Last updated

In syntax, sluicing is a type of ellipsis that occurs in both direct and indirect interrogative clauses. The ellipsis is introduced by a wh-expression, whereby in most cases, everything except the wh-expression is elided from the clause. Sluicing has been studied in detail in early 21st century and it is therefore a relatively well understood type of ellipsis. [1] Sluicing occurs in many languages. [2]


Basic examples

Sluicing is illustrated with the following examples. In each case, an embedded question is understood though only a question word or phrase is pronounced. (The intended interpretations of the question-denoting elliptical clause are given in parentheses; parts of these are anaphoric to the boldface material in the antecedent.)

Phoebe ate something, but she doesn't know what. (=what she ate)
Jon doesn't like the lentils, but he doesn't know why. (=why he doesn't like the lentils)
Someone has eaten the soup. Unfortunately, I don't know who. (=who has eaten the soup)

Sluicing in these examples occurs in indirect questions. It is also frequent in direct questions across speakers, e.g.

Somebody is coming for dinner tonight. - Who? (=Who is coming for dinner tonight)?
They put something in the mailbox. - What? (=What did they put in the mailbox)?

The examples of sluicing above have the sluiced material following its antecedent. This material can also precede its antecedent, e.g.

I don't know why, but the pictures have been moved. (=why the pictures have been moved)
When and how is unclear, but somebody should say something. (=when and how somebody should say something)

Merchant (2001) states that these and other examples of sluicing can be organized into four categories of sluicing constructions. These types include sluices with adjunct wh-phrases, sluices with overt correlates, sluices with implicit arguments and contrast sluices. The first type refers to when the wh-phrase does not have an elided copy of the antecedent but is an adjunct. The following example from Algryani (2019) shows this:

Zayd rāḥ, lakǝn ma-adri mita /wein.
Zayd left.3MS but NEG-know.1S when/where
‘Zayd left, but I don’t know when/where.’ [3]

The second type refers to a correlate in the antecedent clause that is indefinite. This is shown in the above example about someone eating the soup, with ‘someone’ being the indefinite correlate of ‘who’. The third type of sluicing construction refers to when the wh-word is not referring to a term in the antecedent but is referring to an object that corresponds to the preceding verb. The following example from Algryani (2019) shows this:

Fatema təqra, lakǝn ma-ʕaraf eiš.
Fatema read.3FS but NEG-know.1S what
‘Fatema is reading, but I don’t know what.’ [3]

The final type of sluicing construction occurs when the elided material correspondent contrasts that of what is in the antecedent. The following example from Algryani (2019) shows this:

Zayd ʕand-ah walad, lakǝn ma-adri kam bent.
Zayd has.3MS son but NEG-know.1S how many daughter
‘Zayd has a son, but I don’t know how many daughters.’ [3]

Theoretical approaches to sluicing

There are two theoretical approaches that have been proposed for how sluicing occurs in languages. Ross (1969) is the first examination of sluicing; he argued that sluicing involves regular wh-fronting followed by deletion of the sister constituent of the wh-phrase. This analysis has been expanded in greater detail in Merchant (2001), the most comprehensive treatise on sluicing to date. A second kind of analysis is represented by Ginzburg and Sag (2000) and Culicover and Jackendoff (2005), both of which present nonstructural analyses of ellipsis, and do not posit unpronounced elliptical material. Yet another account of sluicing builds on the catena unit; the elided material is a catena.

Movement approach

The movement approach states that sluicing is a product of the syntactic derivation in which an embedded clause is built in the syntax and then the wh-phrase within the embedded clause moves outside of the constituent to the position of SpecCP (specifier to the complementizer phrase). These steps are then followed by the deletion (and therefore non-pronunciation) of the tense phrase node that contains the rest of the clause. Evidence for this approach is seen in the connectivity effects of case marking, binding and preposition stranding as outlined in Merchant (2001).

