I am interested in cross-linguistic variation in case assignment to single-NP elliptical answers – for example “What did they see?”; “A goat”. By “case” I mean a distinct form of a word selected to indicate grammatical role in the sentence, thus excluding use of prepositions and postpositions (so, “with an axe” is not an instrumental case form in English). German and Insular Scandinavian, Slavic (widely if not universally), Finnic, Saami, Sanskrit, Korean, Classical Arabic and (on weak phonological grounds) Quechua have case. Chinese, Lushootseed, Sundanese and Colloquial Arabic do not. I take the existence of allomorphy to be sufficient grounds for calling something “case” as opposed to being a prepositional / postpositional phrase. If there's NP-internal case agreement, even better.

The situation in English is murky because only pronouns are marked for case, though any NP can be marked with -s. Pronouns are nominative (I, he, her, we, they) when they are subjects (“I/*Me went to the store”) though in a subject conjunction, it is optional – “Tom and I/me went to the store”). Otherwise (and when not possessive), the accusative form is used. In eliptical answers, the accusative is used, except when a genitive would be called for in which case you use the “absolute” possessive form or -s if the answer is an NP. So,

Who took the book? Me/*I; Him/*He
Who did the dog chase? Me/*I; Her/*She
Whose car did they buy? Mine/*Me/*I/*My; Yours/*Your/*You; Hers/*Her/She; Bob’s/*Bob

In North Saami, if you ask a question about a subject the (elliptical) answer is in the nominative; if it’s about an object, it should be in the accusative, and so on. On the other hand, in Southern Nilotic, nominative case is possible only when an overt verb precedes the subject, so elliptical answers use the non-nominative form.

With this background: in what languages is case assigned to elliptical NP answers in the same way as it is to NPs integrated into a full S; in what case languages are elliptical answers given some default case form; and in what languages do you get both patterns, depending on some other factor?

[Addendum] The S. Nilotic claim is based on my notes on Kipsigis. The citation form of "pig" is ingúrwêt; "He killed a pig" is kapár ingúrwêt and "A pig killed him" is kapár ingúrwet -- case is marked by tone change. Either subject or object can be moved left, and an extracted subject NP does not have nominative tone. So using citation / accusative (names) Mʊ́sa, Chʊ̂ma, "Musa saw Juma" is kakɛ́r Mʊsá[s] Chʊ̂ma ~ kakɛ́r Chʊ̂ma Mʊsá[s], and extracted, you have Mʊ́sa kɔ́kakɛ́r Chʊ̂ma (or Chʊ̂ma kɔ́kakɛ́r Mʊsá[s]) which focuses the extracted NP. So, movement messes with case anyhow. What I know is that the guy rejected ingúrwet as a possible form, and I did ask "Even as an answer to 'who killed him'?". But I didn't pursue that rigorously. Creider & Creider 1989 (A grammar of Nandi) may fill the gap.

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    In Slavic languages with a case system the case is the same as in an S. The same holds for Latin, German, and Spanish.
    – Atamiri
    Feb 13, 2015 at 0:08
  • Do you have a reference for the claim about Southern Nilotic? I'm interested in this topic, and would like to see the data. Overwhelmingly, in languages with productive morphological case, the fragment answer must display the same case-marking as the wh-word. A popular explanation for this is that fragment answers involve movement of the fragment out of an ellipitical clause, from a position parallel to the wh-word in the question. The ellipitical clause must be isomorphic to its antecedent, which explains the obligatory case-marking. See e.g. Merchant 2004.
    – P Elliott
    Feb 13, 2015 at 0:24
  • Ellipsis, by definition, is omission. A single-word elliptic answer is formed from the full-structured, grammatically correct answer by omitting all elements but a single, meaningful one. This would give a strong reason to assume that in nearly all languages, the grammatic case/number of an answer-word would be retained. Even in languages with unbound morphemes (like Chinese), the answer to 谁的 ("whose?") is 我的 ("my"), and never ("I"). Feb 13, 2015 at 0:59
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    As it would be without the ellipsis. (Roughly the same as @bytebuster's answer.) I don't think this is an empirical claim, since if case were assigned in some different way, I doubt one would call the omission "ellipsis".
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 7, 2015 at 19:15

2 Answers 2


The comments above provide some partial answers to the question. I think I can provide a few more insights. I am not, however, a typologist, and have not considered the data from the typologically diverse languages mentioned in the question.

Japanese has case, but the fragments of ellipsis can omit the case marker. However, the data is confusing in this area, since if the fragment contains more than one NP, then the case markers become obligatory. If there is interest about this, I can provide more information. Contact me via email ([email protected]).

The question mentions the distinction in English (and French) between strong pronouns (me, him, her, us, them) and weak pronouns (I, he, she, we, they). The weak forms appear mostly only as subjects in the presence of a finite verb in English. The strong forms are preferred in most other environments. Coordination is particularly difficult, though, since the forms that appear in coordinate structures vary greatly depending on register, e.g. Me and him did it vs. He and I did it, between Fred and me vs. between Fred and I. While the strong and weak forms of these pronouns are certainly the remnants of a case system, I do not think viewing these forms as "accusative" or "nominative" pronouns is accurate. I prefer to classify English as a mostly caseless language, remnants of case showing up just in the pronoun forms. French is similar to English in this area, and it seems likely that English was influenced by French.

Most languages with robust case systems are consistent with the case forms that appear in fragments, as indicated by the comments. In most cases, the fragment will have the same case that it would have in the corresponding full sentence. This fact has been very important in the debate concerning the nature of ellipsis. It has lead many to conclude that when ellipsis is involved, there is actually null material that is present, and this null material is responsible for assigning case to the fragment.

Others, however, reject the existence of this null material. They appeal to an intepretative mechanism that requires the fragment to be the same as the antecedent clause in every way except for what concerns the fragment itself. I can provide more information about these competing approaches to ellipsis if there is interest.

I would also like to point out one important trait of possessive -s. It is a clitic in English, not a genitive case marker. If it were a clear case marker, it would be restricted to suffixing to nouns. It can attach to entire phrases, however, which makes it a clitic:

 The guy who we know's hat was on the table. 

This situation should be compared to possessive -s in a language that has a robust case system, such as German:

 *Der Mann den wir kennen-s Hut war auf dem Tisch.

We see here that the possessive suffix -s in German cannot attach to a phrase, unlike the clitic -s in English. What this means is that it is difficult to view possessive -s as a case marker in English.

Thus the hypothesis and most direct answer to the question that I would like to offer is that case is assigned to elliptical answers in the same way that it would be if the answer were to appear in a full sentence. Exceptions to this rule (such as the distribution of pronoun forms in English) may have to do with the fact that the language at hand more or less lacks a robust case system to begin with.

  • Also, English pronouns seem to show rather French behaviour, i.e. 'me' instead of 'I' or 'him' instead of 'he' might just be the strong or disjunctive forms.
    – user9315
    Mar 10, 2015 at 3:22

In German and Insular Scandinavian (at least in Icelandic), elliptic answers will be in the same case.

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