Oct 032019

Here’s a thing that I’m sure happens to everyone from time to time:

  1. You read or hear about phenomenon X or generalization X or theoretical proposal X.
  2. Time passes.
  3. You happen upon some new data or a new idea, for which X proves relevant.
  4. However, it turns out that you have imperfect recall of X. Unbeknownst to you, what you have in your head is actually some rejiggered version of X – let’s call it X’ – which conveniently-and-suspiciously suits your current theoretical or empirical needs.

Now, if this were the end of it, this would be a story about how you misremembered some X as X’; were briefly under the impression that it was a perfect fit for your current interests; and were then disabused of that notion when it was pointed out to you that the data / generalization / proposal in question was actually X, not X’.

But sometimes, that’s not what happens.

Sometimes, this imprecise recall can actually turn out to have value of its own.

By way of illustration, I want to share three times that this happened to me in recent years, and what I learned from them.

The first story concerns Rackowski & Richards 2005 (henceforth, R&R). This paper is about how long-distance extraction in Tagalog requires the verbs along the movement path to each agree with the XP argument out of which long-distance extraction proceeds. So, for example, in the example below, the matrix verb shows “OBL” agreement, even though the element being relativized is an indirect object (=”DAT”) of its original predicate. That’s because the clause out of which extraction is proceeding, here (the clausal argument of ‘say’) is an “OBL” argument in its own clause.

(Tagalog; R&R:586, ex. (51b))

In their paper, R&R propose that this effect arises because:

  • featurally-speaking, CPs are themselves candidates for the relevant kind of movement;
  • this triggers a minimality effect (in particular, an A-over-A type of minimality effect), making the CP node closer to the higher probe than any XP properly contained inside the CP would be;
  • however, agreeing with the CP in its entirety satisfies the Principle of Minimal Compliance (PMC; Richards 1997, 1998, 2001), rendering subsequent probings into this CP exempt from the relevant minimality constraint;
  • then, and only then, can an XP be extracted from inside this CP.

Crucially, on R&R’s story, there is no Phase Impenetrability Condition (PIC) as such. The PIC arises as a consequence of the logic above.1The measure of structural distance used in R&R’s minimality/A-over-A calculation is such that the specifier of CP is already equidistant to CP relative to higher probes, whether CP has been agreed with or not. This means that anything in SpecCP is already in what is effectively an “escape hatch,” irrespective of agreement with the entire CP.

Fast-forward several years, and I have been asked to write a commentary paper for NLLT, responding to Mark Baker’s (2011) When Agreement is for Number and Gender but not Person, a paper summarizing and extending the SCOPA proposal from his 2008 book. For reasons I won’t bore you with,2They are interesting reasons! But you can read about them yourself here. I was making use of (something like) R&R’s proposal. But I reconstructed it imprecisely: I assumed there was a sui generis PIC, but also agreement with the phase had the effect of “disabling” its phasehood / rendering the PIC irrelevant for that particular phase.

Fast-forward a few more years, and the same Richards is co-authoring a paper with van Urk, about successive-cyclicity in Dinka (Nilo-Saharan). And lo and behold, van Urk & Richards (vU&R) are adopting essentially the same “imprecise” version of R&R that I had mistakenly reconstructed: “… we propose a modification of Rackowski and Richards 2005, in which the need for a syntactic relation between v and the CP from which extraction takes place is independent of phase impenetrability. This allows us to preserve the insight behind Rackowski and Richards’s proposal without jettisoning the traditional view of successive cyclicity, for which Dinka offers such striking evidence” (vU&R 2015:114).

Now, in isolation, there are several possibilities here:

  • This could be a coincidence!
  • Or, it could be that R&R had it right, and both I and vU&R have it wrong.
  • But it could also be that the R&R story was close-but-not-perfect, and the data I was trying to account for (SV‑VS agreement asymmetries in many head-initial languages), as well as the Dinka data that vU&R were trying to account for, both exerted the same subtle force pulling us in the same direction.

If you allow for the possibility that this third option might be correct, then I find it interesting that – at least for me – it manifested itself via the imprecise recall of R&R’s original proposal. That is: staring at the data I was trying to account for, I had reconstructed a version of R&R in my head that was inexact in a very particular way. And that way, while ad hoc in the context of what I was up to at that moment, turned out to have a little more than that going for it: it did useful work in an entirely unrelated empirical domain (successive-cyclic movement in Dinka), as well.