Case-marking in sluicing

Interrogative phrases in languages with morphological case-marking show the case appropriate to the understood verb as Ross, (1969) and Merchant, (2001), illustrated here with the German verb "schmeicheln" (to flatter), which governs the dative case on its object.

Er hat jemandem geschmeichelt, aber ich weiß nicht, wem.
he has someone.DAT flattered but I know not who.DAT
"He flattered someone, but I don't know who."

The sluiced wh-phrase must bear the same case that its counterpart in a non-elided structure would bear Merchant, (2001).

Preposition-stranding in sluicing

It has been concluded that languages that forbid preposition-stranding in question formation also forbid it in sluicing Merchant (2001), Stjepanovic, (2008), as in the following example from German:

Er hat mit jemandem gesprochen, aber ich weiß nicht, *(mit) wem.
he has with someone spoken but I know not with who
"He spoke with someone, but I don't know (with) who."

Examples of languages where p-stranding does not occur are Greek, German, and Russian.

Much research has been done to determine if sluicing can allow for preposition-stranding in a non-preposition-stranding language. Stjepanović, (2008) conducted research on whether this is possible in the non-preposition-stranding language, Serbo-Croatian. She concluded that there is not enough evidence to contradict the initial claim made by Ross. However, she did find that a preposition may be lost or removed from a sentence under sluicing in Serbo-Croatian. More research is to be conducted to confirm the official cause of this preposition-loss.

An example of the preposition-loss shown by Stjepanović, (2008) is displayed below.

Petar je sakrio igradku ispod jedne stolice i pored jednog zida, ali ne znam (ispod) koje stolice i (pored) kojeg zida.
Gloss Petar is hidden toy under one chair.GEN and beside one wall. gen but not I.know under which chair.GEN and beside which wall.GEN 4
Translation Petar hid the toy under a chair and beside a wall, but I don't know which chair and which wall.'


Merchant (2003) demonstrates that binding supports the movement approach using the following sentence:

Every linguist1  criticized some of his1 work, but I’m not sure how much of his1 work [every linguist1 criticized t]

In order for the second “his work” to refer to “every linguist” in the above example, it must be c-commanded by its antecedent within its local domain. Here, “his work” could not be coreferential with the subject: “every linguist” at the beginning of the sentence because it is outside of its local domain. This provides evidence that “his work” originally started off in the elided constituent where it could be c-commanded and in the local domain of that “every linguist” before it moved out of the clause.

Non-movement approach

There are also several theoretical approaches to sluicing that do not involve the movement of the wh-phrase out of the embedded clause. These approaches include PF deletion and LF copying. PF deletion as proposed in Lasnik (2007) states that the TP within the embedded clause is null and has syntactic structure within it that is elided following a wh-movement operation. The other approach, LF copying, is a process proposed by Lobeck (1995) in which the original structure of a sluicing phrase is one in which the wh-word originates in the SpecCP position of the embedded clause and a null phrase marker (marked e) occupies the position of the tense phrase of the embedded clause. This is the extent of the syntactic derivation. After this structure is derived, it is sent off for semantic interpretation, to logical form, in which the implied material in the tense phrase is then present for our full understanding of the sentence. The evidence for this approach is that it is able to account for islands in sluicing as is discussed below.

Islands in sluicing

Sluicing has garnered considerable attention because it appears, as Ross (1969) first discussed, to allow wh-fronting to violate the island conditions he discovered:

They want to hire someone who speaks a Balkan language, but I don't remember which one. (=*which one they want to hire someone who speaks)

Sluicing allows a sentence that contains an island to retain its meaning and remain grammatical. As mentioned by Abels, (2018), there is an ongoing debate on whether this can happen in all situations or if it is island dependent.

A biography of one of the Marx brothers will be published later this year, guess which (of the Marx brothers) [a biography of which of the Marx brothers] will be published later this year.
A biography of one of the Marx brothers will be published later this year, guess which.

The first example is ungrammatical because the island prevents us from moving anything out of the subject constituent (shown in square brackets). The second example is saved through sluicing as the island is sluiced and the meaning can be inferred from the context of the sentence, therefore maintaining the meaning and remaining grammatical.

