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English Resumptive Pronouns are More Common where Gaps are Less Acceptable


English resumptive pronouns, as in "...the flowers that I don't know where IT came from," are enigmatic in that they are judged to be unacceptable, which would indicate that they are ungrammatical, but are regularly produced by native speakers, which is typically taken to indicate grammaticality. We report results from two studies: an acceptability judgment study on sentences with resumptive pronouns or gaps ("...the flowers that I don't know where _came from"), and a written production study which elicited sentences that required participants to produce either a gap or a resumptive pronoun in various island and non-island domains. We find that, in a given structure, resumptive pronouns are produced at a rate that negatively correlates with the acceptability of the corresponding structure with a gap in it. That is, where gaps are less acceptable, resumptive pronouns are more common. To account for these data, we offer a model of English production processes as sensitive to the acceptability of a planned utterance. When the system detects impending unacceptability, it may give up on the global plan to form a syntactic dependency. When this happens, a gap is no longer licensed and a pronoun is used to satisfy local subcategorization constraints.

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