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  • English Resumptive Pronouns Are More Common Where Gaps Are Less Acceptable
  • Adam Milton Morgan and Matthew W. Wagers

1 Introduction

Ā-dependencies occur when an argument appears clause-peripherally, dislocated from its canonical base position, as in relative clauses (1a). The displaced argument is a filler (italicized in (1) and throughout), and the base position is typically realized as a gap—that is, a syntactic category that is not pronounced (represented by an underscore throughout). A subset of languages that employ the filler-gap strategy, including Arabic (Aoun and Choueiri 1996), Irish (McCloskey 2006), Swedish (Engdahl 1986), and Vata (Koopman and Sportiche 1986), also use a second strategy to realize Ā-dependencies: resumption. Here, the base position is “filled” by an ordinary-looking resumptive pronoun (RP, boldfaced throughout).

(1) Irish

RPs also occur in English, as in (2).

(2) “ . . . the sale of the uranium that nobody knows what it means”

  –Donald Trump (Gore, Kiely, and Robertson 2016)

Bennett (2008) finds 66 instances of resumption in the Switchboard corpus (6,138 tagged five-minute telephone conversations), and Ferreira and Swets (2005) successfully elicited RPs in a production task by encouraging their participants to produce Ā-dependencies spanning a wh-island boundary. Their finding, that English speakers produce RPs in islands, converges with an intuition dating back to Ross 1967 that islands encourage resumption. [End Page 861]

Broadly speaking, the literature contains three approaches to explaining this distribution. One approach, amelioration, holds that RPs are used in precisely those environments where they would constitute an improvement with respect to gaps—either in acceptability (e.g., subjects inside strong islands; Keffala and Goodall 2011) or in comprehensibility (Hofmeister and Norcliffe 2013, Beltrama and Xiang 2016). The second approach, the last-resort strategy, holds that RPs circumvent constraints on movement, providing languages with a licit backup approach where gaps are prohibited (Kroch 1981, Shlonsky 1992). Finally, production approaches hold that RPs are an ungrammatical production phenomenon, the result of a production system that plans complex structures incrementally (Kroch 1981, Asudeh 2004, 2011a). According to Asudeh’s model, the system produces a series of locally well-formed structures that may not always result in global well-formedness (Kroch 1981, Asudeh 2004, 2011a; and see Tyler and Warren 1987 and Asudeh 2004 for an analogous idea in comprehension).

Puzzlingly, recent experimental studies have demonstrated that English RPs are consistently rated as highly unacceptable, and nearly uniformly so across varying syntactic contexts (Dickey 1996, Alexopoulou and Keller 2007, Heestand, Xiang, and Polinsky 2011, Keffala and Goodall 2011, Clemens, Morgan, and Polinsky 2012, Han et al. 2012, Polinsky et al. 2013). On the most straightforward interpretation of unacceptability, this would imply that resumption is ungrammatical in English, even in domains where it is produced.

Authors such as Alexopoulou and Keller (2007) and Polinsky et al. (2013) have claimed that these facts constitute a paradox: If resumption is ungrammatical, then what might explain its prevalence in production? Conversely, if the systematic production of RPs reflects grammatical knowledge, then what might account for its reported unacceptability? Or is RP production not systematic after all? One approach to resolving this apparent paradox posits two distinct grammars: one used in production, under which RPs are licit, and another used for acceptability judgment, under which RPs are illicit (Alexopoulou and Keller 2007, Polinsky et al. 2013).

Part of the difficulty in reconciling comprehension and production data stems from the paucity of existing data: there are very few production studies, and they are limited in what syntactic structures are used (Zukowski and Larsen 2004, Ferreira and Swets 2005; cf. Chacón 2015). Therefore, the present study attempts to characterize the broad distribution of RPs in production in a controlled production task—the first attempt we are aware of to quantitatively characterize this distribution. The data reveal two patterns:

  1. 1. RPs are produced more in domains where gaps are less acceptable.

  2. 2. Island domains accrue more RPs than what would be expected on the basis of gap acceptability alone. [End Page 862]

We interpret these findings, along with acceptability data, as evidence that resumption is ungrammatical in English. We present an outline of a production model that is similar to Asudeh’s (2004, 2011a), but accounts for the...


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