Extraction from subjects: Differences in acceptability depend on the discourse function of the construction

TitleExtraction from subjects: Differences in acceptability depend on the discourse function of the construction
Publication TypeArticle de revue
Année de publication2020
AuthorsAbeillé, Anne, Barbara Hemforth, Elodie Winckel, and Edward Gibson

In order to explain the unacceptability of certain long-distance dependencies - termed syntactic islands by Ross (1967) - syntacticians proposed constraints on long-distance dependencies which are universal and purely syntactic and thus not dependent on the meaning of the construction (Chomsky, 1977; Chomsky, 1995 a.o.). This predicts that these constraints should hold across constructions and languages. In this paper, we investigate the "subject island" constraint across constructions in English and French, a constraint that blocks extraction out of subjects. In particular, we compare extraction out of nominal subjects with extraction out of nominal objects, in relative clauses and wh-questions, using similar materials across constructions and languages. Contrary to the syntactic accounts, we find that unacceptable extractions from subjects involve (a) extraction in wh-questions (in both languages); or (b) preposition stranding (in English). But the extraction of a whole prepositional phrase from subjects in a relative clause, in both languages, is as good or better than a similar extraction from objects. Following Erteschik-Shir (1973) and Kuno (1987) among others, we propose a theory that takes into account the discourse status of the extracted element in the construction at hand: the extracted element is a focus (corresponding to new information) in wh-questions, but not in relative clauses. The focus status conflicts with the non-focal status of a subject (usually given or discourse-old). These results suggest that most previous discussions of islands may rely on the wrong premise that all extraction types behave alike. Once different extraction types are recognized as different constructions (Croft, 2001; Ginzburg & Sag, 2000; Goldberg, 2006; Sag, 2010), with their own discourse functions, one can explain different extraction patterns depending on the construction.