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Review of  Syntax, Semantics and Acquisition of Multiple Interrogatives

Reviewer: Qizhong Chang
Book Title: Syntax, Semantics and Acquisition of Multiple Interrogatives
Book Author: Lydia Grebenyova
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 24.2319

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This book is a monograph comprising seven chapters covering various aspects of a single linguistic construction, namely, multiple interrogatives (e.g. ‘Who bought what?’). Five important topics within the field are discussed, with at least a chapter devoted to each topic. There is a high degree of interaction between the material covered in the different chapters, in terms of the crosslinguistic patterns and paradigms presented. The book gives a comprehensive account of both past and ongoing scholarship of interrogatives and wh-questions, while providing the author’s novel contributions to this debate.

English and Russian provide most of the empirical material, and these languages are both complemented and contrasted with a rich variety of languages such as Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Icelandic, Malayalam, and Brazilian Portuguese. This should give the reader confidence that significant typological ground is being covered in the book. The book is organized as follows:

Chapter 1: Superiority -- Syntactic and Interpretive
Chapter 2: Semantics of Multiple Interrogatives
Chapter 3: Multiple Interrogatives and Ellipsis
Chapter 4: Multiple Left Branch Extraction
Chapter 5: Acquisition of Multiple Interrogatives
Chapter 6: Acquiring Contrastive Focus and Multiple Interrogatives
Concluding Remarks

The Introduction section is very useful as a quick summary of the chapters of the book. It also clearly defines the scope of topics discussed.

In Chapter 1, the author sets out to develop an analysis of Superiority in multiple interrogatives based on the syntactic and semantic properties of these structures. The Superiority Condition was first postulated by Chomsky (1973); later, in the Minimalist approach to Superiority, the main generalization is captured through the Minimal Link Condition (MLC). However, the MLC alone cannot explain some data, such as the fact that Superiority violations are judged to be stronger in embedded clauses than they are in matrix clauses. Additionally, the author notes the ad-hoc nature of the concept of domains and minimal domains and the problems related to the notion of chains as theoretical constructs. She then formulates the Non-Identical Agree Principle (NAP) to account for the relation between T-to-C movement and minimality effects in wh-movement. Basically, her analysis hinges on the assumption that T-to-C movement creates a complex head that functions as a Probe for the mechanism Agree, yet this head has already been in an Agree relation with another wh-phrase. The author then suggests that the degraded status of an English wh-fronted matrix clause is caused by an independent factor, Interpretive Superiority, borrowing the phrase from Bošković (2003). Interpretive Superiority is the phenomenon where movement of a lower wh-phrase over the higher wh-phrase takes away only one of two potential readings (either Single Pair (SP) or Pair-List (PL)), instead of producing complete unacceptability. The predictions of Interpretive Superiority are borne out in the Icelandic, Bulgarian and Brazilian Portuguese data presented. Lastly, the author briefly explored a split CP structure at the left periphery of a clause in English. The reason for her doing so, was the need for a projection above the TP in contexts where TP is elided leaving a wh-subject as a remnant.

In Chapter 2, the author aims to account for the distribution of PL and SP readings in multiple interrogatives. PL readings are freely available in mono-clausal multiple questions across languages, while SP readings are more limited in its distribution. Another asymmetry she seeks to explain is that SP readings become available once more when complex wh-phrases, instead of bare wh-phrases, are used in a question; simply, there is a morphological distinction such that complex wh-phrases are equipped with their own choice function variables. The author examines the different approaches to interpreting the semantics of wh-questions, namely: covert wh-movement, Unselective Binding, and choice functions. She concludes that covert wh-movement is a purely syntactic phenomenon, not a semantic one. The author adopts Hagstrom’s (1998) semantics for wh-questions; in its simplified form, a Q-morpheme leaves behind, through movement, a variable whose value ranges over generalized choice functions. The author then proposes that the distinction between languages with and without SP readings lies in the selectional restrictions of the Q-morpheme. Basically, if a Q-morpheme cannot be merged with TP in some languages, those languages do not have the option of licensing the SP reading. Lastly, the author analyses the Interpretive Superiority facts as a result of a strong/viral selectional feature on the Q-morpheme.

In Chapters 3 and 4, the author starts to examine how these syntactic and semantic features of multiple interrogative constructions manifest themselves in structures involving ellipsis, and Left Branch Extraction (LBE), respectively. Sluicing is standardly assumed to be TP-deletion, licensed by a complementizer bearing +Q and +wh features (Merchant, 2001). However, the author presents data from Russian, Polish and Serbo-Croatian that shows remnants of sluicing surviving deletion when their target position of movement is part of the complement of C. To solve this problem, she shows a parallel between multiple wh-constructions and clauses with multiple foci. Subsequently, the author proposes that any functional category bearing a +focus feature can license the deletion of its complement. Between the choice of a +focus feature or a +wh feature licensing TP-deletion, the author argues for the former. Grebenyova then turns her attention to LBE constructions. She notices that languages with multiple wh-fronting prohibit multiple LBEs (though a single LBE is possible). She argues that LBE is unlike regular wh-movement; instead, it should be analysed as head movement to a Topic projection above TP, essentially an instance of scrambling. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that sluicing does not repair instances of multiple LBEs; since LBE violations are violations of minimality (derivational) constraints, and sluicing can only repair the violations that can actually take place in a derivation. Lastly, the author shows that multiple LBEs out of an island cannot be repaired by sluicing, which is surprising given that sluicing can repair island violations and LBEs when they occur independently. A language like English has overt determiners and disallows adjectival LBE, compared to a language like Russian, which lacks overt determiners and allows adjectival LBE. The presence of DP in English thus creates a phase, through which head extraction (recall that LBE is head movement) is not possible. This leads to the novel generalization that the encoding of violations is sensitive to the size of the copy (i.e. a copy of a phrase vs. a copy of a head).

