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Resumptive pronoun

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Resumptive pronoun

Resumptive pronouns are pronouns in a relative clause which refer to the antecedent of the main clause (sometimes referred to as the matrix clause). These pronouns occur after a pause or interruption (such as an embedded clause, series of adjectives, or a wh-island), and they restate the antecedent.

Their primary role is to “block violations of syntactic constraints”,[1] but that is not their only role. In the past, resumptive pronouns have been seen as “ways of salvaging a sentence that a speaker has started without realizing that it is impossible or at least difficult to finish it grammatically”.[2] In order to clarify a syntactically complicated sentence an English speakers will use a resumptive pronoun.

In many languages resumptive pronouns are necessary for a sentence to be grammatical and are required to help interpretation and performance in particular syntactic conditions.[3]


Resumptive pronouns are pronouns that become more common the deeper the relative clause is embedded within the sentence because of greater processing constraints. These pronouns may not be actually grammatical in some languages like English, but are inserted into some sentences for clarity when there is a great deal of embedding or distance.

Crucial to understanding resumptive pronouns is grasping the concept of their counterpart: the trace. Since resumptive pronouns and traces may not be differentiated in the English lexicon, the definition of one requires information about the other. When movement occurs such as subject-auxiliary inversion in question phrases, an invisible place-marker is left, called a trace. A trace is an empty category that maintains a position in a sentence. It represents the pronoun that would have been present in the embedded clause, or before the Wh-Movement, that is removed from the surface representation of the sentence. As a result, in accordance with Binding Theory, the empty position of a trace must still be co-indexed with the preceding noun that it refers to in D-structure.

There are two views regarding the existence of resumptive pronouns. Some Linguists believe that resumptive pronouns occur as a result of syntactic processing, while others believe they are the result of grammatical structure and are actually the pronunciation of a trace. In terms of grammatical processing, speakers use resumptive pronouns to clarify syntactically complicated sentences by using a resumptive pronoun as a hook back to the antecedent. From the structural perspective, resumptive pronouns have been called a “cross between a trace morpheme and a regular pronoun”.[4] A conceivable way of approaching resumptive pronouns is to say that they are of the same syntactic category as gaps or traces, and that they get the same semantic translation. The only difference would be that certain gaps get ‘spelled out’ as pronouns for clarity. Resumptive pronouns are syntactically and semantically pronouns, and they differ in both these respects from gaps.

Example Sentences

The following examples are based on sentences provided in the work by McKee and McDaniel (2001) [5]

a. The man [who(i) John saw t(i).]
b. *The man [who(i) John saw him(i).][6]
c. That is [the boy(i) that t(i) cries loudly.]
d. *That is [the boy(i) that he(i) cries loudly.]

t = trace i = co-indexed

Sentence (a) shows a trace, where the pronoun has been removed from the embedded clause. In sentence (b), the word him represents the pronoun that would be referred to as a resumptive pronoun if it remained in the sentence. However, as was stated previously, traces and resumptive pronouns appear in complementary distribution, so for the sentence to be grammatical with a trace in (a), it must be ungrammatical when the resumptive pronoun fills that same position in (b). Sentences (c) and (d) operate similarly, and are demonstrated in the X-bar theory trees below.

Theories of Resumptive Pronouns Distribution

Through a brief overview of resumptive pronouns in Swedish, Zaenen, Engdahl and Maling (1981) conclude that in some languages resumptive pronoun usage is not a case of anaphoric binding. In fact, they indicate that the relationship between a wh-word and a resumptive pronoun is actually akin to the relationship between a wh-word and a trace (an empty category that maintains a position in a sentence) that exists in English. Furthermore, they state that even though resumptive pronouns typically occur in syntactic islands, this is not because of switch in the category of binding.[7]

The issues with resumptive pronoun extractability clearly follow from syntactic principles. Furthermore, this factor is naturally described within the Minimalist program,[8] where the possibility of one structure can affect the possibility of another. In pre-Minimalist frameworks where derivations are independent of each other, this type of relation between two structures was unaccounted for; that is, there was no syntactic account of the ungrammaticality of cases like (3b). The independence of (3a) and (3b) implied that (3b) should be as good as (4b), regardless of whether resumptive pronouns are marginal in English. However, in the Minimalist framework, derivations that originate from the same numeration (i.e., set of lexical items) compete with one another so that the least costly derivation blocks the other(s). Therefore, if each resumptive–trace pair in the patterns exemplified in (3) and (4) is analyzed as originating from the same numeration, the complementarity has an account.

