AG 3: What drives syntactic computation? Alternatives to formal features

Session organizers

Dennis Ott (HU Berlin) & Radek Šimík (U Potsdam)


Formal features (FFs) continue to figure prominently in various areas of syntactic theorizing. Displacement in particular is widely held to be effected by FFs or their properties (strength, EPP, etc.). However, various researchers have expressed skepticism toward this reliance on oftentimes arbitrary triggers (e.g., Chomsky 2001:6, Fanselow 2006), and some have sought more principled replacements. This workshop aims to explore and assess such alternative approaches to the causal forces underlying syntactic operations and their effects on interpretation and externalization. Various lines of research have emerged that all seek to minimize the role of syntactically encoded featural triggers. Seminal work by Reinhart (1995) argues that notions such as referentiality, scope, or focus cannot be reduced to FFs, despite their close association with syntactic operations (e.g., scrambling, QR, focus fronting). Instead, these operations are taken to apply freely in syntax, their legitimacy being contingent solely on their effects on interpretation and prosodic realization (cf. Szendrői 2001, Fox 2002, Bobaljik 2002). Moro (2000, 2004) and Ott (2012) argue that movement creates structural asymmetries required at the interfaces, an approach which Chomsky (2013) extends to the “EPP” problem and the vexing case of intermediate movement steps. Even the traditional assumption that movement of wh-phrases is triggered by corresponding FFs in the C-system has not gone unquestioned (cf. Šimík 2012). Richards (2010) argues that the wh-movement parameter is derivative of the prosodic requirements of wh-phrases and wh-questions in a given language, which can be achieved by either syntactic or prosodic means. As a result, stipulations of “feature strength” and the like become obsolete. Below the word level, frameworks such as Nanosyntax emphasize the role of morphophonology in driving syntactic computation (cf. Starke 2011). Sublexical movement is motivated indirectly, by the need to arrive at syntactic configurations for which there is a matching lexical item: what feature-based systems would take to be a “crashing” derivation here corresponds to the impossibility of lexicalizing a syntactic subtree—that is, an independent output condition.
Despite these promising developments, FFs still reign supreme in various domains of syntactic theory where they are no less problematic (see e.g. Thoms’s 2010 critique of Merchant’s 2001 “E[llipsis]-feature”). This workshop will seek to explore the prospects, scope and limits of alternative ways of motivating syntactic computation, by asking questions such as the following:

  • Can syntactic theory avoid recourse to FFs entirely, or is their postulation inevitable—and perhaps even desirable—in at least some domains (e.g. minimality effects, parametric variation)?
  • Can a model that eschews featural triggers be appropriately restrictive? What is the locus and nature of the restrictions, and (how) can they be implemented without syntactic “look ahead”?
  • Is a FF-free syntax a suitable instrument to capture optionality and obligatoriness of operations? Is there genuine grammatical optionality after all (cf. Biberauer & Richards 2006)?


  14:00 Dennis Ott (HU Berlin) & Radek Šimík (U Potsdam)  
  14:30 Pritha Chandra (Indian Institute of Technology)  
    Agreement variations without uninterpretable features  
  15:00 Hedde Zeijlstra (Göttingen)  
    Uninterpretable features as triggers for movement: differences between language and music  
  15:30 Omer Preminger (Maryland)  
    Syntactic operations exceed what the interfaces can account for  
  16:00 Break  
  16:30 Hadas Kotek (McGill)  
    Against a feature driven view of wh-movement  
  17:00 Èric Mathieu (Ottawa)  
    The wh parameter and radical externalization  
  17:30 Norvin Richards (MIT)  
    Contiguity Theory and DP-structure  
  9:00 Jun Abe (Tohoku Gakuin U)  
    Dynamic antisymmetry for labeling  
  9:30 Andreas Blümel (Graz)  
    Category avoidance in root contexts -- the Case of V2C  
  10:00 Volker Struckmeier (Köln)  
    Relational output configurations as alternatives to formal features  
  10:30 Carlos Muñoz-Perez (Buenos Aires)  
    On set-theoretic chain formation and cyclic movement  
  11:00 Break  
  11:30 Thomas Graf (Stony Brook)  
    A computational guide to the dichotomy of features and constraints  
  12:00 Gereon Müller  
    Removal of structure: an argument for feature-driven Merge  
  11:30 Andrew Murphy (Leipzig)  
    Ellipsis as morphological impoverishment: An alternative to the [E]-feature  
  12:00 Elly van Gelderen (Arizona State)  
    Forced asymmetry causing language change  
  12:30 Nagarajan Selvanathan (Rutgers)  
    Movement to FocP without focus features in copula clauses  
  13:00 Kriszta Szendrői (UCL)  
    The syntax of information structure and the PF interface  

Deviation from the original schedule

The talk by Gallego was cancelled.