Completability vs (In)completeness

Eleni Gregoromichelaki, Gregory James Mills, Christine Howes, Arash Eshghi, Stergios Chatzikyriakidis, Matthew Purver, Ruth Kempson, Ronnie Cann, Patrick G. T. Healey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In everyday conversation, no notion of “complete sentence” is required for syntactic licensing. However, so-called “fragmentary”, “incomplete”, and abandoned utterances are problematic for standard formalisms. When contextualised, such data show that (a) non-sentential utterances are adequate to underpin agent coordination, while (b) all linguistic dependencies can be systematically distributed across participants and turns. Standard models have problems accounting for such data because their notions of ‘constituency’ and ‘syntactic domain’ are independent of performance considerations. Concomitantly, we argue that no notion of “full proposition” or encoded speech act is necessary for successful interaction: strings, contents, and joint actions emerge in conversation without any single participant having envisaged in advance the outcome of their own or their interlocutors’ actions. Nonetheless, morphosyntactic and semantic licensing mechanisms need to apply incrementally and subsententially. We argue that, while a representational level of abstract syntax, divorced from conceptual structure and physical action, impedes natural accounts of subsentential coordination phenomena, a view of grammar as a “skill” employing domain-general mechanisms, rather than fixed form-meaning mappings, is needed instead. We provide a sketch of a predictive and incremental architecture (Dynamic Syntax) within which underspecification and time-relative update of meanings and utterances constitute the sole concept of “syntax”.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)260-284
Number of pages25
JournalActa Linguistica Hafniensia
Issue number2
Early online date22 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Dynamic syntax
  • ellipsis
  • English
  • fragments
  • incrementality
  • joint action
  • Modern Greek
  • repair
  • split utterances

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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