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Closest conjunct agreement is an illusion

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Much recent work on closest conjunct agreement has argued that Agree must be sensitive to linear order. In this paper, we argue that the ‘closest’ aspect of this phenomenon is in fact illusory. What may, at first glance, seem like linearly-conditioned agreement can instead be analyzed as the result of different derivations inside the conjunct phrase. Thus, agreement with a single conjunct is in fact agreement with a conjunct phrase which has inherited the features of only one of its conjuncts. Furthermore, the assumption that a given order of operations inside the conjunct phrase is maintained at later cycles of the derivation makes correct predictions about the possibility for each pattern to occur either pre- or postverbally. Thus, we arrive at a principled analysis of conjunct agreement, which derives only the attested patterns in Serbo-Croatian and rules out ungrammatical structures without recourse to linear order.

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  1. 1.

    For the most part, our examples involve inanimate, plural NPs since these consistently trigger plural agreement and do not show animacy-based interactions with gender agreement. Conjunction of singular NPs results in further puzzling restrictions, which we do not deal with here (but see Sect. 4.4.6 and Corbett 2006:256; Franks and Willer-Gold 2014:108 for discussion).

  2. 2.

    However, Willer-Gold et al. (2016) report that default agreement with postverbal subjects is found far less frequently than with preverbal subjects. We have no particular explanation for this preference and treat both as possible options available to the grammar.

  3. 3.

    For example, the production study by Willer-Gold et al. (2016) found that, with N+F coordination, agreement with the linearly further conjunct preverbally (neuter) was produced 18% percent of the time, whereas the rate of agreement with the furthest conjunct in postverbal position (feminine) was only 2%.

  4. 4.

    Bošković (2009:474) claims that this is not the case, since (assuming the multiple-specifier structure in (i)) ‘every NP in Spec&P in principle counts as a potential pied-piper.’ As a result, they will be deactivated and only the last conjunct can be targeted for Agree.

    1. (i)

      [&P NP1 [&′ NP2 [&′ & NP3 ]]]

    However, this is at odds with the core assumptions of the analysis, since the movement dilemma and concomitant deactivation only arises if a conjunct is extractable. Unlike first conjuncts, medial conjuncts cannot be extracted (cf. Stjepanović 1999, 2015) and as a result, there should actually be nothing wrong with agreeing with the second of three conjuncts. Furthermore, it is conceivable that coordinations of more than two conjuncts do not necessarily involve multiple specifiers of a single & head (see Sect. 4.5 for discussion).

  5. 5.

    In addition, given that Bošković’s account crucially relies on the fact that the first conjunct can, in principle, be extracted, there is no discussion of what actually happens if this conjunct is extracted. Although the empirical situation with extraction and agreement is still unclear, there has been some initial work by Arsenijević et al. (2015). They found that, in the configuration in (i), speakers allow for all agreement strategies (resolved and agreement with either conjunct):

    1. (i)

    In Bošković’s system, it seems impossible to agree with one conjunct but extract another, since the two processes are inextricably linked. In our analysis (and others such as Marušič et al. 2015), the determination of which conjunct is extracted is separate from the choice of agreement controller. For reasons of space and empirical murkiness, we do not present a detailed analysis of the interaction between putative CSC violations and agreement, however this is an important direction for future research.

  6. 6.

    We have not addressed the account by Bhatt and Walkow (2013) in detail here. Overall, their account aims to derive the fact that CCA is only possible with object agreement in Hindi and many aspects of their account are not obviously applicable to Serbo-Croatian. However, they do briefly discuss parallels with Serbo-Croatian (Bhatt and Walkow 2013:1000f.). In particular, they argue that strategies of CCA arise because ‘T cannot value its features on &P in Serbo-Croatian because of the failure of resolution of gender features in &P’. The general idea is that CCA arises in both Serbo-Croatian and Hindi due to the inaccessibility of gender features on &P, but for different reasons: in Hindi, the features on object &P are deactivated under case assignment, whereas in Serbo-Croatian, &P does not have a value for gender to begin with. However, this explanation is unsatisfactory for Serbo-Croatian since it is clear that &P can and does compute its own gender to derive default masculine. Thus, it remains puzzling as to why &P does not compute its own gender in those instances in which we find CCA (the explanation clearly cannot be the same as for Hindi since there is no subject/object asymmetry). Thus, Bhatt and Walkow’s (2013:1001) claim that ‘CCA is not an option that languages choose instead of resolved agreement, rather it is a repair that arises when some aspect of syntactic agreement with &P fails’ cannot be maintained if one is not explicit about why gender resolution is blocked in certain cases and not others. In our approach, we follow Marušič et al. (2015) in assuming that resolved agreement is in fact a viable option alongside CCA and that this variability is linked to some parametric property of the grammar.

