An introduction to syntactic locality

Thomas McFadden

One of the fundamental properties of natural language syntax is that (at least some) relationships and operations can only apply when the bits involved are close enough to each other. For example, in the sentences in (1), we see that the verb 'be' cannot agree with the pronoun 'I', which is too far away, but only with 'She', which is closer. And in the sentences in (2), we see that 'I', which starts out as the subject of 'stink', can make its way up to become the subject of 'seem', but only if the clause built around 'stink' is non-finite, as in (2a). If it's finite, as in (2b), 'I' is too far away from 'seem' to move up, and we have to do things different, as in (2c).

1a. She is sure that I stink
b. *She am sure that I stink.
2a. I seem to stink.
b. *I seem that stink.
c. It seems that I stink.

In this course, we will learn about the basics of syntactic locality. We will see where locality seems to play a role and how we might describe the locality conditions that are out there. Then we will look at different ways to understand locality analytically, i.e. how is it determined whether something is 'close enough'? Is there some absolute measure of distance that has to be respected, or is it more a matter of being the closest of a number of competitors. E.g. (1) seems to suggest the latter view of things -- 'be' can agree with 'I', because 'she' is closer. On the other hand, (2) seems to suggest the former view -- there is no competitor in (2b) that's closer to 'seem' than 'I' is, it just looks like being in a finite clause makes it too far away in an absolute sense. Finally, we will learn the fundamentals of different theoretical approaches to locality phenomena, comparing in particular how they deal with so-called unbounded dependencies, like that in (3) between the verb 'see' and its object 'who', which appears quite far removed from it:

3. Who did Randolph say that Mortimer thought that Louis claimed that Billy Ray saw?