The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Syntax Square 4/6 - Colin Davis (USC)

Speaker: Colin Davis (USC)
Title: The immobility of English possessive pronouns: On portmanteau formation and the timing of spell-out
Time: Tuesday, April 6th, 1pm – 2pm

Abstract: In this research, I use new facts about possessor extraction in colloquial English to analyze the morpho-syntax of English possession, and explore several related consequences about the syntax-morphology relationship. As Davis (2019, a.o.) describes, in colloquial speech about half of native English speakers allow A-bar extraction of a possessor which strands the Saxon genitive morpheme [’s] and the rest of the possessed DP in a lower clause (1):

(1). Who1 do you think [ __1 ‘s cat] is the cutest?

Such extraction is possible in principle for all varieties of WH-movement. Many speakers also can achieve such extraction by topic/focus fronting (2):

(2). I don’t think John’s cat is particularly cute, but MARY1, I’ve always said [ __1 ‘s cat] is really adorable.

Based on data from about a dozen native speakers who independently accept sentences like (1) and (2), I report that similar fronting extraction is unavailable for possessive pronouns (3):

(3). * I don’t think John’s cat is particularly cute, but YOUR1, I’ve always said [ __1 (’s) cat] is really adorable.

The same contrast can be identified using clefting rather than topic/focus fronting. I argue that this restriction emerges from the fact that such possessive pronouns are portmanteau morphemes that correspond to both the possessive D, and the possessor pronoun in its specifier. Under this account, such morphemes do not correspond to a syntactic constituent, and thus are expected to be immobile. Beyond clarifying our understanding of English possessive morpho-syntax, I argue that these results provide new evidence that one morpheme can span across multiple adjacent syntactic nodes, and also deepen our understanding of the timing and nature of phase spell-out.