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Empty category

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Empty category

In linguistics, in the study of syntax, an empty category is a nominal element which does not have any phonological content and is therefore unpronounced; they may also be referred to as covert nouns, in contrast to overt nouns which are pronounced. There are four types of empty category: NP-trace, Wh-trace, PRO, and pro. The types of empty category are differentiated by their two binding features, namely the anaphoric feature [a] and the pronominal feature [p]. The four possible combinations of plus or minus values for these features yield the four types of empty category.

An empty category is a syntactic phenomenon in which a part of speech is “left out” of the phonological content of a sentence while still retaining its syntactic and grammatical properties. Essentially, an empty category is a blank space in a sentence which holds syntactic value while not being pronounced. Empty categories can also be referred to as covert nouns. They are present in most of the worlds languages.Different languages allow for different categories to be empty, like Spanish, which allows for the omittance of some pronouns before conjugated verbs. See the sections below for more information on the modelling of empty categories, the categories which are commonly empty, applications of empty categories and examples from other languages.

Modelling Empty Categories

An empty category is defined as an element with nominal distribution which does not have any phonological content and is therefore unpronounced though retaining its grammatical and semantic properties. There are 4 types of empty categories:

[a] [p] Symbol Name of empty category Corresponding overt noun type
- - t Wh-trace R-expression
- + pro "little Pro" pronoun
+ - t NP-trace anaphor
+ + PRO "big Pro" none

[+a] refers to the anaphoric feature, meaning that the particular element must be bound within its governing category. [+p] refers to pronominal feature gives the element sufficient referential autonomy to be free within its governing category.

NP-trace and WH-trace are the result of movement operations, while the pro and PRO must be base generated. [1]

Doesn’t use PRO: Hei would like [youj to stay]
Does use PRO: Hei would like [PROi to stay].
Josh hoped PRO to run 100m in less than 10 seconds.
PRO takes the subject in the nonfinite clause. Reference is determined by its controller, the subject of the matrix clause. PRO occupies only ungoverned positions.

NP trace (sentence processing):
[ ] seems Cheri ti to like Tony.
Cheri seems to like Tony.
Jess seemed (to us) NP-trace to like cream best of all.

In these examples, the subject of infinitive clause complement is moved to become subject of matrix clause. NP trace only occurs where Case features cannot be checked, eg. Spec VP and intransitive verbs’ complement positions.

“little pro”
pro nataka wali na kuku. (Swahili)
EC want.pres rice and chicken
The “little pro” doesn’t have phonetic form, but it has the same Theta, Case, government properties.

WH trace:
What did James want wh-trace for Christmas?
- used in a range of structures: wh-questions, relative clauses (RC’s) and topicalization [2]

Null Determiners

Null determiners are used mainly when Theta grids are involved when there is only an option for a DP as a phrase category in the sentence and no option for an NP. Proper nouns, plural nouns, and pronouns cannot have a determiner attached to them, and many regular nouns do not need a determiner, though they still may be part of a DP phrase. In this case, we need to include a null category to stand as the D of the phrase as its head. Since a DP phrase implies that there is a determiner as its head but we can end up with NPs that don’t include an overt determiner, we use a null symbol to represent the null determiner at the beginning of the DP.

Ex: “ Ø he jumped off the dock”
[DPØ Andrew]
[DPØ muffins]

Null determiners are subdivided into the same classes as overt determiners are:








Null Complementizers

Null complementizers are used in English mainly in yes/no questions which involve subject-auxiliary inversion. The null stands in the place where the auxiliary (will, did, etc.) would have to be transferred to in order to ask a question. When representing empty categories in trees, linguists use a null symbol to depict the idea that there is a mental category at the level being represented, even if the word or words themselves are being left out of overt speech. In linguistics, question sentences cannot be drawn in tree form: the sentence has to be rearranged so that there is the same meaning involved, but the formation is in a statement (the answer to the would-be question being asked).


Some example sentences of null complementizers:
a. I wonder which dish that they picked.
I wonder which dish Ø they picked.
b. They didn't know which model that we had discussed.
They didn't know which model Ø we had discussed.

WH-movement complementizers:
a.[ Which friends ]i did they say { that, ø } they saw ti ?
b. [ Which way ]i did they say { that, ø } they would fix the leaky faucet ti ?
What did James want wh-trace for Christmas?

WH phrase and complementizer relationship:
a) [DP The person [CP who ØC [TP_likes Max]]] is here.
b) [DP The person [CP ØWH that [TP_likes Max]]] is here.
c) * [DP The person [CP ØWH ØC [TP_likes Max]]] is here.

