I am trying to understand the concept of clitics.

In the paper, "Feature Analysis of Danish Pronominal Paradigms with a View to a Danish Application of the Pronominal Approach", it is stated "In Danish, only one pronoun (man) is clitic by nature, whereas most pronouns are clitic under specific syntactic conditions". In the article, "clitic" is also regarded as "verb-bound" (for the French pronominal system).

I note that the examples on the English Wikipedia show 's, I'm and je t'aime. man on the other hand is a separate word which can move far from a verb, e.g., in Europarl I see the example "... og at man i 1999 kun har budgetteret ..." where "har" is the verb

Are there separate concepts at play here?

3 Answers 3


First of all, a note: not everyone believes in clitics! Some theories don't include them as a separate concept at all. But for those that do:

The defining feature of a clitic, in most theories, is that it's tightly bound to the word next to it. Phonologically, it's treated as part of the same word, rather than a separate word in and of itself.

But, crucially, clitics can move around to different places in the sentence—they're not morphologically or syntactically part of the same word. Compare the following:

Alice and Bob 's house
Domus Aliciae et Robertī

In English, the 's attaches to the entire phrase "Alice and Bob"; in Latin, the genitive (possessive) marker is put onto every word in the phrase instead. So 's is called a clitic and -ae is called an affix.

As an additional guideline, clitics are "promiscuous": they can attach to anything and everything that's in the right syntactic position. Affixes generally aren't: the English plural -s can't attach to nouns like ox or man, for example, while 's can attach to the end of any English noun—or any phrase that acts like a noun, which is why we see surgeons general but surgeon general 's. (It's not always written as 's, but that's just orthography: Jesus' is pronounced just like Jesus + 's.)

So while I don't speak Danish, I wouldn't say that sort of movement disqualifies something from being a clitic: it's actually a point in favor of the clitic analysis, as opposed to analyzing it as an affix. Whether it's a clitic or a separate word then comes down to phonology.

  • I doubt that the 's of "Alice and Bob's house" actually attaches to the entire phrase, as you say. If it did, what would be wrong with *"Alice and me 's house"? The "'s" attaches to "me", but there is no word "me's", so we must use the suppletive form "my" instead.
    – Greg Lee
    Jun 13, 2019 at 4:38
  • 4
    @GregLee I suspect many people would be uncomfortable with Alice and my house too though. To me it's just as plausible that the 's does attach to the entire phrase, but me's triggers alarm bells downstream so people just avoid the construction.
    – user23078
    Jun 13, 2019 at 9:06
  • But you say "The guy who called me's number is on that piece of paper"
    – user6726
    Jun 13, 2019 at 17:04
  • @Minty, But if "me's" is not a constituent, why should there any alarm bells, upstream or downstream or wherever?
    – Greg Lee
    Jun 13, 2019 at 20:27
  • @user6726, Interesting example. If "me's" were edited to "my", we'd be left with "the guy who called my number".
    – Greg Lee
    Jun 13, 2019 at 20:32

The exposition in Schøsler's paper is a bit difficult to relate to general theoretical linguistic concepts (it's a different theoretical perspective from most work on Scandinavian), but with a light reading of the paper, it looks as though (a) her claim isn't incomprehensible from a non-hi-tech theoretical perspective and (b) your example seems to be a problem. It is true that in some languages clitics are positioned relative to the verb phrase, but that's not a defining property of clitic. For example, the definite in Norwegian and Swedish are credible examples of clitics. There may be cliticization in certain dialects of Norwegian between monosyllabic WH-word plus monosyllabic pronoun which interacts with the V2 generalization (ka du sa? rather than hva sa du?).

Assuming that immediate pre-verbal position is the diagnostic for clitic (especially the impossibility of intervening parentheticals), your example seems to be problematic. If V2 behavior is the diagnostic, V2 is a main clause phenomenon, and your example is from a subordinate clause, then you would not expect man to attach to the verb. Dunno if that what she is claiming, though.


While not an expert on the issue, I'd point out that the example you give from Europarl is a subordinate clause, and that main clauses and subordinate clauses have different constraints and rules governing them in Danish.

Schøsler writes "The form man (you, one), preposed or postposed, is always clitic and thus permits no insertion at all between man and the verb" (2.2.1, p. 121). It seems to me, she's dealing solely with main clauses here, even if she only says so explicitly further on (under, p. 124).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.