To develop this account we must claim that resumptive pronouns and traces are not differentiated in the English lexicon. If they were, the two versions would derive from different numerations and so would not compete.[9]

Distribution of Resumptive Pronouns

Resumptive pronouns in English behave differently than in other languages. In many contexts resumptive pronouns are judged to be ungrammatical by native speakers and they cannot be in the same binding domain or clause as the pronoun to which they refer. They do not usually occur in main clauses, but generally in relative clauses[10] in some languages. In fact, in English, “relative clauses with resumptive pronouns are officially ungrammatical [...] However, they are in fact not uncommon in speech”.[11] However, their grammaticality is influenced by linear distance from the subject, embedded depth, and extractability.

1) Distance – Processing constraints between the distance of the antecedent and the pronoun.
2) Extractability – The acceptability of a trace.
3) Island Constraints – The movement capability of WH-words.

In a relative clause, resumptive pronouns are generally not seen as grammatical, how ever their level of grammaticality improves as they get farther from the head. Thus, (2b) seems preferable to (2a). Some improvement in whether a native speaker judges resumptive pronouns as grammatical may also result when the resumptive pronoun is embedded, as in (2c). The following examples are based on sentences provided in the work by McKee and McDaniel (2001) [12]

(2a): *This is the camel that he likes Oscar.
(2b): This is the camel that maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe he likes Oscar.
(2c): This is the camel that I think he likes Oscar.

Since distance is generally irrelevant to syntactic principles, it is difficult to build a grammatical account of English resumptive pronouns in such terms.[13] The factor that seems to affect the distribution of resumptives in English most is extractability (i.e., whether a trace is acceptable). Resumptive pronouns are therefore generally in complementary distribution with traces. In (3), where the trace is possible, the resumptive pronoun is not; in (4), where the trace is not possible because of island constraints, the resumptive pronoun is.

(3) a. That’s the girl that I like t .
b. *That’s the girl that I like her .
(4) a. *This is the girl that I don’t know what t said.
b. This is the girl that I don’t know what she said.

Distribution In Other Languages

The use of resumptive pronouns and the resumptive pronoun strategy is “marginal” [14] in the English language, but “common in colloquial English where binding theory prohibits Wh-Movement”.[15] This language phenomenon is found more readily in other languages, such as Italian and French.


Contrary to English, Italian features grammatical resumption in some unbounded dependencies other than relative clauses. As the example below shows, the resumptive pronoun is required for the sentence to be grammatical. Where ‘lo’ is the resumptive pronoun.

Mario lo ho visto domenica
"Mario him I saw on Sunday" [16]


Subject and object relatives in French introduce ‘qui’ and ‘que’ as complementizers which are coupled with the use of a resumptive pronoun. In the example below, ‘lui’ is the resumptive pronoun.

L’ âne que le cowboy lui donne à boire
The donkey that the cow-boy to-him gives to drink
“The donkey to whom the cow-boy gives some water.” [17]


In some languages, resumptive pronouns and traces seem to alternate relatively freely, as the Romani examples in (1) illustrate.

(1) a. Ake i haj so mangav.
here the girl that I-like
‘Here’s the girl that I like.’

b. Ake i haj so mangav la.
here the girl that I-like her
‘Here’s the girl that I like [her].’ [18]


Yiddish also provides an example of a language that uses resumptive pronouns readily, as can be seen in the example below.

Yiddish example ...a yid vos er iz geven a groyser lamdn un a gvir...
Word to word correspondence in English: ...a Jew that he is been a big scholar and a rich-man...
English translation: '...a guy who [he] was a big scholar and a rich man..’


Also See


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