  7. 7.

    We follow work by Bošković (2008), Despić (2013) and Runić (2014) a.o. in assuming that Serbo-Croatian does not project a DP layer (although see Progovac 1998, Stanković 2014 for arguments for the opposing view). However, nothing in our analysis hinges on this assumption.

  8. 8.

    However, this may not necessarily be the case for all Slavic languages. For example, Slovenian shows dual agreement with conjoined singulars (i).

    1. (i)

    Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that Slovenian does agree with each of its conjuncts in number, as well as gender. We leave the exact degree of parametric variation to future research.

  9. 9.

    The main empirical phenomenon that Preminger draws from to motivate the idea of fallible Agree comes from agreement in the ‘agent focus’ construction in Kichean. Crucially, this language has both subject/object agreement, and thus one could view agreement as being due to a fallible, complex probe on T (that is subsequently fissioned into two terminals at PF in a DM framework; Halle and Marantz 1993, Embick and Noyer 2007). Furthermore, in a language such as Icelandic that only has subject agreement, T seems to only bear a simplex probe. This is supported by well-documented instances of intervention effects with dative DPs (e.g. Holmberg and Hróarsdóttir 2003; Sigurðsson and Holmberg 2008), where T does not have a second chance to probe after failed agreement with the dative (cf. Preminger 2014:160).

  10. 10.

    Note that, assuming a strictly local, derivational syntax, Upward Agree can only ever be Spec-Head Agree since there will be no other higher structure present at the point at which ↑Agr↑ applies—thus ↑Agr↑ is always trivially Spec-Head Agree. Agreement with an element higher in the structure than the specifier would constitute a violation of the Strict Cycle Condition (Chomsky 1973; McCawley 1988).

  11. 11.

    There is still the question of what formal means can be used to implement (36), that is, how can we ensure that the order of operations is maintained across the derivation? A number of options come to mind. For present purposes, we assume that the order in which operations apply is a syntactic primitive to which the derivation has permanent access. If this is ‘stored’ throughout the derivation, this implies that derivations have memory across phases. However, it seems conceivable that the order of operations could be ‘inherited’ from lower heads. As a reviewer correctly observes, this cannot be done by the operation (downward) Agree in our system since there are orders in which ↓Agr↓ fails to apply. Instead, this operation would be akin to inheritance as assumed for C and T (Richards 2007; Chomsky 2008), which must be a distinct process from Agree. A viable alternative would be to assume (36) as a transderivational constraint (e.g. in Optimality Theory; Broekhuis and Vogel 2013) that filters out any derivations that do not conform to the order of operations established at the previous cycle. We will remain agnostic with regard to the exact implementation of (36), but will simply demonstrate its predictive power in the analysis to follow.

  12. 12.

    Note that we keep the position of Move constant: it either applies first, or not at all. On the one hand, this is for practical reasons since allowing for the variable ordering of three operations means that we only have to consider 6 possibles orders (3! = 3 × 2 × 1). Allowing for the position of Move to vary would then generate 24 orders (4! = 4 x 3 x 2 x 1), and potentially unwanted outcomes. Furthermore, the early application of Move could follow from deeper principles of grammar such as the Earliness principle (Pesetsky 1989) or even a general preference for Move before Merge (see Shima 2000; Broekhuis and Klooster 2007; Chomsky 2013:41 and Heck and Müller 2016:79 for general discussion).

  13. 13.

    It is worth noting that this masculine agreement on the participle cannot be viewed as default morphology resulting from ‘failed’ agreement (cf. Preminger 2014), but we must rather treat it as agreement with coordination itself (see Sect. 4.4.2). The only potential candidate for what may look like failed agreement is the neuter singular agreement in impersonals and weather-verbs, as in (ia)–(ic) (adapted from Franks 1995:293):

    1. (i)

    However, we argue that the [n.3.sg] value in impersonal sentences without an overt subject is not the result of default valuation due to failed agreement, but rather agreement with a silent expletive, following Franks (1995) who claims that ‘the neuter third person singular is technically not a non-agreeing form but rather the result of syntactic agreement with an empty subject’ (Franks 1995:113). We follow Perlmutter and Moore (2002), Perlmutter (2007), Legate (2014) in assuming that impersonal expletives are cases of pro-drop in SC, just like it is argued for Russian and Polish in these works. Additionally, Franks (1995:113), Perlmutter (2007:285) and Legate (2014:98) argue that the expletive pro carries 3rd person singular neuter features (also see Svenonius 2002:8). Such expletives also lack semantic content (see Chomsky 1981:323ff.; Svenonius 2002:8, and in particular Perlmutter 2007:282f. for various tests that confirm this for Russian, as well as Franks 1995:294 for the claim that subject of impersonal is not assigned a theta-role).

