Focus binding IIa: sloppy identity

In my first post on focus binding, I hypothesized that unaccented pronouns must refer to individuals whose names would also be unaccented in the same context. In this post and the next, I will explore the nature of this constraint.

Free vs. Bound Pronouns

Linguists like to distinguish two types of pronouns: free and bound. Free pronouns pick up their referents from the context — and not just the linguistic context. For instance, imagine if we turned on the TV and saw this:

Conan Jumps

I could exclaim something like “Where’s he going?” or “What’s his problem?” or “He’s at it again!” and it would be clear that the pronouns he and his refer to Conan.

Bound pronouns, on the other hand need not even have a referent;  rather, they pick up their meaning in relation to another term in the sentence. For instance, in

No girl in my class brought her homework.

the pronoun her is linked to the quantifier no girl. Here, there is clearly no specific girl for her to refer back to.  Instead, what the sentence means is something like:

There’s no girl in my class whose name can truthfully fill in these blanks: _____ brought _____’s homework.

It is generally agreed that bound pronouns must be c-commanded by their antecedents, due to the lack of a bound pronoun reading for sentences like this:

She brought no girl’s homework.

The pronoun she here must be free (perhaps referring to the teacher) and therefore, this sentence cannot be synonymous with the previous one. Now, this all raises the interesting question of whether a pronoun whose (c-commanding) antecedent is not a quantifier is free or bound.  For instance, is his below free or bound?

John loves his dog.

As we will see in the next section, the answer is yes.

Sloppy Identity

Boy_and_His_Dog_DrawingVP ellipsis is a construction where you leave out a verb phrase on analogy to a previous one.  For instance, it’s a little awkward to say:

John loves his dog, and Bill loves his dog, too.

Much better to leave out the VP the second time (adding the pleonastic verb do) to achieve a synonymous sentence:

John loves his dog, and Bill does love his dog, too.

Linguists like to think that the VP is still “there” in some sense, but it is not pronounced.

Notice that these sentences are ambiguous: if John’s dog is Billingsgate P. Pupsqueak, MD and Bill’s is Trotto von Bonesmark, then Bill may love John’s dog, Dr. Pupsqueak, or his own dog, von Bonesmark. We call the reading that preserves the same dog owner in both cases the strict identity reading, and the one where the pronoun shifts from one boy to the other the sloppy identity reading.

Now, theorists of ellipsis have proposed that the unspoken VP must be an exact copy of the previous, spoken VP (modulo agreement perhaps). How, then, can we have two different meanings?  Well, we can if the first VP itself is ambiguous! The strict reading arises when the pronoun his is free, and therefore picks up the meaning “John” from the context somehow.  Since the context is presumably similar throughout the sentence, this type of pronoun will keep its meaning in both locations, yielding the strict reading.

However, imagine if the pronoun were bound instead of free.  It could still mean the same thing in the first clause, because its only c-commanding antecedent is John.  But, its exact copy in the missing VP slot of the second clause has a different c-commanding antecedent: Bill.  Hence, a bound pronoun in VP ellipsis yields the sloppy reading.

Next (half) Post: What sloppy identity tells us about focus bound pronouns.


One thought on “Focus binding IIa: sloppy identity

  1. Pingback: Focus Binding IIb: Sloppy Identity Unbound | Semantic Disposition

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