New LingBuzz Paper

(or “How I’ve been spending my unemployment*”)

Yesterday I finished and posted a paper to LingBuzz. It’s titled “Agree as derivational operation: Its definition and discontents” and its abstract is given below. If it sounds interesting, have a look and let me know what you think.

Using the framework laid out by Collins and Stabler (2016), I formalize Agree as a syntactic operation. I begin by constructing a formal definition a version of long-distance Agree in which a higher object values a feature on a lower object, and modify that definition to reflect various several versions of Agree that have been proposed in the “minimalist” literature. I then discuss the theoretical implications of these formal definitions, arguing that Agree (i) muddies our understanding of the evolution of language, (ii) requires a new conception of the lexicon, (iii) objectively and significantly increases the complexity of syntactic derivations, and (iv) unjustifiably violates NTC in all its non-vacuous forms. I conclude that Agree, as it is commonly understood, should not be considered a narrowly syntactic operation.

*Thanks to the Canada Recovery Benefit, I was able to feed myself and make rent while I wrote this.

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Omer Preminger
2 months ago

Three quick points:

1. Your statement about ECM subjects not being canonical subjects is correct, inasmuch as they are not in the subject position of a finite clause. But your reasoning (that they are not candidates for movement because they are not nominative) is wrong even on the premises of the theory you’re arguing against. That theory takes nominative to be the absence of otherwise valued case features (just like 3sg is the absence of otherwise valued phi-features), and so ECM subjects *are* nominative at the stage of the derivation where only material from the embedded clause has been merged. See https://go.lingsite.org/kp2015 for a discussion of this with a focus on ECM constructions in particular.

2. I actually agree wholeheartedly with the contents of note 13 (on p. 29). But I think there is a complementary piece missing from that note, namely: any conceptual criterion can be satisfied if one is not responsible to the relevant facts. Now, we probably can (and do) disagree on what constitutes “the relevant facts” in this particular discussion; and to be clear, I think it is entirely valid scientifically to say, “I am going to sacrifice this bit of empirical coverage in the name of theoretical considerations, and hope that one day we come back to it with a better understanding than we do today.” As you say, nobody has a theory of everything, nor should any theory be held to that standard. That said, I think the empirical coverage of what you consider to be minimalist syntactic theory (e.g. without Agree) is laughable, essentially in the same class as a theory that would state “there are no natural languages.” You (I presume) disagree. That strikes me as quite a reasonable disagreement. But it should be acknowledged: conceptual elegance sans empirical coverage is cheap. Not quite as cheap as empirical coverage sans conceptual elegance; but close.

3. You analyze ex. (83d) as involving a trace. Given that this example is an instance of control (and not raising), it might be worth flagging that you are assuming the Movement Theory of Control. (Which is not to endorse or disavow that theory, just to point out an implicit assumption that should be made explicit.)

Omer Preminger
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

Re:formalization, there has been – for whatever reason – a little flurry of interest in the last couple of years in the formalization of at least the search procedure part of minimal search. (Cf. discussions of Breadth- and Depth-First search, etc.) This is separate from the No-Tampering stuff, which is more central to your interests in this paper, but anyway: there’s a recent manuscript by Branan & Erlewine, and a 2019 UMich thesis by Hezao Ke (which I learned about from Erlewine). And, though not in the same class with these two in terms of the depth of discussion, I myself had grown frustrated at some point that everyone just waved their hands about “minimal search” and no one ever so much as wrote down even some f***ing pseudocode, so in 2019 I finally dumped the relevant pseudocode into one of my papers (see pp. 23‑24). My version relies on a distinction between “specifier” and “complement”, which as you say in this paper is derivable but not a primitive. That said, non-descent into specifiers seems like a pretty stable property of minimal search, so whether or not that distinction ultimately dissolves into something more basic, it appears to be declaratively correct.

Omer Preminger
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

Indeed, the structure doesn’t tell you what projects in {{X, ZP}, {Y, WP}}, and therefore, which phrase is the specifier of which. What tells you that is c-selection.

As you know (since we’ve discussed it elsewhere before), I think it’s beyond clear that both labeling and c‑selection are narrow-syntactic affairs. That’s because they both deal in semantically- and phonologically-illegible primitives. Chomsky can argue till he’s blue in the face that labeling (and therefore c-selection) are Conceptual-Intentional matters – as he attempts to do in the “Problems of Projections” papers. But absent a worked out account of the kind of data discussed by Merchant (2019) for example, I’m not buying. And so far all I’ve heard in the way of a response to that is maybe if we fundamentally change what we mean by “semantic primitive” we can capture this data after all. I must say, that seems indistinguishable to me from “modularity prevents a working account of this in Problems-of-Projection terms, so we propose to do violence to the notion of modularity.”

