How does own affect binding relationships?

I am studying binding theory as it applies to English. I have learned that own can influence the binding relations. For example:

(1) John is his boss.

The bolded words cannot be coreferential in this sentence, but when one adds own, they necessarily become coreferential:

(2) John is his own boss.

My question now concerns the fact that the pattern is different when a content verb appears instead of copular be, e.g.

(3) John likes his boss.

The word own does not appear in this sentence, yet the bolded words can easily be coreferential. Why? How does binding theory account for this difference? It somehow relies on whether copular be or a content verb appears. But why would that be the case?

1 Answer 1


I think this is more to do with assumptions stemming from real-world knowledge than with syntactic binding rules.

"Being one's own boss" is a relatively unusual or paradoxical situation, or more precisely, a paradoxical description of a common situation: we normally assume that "boss" and "employee" are two different people, so that will inform our default reading of (1), and overriding that reading requires explicitly specifiying the opposite with "own". (Though arguably you could imagine a situation where (1) is read with the meaning of (2): Q. Who's John's boss? A. John is his boss. This seems marginal or humorous, but isn't impossible.)

On the other hand, liking one's boss is (I'm told) a common enough situation, so no such assumption informs our reading of (3), and own is not required to override it.

  • Thank you so much for your answer! I was wondering what real-world situation might occur in which "own" would not need to occur. Could you please give me an example for illustration ? Again, thank you for helping me with this question~
    – Buffoon
    Dec 17, 2021 at 1:28
  • 1
    @Buffoon I'm not sure I understand the question -- isn't your (3) an example of such a real-world situation where own isn't necessary?
    – TKR
    Dec 17, 2021 at 2:36
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    I think the phenomenon is a core aspect of the binding relations, contrary to the answer provided. There is no situation I can think of in which John is his N would allow the coreferential reading. In other languages, the coreferential reading would require a distinct lexical item entirely. In Chinese, for instance, his in (1) would correspond to ta de and the coreferential reading would be impossible, but his own in (2) would correspond to ziji de and the coreferential reading would be forced. Dec 17, 2021 at 5:22
  • @TKR Thank you for your response. I mean the situations in which own needs not occur in copular be sentences. ^ ^
    – Buffoon
    Dec 17, 2021 at 7:07
  • @Buffoon It's admittedly hard to think of a good third-person example; I gave one in the answer (Q. Who's John's boss? A. John is his boss) which may not be acceptable to all speakers. With first and second persons though Google does find a lot of examples like I am my best friend, You are your worst enemy, etc.
    – TKR
    Dec 17, 2021 at 17:39

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