In these examples, the complementizer or the wh phrase can have null categories, and one or the other may show up null. However, they both cannot be null when the wh phrase is the subject. [4]

Acquisition and Other Applications of Empty Categories

Empty categories are a common occurrence in everyday speech. There are four combinations based on the anaphoric and pronominal features given to an empty category, and four basic types of empty category. Wh-trace (or Wh-movement) can be used in either a direct or indirect question form, such as “Who asked Pete to close the door?” or indirectly, “I wonder who asked Pete to close the door.” Speakers of all languages, especially English, use Wh-trace in order to pose a question, and find out new information. NP-traces are anaphors, which occur frequently in fluent speech. A sentence such as “Bill accidentally cut himself,” gives an example of an anaphor. There is current debate for whether or not little-Pro exists in the English Language. Pronouns, or little-Pro are also of frequent use in the English language. It is obvious that empty categories are relevant to our languages, and all, however, there is the question of acquisition. How do children acquire empty categories? Taking into consideration the Wh-trace, or movement, when children ask for a certain object, their guardians usually respond in “motherese”. An example of motherese is in response to a child’s request for a certain object, “You want what?” instead of “What do you want?”. How do children know what position an empty category lies in?

Empty Categories in Other Languages

In English, there is no overt VP but only auxiliaries (Aux) in Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE) sentences. English speakers have to find a suitable overt correlate (VP) for the reduced VP in the surrounding discourse. However Japanese does not involve auxiliaries in VP as in English,but it includes a verb with a null object instead. Example: In English:

1a. Holly Golightly won’t [VPeat rutabagas].
  b. I don’t think Fred will____ , either.
2a. John-wa [zibun-no tegami-o] sute-ta.
    John-TOP self-of letter-ACC discard-PERF
  	     ‘John1 threw out self1’s letters.’
  b. Mary-mo  sute-ta.
     Mary-also discard-PERF
     ‘Mary2 also threw out self2’s letters.’
     ‘Mary2 also threw out John1’s letters.’

In English, VPE sentences are subject to a syntactic parallelism constraint (also called syntactic isomorphism), where pronouns refer to different individuals in the antecedent VP and in the elided VP.

1a) Joe’s idiosyncracies [bother his patrons] and Sally’s idiosyncracies do , too.
  *‘Joe1’s idiosyncracies bother his3 patrons and Sally2’s idiosyncracies do [bother her2 patrons], too.

There are “coreferential reading” of null object in Japanese but not in English. The meaning in sentence 1a) is: “John consoled himself and Bill consoled himself”. However it can only means either “Bill consoled John” or “Bill consoled Bill” in Japanese.

English: (1a) John consoled himself and Bill did __, too.
Japanese: (2a) John1-wa zibun(zisin)1-o nagusameta.
               John-TOP self-ACC consoled
 	        ‘John1 consoled himself1.’
          (2b) Bill2-mo  nagusameta.
               Bill-ALSO consoled
               ‘Bill2 consoled too.’ 

Because of the wide variation in the use of empty categories in the languages of the world, it is not realistic to be able to include an example of all of the languages. The following are examples of how some languages differ from English in their use of empty categories or how they are similar.

One difference between the Japanese and English empty categories is the concerns sentences with a distributive interpretation of quantified phrases.

(1) a. John washed his (own) car.
    b. Everyone else did , too.
(2) a. John-ga zibun-no kuruma-o aratta.
        John-NOM self-GEN car-ACC washed
       ‘John washed self’s car.’
    b. John igai-no subete-no hito-mo (minna)  aratta.
        John except-GEN all-GEN person-also (all) washed
       “‘[Everyone other than John] also washed a car.’

In the English example in 1b) the sentence means Person A washed A’s car, Person B washed B’s car, and so on. In the Japanese example in 2b), the sentence can only mean “Everyone else washed John’s car,” or “Everyone else washed a car.” In this case any car can serve as an empty object noun phrase (NP).

In Japanese, there is a “definite” behaviour among sentences, in which an N head co-refers to an NP antecedent (i.e.John’s car),’ and the “indefinite” use (i.e. car). This can either mean that “Persons A & B both washed A’s car” or “Persons C & D both washed B’s car.” In English, the speaker would have to specify whose car was being washed, whereas in Japanese the use of a null determiner allows for the lack of specification on whose car is being washed.

Generation of empty categories

Not all empty categories enter the derivation of a sentence at the same point. Both NP-trace and Wh-trace, as evidenced by their names, are only generated as the result of movement operations. Conversely, both PRO and pro are not the result of movement and must be base-generated. In both the government and binding and minimalism frameworks, the only method of base-generation is lexical insertion, so both PRO and pro are held to be entries in the mental lexicon.

See also


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