In a sentence such as "Which picture of himself will John hate?", what is considered the reflexive noun phrase (as it pertains to Condition A of traditional Binding Theory)? I know it'd normally be "himself", but is it "John" in this case, since "himself" precedes it?

In other words, is "himself" now the antecedent NP, and "John" the reflexive NP?

2 Answers 2


That's what is traditionally called cataphora, i.e., the effective antecedent following the anaphor. Right, there is a good deal of confusion in the terminology, which is unhelpful when people consider literal meanings of the terms. I agree with Yellow Sky that in typical usage antecedent is the cover term regardless of its linear position. If the "R[eferential]-expression" John were really anteceded by he, it would be a violation of Principle C (which is attested in some languages, but not really in English).

However, I disagree with John Lawler's comment to Yellow Sky's answer. Precedence is thought to be largely irrelevant for binding (although not completely irrelevant and not equally so in all languages). I think Tanya Reinhart showed this in 1976, but correct me if I'm wrong. The following sentence, where the pronoun follows the full NP but c-commands its trace, on co-indexing of John and he is supposed to be bad for the majority:

(1) Which pictures of John will he hate?

Now this may lead us to far off topic, talking about reconstruction effects, but you should get the idea.

  • Let me add my support to Jlawler' comment. Precedence is definitely influencing the distribution of pronouns. Reinhart got it wrong. She played down the importance of examples such as "?His1 dog likes John1." The coreferential reading in such cases is unlikely, yet Reinhart largely glossed over the importance of the marginality in such cases. She also claimed that the indicated reading is impossible in a sentence like "?In Johns picture of Mary1, she1 found a scratch". May 29, 2014 at 23:45
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    I've tested these sentences on numerous informants. Both examples receive marginal coindexation readings by informants. Reinhart drew an acceptability distinction that was messaging maginality in the one way or the other. She was doing this to butress her claims about c-command. The fact that her work was taken so seriously bears witness to the overinfluence of the Chomskyan school. May 29, 2014 at 23:51
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    @TimOsborne Yeah...because Reinhart is the only linguist EVER to write about the binding conditions in a generative framework. Williams (1997) in a very influential paper argues that linear order influences binding relations, proposing the General Pattern of Anaphoric Dependence: In a nutshell, dependence can be forward, or it can be backward and down. jstor.org/stable/4178996
    – P Elliott
    Jun 29, 2014 at 17:49

"John" is the antecedent. As far as I know, it is pronouns that have antecedents, and "himself" is a pronoun, not "John". "Antecedent" is often used as the general term for both antecedents proper (the preceding ones) and for postcedents (the following ones), so the answer is anyway "John", but whether is is the antecedent or the postcedent depends on the terminology you use. I would call it "antecedent" irrespective to its position before or after the pronoun.

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    I avoid the problem by using 'referent' instead of 'antecedent'. May 29, 2014 at 22:13
  • The rule is that a pronoun may not both command and precede its antecedent. In this case himself precedes John, but it does not command John, so it's OK. This rule applies to all personal pronouns, btw, not just reflexives.
    – jlawler
    May 29, 2014 at 22:16

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