In questions where a wh-element refers to the object, we can observe SAI (Subject-Auxilliary inversion).

[Who did [you see]]?

As far as I'm aware, C-head has a [+Q] feature and it's occupied by a null bound morpheme that needs a verb to attach to. Since V-to-C is impossible (for the previous step, V-to-I is illicit as well) in English, only auxiliaries have the power to raise to C.

But why is it so that wh-elements pertaining to the subject of the clause do not trigger SAI? The C-head still has the [+Q] feature and do-support is available in English if there is no other auxilliary present.

[Who [read this book]]?

  • 2
    A wh-question requires a wh-expression at the beginning and a verb right after it. When the subject is a wh-expression, these requirements are already met, so no further adjustment is required. – Greg Lee Apr 12 at 8:52
  • Right. it matches the parse signal and that's enough. The other peculiarity of a subject wh-expression is that it can't deleted, unlike most fronted relative pronouns. That's also because it's the subject and the clause is tensed; tensed clauses require actual subjects -- no Equi. – jlawler Aug 8 at 2:45
  • I don't know if that can help you, but if you are interested by comparison with other languages, here an example in Riffian where such inversion is possible : i-cci-t utares = he-ate-it man (the man ate it) >>> wi t-icc-in = who it-eat-PART (who ate it) – amegnunsen Oct 7 at 10:16

Now, as I'm reading my question, it seems that there's simply no "space" to do such an inversion. "Who" is in [spec, CP] and auxiliary after inversion occupies the C-head after head-to-head movement. Sure, according to Rizzi's proposal there are other functional projections above CP, but it'd seem too convoluted to even resort to that.

So, in conclusion, for SAI to take place, either the subject (wh-element) would have to stay in its EPP position, or the auxiliary to move to an unnatural (for him) [spec, CP] position. Given it's a head, such movement would be illicit.

[Who [read this book]]?

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  • If you ignore the 'dead wood' in that tree, you will see that the subject doesn't move at all. Also, if there was real Subject-Aux inversion with a Q-subject then you would have "Did who read this book?", and that is mixing a question of noun with a question of truth. – amI Dec 14 '17 at 20:53
  • What does 'dead wood' mean? – TheTobruk Dec 15 '17 at 18:10
  • I meant those branches that have no leaves. I doubt that the brain stores anything that isn't needed, and X-bar theory may go too far in trying to fit every possibility onto a single tree pattern. – amI Dec 18 '17 at 20:32

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