Given that c-selection is narrow-syntactic, the answer to whether X or Y projects in the structure {{X, ZP}, {Y, WP}} can be given by which one c‑selects the other. And in cases where the answer is “neither”, both options will be available (as argued a while ago by Donati (2006), for example, in her analysis of free relatives).

Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago

I do not know whether you received my comments on the previous article (on adjuncts) so I’ll just mention they have existed at a certain point, maybe check your spam folder.

Thomas Graf seems to see no problem in computational realization of Agree (Graf 2012 “Movement-generalized Minimalist grammars”, I think?) or, more generally, in jumping between derivation and representation from computational point of view.

“The representational expressions, on the other hand, are much more concise and accessible, so they have been overwhelmingly used as shorthands for the representational expressions” – one of these “representational” (probably the latter) should be “computational”?

I fail to see how your definition in (21-23) is different from Wurmbrand’s (2014, “The Merge Condition: A syntactic approach to selection”) (4), other than that (4) does not spell out Relativized Minimality inside it (for, presumably, independent reasons). Presumably, some other definitions are likewise close. However, Wurmbrand is also interesting in being quite close to what you call “Agree is a reflex of Merge”: Merge creates contexts for Agree but is disallowed if no Agree happens. This is either underivable by NTC-respecting Agree or refutes the claim “we can continue to postpone [NTC-respecting] Agree at least until the next instance of Transfer”: the prerequisites of Agree will not be lost but the prerequisites of Merge will.

More importantly, the work in Agree suggests that a projection of head retains its features – so, if A and B are Merged and it was A that selected B (rather than vice versa), then Merge(A,B) has the same features as A. You try to work around it, and that’s what derives the unnecessary complexity of Agree, of head-hood/specifier-hood and so on. Maybe Chomsky, Collins and Stabler were just, erm, wrong about not transferring the features to the result of Merge? Then no full search of one of the objects is needed (compare the “no-descent-into-specifiers” argument below).

I plainly don’t get the argument that, for (82b) to be true, canonical subject should be definable. If φ-agreement feeds any kind of movement (and if all φ-agreement is uniform), it feeds some kind of Merge, and if it feeds any kind of Merge, it is in narrow syntax because nothing precedes narrow syntax (and also because it is itself structure-sensitive which rules out lexicon φ-agreement). (I believe (82b) to be false, but that is because I think not all φ-agreement is uniform; this part is, however, where you and Dr. Preminger seem to agree.)

Also, a minor nitpick: you assume, following Collins, that uninterpretable features are syntactic, rather than needed for PF-branch.

Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

Did you post them as a comment

I used the form at https://milway.ca/contact-me/ (back when it seemed to work instead of showing a lot of bugged code). And, unfortunately, I do not think I have my comments saved anywhere. I could re-read the paper

MGs formalize an, in my opinion, outdated theory that came out of the minimalist program

Yeah, but here’s the funny thing: they claim each and every change linguistics made to the theory since MGs inception except for one (identity-of-meaning checks) is easily implementable in MGs without changing generative capacities and such. And insomuch as you call for computational perspective you seem to be walking on their territory: they are not so much Computer Science as they are math.

Agree is dependent on Merge

Of course there is a trivial sense in which it is true: Agree is defined over (already-built) syntactic structures, syntactic structures are built by Merge, thus Agree is dependent on Merge. But that does not mean that we cannot build in something like a condition on derive-by-Merge saying “only Merge X and Y if X has a valued feature of type F and Y contains a sub-node which has an unvalued feature F” (to limit the search you can add “and either X is a lexical item or Y is the head” – on the latter see under next quote), which is equivalent to “Agree is condition on Merge” because these are the exact conditions of Wurmbrand’s Reverse Agree. “Agree is condition on Merge” does not mean that Agree actually derivationally precedes Merge, it means that Merge only happens if it creates conditions for (immediate) Agree, it is technically a one-step-look-ahead if Agree and Merge are fully separate. Claiming that anyone who says “Agree is condition on Merge” argues for Agree a step before Merge, rather than something along the lines I described above, seems to be strawmanning.

c-selection, labels, x-bar relations, and possibly some other notions, are interdependent notions, and are all dependent on Merge and perhaps Agree.

