Fragment answers to questions: a case of inaudible syntax

Speakers often answer a question with what appears to be merely a phrase, a fragment of a sentence, rather than with a full sentence. Merchant (2004) offers an analysis of fragment answers in which the new information/answer is fronted to a clause-peripheral position and the remainder of the sentence is not pronounced. Two written acceptability judgment experiments are reported that tested predictions of this analysis. The first, in English, tested the prediction that clausal fragment answers should only be fully acceptable when the clausal answer is introduced by an overt complementizer (What did May deny? That Josh left.). This is because clauses may front only when an overt complementizer is present (That Josh left, May denied, but not *Josh left, May denied). The second study was conducted in German, a language that does not permit prepositions to be stranded, left behind, when a noun phrase is moved in overt syntactic structures such as questions or topicalizations. Consequently, when the object of a preposition is questioned, only a prepositional phrase fragment answer, not a noun phrase fragment answer, is predicted to be fully acceptable. Both predictions were confirmed. The results support the claim that syntactic structure is present in unpronounced constituents, and tells against theories of syntax that eschew such structures.
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