Presentations & Unpublished Work


Several talks on the typology of wh-words relative clauses, often with Nik Gisborne, exploring the notion of ‘parallel evolution’: the tendency of related languages to follow similar diachronic trajectories, even in the absence of contact. Two papers from this project have been published (Quantificational variability and the genesis of English headed wh-relatives, in Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 19, and Where do relative specifiers come from? (preprint), in Micro-change and Macro-change in Diachronic Syntax). Various strands of the project are developed in the other outputs listed below.

  • Indefinite/interrogatives and relatives in early Indo-European (keynote talk, workshop ‘Relatives, interrogatives, alternatives’, Prague, November 2019). Interrogative pronouns used as indefinites are almost always in situ. Interrogative pronouns used as (headed) relativizers are almost always fronted. Indo-European languages appear to be shifting from the former to the latter.
  • Parallel evolution of relative clauses in Indo-European (keynote talk, PhilSoc AGM, June 2018). Our first attempt to outline a framework which explains a striking feature of change in this area: very often, endogenous change and contact-induced change seem to push in the same direction.
  • Which-hunting in Medieval England (submitted). A close corpus-based analysis of semantic change in Middle English which-relatives. Develops a recurring argument of ours, that unusual properties of English wh-relatives can be traced back to unusual properties of earlier wh-constructions.
  • What's that? (invited talk, ELALT 5, Novi Sad). Learning that that is a word is the easy part. Working out what that is, or what it does, is the hard part. And getting the answer wrong can lead to syntactic or semantic change. Aspects of the history of English relative clauses can only be understood as shifts in the functions associated with stable forms, rather than the forms associated with stable functions.
  • Synchronic theory and semantic change: Matching relatives in Middle English (invited colloquium talk, York, November 2016; earlier version presented at UCL). The first headed which-relatives in Middle English often had a ‘matching’ noun heading the relative clause (e.g. ‘a book, which book …‘). Such relatives are always nonrestrictive, even though which-relatives without the matching noun could be restrictive or nonrestrictive. This in turn has implications for synchronic theories of relative clause structure: the limited range of interpretations of matching relatives suggests that such structures are not a good general basis for analyses of relative clauses. Parts of this paper were written up in the Which-hunting paper described above. The rest is written up in this draft, which we really must finish.
  • A constant rate effect without stable functions (paper presented at Evolang XI, New Orleans, 2016). We describe an apparent Constant Rate Effect (in the sense of Kroch 1989) which cannot be reduced to competing forms realizing the same function, and could instead be construed in terms of competing functional specifications of a given form.

There's loads more like this; if you want a copy of a particular presentation, email me.


An adjunction theory of extraction from coordinate structures (colloquium talk, ZAS, October 2019). A preview of my half of an ongoing project with Daniel Altshuler, which involves trying to join all of the dots concerning extraction from coordinate structures, across syntax, semantics, and discourse pragmatics.


Variation and change in Early Middle English word order: Evidence from the Parsed Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English. I built the Parsed Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English with Rhona Alcorn, Jim Donaldson, and Joel Wallenberg, and then felt obliged to use it. This is an ongoing line of work, exploring the possibilities for using PLAEME not just as a corpus, but as a syntactic dialect atlas. The main conclusion is that one Middle English text (Cursor mundi and the Northern homilies) had a highly flexible V2-like grammar, which apparently failed utterly to spread throughout the English-speaking world. Conclusion: we don't like really flexible grammars.


Scope, binding, and what’s beyond the surface. Invited talk series, UCL (2015). Talk 1; Talk 2; Talk 3. Similar work has been presented at the Universities of Oxford, Ottawa, and Edinburgh, and at ZAS in Berlin. This is work in progress which attempts to argue for a monostratal, surface-oriented variant of minimalism, based on a reconceptualization of movement as a composite relation, where two otherwise dissociable relations (one thematic, one syntactic) coincide. The first published exposition of these ideas is my chapter Reconstruction, control, and movement.

This work all grew out of an unfinished squib co-authored with Ad Neeleman (2006). There’s also 175 pages of loose ends in the process of being tidied up. They're still too messy for public consumption, but if you want a copy right now and (paradoxically) you’re very patient, once again, email me.


Argument structure and the ‘no agent idioms’ effect. A 2017 write-up of a 2015 Potsdam invited talk. Gisbert Fanselow contacted me and asked me to contribute to a workshop on idioms. I pointed out that I had no history of working on idioms — was he sure he meant me? ‘Don't worry’, replied Gisbert. ‘We know what you do.’ I was intrigued. I am in the process of writing this up — current draft available here.

The paper I came up with is a response to papers by Heidi Harley and Megan Schildmier Stone, and Elena Anagnostopoulou and Yota Samioti, in Syntax and its Limits, an OUP volume that I co-edited with Raffaella Folli and Christina Sevdali. Harley & Stone, and Anagnostopoulou & Samioti, demonstrated that fixed agents do not appear in partially flexible idioms, and develop syntactic analyses for this fact. I take their basic finding to be correct, but demonstrate that the ‘no agent idioms’ effect is more plausibly grounded in event semantics and the fact that object experiencer predicates are even weirder than people had previously noticed.

This paper was rejected in 2017, and clearly needs a bit of work before resubmission. But I think there's something basically right about it. Any comments or suggestions very welcome.


Noun phrases and nonprojecting heads, Canadian Linguistics Association, Victoria, BC (2013). Joint work with my student Paul Melchin. My half of this consists of trying to find a third way in the debate over the DP-hypothesis, stemming from Abney (1987). I have been interested in this topic ever since a productive debate with Geoff Pullum in the Meaning and Grammar Research Group at the University of Edinburgh. Geoff (like Ben Bruening) has a strong argument from c-selectional asymmetries that D is not the head of the noun phrases (see also this critical literature review that I put together for the research group in 2009, going through some of the many different things people actually believe about the internal structure of noun phrases). If the Pullum/Bruening argument holds, I show that D is indeed not the head of the noun phrase in terms of c-selection, but is still a target for head movement which is hierarchically more prominent than other such targets within the noun phrase (as the work on Greenberg’s Universal 20 by Cinque, and Abels & Neeleman, shows). That would be a nice phrase-structural factoid to play with.

Paul’s half of this talk (which formed some background for his thesis) consists of convincing me that it’s all much more complicated than that, because no-one really understands c-selection anyway. And he's just submitted a whole thesis which argues that that's because there is no such thing as c-selection. Spoilsport.


English and the typology of nonrestrictive relative clauses. Canadian Linguistic Association, Waterloo, ON, 2012. Earlier related work was presented as Syntactic and Semantic Dependencies in Early Modern English Relative Clauses 32. Jahrestagung der Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachwissenschaft, Humboldt-Universität, Berlin (2009). This follows up on work published in NLLT (paywalled, preprint here), and presented in various forms at Tufts, McGill, Groningen, ICHL in Nijmegen, and Edinburgh. All this work focuses on a strange Early Modern English construction which I call the “relative with a leftward island”. All the earlier work, leading up to the publication, concentrated on where this construction came from. These presentations try to say something about how it disappeared, and engage with (hopefully refine) Cinque's 2008 typology of nonrestrictive relatives.