If this means that we can have Merge as set-maker instead of pair-maker and still know (inside narrow syntax) which of the Merged objects is the head and which is its argument (after which the rest follows), then we may use this derivable information in all sorts of definitions just as well as if it were primitive. But you give off a distinct vibe of claiming that the premise is false, that narrow syntax cannot know that of {A,B}, A is the head and B is its argument (or vice versa). And if it cannot, then you can’t derive all those relations in narrow syntax. Whether you technically lose generative capacity because of it is a question to computational department (to Graf, Stabler, Kobele and such) – I would not be too surprised by a negative answer. But broadly, this is (a)a non-lexical information, (b)available to both phonology and semantics. And anything that conforms to (a) and (b) should be in narrow syntax, because Y-model.

This is something more or less required given how C&S define PHON features—for them PHON features seem to be things like “voiced” or “labial” or the like. 

Yes, but that only works because Collins adopts early insertion. It is, plainly speaking, unsustainable (again, not in the computational sense but in the sense of minimally elegant generalizations which are thus likely close to what happens in our mind).

Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago

Of course, you could actually argue against (b) above: if H&K-style formal semantics is on the right track you don’t need to know which of the merged objects is syntactic head and which is syntactic argument, which makes this a possibly PF-only information which can then be derived in syntax-phonology interface instead of narrow syntax. But this is something one should state not hand-wave.

Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway
  1. Well, darn. I even caught some typos there 😀 Maybe I’ll look into it tomorrow again.
  2. Of course. but that also means that finding language-internal empirical (rather than evolutionary or acquisitional) arguments in favour of or against any of these changes is gonna be a tough cookie, because usual empirical arguments are mostly about string-meaning pairings’ acceptability, and those are ultimately about generative capacity.
  3. There is a difference between one-step look-ahead and potentially unbounded look-ahead though.
  4. (a) Both “know” and “see” are shorthands for “have access to”. And saying that modules cannot have access to information would be a bit too much. (b) But why, for the Force’s sake, the object has all the properties of a DP if it does not bear the label and the label cannot be reconstructed?
  5. Well, basically, you wouldn’t have PHON-features, only MORPH (your SYNT) and SEM-features. PHON-content would be inserted later, via, well, insertion in the relevant interface, dependent on MORPH features (and possibly SEM, depending on details of Transfer). I don’t think much would change for narrow syntax.
Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

As for the adjuncts’ paper: I do remember off the spot 1)uncertainty why we consider complement DPs to have their own workspace, as opposed to being built in the same workspace as the verb that governs them; 2)”Being a computational procedure, MERGE ought to proceed in steps. Therefore, it should be a curried (or schönfinkeled) function” being a non-sequitur: we can first create an <ω,α> pair (or even an {ω,α} set since they are of different nature) and feed it to a function that takes such pairs/sets as an argument; semanticists’ arguments for currying their functions crucially rely on the structure they are fed. Also, line 81 contains a broken LaTEX code (crefdef:PairMerge), and line 146 contains the set {α,β} could just as easily be linearized as α _ β or α _ β (one of those should be β _ α).
3 – yes, there is. One but not the other is re-stateable as no-look-ahead by either simple finite redefinition of stages or, as I did above, re-including the conditions.
4(b) – I think this is not a good way to frame a question. For quite some time, the answer has been “the complex object behaves like X because it literally bears X’s syntactic features”. You (and Chomsky) say “no, the object does not bear the features but it still behaves like X”. When asked “why does it behave so then”, you can only answer that “this should drive a research program”. If your only reasoning had been something along the lines “set-formation is simpler than concatenation” (is (42) in adjuncts paper really even that simpler than (head-argument) ordered tuple formation though?), I think this amounts to losing the argument, because descriptive power of unordered Merge gets way too weak if nothing else is said, and additional build-ups are bound to destroy the alleged explanatory advantages.

Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

Because the verb-theme object is actually a phrase-phrase object ({{v, ROOT}, {D, …}}) just like the VP-Agent object.

It is… not immediately obvious that the order of derivation goes like this. I think there was a paper by Heidi Harley which argued extensively for arguments of root directly.

since the whole point of MERGE and the wider derivational machinery is to create sets out of independent objects

That’s a claim you’re trying to instantiate. Technically, if you delete subelements and add results of Merge to Lexical Array, after a new Select(α) your LA is exactly the set you need: it contains the α and the last-built object.
(That’s a case built for External Merge, and it probably will crumble when incorporating Internal Merge, but, again, this is a line of thought that needs to be followed through rather than a given about any computational model)

As I said, If this is true, it should be provably true.