  14. 14.

    We do not discuss the vP cycle here. One may worry about whether certain orders of operations make incorrect predictions with regard to assignment of accusative case by v. However, we follow recent ‘dependent case’ approaches in which case is assigned in competition with a structurally c-commanded DP (e.g. Marantz 1991; McFadden 2004; Preminger 2014; Baker and Vinokurova 2010; Baker 2015; Levin and Preminger 2015). Therefore, a given order of operations is irrelevant for case assignment.

  15. 15.

    To simplify things somewhat, we do not include faithfulness constraints that might punish deletion (e.g. Max). However, these should be assumed to crucially be ranked lower than the relevant markedness constraints in order to trigger the repair. Furthermore, we do not consider candidates which add features, as this would not improve the harmony of a candidate with respect to *FeatClash.

  16. 16.

    Nevertheless, there does seem to be a strong preference for non-masculine agreement in uniform gender conjunctions (NN/FF) (see Willer-Gold et al. 2016:204,214ff.). Furthermore, the rate of masculine masculine in postverbal position was even lower (only 2% with NN conjuncts and 3% with FF conjuncts; Willer-Gold et al. 2016:204). One option to account for this preference would be to restrict the selection of & without pre-specified gender for derivations with uniform gender conjuncts. However, this strikes us as requiring a undesirable degree of Look Ahead. Instead, one could build this into the resolution mechanism itself. For speakers who do not allow for masculine with FF and NN combinations, one could adopt a higher-ranked constraint such as (i) that protects the most frequently-occurring value in the input.

    1. (i)


      In a feature-value pair containing the values α and β; if there are n occurrences of β and >n occurrences of α in the input, then preserve α in the output.

    If ranked higher than the relevant markedness constraints, this would rule out masculine if it is the least numerous value in the input. Furthermore, this constraint could be ranked stochastically (e.g. Boersma 1998) to reflect the production preferences reported by Willer-Gold et al. (2016).

  17. 17.

    It is important to note that we do not assume that the functional sequence (f-seq) is built by Merge. If this were the case, then ↑Agr↑ would apply before the vP complement had been merged. Crucially, Merge is an operation that checks c-selectional features (e.g. for nominal arguments). Following Adger (2003), we assume that f-seq is not built with c-selectional features since this would entail massive redundancy in the lexicon (since parts of f-seq can be omitted). For concreteness sake, we could distinguish two types of merge: f-Merge and c-Merge. The former would be responsible for building the f-seq (e.g. merging the next highest head on the f-seq that is available in the numeration) and would always apply first (before Move). The latter operation would then be the Merge operation that is of direct interest to us here.

  18. 18.

    A reviewer wonders whether the fact that more than one order leads to FCA means that we would expect it to be a more common strategy. This does not necessarily seem to be the case empirically (cf. Willer-Gold et al. 2016). This depends to some extent on whether one views the order of operations as being random or not. A particular choice of order results in a deterministic derivation, so a speaker could ‘know’ in some sense what agreement strategy they will end up with. At present, we do not commit to any particular claim about the relative frequency of a particular order. All orders are equally available to the speaker at a given time (like the competing grammars of Marušič et al. 2015) and if there are usage preferences, these come from elsewhere.

  19. 19.

    Supporting evidence for the conjunction ‘and’ being inherently plural can be seen by comparing it to disjunctions. Arsenijević and Mitić (2016) note that disjunctions allow for singular agreement more readily than conjunctions:

    1. (i)

    This suggests that while conjunctions are always pre-specified for plural number, disjunctions have the option of being underspecified.

  20. 20.

    Two anonymous reviewers point out that another possible structure for conjunctions with multiple NPs is (i), which has been proposed by Wagner (2010:196) on the basis of prosodic evidence.

    1. (i)

      [&P1 [&P2 NP1 & NP2] [&′1 &1 NP3]]

    Here &P2 is in the specifier, while NP3 is the complement of &P1. This structure can be ruled out in Serbo-Croatian, however, based on its predictions with respect to Left-Branch Extraction (LBE). As shown by Stjepanović (2015), in coordinate phrases with multiple conjuncts, only the first one can be extracted (contra Bošković 2009:474 who claims that none can be extracted):

    1. (ii)

    Since the first conjunct is in Spec-&P, this is a subcase of LBE. Treating the first two conjuncts as an &P in the specifier of another &P predicts that it should be possible to LBE-extract the first two conjuncts as a unit. This prediction is not borne out, however, as (iii) shows that such extraction is ungrammatical.