Multiple sluicing

In some languages, sluicing can leave behind more than one wh-phrase (multiple remnant sluicing):

Someone wants to eat something. ?I wish I knew who what. (=who wants to eat what)
?Something is causing someone big problems, although it's not clear what who. (=what is causing who big problems)

Sentences like these are considered acceptable in languages like German, Japanese, Chinese, Turkish, Russian, and others, although in English, their acceptability seems marginal (but see Bolinger 1978, Merchant 2001, and Richards 2010 for examples). Lasnik 2014 discusses the fact that the wh-phrase remnants in multiple sluicing must be clausemates:

*Someone told me that something broke, but I don't remember who what. (≠who told me that what broke)

Issues with different approaches to sluicing

Only the catena-based approach handles multiple sluicing without further elaboration. The structural movement analysis must rely on some other type of movement to evacuate the noninitial wh-phrase from the ellipsis site; proposals for this additional movement include extraposition or shifting and need to be able to account for islands in sluicing. The nonstructural analysis must add phrase-structure rules to allow an interrogative clause to consist of multiple wh-phrases and be able to account for connectivity effects. The catena-based approach, however, does not account for the locality facts; since catenae can span multiple clauses, the fact that multiply-sluiced wh-phrases must be clausemates is a mystery.

Sluicing in other languages

Omani Arabic

Sluicing has also been analyzed in Omani Arabi as is shown in Algryani (2019). All four of the above stated sluicing constructions outlined by Merchant (2001) are accounted for in Omani Arabic.

Algryani (2019) displays the different constructions in the following examples:

Sluices with Adjunct Wh-Phrases

Zayd rāḥ, lakǝn ma-adri mita /wein.
Zayd left.3MS but NEG-know.1S when/where
‘Zayd left, but I don’t know when/where.’

Sluices with Overt Correlates

Zaid qabǝl ḥad, lakǝn ma-aʕraf mi:n.
Zaid met.3MS someone but NEG-know.1S. who
‘Zaid met someone, but I don’t know who.’

Sluices with Implicit Arguments

Fatema təqra, lakǝn ma-ʕaraf eiš.
Fatema read.3FS but NEG-know.1S what
‘Fatema is reading, but I don’t know what.’

Contrast Sluices

Zayd ʕand-ah walad, lakǝn ma-adri kam bent.
Zayd has.3MS son but NEG-know.1S how many daughter
‘Zayd has a son, but I don’t know how many daughters.’


The following example from Merchant, (2003) displays sluicing in Danish:

Peter har snakket med en eller anden, men jeg ved ikke hvem.
Peter has talked with one or another but I know not who.
Peter has talked with someone, but I don't know who.


The following example from Abels, (2018) displays sluicing in German:

Hans will jemanden helfen, aber ich weiß nicht wem.
Hans wants someone help but I know not who.
Hans wants to help someone, but I don't know who.


The following example from Merchant (2003) displays sluicing in Japanese:

Abby-ga dareka-o mi-ta ga, watashi-wa dare ka wakaranai.
Abby-NOM someone-ACC see-PAST but I-TOP who Q know.not
‘Abby saw someone, but I don’t know who.’


The following example from Kim & Sells (2013) displays sluicing in Korean:

Mimi-ka khu-n cha-lul sa-ss-nuntey, elmana khu-nci molukeyssta
Mimi-NOM big-MOD car-ACC buy-PAST-but how big-QCOMP not.know
‘Mimi bought a big car, but I don’t know how big.’

See also


  1. See for instance Ross (1969), Chung et al. (1995), and Merchant (2001).
  2. See Merchant's (2001) extensive account of sluicing; it includes examples from numerous languages.
  3. 1 2 3 Algryani, Ali (1 November 2019). "The Syntax of Sluicing in Omani Arabic". International Journal of English Linguistics. 9 (6): 337. doi: 10.5539/ijel.v9n6p337 . ISSN   1923-869X. CC-BY icon.svg Material was copied from this source, which is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Related Research Articles

In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, usually including word order. The term syntax is also used to refer to the study of such principles and processes. The goal of many syntacticians is to discover the syntactic rules common to all languages.