What do you mean? Algorithmic proof of re-stateability of one-step-look-ahead as non-look-ahead is trivial for general case(this is often used in Markovian models, for instance: a sequence of states <1,2,3,…> is rewritten as <<1,2>,<2,3>,<3,4>,…>, and then you just evaluate the relevant pair-state) and literally done above for the special case of Agree-dependent Merge. Proof of non-re-statability of unbounded look-ahead as non-look-ahead is perhaps less trivial (it is overall much harder to prove you can’t than to prove you can) but irrelevant: if unbounded look-ahead can be restated as non-look-ahead, too, then the whole look-ahead is, contrary to what linguists usually think, computationally a non-problem, and if it cannot, then we get the distinction.

is basically the same as saying “the complex object behaves like X, because it does.”

This is wrong, because feature percolation makes definite predictions – for instance, that the object will always inherit exactly one label, that it will (at least preferentially) inherit features from the same element it inherits label from (as opposed to, say, having something like “the actual me” and inheriting the me‘s 1st person rather than the the‘s 3rd person, getting *the actual me am instead of the actual me is).

Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

Is this a prediction or an assertion?

Depends on the details of specific proposal, but at a certain point the distinction becomes murky in practice, to say the least. Insofar as labels are features, label inheritance is a corollary of preferential feature inheritance rather than an independently stated fact (though see Zelenskii 2020 in Working Papers of Linguistic Society (University of Victoria) for an (admittedly modifiable) alternative). More importantly, object behavior is a prediction of feature/label percolation, not an assertion of its own.
Moreover, it is not immediately clear why projection would need “saving”. Burden of proof is on you and Chomsky here, I’m afraid: feature percolation, given independently natural restrictions (see Heck 2004, for instance), makes the right empirical predictions and you suggest to literally just throw it out and still claim deriving the same. I admit this looks like Minimalism on surface, but Minimalism suggests throwing out things we can empirically do without, not just all things.

I’d also add, that simple statability is the bare minimum. You should also keep that the point is to develop a theory of a biologically instantiated computational procedure.

Quoting Chomsky, “we still know very little about what can happen when you throw a billion neurons into a size of a football” (the quote may not be exact). The re-statement I set up above is computationally instantiable (with search through the previously-built object but that is not insurmountable, not to mention that we may keep track of unvalued features separately, simplifying the search) and respects the tendency for overstating found in most mental processes; I fail to see what is biologically or computationally problematic about it. Evolutionarily, once we throw out the nice but unbelievable story about mental arithmetics allegedly following Peano’s axioms, there isn’t much to prefer the “simple” Merge of workspaces from your paper to the Merge+Agree tandem operation where you add something only when it fills up a feature, just as you only insert a physical object in a hole if there is a hole (or a possibility to make it). In this case, Agree would not even be a fully separate operation so much as it would be a direct consequence of Merge.

Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

Oh, and for 5.3: (91) (Truswell’s definition of agentive event) clearly presupposes OR not AND between a. and b., but you discuss it (lines 760-764) as if there were an AND; no theory of semantic roles would suggest that (93) has two Agents, rather than an Agent and a Beneficiary (that is, sell is linguistically like give); and Fodor’s generalization is independently false because we have functional causatives and should be restated as “no more than one Agent per Voice” (trivially true if Kratzer is correct and Agents are always introduced by Voice to begin with).

Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

Semantic roles such as Agent might be non-linguistic but they certainly cannot be non-mental. It is not a property of real world to be a willing person because there is no such thing as free will in real world, for instance. All these are mental representations, and, just as with any mental representation, some properties are highlighted and some are neglected. Thus “Alex sold Cate a car” and “Cate bought a car from Alex” do not have the same mental representation, though a world where one is true and the other is false is unimaginable; and one of the important differences, to my mind and, I think, most linguists’ minds is that in the former, the (sole) Agent is Alex and in the latter, the (sole) Agent is Cate. Whether Agent is a linguistic construct or an extra-linguistic mental construct is irrelevant for that judgment.

Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

I feel like you are a)trying to use mental and linguistic as interchangeable instead of their actual hyponymic relation; b)expecting an unbelievably good correlation of mental representations and reality.

Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

a)How so? Languages are instantiated in our brains. And there are things instantiated in our brains that are not language (visual processing, for instance). Thus, linguistic objects form a proper subset of mental objects.
b)I think you misinterpret them. When an Agent is claimed to be “a willing, consensual participant” and so on, what’s claimed is that the person constructing a sentence’s meaning represents the participant as such. “A kills B” does not suddenly start to have two Agents if the situation described was an assisted suicide of B – the Agent of the proposition reflected by this sentence is still A, this is how this sentence chooses to represent the reality.

Last edited 2 months ago by Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
Dmitrii Zelenskii
2 months ago
Reply to  Dan Milway

Yeah, I am the author 😉
I think having a disagreement can be productive if both sides more or less understand what the other side says (can you use “each other” in this sort of sentence? I think not…). What are the positions arguments for which you are interested in?