The sentences below contain a construction which is called Free Relatives. What conditions must be satisfied in order for the sentences to be grammatical?

a. Mary will eat whatever John cooks

b. My mother likes whatever I draw

c. *Hollie likes with whomever Bill goes out

d. *Bill hates about whomever George gossips.

Why are free relatives problematic for the theta criterion? Which clause of the Theta Criterion seems to be violated? Could you please help me?

  • 5
    Sounds a bit like homework... You should point out how far you have gotten with a solution, otherwise it might be unlikely that you receive any help.
    – robert
    Jan 13 '14 at 17:26
  • I agree with @robert - Maybe start by giving a formulation of the theta criterion in your answer, make a hypothesis about how theta-roles are assigned in your example sentences, and then see if any clause of the theta criterion is violated. If you're still confused, i'll post an answer.
    – P Elliott
    Jan 13 '14 at 18:08
  • Or you could look up Pied-Piping, and ignore thetas. But your teachr wouldn't like that, probly.
    – jlawler
    Jan 13 '14 at 20:02
  • 1
    Then why not posting it then? That way, we can learn too.
    – Olivier
    Jan 14 '14 at 9:21
  • @kiyoshigaang Yep, it's allowed (and encouraged) to post answers to your own questions.
    – P Elliott
    Jan 14 '14 at 13:44

The wh-phrase in a free relative has to satisfy the subcategorization requirements of both matrix and embedded verbs. For example, in (b), both the matrix verb like and the embedded verb draw require a DP object. The wh-phrase whatever is a DP which satisfies both requirements.

In (c), however, the matrix verb like requires a DP, and the embedded verb go out requires a PP. The wh-phrase with whomever is a PP and so satisfies the requirements of only the embedded verb, so that the requirements of the matrix verb remain unsatisfied, which makes the sentence ungrammatical.

Free relatives are a problem for the theta criterion because the wh-phrase seems to receive two theta-roles, one from the matrix verb and one from the embedded verb. This fact is a problem for the claim that “every argument is assigned one and only one theta-role”.

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