailable” (p.297), as a head must always be involved.

In Chapter 14 (‘Toward a syntactic reinterpretation of Harris and Halle (2005)’), Kayne considers Harris and Halle’s (2005) morphological analysis of non-standard Spanish constructions with pronominal clitics and the plural morpheme ‘-n’, and argues that a syntactic approach to the phenomena in question would be more appropriate. He demonstrates that many phenomena which get no explanation or which are redundant (e.g. metathesis) within a morphological approach get “a more straightforward account” (p.309) within a syntactic perspective.

In Chapter 15 (‘Locality and agreement in French Hyper-complex inversion’ (with Jean-Yves Pollock)), the authors look into the derivation of the French construction which Kayne labels “Hyper-complex Inversion” (HCI) (illustrated in his “(8) Cela la gêne-t-elle? (that her bothers she- ‘does that bother her’” in contrast to the more familiar complex inversion (CI) construction: “(7) Cela la gêne-t-il? (that her bothers it- ‘does that bother her’”. The authors propose to analyze the two types in terms of clitic doubling. They then use the asymmetry found in French between third-person singular agreement and third-person plural agreement, in order to deal with cases of number agreement in HCI sentences which contain an (apparently) incompatible but grammatically correct combination of a plural finite verb and a singular lexical subject.

Chapter 16 (‘Clitic doubling, person and agreement in French Hyper-complex inversion’), is a continuation of the previous Chapter. Here, too, Kayne proposes to deal with CI and HCI as instances of clitic doubling similar to that found in Spanish. He further claims that all cases of clitic doubling (including HCI) involve person agreement, in that there is a clear restriction against first- and second-person subject clitics (SCLs) in CI and HCI sentences. The reason, he claims, is that “(75) CI and HCI are incompatible with SCLs associated with phrasal demonstrative structure” (p.365). In other words, contrary to third-person SCLs, SCLs associated with phrasal demonstrative structure –i.e. first- and second-person SCLs – are too complex to be able to occur in CI and HCI constructions.


The Chapters in this collection are all of a very high standard, not accessible to the general reader but would require some knowledge of generative syntactic theory.
The major contribution of this volume is in further clarifying the concept of comparative syntax and how it, not only, ''attempts to deepen our understanding of the 'parameters' side of the human language faculty''... but also...''provides us with a new and highly promising tool with which to deepen our understanding of the 'principles' side, the invariant core, of the human language faculty'' (Cinque & Kayne, 2005, Preface).

Another strong point of the collection, is the way the various papers are linked together. A common thread is the search for an understanding of the ‘general character of the language faculty’.

The Chapters abound in novel data, both from different varieties of English and other languages, and offer new insights leading to novel analyses which wouldn’t have been possible without a comparative syntax perspective and the recourse to silent elements. The arguments, for instance, for or against a particular claim are supported by observations of other languages, a procedure which makes the analysis more explanatorily adequate.

Finally, the analysis succeeds in achieving its stated objective, namely, revealing the general character of the language faculty.

Owing to the nature of the book, however, which is a collection of previously published or to-appear articles not necessarily in chronological order, there are inevitably many instances of repetition giving an overall impression of deja-vu with the result that the book does not read as a unified whole, but as a collection of unrelated papers. For example, the illustration of observational adequacy in Chapter 3 is a repetition of Chapter 2; most of the content of Chapter 2 is repeated in Chapter 3; the explanation of some examples such as (2) in Chapter 2, are repetitive of similar examples in Chapter 1 (p.17); most of Chapter 16 is almost an exact copy of Chapter 15; and most of section 6 (Chapter 9) is repeated in section 12.

Similarly, many claims lack proper explanation as this can be found in previous papers. For example, no reasons are provided for the claim, made on p.28, that “ ‘if’ and its counterparts in other languages are prohibited from directly preceding the silent subject (PRO) of an infinitive (INF)”.

There are, also, a number of speculations, conjecture and open questions which is not necessarily a weakness as it reflects the still developing nature of the field. For example, in connection with the rarity of counterparts of English, in other languages, Kayne writes (p.29): “You are to return before midnight” which is argued to “depend on the existence, in English, of something else”. “…This something else is, I think…”: Independently of the validity of the idea, it still remains a speculation. There are, also, a large number of ideas on which depend important generalizations and correlations, introduced, for instance, by “as far as I know…” (e.g. (p.29); “Thinking of (52)-(60), it seems almost certain…” (p.57); “If Kayne (…) is correct…” (p.129); “If (17) is correct…” (pp.137,138); “remains to be elucidated” (p.190); “in a way that remains to be spelled out” (p.205); “…remains to be understood” (footnote 13). Some statements are made too hastily. For example, in connection with the apparent exceptions to the definiteness effect such as List contexts (p.154), he states: “Perhaps the definites here are actually embedded within hidden indefinites”; another example: “Why singular ‘one’ is compatible with a preceding determiner to a greater extent than plural ‘ones’ (p.226) is left an open question”.