In Chapters 5 and 6, several experimental studies carried out by Gerbenyova are discussed. She points out that acquisition studies on multiple interrogatives were few and far between; additionally, positive linguistic input of multiple interrogatives (using a search on the CHILDES database) does not seem forthcoming to young children. To find out at what age children exhibit the knowledge of the syntax and semantics of multiple interrogatives, the author devises experiments to elicit such structures from both children and adults in carefully constructed contexts. The author chose English-, Russian- and Malayalam-speaking children, as these languages represent the three distinct strategies for forming multiple wh-constructions. The overall results of the experiments reveal that, even with limited direct evidence in their linguistic input, children are able to acquire the language-specific facts about multiple interrogatives at quite an early age of 4 years, 9 months. The author also observed that Russian-speaking children produced an odd construction where only one wh-phrase is fronted in a multiple interrogative, when normally all wh-phrases are fronted in these contexts. To explain this, she suggests that the prior acquisition of contrastive focus is crucial to the proper acquisition of multiple interrogatives in Russian. This further supports the argument that contrastive focus is the underlying trigger for multiple wh-fronting. Towards that end, the author elicited structures containing contrastively focused R-expressions from monolingual Russian- and English-speaking children. The Russian-speaking children, but not the English-speaking ones, were found to make errors in these constructions. The errors were very similar to the ones previously attested in multiple wh-constructions. The author takes this to be evidence for her hypothesis that the acquisition of the syntax of multiple interrogatives is linked to the acquisition of the syntax of constructive focus.


An important merit of this book is that it provides a holistic view of a single linguistic construction -- multiple interrogatives. That is to say, the construction is examined from different perspectives: syntax, semantics and acquisition. This is rarely done in a single study. It also makes this book an excellent resource for scholars who are simply looking for specialized discussions of Multiple Interrogatives.

The author formulates the Non-Identical Agree Principle (NAP), which says “A Probe cannot establish an Agree relation with a Goal more than once at different points in the derivation” (p. 6), to account for Superiority effects and asymmetries. This is a hugely interesting principle and could have a much wider and significant impact on linguistic theory than it was originally intended to have. I would be very keen to see the NAP developed and tested on other linguistic constructions, such as the Genitive of Quantification in Russian.

In Chapter 5, while discussing the syntactic strategies in forming multiple wh-questions, the author mentions English (only one wh-phrase fronted), Russian (all wh-phrases fronted), and Malayalam (no wh-phrases fronted). Additionally, the author pointed out an interesting phenomenon in Russian she refers to as ‘Partial wh-Fronting’ (p. 111). Such alternative and exceptional strategies should theoretically, and do, exist. For instance, a language might have wh-fronting in an embedded multiple interrogative, where one wh-word fronts the matrix clause, and the other fronts the embedded clause. The existence of such patterns would, of course, have implications on the way the author’s experiments are designed.

In some instances, a clear pattern of speaker/informant judgments could not be found. For example, whether Icelandic multiple interrogatives allow SP readings in both main and embedded clauses, and whether Serbo-Croatian embedded clauses allow SP readings, is unclear (pp. 46-47). Also, it is not exactly clear whether there is an obligatory switch from PL readings to SP readings in English multiple questions with an island boundary between the two wh-phrases (p. 53). One might attribute the lack of a clear pattern to quirks of the respective languages, or inconsistent, or unstable judgments of their native speakers. However, it might yet turn out to be a new and even more finely tuned paradigm within the language. Due to space constraints, the author could not spend more time discussing the implications of such judgments, on theories of Multiple Interrogatives. It would be worthwhile if future research could pick up on these patterns and accord them a clearer account.

This book is generally an excellent piece of scientific writing and suffers only from very infrequent spelling and formatting errors. Each chapter can be read more-or-less independently of the others; this makes it more convenient for readers who are interested only in very specific parts of the author’s analysis. The book is meant for more advanced students and scholars of linguistics and presumes a certain level of familiarity with both syntactic and semantic concepts. Overall, ‘Syntax, Semantics and Acquisition of Multiple Interrogatives’ provides insightful and detailed analyses of a narrow yet productive area of linguistics. The analyses are firmly grounded in a generative framework, with more than a slight nod to Minimalist theories. Additionally, the two chapters on acquisition of Multiple Interrogatives round out the book, and make it a good source of information and inspiration for theoretical and applied linguists and researchers alike.


Bošković, Z. 2003. On the interpretation of multiple questions. Linguistic Variation Yearbook 3: 1-15.

Chomsky, N. 1973. Conditions on transformations. In: A Festschrift for Morris Halle, Stephen R. Anderson & Paul Kiparsky (eds.), 232-286. New York NY: Holt Rinehart & Winston.

Hagstrom, P. 1998. Decomposing Questions. PhD dissertation, MIT.

Merchant, J. 2001. The Syntax of Silence: Sluicing, Islands, and the Theory of Ellipsis. Oxford: OUP.
Chang Qizhong is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics in the National University of Singapore (NUS). His research interests are in the general areas of syntax and semantics, with a particular focus on contact languages and emerging varieties of English such as Singapore English. He is currently working on wh-questions in Singapore English.