I have long been intrigued by the following fact: in at least certain Western European languages (e.g., standard English, Spanish, and, as far as I can tell, also standard German and French, at least) there is an ill-understood constraint that prevents ‘possessive determiners’ (“my”, “mi”, “mein”, “mon”…, plus ‘Saxon genitives’, in the case of English and German) from co-occurring with most - although not all - restrictive post-modifiers (e.g., relative clauses, participial clauses, PP’s, or non-trivial AP’s), cf. English (1) or Spanish (2)

(1) *(What became of) my umbrella that you borrowed? (2) *¿(Qué fue de) mi paraguas que te llevaste prestado?

Interestingly, no such restriction holds between ‘possessive determiners’ and other restrictive modifiers (typically: restrictive AP’s or NP’s - before or after the noun, depending on the language), cf. English (3) or Spanish (4)

(3) (Where is) my black and beige silk umbrella?” (4) ¿(Dónde está) mi paraguas de seda negro y beis?”

nor between modifiers, in general, and non-‘possessive’ ‘determiners’, cf. (5) or (6)

(5) The/that black and beige silk umbrella that you borrowed (was rather expensive). (6) El paraguas de seda negro y beis que te llevaste prestado (era bastante caro).

nor between modifiers, and ‘possessives’ that do not function as ‘determiners’, cf. (7) or (8)

(7) (What became of) the/that black and beige silk umbrella of mine/my daughter’s that you borrowed? (8) (¿Qué fue de)l/de aquel paraguas de seda negro y beis mío/de mi hija que te llevaste prestado?

Although twenty years ago I myself, building upon Steven Abney’s influential theory of the structure of determiners and upon certain arguable constituent structure differences between pre- and post-modifiers, managed to develop and publish what seemed to be a first explanation of that mysterious restriction, I have always felt that that paper of mine was rather a ‘tour de force’, and I still suspect that my would-be 'explanation' could well be at least too parochial, or, worse, an artefact missing something much more basic.

Just to give you an idea, in essence my claim was that English (or German) ‘(Saxon) genitive’ and ‘possessive determiners’ (as well as Spanish or French ‘possessive determiners’, etc.) being ‘specifiers’ of some head D (= determiner) at the front of the ‘noun phrase’ could ‘c-command’ and so ‘take scope’ over restrictive pre-modifiers and ‘low’ post-nominal PP’s or clauses (= PP or CP complements of the noun) and so ‘license’ them, but not over post-modifiers, which, I argued, had to be attached ‘higher’, and to the DP itself, rather than the NP. With some technical tinkering, everything seemed to fit well enough, but, as I said, I have always felt as if I was missing something much more basic like some high-level semantic constraint on the duplication of 'strong' identificational phrases within the same NP/DP.

Could anybody here a) point me to relevant facts from other European or non-IE languages, and/or b) clarify the nature of that restriction and suggest reasons, synchronic or historical, why it should exist (in many, if not all, Indo-European languages, at least)?

Thank you in advance.


  • 1
    If I'm understanding you correctly, you feel that something like "Where are his kin that dare seek revenge?" (The Hobbit) is agrammatical? Dec 29 '14 at 6:37
  • Not really, considering that Tolkien often deliberately uses archaisms. In Old, and Early and Late Middle English, such constructions were possible, as Jespersen first showed in Chapters on English (1918), although usually with extraposition of the relative clause. However, since then, genitives, along with demonstratives, etc. have acquired stricter 'determiner' properties that make such constructions ungrammatical or rather awkward. So, the stricter current speakers of British English will all, or most, probably consider such sentences ill-formed or odd.
    – user6814
    Dec 30 '14 at 13:11
  • This is an interesting question about a restriction I had not thought of before. I'm looking forward to the answers… Feb 20 '15 at 2:00
  • I don't speak en-GB, but I see nothing especially awkward about "Where's my flash drive that you borrowed?" in en-US. Sep 18 '15 at 18:24
  • I disagree with your claim that this is ungrammatical in English. (I use en-GB.)
    – Rosie F
    Oct 1 '16 at 6:27

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