Subjectless sentences in English

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Subjectless sentences in English

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Title: Subjectless sentences in English
Author: Reiman, Patricia Willess
Abstract: One of the goals of modern linguistics is to develop a model of Universal Grammar which captures natural language features that are universal, while also accounting for variation among languages. Thus a much-discussed phenomenon in Government and Binding theory is pro-drop (Jaeggli and Safir 1989). Pro-drop is the parameter which determines whether the subject of an independent clause must be overt or may be left empty (Crystal 1991:279). According to the definition given above, it would appear that English is a pro-drop language. However, Crystal (1991:279) cites English as an example of a non-pro-drop language. If this is correct and English is non-pro-drop, then how are subjectless sentences in English to be explained? This paper presents the results of a discourse analysis of two written English texts that make extensive use of subjectless sentences. The texts, written by Robert Fulghum (1990:13-16; 1991:7-13), are expository essays that make frequent use of embedded narratives and are written in a colloquial style. In text one, which I call the spider text, 42% of the subjects in independent clauses are empty. In the second text, which I call the wedding text, 23% of the subjects of independent clauses are empty. The empty subjects represent all persons and both singular and plural referents. In discourse terms, over 78% of the empty subjects in each text serve as the topic of the containing independent clause. The results show that a topic in subject position can be zeroed when 1) its absence would not cause ambiguity, and 2) it has a referential distance of one. Constituents which occur sentence initially, but do not serve as topics, may also be zeroed when they are pragmatically recoverable.
Date: 1994

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