Lecture: An experimental approach to principle C in German

Standard binding theory (Chomsky 1981) proposes that coreference and binding are regulated by binding principles A, B, and C. Additionally, it was generally accepted until a few years ago that coreference and binding are regulated by c-command (Reinhart 1976, 1983), a syntactic principle.

Definition 1: Principle C: All R-expressions must be free.

Definition 2: C-command: Node A c(onstituent)-commands node B iff the branching node α1 most immediately dominating A either dominates B or is immediately dominated by a node α2 which dominates B, and α2 is of the same category type as α1.

Principle C and c-command taken together predict why coreference between the pronoun preceding the R-expression Lucy is possible in (1a), but not in (1b).

(1) a. Her1 sister found Lucy1.

b. *She1 found Lucy1.

However, there are many counterexamples showing that non-syntactic factors can influence coreference judgments (Bolinger 1977) or even obviate principle C, such as etiquette requirements in (2).

(2) (Schlenker 2005: 399, ex. 37)

[The King of Transsylvania]1 requests that [his Majesty’s]1 ministers join [his Majesty]1 in Room Rosa Luxemburg.

These counterexamples lead modern approaches to principle C (e.g. Bruening 2014, 2021; Schlenker 2005) to adopt pragmatic principles allowing for principle C violations. One of these principles is Minimize Restrictors! (Schlenker 2005), which states that a definite description should be reduced (to a pronoun, for example) if this does not affect its denotation and if there is no pragmatic reason to not reduce it. In (2), politeness requires the usage of the full R-expression his Majesty instead of a pronoun.

In this talk, I present the results of a judgment task experiment focusing on semantic and pragmatic effects causing principle C violations in German. While testing the data of Frey (1993), one of the most influential works on coreference and binding in German, I discuss whether the principle C obviations found in my study can be accounted for through the incorporation of Minimize Restrictors! and similar principles into principle C. The results show that a purely syntactic theory of principle C, even if it is granting exceptions for ‘pragmatic effects’, cannot account for the German coreference patterns, suggesting that other, non-syntactic effects regulating coreference could be uncovered in future research.


Bolinger, Dwight. 1977. Pronouns and repeated nouns. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Bruening, Benjamin. 2014. Precede-and-command revisited. Language 90(2). 342- 388.

Bruening, Benjamin. 2021. Generalizing the presuppositional approach to the binding conditions. Syntax 24(4). 417-461.

Chomsky, Noam. 1984 [1981]. Lectures on government and binding. The pisa lectures. Third revised edition. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.

Frey, Werner. 1993. Syntaktische Bedingungen für die semantische Interpretation. Über Bindung, implizite Argumente und Skopus. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Reinhart, Tanya. 1976. The syntactic domain of anaphora. Cambride, MA: MIT dissertation.

Reinhart, Tanya. 1983. Anaphora and semantic interpretation. London & Canberra: Croom Helm.

Schlenker, Philippe. 2005. Minimize Restrictors! Notes on definite descriptions, condition C and epithets. Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 9, 385-416.


Day: 2022-05-27
Start time: 11:30
Duration: 00:30
Room: Decartes (2.36)
Track: Theoretical Linguistics
Language: en




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