    1. (iii)
  21. 21.

    Interestingly, even if we were to adopt the structure with multiple specifiers suggested in (87a), agreement with the middle conjunct would still be ruled out under present assumptions. Since ↑Agr↑ is defined as m-command, the highest specifier will always be preferred since this is the closest m-commanded goal from the root node. Thus, we rule out Medial Conjunct Agreement, regardless of the exact analysis of multiple coordination one wishes to adopt.

  22. 22.

    Note that in order for this derivation to conform to the constraint on Uniform Order of Operations in (36), the &P must actually move into Spec-PartP2 where it targeted for ↑Agr↑. We assume that the participle moves to a higher head in extended verbal projection, and thus precedes the conjunct phrase.

  23. 23.

    Another option would be that all operations apply downward and the subject stays in situ. Given the fact that clauses introduced by an agreeing complementizer are verb-final in Dutch, it is difficult to determine whether movement to Spec-TP has actually taken place (but see Diesing 1992; Bobaljik and Wurmbrand 2005 for possibly relevant scope diagnostics).

  24. 24.

    This approach is similar to the analysis of complementizer agreement in Shlonsky (1994), where agreement first takes place in a Spec-Head configuration of an AgrC projection, and this head bearing the agreement morphology subsequently moves to a higher C head.

  25. 25.

    We have not yet mentioned where head movement fits into the current system. One option is that it is feature driven in the syntax (e.g. Müller 2007; Georgi and Müller 2010) and then would be checked by applying Move. Alternatively, it could be viewed as a PF process (Chomsky 1995; Merchant 2001; Schoorlemmer and Temmerman 2012; Platzack 2013). Since head movement does not play a crucial role for the phenomena under discussion, we do not commit to either of these views.

  26. 26.

    This is an alternative to the approach by van Koppen (2005), who assumes that the possibility of agreeing with the first conjunct is determined by the morphological specificity of the resulting agreement at PF. If the exponent realizing agreement with the coordinate (plural) is less specific than the one realizing the first conjunct (singular), then agreement with the first conjunct is preferred. In our account, there is no reference to morphological specificity (since Agree is purely syntactic) and deactivation is simply parametrized between dialects.

  27. 27.

    There still remains the question of how we can account for patterns of upward complementizer agreement in Bantu, where the complementizer agrees with the subject of the matrix clause (cf. Baker 2008; Diercks 2010, 2013; Carstens 2016). At present, the exact nature of conjunct agreement in Bantu is not well understood. However, there have been some recent descriptions of a number of languages showing that some of the variety of patterns found in Slavic are also attested, e.g. Last Conjunct Agreement in Lubukusu (i) (also cf. Mitchley 2015; Diercks et al. 2015).

    1. (i)

    The challenge for the present account would be to see whether one can ascertain any interesting correlation with the position of the matrix subject &P and the type of agreement strategy. However, if Diercks’ (2010, 2013) ‘indirect’ anaphoric approach to upward complementizer agreement is correct, then the patterns of agreement we find with coordinate structures may ultimately tell us more about the nature of this dependency than the general mechanism of CCA (cf. Diercks 2010:300, fn. 11).


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For invaluable feedback at various stages of this work, we would like to thank Gereon Müller, Philipp Weisser, Doreen Georgi, Andrew Nevins, Lanko Marušič, Jana Willer-Gold, Boban Arsenijević, Anke Himmelreich, Martin Salzmann, Sandhya Sundaresan, Rajesh Bhatt, and Ad Neeleman, as well as three anonymous reviewers for NLLT whose comments and questions led to vast improvements in the paper. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at University of Leipzig, Goethe University Frankfurt, FDSL 10.5 in Brno and ConSOLE XXIII in Paris and Agreement Across Borders 2015 in Zadar. We would like to thank the participants at these locations for their feedback. Particular thanks go to the members of the project Coordinated Research in the Experimental Morphosyntax of South Slavic Languages (EMSS) at University College London for discussion of their findings. This research was completed as part of the DFG research training group Interaction of Grammatical Building Blocks (GRK 2011).

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Murphy, A., Puškar, Z. Closest conjunct agreement is an illusion. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 36, 1207–1261 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-017-9396-6

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  • Agreement
  • Coordination
  • Serbo-Croatian
  • Gender
  • Syntax