In case of any lingering doubts, let me be clear: none of this excuses imprecision in the final product. (In the 2011 commentary paper, I was explicit about the theory I was assuming. Though I must come clean and point out that I mistakenly attributed it verbatim to R&R…) Instead, it is meant to highlight the fact that sometimes – just sometimes – your head rearranges stuff in subtle but productive ways. If you misremember phenomenon X or generalization X or theoretical proposal X, it can be fruitful to ask yourself:

  • Why do you misremember it as X’?
  • If X was a proposal or a generalization, how does X’ fare in accounting for the original data that X was put forth to capture?
  • What other arguments (besides what you are currently after) can be marshaled in weighing X against X’?

The second story, which is much more recent, concerns the Anaphor Agreement Effect (AAE). In his seminal discussion of the AAE, Rizzi (1990) characterizes the AAE as a constraint on where (reflexive) anaphors can & cannot occur. In the last couple of years (starting from the wonderful LinG1 workshop), I have developed an interest in the AAE. But it took me a couple of years and two polite-but-stern anonymous reviews to finally realize that I had been working under an entirely different assumption than Rizzi about what the AAE even is.

The characterization of the AAE that I had in my head has significant precedents in work by Woolford (1999) and Tucker (2011); but my view is that they didn’t go far enough. As I argue here, there is good reason to think that the AAE is about is restricting nontrivial agreement with anaphors (where “nontrivial agreement with XP” means the verb has at least two overtly-distinguishable forms, and the choice between these two forms is governed by the person/number/gender features of XP). And, crucially, I argue that the AAE, properly construed, is essentially mum about the distribution of anaphors. There are still languages where it looks like Rizzi’s distributional constraint holds, of course, and anaphors cannot even occur in the relevant positions (English, Italian, Icelandic). But there are plenty of languages where it doesn’t, and anaphors can occur in the relevant positions so long as nontrivial agreement is avoided (Albanian, Georgian, Basque). Importantly: I know of no theory that can predict which of these two behaviors you’ll get. The form of the anaphor (varying or fixed, simplex or complex) doesn’t adequately predict which kind of language you’ll be, nor do any apparent properties of the language itself (as far as I’m aware). The only statement of the AAE that enjoys any cross-linguistic generality is the one about nontrivial agreement, not the distributional one.

The point of the story, though, is that I already had this characterization of the AAE in my head without having even noticed that (i) it differs from Rizzi’s, and (ii) I can argue in favor of it an against the alternative.

As with the R&R story, this is not meant to excuse imprecision in the finished product. The reviewers had it exactly right in pressing me to clarify and motivate this distinction. But again, it seems that my brain had played a useful trick on me: I had glimpsed some fleeting, peripheral-vision-of-the-mind’s-eye image of the data I was looking at, and my mind had already reformulated the AAE in a way that worked where the original formulation wouldn’t have. This reformulation needed to be interrogated, to reveal that it can be argued for etc.; but without it having happened, it’s entirely possible that I would have just stared at the data, baffled and puzzled.

The third story is the chronologically earliest, and in my view somewhat less interesting, so I’ll try to be brief. It goes like this: my 2009 paper on Basque agreement morphology presupposes without argument that agreement relations (as well as clitic doubling) can fail without “crashing” the derivation, and concentrates on what happens when they do fail. It was only later that I fully realized that most contemporary generative syntacticians didn’t think this presupposition was valid at all, and thought this was something that needed to be argued for. (Thankfully, in this case, the reviewers of the original paper were as oblivious to this under-motivated premise as I was!)

With the help of my grad advisors, as well as Rajesh Bhatt, I eventually realized that my implicit assumptions on this front were not universally shared, and needed to be argued for. From that point on, I sort of “had my antennas up” for data that could help make that case in particular. Soon thereafter, I attended a reading-group presentation by Lauren Clemens about the Agent-Focus construction in K’ichean, the light clicked, and I had a dissertation topic.

Again, imprecision here was anything but an endpoint. In fact, coming to terms with this imprecision and the arguments needed to bridge it turned out, in this case, to be a monograph-sized project. But the start of it was still a mental “autocorrect” which turned out to be in the right general direction.

So there you have it, three stories about imprecise recall that turned to be rather valuable. Of course, there are many many cases where I’ve recalled something imprecisely and my version was both wrong and useless. My only point here is that’s not always the case. So the next time you find out that, “No, actually, that’s not what SoAndSo says,” take a moment to reflect on the differences between what you remembered and what you “should” have remembered, and what might underlie the difference!

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[…] but not least is Omer with some anecdotes about the occasional value of imprecise recall where your brain sometimes generously autocorrects your memory of, say, a principle or a […]