If someone could direct me to papers/sites that describe this, and a summary or something, that would be great.

It is just a parameter for languages? What do linguists think so far?

Example: "Which store did you buy the book from?" and "From which store did you buy the book?" are both allowed in English.

I know from Full Interpretation (Chomsky 1993, 1995) that the motivation for Wh movement is a +Wh feature and that locality constraints must be satisfied... perhaps this is related?

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    @P. Elliot. I suggest toning down the linguistic jargon that is specific to one particular theory of syntax. My guess is that many readers have no idea what you are talking about. Dec 1 '13 at 4:54
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    It's possible etymology may be to blame for this rare ability of English. It's thought that in PIE or pre-PIE prepositions were originally adverbs, and their objects were in fact the objects of the verb phrase. The same situation is seen (entirely independently) in Totonac, where "prepositions" are in fact bound morphemes of the verb and their objects are free-floating arguments of the verb which participate in the agreement hierarchy. Dec 1 '13 at 7:56
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    @TimOsborne I doubt people get asked to tone down math jargon on the math SE. Anyway, since the questioner referred to Chomsky '93/'95, i assumed he would know what i was talking about.
    – P Elliott
    Dec 1 '13 at 17:12
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    @JustinOlbrantz Are you suggesting that this is the situation in English? It seems to me that this is pretty obviously false, since nothing can intervene between a preposition and its complement in English. They clearly form a unit.
    – P Elliott
    Dec 1 '13 at 17:17
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    @cyco130 the determiner is part of the constituent (call it an NP/DP, whatever you want) that the preposition takes as its complement, i.e. John looked [PP at [DP the painting]]. The entire constituent the painting is the complement of the preposition. It's pretty uncontroversial that a preposition and its complement form a unit in English (the exception being complex seperable verbs, such as send out in John sent the letter out), i don't see much point in arguing about this.
    – P Elliott
    Dec 1 '13 at 19:32

I write this as an answer because the comment thread is too long already for (what I take to be) the spirit of SE sites. The language used by the author of the question (parameter, wh-movement and the two references to Chomsky) strongly suggests that he wants (or at least is comfortable with) an answer within minimalist linguistic theory. Within this framework, the answer given by P Elliott in comments seems to me to be quite perfect. The main points, as I see them, are the following.

  • As P Elliott said, prepositions stranding is a rare phenomenon cross-linguistically, with just a handful of examples outside the Germanic family.

  • Answering it is just a parameter would be theoretically very unsatisfactory. At the very least, one would want to this parameter to impact different parts of syntax, so that one could make experimental predictions of the form If a language tolerates preposition stranding, then.... Ideally, one would also want these correlations to be built on theoretical grounds which are independently motivated.

  • K.Abels' thesis 1 does just that. As P Elliott said, the core of the thesis is the isolation of a condition on movement (the anti-locality condition) which is certainly independently motivated in the derivation by phases conception of minimalist syntax. This condition entails that preposition stranding is possible only when PP is not a phase, something that can be investigated experimentally independently. For instance, though it might not be explicitly stated in his work, it follows from E.Reuland's analysis of binding theory that there should be a correlation between languages allowing preposition stranding and languages allowing binding of a reflexive in a PP, and this is indeed not a trivially false prediction, as is shown by the comparison below. In (297) of 1, another (highly non-trivial) prediction is also offered and argued to follow from the antilocality condition: a language allows clitic pronouns as complement of a preposition if and only if it has clitic pronouns and allows preposition stranding.

  • Another well-known experimental prediction relating preposition stranding to other syntactic phenomena is the so-called Merchant's generalization: a language allows preposition stranding if and only if it allows preposition stranding in elliptical wh-construction (so called sluicing constructions) 2

Jacob often thinks about him (him≠Jacob).

Nathan pense souvent à lui (lui=Nathan or lui≠Nathan).


Successive Cyclicity, Anti-Locality, and Adposition Stranding

The Syntax of Silence: Sluicing, Islands, and the Theory of Ellipsis

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    @PElliott Well, it is only natural I should acknowledge you, as you did all the work. But I come from a SE site which really frowns upon extended comment discussions to questions with no answer.
    – Olivier
    Dec 3 '13 at 9:32

It is genetic. Prepositions in Indo-European languages come from adverb-like particles which themselves often come from some sort of noun in a specific case. This adverb could be mostly anywhere in the sentence given the relatively free word order of PIE.

In English, many of these adverbs never fully transitioned into pure prepositions as they can stand on their own:

The treasure is 2 meters below/above the surface. (preposition)

The treasure is somewhere below/above. (adverb)

I came through hell. (preposition)

I came through. (adverb)

Fire in the hole (preposition)

The spy is in. (adverb)

Furthemore, these adverb like particles not only became prepositions in the languages (i.e. noun modifiers), but they also became verbal prefixes. Again, in English the move to the verbal prefixes did not happen all too much (another example is German where there are still verbs with separable prefixes).

The possibilities of development can be observed in ancient Greek:

Oreos bainó kata. - mountain-GEN go-1SG down

Kata oreos bainó - Down mountain-GEN go-1SG

Oreos katabainó. - mountain-GEN down-go-1SG

In some languages, it can even combine the two, adverb became a verbal prefix, but the verb still requires a noun with the same preposition - e.g. in Czech you may have both:

Přejdu přes řeku - Over-go-1SG over river-ACC

Přejdu řeku - Over-go-1SG river-ACC

So basically, I believe it is safe to say that it is mostly due to chance that in Germanic languages the grammaticalisation went more slowly (to the of not being finished in English) than in other IE languages.


I figured I'd give an answer with respect to the languages mentioned

With regards to questions, Chinese is wh in situ, and consequently has no need for coverb stranding - contrast this with the translation (sorry if you hate this construction):

(1) 你在哪裡度假?
    Ni    zai nali  du-jia?
    You   at  where spend-holidays?
    Where did you spend you holidays at?

As for RCs, Chinese already has another [+case] strategy, the resumptive pronoun, so by paradigmatic economy, coverb stranding is not needed:

(2) 我用它搜尋網頁的工具
    Wo  yong ta  souxun wangye  de  gongju
    1sg use  3sg search webpage LIG tool
    the tool which I search for webpages with

By contrast, English doesn't generally allow resumptive pronouns in simple RCs like these:

(3a) the tool which I search for webpages with (*it)

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