Quick summary:

When we want to make questions, we're not totally free to move any word out to ask something about it. Like, if we heard the sentence Michael searched for the people who took his son, and we wanted to ask who exactly got taken, we can't say Who did Michael search for the people who took? But why not? In the episode, we talk about how the presence of one wh-word like how or what can block other wh-words from escaping from below them. This is because of the Minimal Link Condition: when words move, they have to move one slot at a time, and if another word is filling the slot they need to move through, they get stuck below. And we can show this using data from a lot of different languages, even ones where the wh-words don't seem to be moving at all, like Japanese!


Extra Materials:

In the video, we focused on two separate but related kinds of syntactic islands: embedded clauses and relative clauses, each beginning with words like “who” or “what”, which we claimed block other wh-words from moving out of those constituents. But there are many other kinds of islands that have been documented over the years.

For one, relative clauses don’t have to begin with wh-words, as in (1a); they can also show up in English with only a complementizer like “that”, as in (1b).

   (1a)    The man who made the film seemed to be missing an arm

   (1b)    The man that made the film seemed to be missing an arm

And like their wh-counterparts, these alternate versions of relative clauses also prevent movement out of them.

   (2a)    *What did the man who made seem to be missing an arm?

   (2b)    *What did the man that made seem to be missing an arm?

So to keep our general hypothesis working, we might speculate that wh-movement occurs even in these relative clauses that seem not to have any wh-word to move. In other words, we could say there’s a kind of silent, wh-word sitting on top of these clauses, guarding the exit and keeping anyone else from getting out. And the only reason we don’t find sentences like (3) is because of a more general prohibition against having both an overt wh-word and a complementizer at the beginning of a clause.

   (3)    *The man who that made the film seemed to be missing an arm

   (4)    *I know what that they saw

A prohibition, as it happens, which seems not to have been in effect in Middle English!

   (5)    thy freend which that thou has lorn

           ‘your friend that you have lost’

But, there are other islands which don’t fit so neatly into our story. Like, some consider the sentence in (6) to be questionable at best.

   (6)    ? Which mystery did Locke wonder whether he would solve?

It might be tempting to explain this fact by categorizing whether as yet another wh-word, getting in the way of that which. But we see the same happening with if, and it seems harder to argue that if's also not just an ordinary complementizer.

   (7)    ? Which mystery did Locke wonder if he would solve?

And there are other kinds of complex noun phrases, which at first look like they have relative clauses modifying them, and which don't allow movement.

   (8a)    Charlotte pondered the fact that there was a polar bear in the desert

   (8b)    *What did Charlotte ponder the fact that there was in the desert?

Notice, however, that the clause “there was a polar bear in the desert” contains no missing elements, which makes it hard to argue that any wh-word — silent or otherwise — has moved over to the front. Whatever’s responsible for stopping that “what” from getting out isn’t like anything we’ve seen before.

And there are still other examples of islands. Sentential subjects, like the clause at the beginning of (9), don’t allow anything to escape out of them.

    (9a)    That Desmond kept pressing the button proved his diligence

    (9b)    *What did that Desmond kept pressing prove his diligence?

Optional adjuncts are pretty conservative, too, when it comes to who stays and who goes.

   (10a)    The island was moved because it needed protection

   (10b)    *What was the island moved because it needed?

And coordinated structures won’t let you move out only one half at a time; you’ve got to take the whole thing, or nothing at all.

   (11a)    Ben and Hurley remained on the island

   (11b)    *Who did and Hurley remain on the island?

   (11c)    *Who did Ben and remain on the island?

   (11d)    Who remained on the island?

The island effects listed here, along with many others, are a big part of active research in syntax today. But while there have been valiant attempts to capture everything that you see going on here, the answer to that question will have to wait until another day.



So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about what questions we can and can't ask, and why. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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