In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • English Subjectless Tagged Sentences
  • Paul Kay

A colloquial English sentence like Fooled us, didn’t they? contains a finite main verb but no expressed subject. The identity of the missing subject of fooled is recovered from the tag subject they: compare Fooled us, didn’t she?, Fooled us, didn’t you? This article argues (1) that such subjectless tagged sentences (STSs) pose a problem for grammatical approaches based on movement and empty categories and (2) that STSs receive a revealing analysis as part of a finely articulated family of tagged sentence constructions when viewed within a nonderivational, constructional, multiple-inheritance-based approach. *


Linguists have argued from several points of view that whatever can be done with empty categories (ecs) can be done without them (Ades & Steedman 1982, Gazdar et al. 1984, Kaplan & Zaenen 1989, Pollard & Sag 1994, ch. 9, Sag & Fodor 1994, Kay & Fillmore 1999, Sag 1999). Others have argued that, because there is no hard evidence for their existence, linguistic theory would be better off dispensing with these unobservable entities (Pickering & Barry 1991, Sag & Fodor 1994, Sag 1999).1 In this article I take the argument one step further by showing that there are things that can be done without empty categories that cannot be done with them, at least not with any of the ecs currently available. Examples 1a, b exemplify one such phenomenon.


a. Fooled us, didn’t they/she.

b. Fooled them, didn’t we/he?2

c. Fooled you! [Interpretation: ‘Fooled you, didn’t I!’]

d. Fooled me! [Interpretation: ‘Fooled me, didn’t you!’]

The absence of an overt subject in the main clause of 1a,b does not appear to yield naturally to an analysis in terms of any of the types of empty categories and principles for their licensing and identification so far proposed in the extended GB (EGB) tradition.3 Moreover, sentences of this kind are readily given an analysis that reveals their close kinship to other tagged sentences in a monostratal approach that countenances neither empty categories nor movement and which relies on multiple constructional inheritance to capture syntactic and semantic generalizations (Fillmore 1999, Kay & Fillmore 1999, Koenig 1999, Michaelis & Lambrecht 1996, Kay 1998, Sag 1997, Ginzburg & Sag 2002).

Notice the following facts about the sentences in 1. Whereas in some (untagged) sentences of spoken English subjects may be left unexpressed (because they are recoverable [End Page 453] from context) as in 1c,d, missing subjects in English main clauses are not generally possible unless the referent of the subject is identified via a tag, as in 1a,b. The necessity of the tag to identify the subject in sentences of this type is crucial. When a sentence of this kind is uttered, varying the tag subject will result in the expression of distinct propositions in a fixed context. Suppose you and I are teammates and our team has just lost a game. I may say any of the sentences in 2 expressing distinct propositions depending on my choice.


a. Blew it, didn’t you.

b. Blew it, didn’t I.

c. Blew it, didn’t we.

The context alone is not sufficient to identify the party the speaker blames for the loss; the addressee cannot determine who this is until the tag subject is uttered. In the case of 2c, if in the context of utterance the team of which you and I are members contains others, then the vagueness of we, which may or may not include the addressee and independently may or may not include third parties (Nunberg 1993), carries over to the interpretation of the proposition expressed. Whatever group of players we picks out constitutes the party blamed for the loss by an utterance of 2c.4 [End Page 454]

In the next section, I consider the range of descriptive variants of what I call the subjectless tagged sentence (STS) construction.

1. Descriptive variants of the sts construction

All the variants of STS contain a host clause (or saturated predicate phrase) and a tag. The host can be thought of initially as an ordinary subject-predicate sentence missing either (a) only the subject, if the finite verb isn’t be or (b...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 453-481
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.