semantics and pragmatics of to-contraction

Dan Everett Dan.Everett at MAN.AC.UK
Fri Aug 3 13:40:29 UTC 2001

Comments on the following would be much appreciated.

In the early years of trace theory it was claimed that traces received
strong support from contraction facts. Recall that Chomsky proposed in 1976
that traces
are left behind by moved elements, as in (1):

(1) Mortimeri was seen ti by Bill. (Mortimer moves from the object position
to subject position in the passive, leaving behind the trace, ti.)

It was then noticed that although contraction is generally allowed between
verbs and infinitival to
(and this is just part of a more general phenomenon: the cliticization of
function words in English and other languages, a quite common process), as
in (2) and (3), it is not allowed if a trace intervenes, as in (4) and (5):

(2) a. Suzy promised [PRO to marry General Thade]. (PRO = understood subject
of infinitive in Government and Binding and other theories)
 b. Suzy promistta marry General Thade.
(3) a. I want to go to town.
 b. I wanna go to town.
(4) a. Whoi do you want PRO to see ti?
 b. Whoi do you wanna see ti? (Contraction is OK across the PRO)
(5) a. Whoi do you want ti to see Bill?
 b. *Whoi do you wanna see Bill?

 (5b) is ungrammatical according to this analysis because there can be no
contraction across a trace. (Traces are unlike PRO in being marked by
abstract, syntactic Case and being governed.)

Pretty neat result. I certainly thought it was when I first saw it. But
other linguists (especially Geoffrey Pullum and Paul Postal, the two
principal critics of this proposal) were not so impressed. They brought up
numerous facts which seemed problematic for the account. I
considered the issue unresolved and hadn't really thought about it much in
years. However, Keren Everett in unrelated work on the phonology of function
words in the Carnegie Mellon University automatic speech recognition
project, SPHINX, noted the following contrast, which made me rethink the

(6) a. I got PRO to go. (meaning I have an obligation to go - notice that it
isn't even clear this sounds right in the uncontracted form.)
 b. I gotta go. (Sounds much better than (6a) to me.)
(7) a. I get PRO to go. (Indicating privilege.)
 b. *I getta go. (Sounds terrible to me and may be unattested in the CMU
data base.)

Chomsky's theory fails to predict the contrast between (6) and (7) because
no traces are involved in either example.

Note, too, the following additional contrast pointed out to me by George
Lakoff (email August 02, 2001):

(8) a. I got PRO to go! (Past tense of get, indicating privilege, meaning,
for example, my boss let me go.)
 b. *I gotta go. (The contracted form can only indicate obligation, not

So, we have the following contrasts:

(9) a. I wanna go.
 b. *I getta go.
(10) a. I gotta go. (obligation)
 b. *I gotta go. (privilege)

Also, compare the following pairs (pointed out to me by Paul Postal email of

(11) a. I ought PRO to go.
 b. I oughtta go.
(12) a. I fought PRO to go.
 b. *I foughtta go.

The trace theory of movement has nothing to say about the examples in
(9)-(12). Therefore, it is too weak in this respect - it cannot handle all
the facts. At the very least, we will need a separate account of other kinds
of contraction.

Let me tentatively propose a semantic account. Modal verbs involving
intention of the matrix subject may contract (form a single unit with) their
infinitival. Otherwise contraction is not allowed.

Now, how might we account
for the original contrast in (4) and (5)? In Role and Reference Grammar,
WH-questions are only possible of focused material in English (probably
universal). Objects (i.e. immediately postverbal arguments, since RRG does
not recognize grammatical relations) are the unmarked focus position. For a
subject to be questioned, however, it must be focused as well, but will
require a marked structure. This 'marking' is indicated by the phonology, at
least in English. Now reconsider (4) and (5), repeated here as (13) and
(14), but without traces or PRO:

(13) a. Who do you want [to see]?
 b. Who do you wanna see?

No special marking is needed for object questioning because of unmarked
English focus structure.

(14) a. Who do you want [to see Bill]?
 b. *Who do you wan[na see Bill]?

In (14), however, RRG would disallow the contraction because it eliminates
the phonological salience indicating marked focus, a condition on
questioning subjects in RRG, as observed above.

Therefore, the RRG (semantic/pragmatic) analysis seems superior to the
syntactic analysis.

Dan Everett

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