Moreover, some of the analyses have not been sufficiently elaborated or may allow for an alternative treatment; for example, the analysis (p.37) of ‘le’ of ‘lequel’ as a definite article. Comparative syntax with Tunisian Arabic (TA) points to a different analysis of ‘le’. Such an analysis would treat ‘le’ in ‘lequel’ as an object clitic rather than a definite article. This makes sense as in “(102) Lequel préfẽres-tu?”, ‘le’ refers to ‘livre’ which is the object of the verb. This may be supported by equivalent TA constructions in which the element ‘-hu’ that attaches to the equivalent of ‘which’ is clearly an object clitic (and cannot be an article):

?anaa-hu t-khayyar?
Which-OCL you-prefer

If this alternative analysis is correct, it would cast some doubt on correlation (107), p.38. A second example can be found on pp.79ff., in connection with the generalization according to which the existence of constructions with transitive ‘need’ depends on the existence of a transitive verb of possession corresponding to ‘have’: Arabic, like Russian (cf. e.g. Kaplan, 2017 based on Freeze, 1992) expresses possession, not with ‘have’, but with the combination of ‘be’ and a preposional phrase with a nominative (NOM) complement (the copula in Arabic may or may not be syntactically expressed depending on factors such as tense (Sarage, J. 2014; Camilleri, M., & Sadler, L. (2019); example:

(Kaanat) l-ii ?ukht-un
Was.3FEM.SG to-me sister-NOM
‘I had a sister’

If the generalization above is intended to apply to all languages, it is unclear how the analysis can extend to Arabic which lacks the equivalent of possession ‘have’ but has, nonetheless, transitive ‘need’, namely, ‎aHtaaj’, as in:

yaHtaaju kitaab-an
need.3MSC.SG. book-ACC

A third example concerns generalization (15) (p.91) to the effect that “[a]ll languages that have a transitive verb corresponding to ‘need’ are languages that have an accusative-case-assigning verb of possession”. The situation of Arabic, again, is different from that of Finnish which has an accusative possessee, thereby accounting for the ‘apparent’ transitive ‘need’. Arabic possessee (P), on the other hand, is NOM as shown by:

(Kaana)-lii kitaab-un
Was.3MSC.SG-to me book-NOM

Which makes generalization (15) somewhat dubious.

Certain generalisations have the flavour of stipulations: the generalization on page 332 to the effect that “there is without exception a pronounced ‘-t’ immediately preceding a post-verbal third-person SCL as in “(26) Marie a t-elle une voiture?” which is argued to be a licenser for postverbal SCLs, is meant to account only for third-person SCLs. It cannot account for cases involving non-third-person SCLs such as ‘Les enfants avons-nous le temps?’ (‘Children, have we got time?)’, or ‘Moi ai-je une voiture?’ (me, have I got a car?’) where the SCL is case-licensed in the absence of ‘t’. The explanation on p. 362 “that [such cases] can alternatively be analysed as left dislocation” is, itself, speculation (see footnote 38).

Finally, very often, Kayne makes a distinction between his intuitions regarding acceptability (his English variety) and other varieties of English. However, there is no indication of whether his intuitions have been corroborated and strengthened by the intuition of other speakers or by some verification procedure.

Notwithstanding these ‘shortcomings’ which do not impact negatively on the immense value and merits of the collection, the book has largely succeeded in fulfilling its aims of better understanding the general character of the language faculty with the help of the tools provided by comparative syntax.


Camilleri, M., & Sadler, L. 2019. The grammaticalisation of a copula in vernacular Arabic.
Glossa: a Journal of general linguistics, 4(1): 137.

Cheng, L.L.-S and R. Sybesma. 1999. Bare and not-so-bare nouns and the structure of NP.
Linguistic Inquiry 30: 509-542.

Cinque, G. & R.S. Kayne. 2005. The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Syntax. Oxford
University Press.

Freeze, R. 1992. Existentials and other locatives. Language 68(3). 553-595.

Hale, K. and S.J. Keyser. 2002. Prolegomenon to a theory of argument structure. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.

Harris, J. and M. Halle. 2005. Unexpected plural inflections in Spanish: reduplication and
metathesis. Linguistic Inquiry 36: 195-222.

Kaplan, A. 2017. Family agreement: an investigation of possession in Moroccan Arabic. BA.
Yale university.

Perlmutter, D.M. 1970. On the article in English. In M. Bieerwisch and K.E. Heidolph (eds.),
Progress in linguistics, 233-248. The Hague: Mouton.

Sarage, J. 2014. The Zero Copula in Russian and Arabic Sentences as Compared with English.
International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature (IJSELL) Volume 2,
Issue 11, November 2014, PP 119-126
Ferid Chekili is Professor of English and Linguistics, currently employed by the MBMA Academy for Diplomatic Studies, MOFA Bahrain. His research interests include syntactic theory, the syntax/morphology/information structure interfaces, generative second language acquisition and language and diplomacy.

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