In general linguistics, the comparative is a syntactic construction that serves to express a comparison between two entities or groups of entities in quality or degree - see also comparison (grammar) for an overview of comparison, as well as positive and superlative degrees of comparison.

<i>Who</i> (pronoun)

The pronoun who, in English, is an interrogative pronoun and a relative pronoun, used to refer to humans, or animals.

In linguistics, wh-movement is the formation of syntactic dependencies involving interrogative words. An example in English is the dependency formed between what and the object position of doing in "What are you doing?". Interrogative forms are known within English linguistics as wh-words such as what, when, where, who, and why, but also include interrogative words like how. This kind of dependency has been used as a diagnostic tool in syntactic studies as it is subject to a number of interacting grammatical constraints.

In linguistics, pied-piping is a phenomenon of syntax whereby a given focused expression takes an entire encompassing phrase with it when it is "moved". The term itself is due to John Robert Ross; it is a reference to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the figure of fairy tales who lured rats by playing his flute. Pied-piping is an aspect of discontinuities in syntax, having to do with the constituents that can and cannot be discontinuous. While pied-piping is most visible in cases of wh-fronting of information questions and relative clauses, it is not limited to wh-fronting, but rather it can be construed as occurring with most any type of discontinuity. Most if not all languages that allow discontinuities employ pied-piping to some extent, although there are major differences across languages in this area, some languages employing pied-piping much more than others.

Relative clauses in the English language are formed principally by means of relative pronouns. The basic relative pronouns are who, which, and that; who also has the derived forms whom and whose. Various grammatical rules and style guides determine which relative pronouns may be suitable in various situations, especially for formal settings. In some cases the relative pronoun may be omitted and merely implied.

Topicalization is a mechanism of syntax that establishes an expression as the sentence or clause topic by having it appear at the front of the sentence or clause. Topicalization often results in a discontinuity and is thus one of a number of established discontinuity types. Topicalization is also used as a constituency test; an expression that can be topicalized is deemed a constituent. The topicalization of arguments in English is rare, whereas circumstantial adjuncts are often topicalized. Most languages allow topicalization, and in some languages, topicalization occurs much more frequently and/or in a much less marked manner than in English. Topicalization in English has also received attention in the pragmatics literature.

Preposition stranding, sometimes called P-stranding, is the syntactic construction in which a preposition with an object occurs somewhere other than immediately adjacent to its object; for example, at the end of a sentence. The preposition is then described as stranded, hanging, or dangling. This kind of construction is found mainly in English and in some other Germanic languages or dialects. Preposition stranding is also found in languages outside the Germanic family, such as Vata and Gbadi, and certain dialects of French spoken in North America.

In linguistics, ellipsis or an elliptical construction is the omission from a clause of one or more words that are nevertheless understood in the context of the remaining elements. There are numerous distinct types of ellipsis acknowledged in theoretical syntax. This article provides an overview of them. Theoretical accounts of ellipsis can vary greatly depending in part upon whether a constituency-based or a dependency-based theory of syntactic structure is pursued.

In linguistics, verb phrase ellipsis is a type of elliptical construction and a type of anaphora in which a non-finite verb phrase has been left out (elided) provided that its antecedent can be found within the same linguistic context, e.g. She will sell sea shells, and he will sell sea shells too. VP-ellipsis is a well-studied kind of ellipsis, particularly with regard to its occurrence in English, although certain types can be found in other languages as well.

