I am researching answer fragments. I have come upon some interesting data:

 What have you been telling John to try to get?

 a. --  A new bicycle.
 b. -- *Get a new bicycle.
 c. -- *To get a new bicycle.
 d. -- *Try to get a new bicycle.
 e. -- *To try to get a new bicycle.
 f. -- *Telling John to try to get a new bicycle.
 g. -- *Been telling John to try to get a new bicycle.
 h. --  I have been telling John to try to get a new bicycle.

The smallest answer fragment is fine, and the complete sentence answer is also OK, but the intermediate fragments are all bad. Why? Has anyone encountered an explanation of this aspect of answer fragments? Perhaps it is a trait of certain ellipsis mechanisms in general. Does anyone know?

  • Perhaps, just because that the complete sentence is the only one which is grammatically correct in English? For instance, in languages with declensions, the first example is fully grammatical (using the Accusative case), and the other forms are not too incorrect (but still may be a bit awkward). Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 12:27
  • 1
    According to Merchant (2004), fragment answers involve movement of the focused constituent to the left-periphery of the clause, followed by ellipsis of the remainder of the clause, i.e. [ [a new bicycle]F (I've been telling John to try to get ___ ) ]. Under this approach, b-g are ungrammatical because the fragment isn't F-marked. The full answer (h) is of course fine, because it doesn't involve any ellipsis.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 1:27
  • @PElliott, Thanks for the insightful explanation! But I have Merchant (2004) here now. The term "F-marking" or "F-marked" does not occur in the article. Nevertheless, I can see that your point is probably consistent with Merchant's approach. Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 7:35
  • Yeah, you're right to point that out - I just went back and had a look at the paper, and he doesn't talk about focus very much explicitly. I guess I enriched the analysis in my memory post-hoc. Still, it seems like a natural extension.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 11:00

1 Answer 1


That trait of elliptical answers is simply 'Focus'. Wh-questions have a Focus, and the answer to them must be an expression that denotes something in the category of entities that the asker has decided ask about, to focus his question on. Violating the syntactic Focus principle can also be considered a violation of principles like 'relevance' (in Grice's sense), since it entails offering information the question presupposes as known and that is, therefore, redundant if repeated, or even as a violation of 'Economy'in Chomsky's sense, and, depending on which theory of syntax you adopt, the unacceptability of examples like your (b-h) above will be explicable as a breach of all or of just some of those principles.

  • OK, but why is the full answer acceptable? Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 14:17
  • Thanks for the answer, but I agree with Thomas' comment. If Gricean reasoning were part of the explanation, we'd expect the full sentence answer to be the worst of the bunch. Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 0:50
  • The full answer is, indeed, still perceived as highly redundant, and is a violation of Grice's maxim of quantity, but is NOT a violation of the Focus principle, because leaving "a new bicycle" at the end keeps it in Focus (the 'End Focus' principle). The full answer, however redundant, is not the worst of the lot because the violation of a pragmatic principle like Grice's maxim is not perceived by the speakers as nearly as severe as the violation of the Focus Principle, a core syntactic rule.
    – user6814
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 6:53
  • I don't understand. "a new bicycle" is in focus in every case insofar as it is consistently at the end of the utterance. Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 1:26
  • That is the 'End Focus' principle of functional grammars (and major eclectic grammars of English like Quirk et al.'s). Focus on the last undetached constituent of the sentence is a 'strong' constraint, but, under a binary branching constituency, 'last constituent' is satisfied by ALL the phrases in a-h (vacuously, in the case of h). However, only a) satisfies Focus AND Gricean Quality and Quantity, (h) is second best, violating Quantity and Quality, but not Focus, and (b-g) violate ALL three principles and are all bad, arguably to different degrees, but I will not go into that here.
    – user6814
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 10:42

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