Context and Well-Formedness: The Dynamics of Ellipsis

Ronnie Cann, Ruth Kempson, Matthew Purver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper challenges the tradition of defining grammars and grammaticality independently of the context of utterance. Using dialogue phenomena, in particular elliptical utterances, it argues that the obvious dependence of such utterances on context to recover the intended interpretation should be regarded as an inherent characteristic of natural language grammars and thus applicable to the characterisation of grammaticality for all natural language strings. The paper adopts the framework of Dynamic Syntax which shifts the burden of syntactic explanation away from the definition of de-contextualised syntactic structures defined over strings of words towards the characterisation of syntax as a context-dependent, incremental process whereby interpretations of strings in context are progressively built up as an utterance proceeds. This change in the way syntax is conceived, together with a demonstration that the same processes for building interpretations are used in generation as in parsing, is shown to allow a unitary account of anaphora and a range of elliptical phenomena that is typically precluded in non-dynamic, structure-based theories of syntax. The paper ends by providing formal definitions of well-formedness with respect to context that preserve traditional notions of grammaticality while allowing more fine-grained characterisations of well-formedness to distinguish acceptability from full (un)grammaticality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)333-358
Number of pages26
JournalResearch on Language and Computation
Publication statusPublished - 2007


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