Antecedent-contained deletion (ACD), also called antecedent-contained ellipsis, is a phenomenon whereby an elided verb phrase appears to be contained within its own antecedent. For instance, in the sentence "I read every book that you did", the verb phrase in the main clause appears to license ellipsis inside the relative clause which modifies its object. ACD is a classic puzzle for theories of the syntax-semantics interface, since it threatens to introduce an infinite regress. It is commonly taken as motivation for syntactic transformations such as quantifier raising, though some approaches explain it using semantic composition rules or by adoption more flexible notions of what it means to be a syntactic unit.

Pied-piping with inversion is a special word order phenomenon found in some languages, for example, languages in the Mesoamerican linguistic area.

In linguistics, gapping is a type of ellipsis that occurs in the non-initial conjuncts of coordinate structures. Gapping usually elides minimally a finite verb and further any non-finite verbs that are present. This material is "gapped" from the non-initial conjuncts of a coordinate structure. Gapping exists in many languages, but by no means in all of them, and gapping has been studied extensively and is therefore one of the more understood ellipsis mechanisms. Stripping is viewed as a particular manifestation of the gapping mechanism where just one remnant appears in the gapped/stripped conjunct.

Sloppy identity

In linguistics, sloppy identity is an interpretive property that is found with verb phrase ellipsis where the identity of the pronoun in an elided VP is not identical to the antecedent VP.

In linguistics, the catena is a unit of syntax and morphology, closely associated with dependency grammars. It is a more flexible and inclusive unit than the constituent and may therefore be better suited than the constituent to serve as the fundamental unit of syntactic and morphosyntactic analysis.

Pseudogapping is an ellipsis mechanism that elides most but not all of a non-finite verb phrase; at least one part of the verb phrase remains, which is called the remnant. Pseudogapping occurs in comparative and contrastive contexts, so it appears often after subordinators and coordinators such as if, although, but, than, etc. It is similar to verb phrase ellipsis (VP-ellipsis) insofar as the ellipsis is introduced by an auxiliary verb, and many grammarians take it to be a particular type of VP-ellipsis. The distribution of pseudogapping is more restricted than that of VP-ellipsis, however, and in this regard, it has some traits in common with gapping. But unlike gapping, pseudogapping occurs in English but not in closely related languages. The analysis of pseudogapping can vary greatly depending in part on whether the analysis is based in a phrase structure grammar or a dependency grammar. Pseudogapping was first identified, named, and explored by Stump (1977) and has since been studied in detail by Levin (1986) among others, and now enjoys a firm position in the canon of acknowledged ellipsis mechanisms of English.

Answer ellipsis is a type of ellipsis that occurs in answers to questions. Answer ellipsis appears very frequently in any dialogue, and it is present in probably all languages. Of the types of ellipsis mechanisms, answer fragments behave most like sluicing, a point that shall be illustrated below.

Stripping or bare argument ellipsis is an ellipsis mechanism that elides everything from a clause except one constituent. It occurs exclusively in the non-initial conjuncts of coordinate structures. One prominent analysis of stripping sees it as a particular manifestation of the gapping mechanism, the difference between stripping and gapping lies merely with the number of remnants left behind by ellipsis: gapping leaves two constituents behind, whereas stripping leaves just one. Stripping occurs in many languages and is a frequent occurrence in colloquial conversation. As with many other ellipsis mechanisms, stripping challenges theories of syntax in part because the elided material often fails to qualify as a constituent in a straightforward manner.

Noun ellipsis (N-ellipsis), also noun phrase ellipsis (NPE), is a mechanism that elides, or appears to elide, part of a noun phrase that can be recovered from context. The mechanism occurs in many languages like English, which uses it less than related languages.

In linguistics, a relativizer is a type of conjunction that introduces a relative clause. For example, in English, the conjunction that may be considered a relativizer in a sentence such as "I have one that you can use." Relativizers do not appear, at least overtly, in all languages; even in languages that do have overt or pronounced relativizers, they do not necessarily appear all of the time. For these reasons it has been suggested that in some cases, a "zero relativizer" may be present, meaning that a relativizer is implied in the grammar but is not actually realized in speech or writing. For example, the word that can be omitted in the above English example, producing "I have one you can use", using a zero relativizer.