I'm reading Syntactic Analysis by Nicholas Sobin, which has a concise chapter on binding theory. The Wikipedia article on the matter is similarly concise, which is fine, as I do not want to go down a rabbit hole. But there is an evident inconsistency which I hope someone can assist with.

Principle B is said to state that a pronominal/pronoun must not be bound locally. So

*John(i) loves him(i).

The question is: how is an exception allowed for a genitive pronoun in the subsequent noun phrase? I.e.

John(i) loves his(i) wife.

"John" and "his" are surely bound here, violating principle B, yet the sentence is grammatical. Is there more to the definition of principle B than the book and Wikipedia are letting on?


1 Answer 1


Government and Binding isn't my specialty, but I believe the basic answer is, these aren't pronominals. They refer back to a noun, certainly, but they don't act like nominals in the syntax (NPs or DPs or what have you)—they act like determiners.

  1. *We love our.
  2. We love our children.
  3. We love these children.

So, we simply define "pronominal" in a way that doesn't include these. The definition gets a bit thornier when we start bringing in "ours" and "mine" and "theirs", but I believe the standard explanation is that these are alternate forms used when the noun gets elided out from the determiner.

This is also how G&B theorists explain "we love ourselves". Reflexives are also not considered pronominals—by principle A, they must be bound, while pronominals must not be bound. We're defining the term "pronominal" (and related terms like "anaphor") in a way that's useful for explaining this specific phenomenon, even if it's not the way most English teachers would define it.

It might be better in hindsight to come up with different words, rather than redefining "pronominal" and "anaphor", but redefining words in specific ways for technical discussion purposes is far from uncommon. Think about how Newtonian physics uses "speed" and "velocity" for different things, even though to most people they're synonyms: they needed some words to express an important theoretical distinction, and repurposed some synonyms for that purpose.

  • Thanks for the answer. This was my first thought and is the easiest explanation. However, Google brings up results (e.g. link) with "his", "her", etc under the "pronominal/pronoun" definition.
    – K Adams
    Mar 30, 2023 at 17:21
  • 4
    For me, those words qualify as pronouns, and I think most grammarians view them as I do. They are unlike other pronouns, though, in that they function as determiners. The question is hence in general good; it is drawing attention to one of the many problems facing the traditional binding theory. Mar 30, 2023 at 18:08

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