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How would you analyse the following sentence (in generative syntax):

No one but John attended the meeting? (an example is taken from von Fintel's 1993 paper on exceptive constructions).

I'm interested in the NP "no one but John."

  • Hi! Perhaps you could add "in generative syntax" to the title? I was tempted to give the basic answer (but John modifies no one just as except John would) until I saw who the asker was and "generative grammar", about which I know little. – Cerberus Oct 13 '13 at 3:28
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This is an interesting case - there's an awful lot on the semantics of exceptive markers (such as the paper you linked to), but i'm not sure i'm familiar with anything on their syntax.

One thing to note as a preliminary is that [but John], which i'll tentatively call the exceptive phrase, can appear discontinuous from the NP no one which it seems to modify, although it's fairly restricted in where it can appear.

(1) [No one] [but John] attended the meeting
(2) [No one] attended the meeting [but John]
(3) * [No one] attended [but John] the meeting
(4) * [but John] [no one] attended the meeting

Note that the exceptive phrase can't appear between the verb and it's object. It can appear here, however, if we just make the object a little heavier, licensing heavy NP shift:

(5) ? [No one] attended [but John] [the meeting we all said we would go to]

We can tell that [no one] is sitting fairly high when it appears discontinuous from the subject because we can have intervening adverbials:

(6) [No one] attended the meeting yesterday [but John]

Also, having a reflexive in object position doesn't give rise to a principle C violation with a co-referring proper name in the exceptive phrase, so we know that the exceptive phrase isn't c-commanded by the object:

(7) [No one] shaved himself [but John]

The fact that a reflexive (probably a logophor in this case) can be bound in the exceptive phrase by the subject shows that the exceptive phrase is c-commanded by the subject even when the two are discontinuous:

(8) [Nobody's mother] likes anybody [but herself]

It's worth comparing the distribution of [but X] with [except X], since both seem to have a very similar function:

(9) [No one] [except John] attended the meeting.
(10) [No one] attended the meeting [except John]
(11) * [No one] attended [except John] the meeting
(12) ??? [except John] [no one] attended the meeting
((12) only grammatical with prosodic break between exceptive phrase and subject)

So it looks like, more or less, [except X] and [but X] have an identical distribution. One interesting thing to note is that sentence-initial exceptive phrases can be repaired by inserting for:

(13) [but for John] [No one] attended the meeting.
(14) [Except for John] [no one] attended the meeting.

These variations sound a little odd if not sentence initial:

(15) ?? [no one] [except for John] attended the meeting.
(16) ??? [no one] [but for John] attended the meeting
(17) ?? [no one] attended the meeting [except for John]
(18) ??? [no one] attended the meeting [but for John]

I don't have an analysis (and hence, no answer) yet, but i thought it would be interesting to leave these facts here as a work in progress. Tentatively, it looks like the exceptive phrase can be stranded in the VP-internal subject position by A-movement of the subject to the matrix subject position, hence the possibility of the discontinuous order. I'll be coming back to this when i have some more time.

Edit: Some more observations:

but-exceptives are restricted in the sorts of phrases they can modify:

(i) [Everyone] [but Sally] jumped into the swimming pool
(ii) [No one] [but Sally] jumped into the swimming pool
(iii) [All boys] [but John] jumped into the swimming pool
(iv) ?? [Each boy] [but John] jumped into the swimming pool. - Not sure about this one
(iv) # [Most boys] [but John] jumped into the swimming pool
(v) # [Some boys] [but John] jumped into the swimming pool
(vi) # [The team] [but John] jumped into the swimming pool
(vii) # [A group of boys] [but John] jumped into the swimming pool

From the data above, it looks like but-exceptives can only modify something quantificational, but it only plays nicely with certain quantifiers (presumably this is a fact that can be derived from the semantics of the exceptive phrase). Additionally, it doesn't seem to play nicely with an overt distributive marker each, which i find odd. except-exceptives stand in stark contrast:

(i) [Everyone] [except Sally] jumped into the swimming pool
(ii) [No one] [except Sally] jumped into the swimming pool
(iii) [All boys] [except John] jumped into the swimming pool
(iv) ?? [Each boy] [except John] jumped into the swimming pool.
(iv) ? [Most boys] [except John] jumped into the swimming pool
(v) ?? [Some boys] [except John] jumped into the swimming pool
(vi) ? [The team] [except John] jumped into the swimming pool
(vii) ? [A group of boys] [except John] jumped into the swimming pool

except-exceptives seem much more free to modify non-quantificational DPs. Curiouser and curiouser.

  • There's also Nobbut-clefts. – jlawler Oct 13 '13 at 18:08
  • This is turning out to be an interesting topic, might have to start up a mini-project trying to find out what's going on here. I'd be interested in hearing your own thoughts too @AlexB. – P Elliott Oct 14 '13 at 11:40
  • @PElliott, I'll reply in a couple of days. – Alex B. Oct 15 '13 at 3:45
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Don't know about generative syntax, that makes far too many assumptions to be safe. 'but' is from OE butan (cf Plattdeutsch, Dutch buten), which derives from by or be + ut = out

So you have: Not one (person) [outside] John attend -ed the meet -ing

one (person) attend -ed the meet -ing

one has the attribute '[outside (of)] = but John'

In Chinese that looks like this (I find it useful to compare, simply because Chinese is so very different): 约翰之外,没有人出席会议 Yuehan zhiwai, meiyou ren chuxi huiyi John outside, nothave person attend meet.

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