Empirical Approaches to Elliptical Constructions

Course time: 
Monday/Thursday 3:30-5:20 PM

Course Summary

Despite the accessibility of large corpora (e.g., COCA and BNC) and the fact that it has become much easier to conduct acceptability experiments (thanks to e.g., Amazon Mechanical Turk (https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome) and the Ibex Farm platform (http://spellout.net/ibexfarm/)), much of the current work in theoretical syntax and semantics continues to be based on limited paradigms of data obtained through introspection. Our purpose in this course will be to show students how corpora and psycholinguistic experiments can be used to obtain a much finer-grained perspective on the data. Focussing on elliptical constructions (specifically, VP-Ellipsis and Pseudogapping in English and Gapping and Right-Node-Raising in English and French), we will show that many putative empirical generalizations, on which sometimes very elaborate theoretical reasoning is based, turn out not to hold. The problem with introspective data is not that linguists are unable to make adequate acceptability judgments (cf., e.g., Sprouse et al. (2010)), but rather that it is very easy to make mistakes in identifying the causes of unacceptability: given two examples which differ with respect to a certain syntactic property P and which exhibit a contrast in acceptability, it is tempting to attribute the contrast to P. However, it is often the case that minor modifications in the examples (e.g., individual lexical choices or modifying the discourse environment) can radically change acceptability independently of P, showing that P is in fact not the relevant distinguishing factor. We will show how appropriately framed corpus queries can help overcome the limits of introspection, allowing a more complex and more satisfactory understanding of the data and of the actual factors involved, thus forming the basis for more robust explanations. We will also show how corpus data allow one to improve the quality and plausibility of experimental materials and how experiments can be designed to evaluate the predictions of an analysis. We will encourage students to apply these methods to their own datasets on topics linked to ellipsis and null anaphora.

Outline of course topics and readings

Week 1
1. Background. The deep and surface proposal (Hankamer and Sag (1976)). Overview of the state of the art on Ellipsis (Merchant (2013)). Early psycholinguistic research (Tanenhaus and Carlson (1990))
2. Focus on Verb Phrase Ellipsis (part 1). Theoretical overview (Craenenbroeck (to appear)). Corpus based studies (Hardt (1993), Nielsen (2005), Bos and Spenader (2011), Miller (2011), Miller and Pullum (2014)). Discourse factors (Kehler (2002), Kehler (to appear))
Week 2
1. Focus on Verb Phrase Ellipsis (part 2). Experimental studies on VPE with mismatched antecedents (Grant et al. (2012), SanPietro et al. (2012), Kertz (2013), Miller and Hem-forth (2014)).)
2. Focus on Pseudogapping. Theoretical studies (Lasnik (1999), Gengel (2013), Aelbrecht and Harwood (to appear)), corpus studies (Levin (1986), Hoeksema (2006), Miller (2014)), experimental studies (Miller (2015)).
Week 3
1. Corpus study on gapping in English (Bîlbîie (2015)), discourse and semantic factors (Kehler (2002)).
2. Corpus study on gapping in French (Abeillé et al. (2014)).
Week 4
1. Corpus study on RNR in English (Bîlbîie (2013)). Syntactic and semantic constraints Chaves (2014)).
2. Corpus and experimental studies on RNR with mismatched antecedents in French (Abeillé et al. (2015)).


