A Unified Account of Object Clitics and Referential Null Objects in French


  • I wish to thank Kyle Johnson and Yves Roberge, whose comments on an earlier version of this paper, which constituted part of my Ph.D. dissertation (Grüter 2006), were instrumental. I would also like to thank the three anonymous Syntax reviewers, whose suggestions on the present version have been extremely helpful. This research was supported in part by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), for which I am grateful. Any remaining errors are my own.


Abstract.  It has traditionally been assumed that French is a non-null-object language on a par with English. Yet the analysis of adult French corpora has shown the consistent occurrence of referential null objects in speech and writing. These constructions, although clearly marked, put into question a major premise of syntactic analyses of object-clitic constructions—namely, that sentences referring to a specific, referential object but lacking both a clitic and a postverbal object are necessarily ungrammatical. The goal of this paper is to present a revised analysis of object-clitic constructions that is capable of integrating referential null objects. It is proposed that the zero morpheme constitutes the default realization of the accusative clitic head and is inserted if this head is underspecified for Case. The analysis extends naturally to account for predicate le, as well as to errors observed in child language development, in particular the overuse of masculine singular le as well as object (-clitic) omission. It is proposed that the syntactic representation underlying clitic drop in child and adult French is identical, yet child and adult French differ with regard to the reason for the underspecification of the clitic head.