Colloquium: Tough Scope and Rare Subjects: On the phrase structure and thematics of the toughconstruction

March 3, 3:30-5pm, Cobb 201
Nicholas Fleisher, Wayne State University

Analyses of the tough construction (TC; e.g., John's argument is tough to understand) fall broadly into two camps: (i) those that posit base generation of the matrix subject in the matrix clause and (ii) those that posit base generation of the matrix subject in the embedded clause, with subsequent movement to the matrix clause. The first approach is advocated by Chomsky (1977) and has come to predominate since. It is historically bookended by the second approach, which was the classical transformational one and which has recently been revived by Hicks (2003, 2009) in a minimalist framework; in particular, Hicks advocates a complex null operator structure which smuggles the tough subject to the phase edge for subsequent movement to the matrix clause.

Here I present two novel arguments in favor of the first approach. The first is an argument from scope. While it has often been observed that tough subjects invariably scope above the tough predicate, I show that this pattern extends to a scopal ambiguity in the interpretation of how many questions (Heycock 1995). The LFs associated with the different how many interpretations pose a particular challenge to a Hicks-style syntax for the TC. The second argument is from TCs with frequency adjectives, which tightly restrict the range of permissible subjects. A putative virtue of the classical and Hicks-style approaches to the TC is their encoding of a thematic disconnect between the tough subject and the tough predicate. The frequency-adjective data show, on the contrary, that certain TC adjectives may impose selectional restrictions on their subjects.


Chomsky, N. 1977. On wh-movement. In Culicover, Wasow, and Akmajian (eds.), Formal Syntax, 71-132. New York: Academic Press.

Heycock, C. 1995. Asymmetries in reconstruction. Linguistic Inquiry 26: 547-570.

Hicks, G. 2003. So easy to look at, so hard to define: tough movement in the minimalist framework. MA diss., University of York.

Hicks, G. 2009. Tough-constructions and their derivation. Linguistic Inquiry 40: 535-566.