  • Abeillé, Anne, Gabriela Bîlbîie, and François Mouret. 2014. A Romance perspective on gapping constructions. In Hans Boas and F. Gonzálvez Garcia, eds., Romance Perspectives on Construction Grammar, 227–267. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Abeillé, Anne, Berthold Crysmann, and Aoi Shiraishi. 2015. Syntactic mismatches in French peripheral ellipsis. In Empirical Issues in Syntax and Semantics 11.
  • Aelbrecht, Lobke and William Harwood. to appear. Predicate ellipsis. In Jeroen van Craenenbroek and Tanja Temmerman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Ellipsis. Oxford University Press.
  • Bîlbîie, Gabriela. 2013. A quantitative study on right node raising in the Penn Treebank. Presentation at the International Congress of Linguists, Geneva.
  • Bîlbîie, Gabriela. 2015. English gapping and rnr: a corpus study. Manuscript, U Paris Diderot and Bucharest U.
  • Bos, Johan and Jennifer Spenader. 2011. An annotated corpus for the analysis of VP ellipsis. Language Resources and Evaluation 45:463–494.
  • Chaves, Rui P. 2014. On the disunity of right-node raising phenomena. Language 90:834–886. Craenenbroeck, Jeroen van. to appear. VP-ellipsis.
  • Craenenbroek, Jeroen van and Tanja Temmerman. 2017. The Oxford Handbook of Ellipsis,
  • Gengel, Kirsten. 2013. Pseudogapping and Ellipsis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ginzburg, Jonathan and Philip Miller. to appear. Ellipsis in head-driven phrase structure grammar. In Jeroen van Craenenbroek and Tanja Temmerman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Ellipsis. Oxford University Press.
  • Grant, Margaret, Charles Clifton, and Lyn Frazier. 2012. The role of non-actuality implicatures in processing elided constituents. Journal of Memory and Language 66:326–343.
  • Hankamer, Jorge and Ivan A. Sag. 1976. Deep and surface anaphora. Linguistic Inquiry 7:391-426.
  • Hardt, Daniel. 1993. Verb Phrase Ellipsis: Form, Meaning, and Processing. Ph.D. thesis, University of Pennsylvania. Distributed as IRCS Report 93-23. 3.
  • Hoeksema, Jack. 2006. Pseudogapping: its syntactic analysis and cumulative effects on accept- ability. Research on Language and Computation 4:335–352.
  • Kehler, Andrew. 2002. Coherence, Reference, and the Theory of Grammar. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
  • Kehler, Andrew. to appear. Ellipsis and discourse. In Jeroen van Craenenbroek and Tanja Temmerman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Ellipsis. Oxford University Press.
  • Kertz, Laura. 2013. Verb phrase ellipsis: The view from information structure. Language 89:390–428.
  • Lasnik, Howard. 1999. Pseudogapping puzzles. In Shalom Lappin and Elabbas Benmamoun, eds., Fragments: Studies in Ellipsis and Gapping, 141–174. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Levin, Nancy. 1986. Main Verb Ellipsis in Spoken English. Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics. New York: Garland.
  • Merchant, Jason. 2013. Voice and ellipsis. Linguistic Inquiry 44:77–108.
  • Miller, Philip. 2011. The choice between verbal anaphors in discourse. In I. Hendrickx, S. Lalitha Devi, A. Branco, and R. Mitkov, eds., Anaphora Processing and Applications: 8th Discourse Anaphora and Anaphor Resolution Colloquium, DAARC 2011, Volume 7099 of Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, 82–95. Berlin: Springer.
  • Miller, Philip. 2014. A corpus study of pseudogapping and its theoretical consequences. In Christopher Piñón, ed., Empirical Issues in Syntax and Semantics, Volume 10, 73–90. URL www.cssp.cnrs.fr/eiss10/eiss10.pdf.
  • Miller, Philip. 2015. Against remnant raising analyses of pseudogapping. Ms. Université Paris Diderot.
  • Miller, Philip and Barbara Hemforth. 2014. Verb phrase ellipsis with nominal antecedents. Ms. Université Paris Diderot.
  • Miller, Philip and Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2014. Exophoric VP ellipsis. In Philip Hofmeister and Elisabeth Norcliffe, eds., The Core and the Periphery: Data-driven Perspectives on Syntax Inspired by Ivan A. Sag, 5–32. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
  • Nielsen, Leif Arda. 2005. A Corpus-Based Study of Verb Phrase Ellipsis Identification and Resolution. Ph.D. thesis, King’s College London, London.
  • SanPietro, Steve, Ming Xiang, and Jason Merchant. 2012. Accounting for voice mismatch in ellipsis. In Nathan Arnett and Ryan Bennett, eds., Proceedings of the 30th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, 303–312. Cascadilla Proceedings Project.
  • Sprouse, Jon, Carson Schütze, and Diogo Almeida. 2010. A comparison of informal and formal acceptability judgments using a random sample from Linguistic Inquiry 2001-2010. Lingua 134:219–248.
  • Tanenhaus, Michael K. and Greg N. Carlson. 1990. Comprehension and deep and surface verb phrase anaphors. Language and Cognitive Processes 5:257–280.