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In morphology and syntax, a clitic is a morpheme that is grammatically independent, but phonologically dependent on another word.[1] It is pronounced like an affix, but works at the phrase level.

Clitics may belong to any grammatical category, though they are commonly pronouns, determiners, or adpositions. Note that spelling is not a good guide for identifying clitics, clitics may be spelled as independent words, bound affixes or separated by special characters (e.g. apostrophe).



A clitic that precedes its host is called a proclitic.

  • English: an apple

A clitic that follows its host is called an enclitic.

A mesoclitic appears between the stem of the host and other affixes.

  • Portuguese: Ela levá-lo-ia. ("She take-it-COND" = "She would take it.")

A final type of clitic, the endoclitic, splits apart the root and is inserted between the two pieces. Endoclitics defy the Lexical Integrity Hypothesis (Lexicalist Hypothesis) and so were long claimed to be impossible, but evidence from the Udi language suggests that they do exist.[2] Endoclitics are also found in Pashto[3] and are reported to exist in Degema.[4]


Some clitics can be understood as elements undergoing a historical process of grammaticalization:[5]

lexical item → clitic → affix

According to this model, an autonomous lexical item in a particular context loses the properties of a fully independent word over time and acquires the properties of a morphological affix. At any intermediate stage of this evolutionary process, the element in question can be described as a "clitic". As a result, this term ends up being applied to a highly heterogeneous class of elements, presenting different combinations of word-like and affix-like properties.

One characteristic shared by many clitics is a lack of prosodic independence. A clitic attaches to an adjacent word, known as its host. Orthographic conventions treat clitics in different ways: Some are written as separate words, some are written as one word with their hosts, and some are attached to their hosts, but set off by punctuation (a hyphen or an apostrophe, for example).

Although the term "clitic" can be used descriptively to refer to any element whose grammatical status is somewhere in between a typical word and a typical affix, linguists have proposed various definitions of "clitic" as a technical term. One common approach is to treat clitics as words that are prosodically deficient: they cannot appear without a host, and they can only form an accentual unit in combination with their host. The term "postlexical clitic" is used for this narrower sense of the term.

Given this basic definition, further criteria are needed to establish a dividing line between postlexical clitics and morphological affixes, since both are characterized by a lack of prosodic autonomy. There is no natural, clear-cut boundary between the two categories (since from a historical point of view, a given form can move gradually from one to the other by morphologization). However, by identifying clusters of observable properties that are associated with core examples of clitics on the one hand, and core examples of affixes on the other, one can pick out a battery of tests that provide an empirical foundation for a clitic/affix distinction.

An affix syntactically and phonologically attaches to a base morpheme of a limited part of speech, such as a verb, to form a new word. A clitic syntactically functions above the word level, on the phrase or clause level, and attaches only phonetically to the first, last, or only word in the phrase or clause, whichever part of speech the word belongs to.[6] The results of applying these criteria sometimes reveal that elements that have traditionally been called "clitics" actually have the status of affixes (e.g. the Romance pronominal clitics discussed below).

Clitics do not always appear next to the word or phrase that they are associated with grammatically. They may be subject to global word order constraints that act on the entire sentence. Many languages, for example, obey "Wackernagel's Law", which requires clitics to appear in "second position", after the first syntactic phrase or the first stressed word in a clause:

  • Czech: Kde se to stalo? ("Where REFL that happened" = "Where did that happen?")

Several clitics appearing in the same position (sharing the same host) form a "clitic cluster". The relative order of clitics in a cluster is usually strictly fixed (just as affixes appear in a strict order within a single word):

  • Czech: Nechtěli jsme vám ho dát. ("NOT-wanted 1PL to-you it give" = "We didn't want to give it to you.")
  • Polish: Ty widziałbyś go jutro. ("you saw-COND-2sg him tomorrow" = "You would see him tomorrow.")


English enclitics include:

  • The abbreviated forms of be:
    • ’m in I’m
    • ’re in you’re
    • ’s in she’s
  • The abbreviated forms of auxiliary verbs:
    • ’ll in they’ll
    • ’ve in they’ve
  • The genitive case (or "possessive") marker, at least when used to mark an entire noun phrase:
    • ’s in The Queen of England's crown

English proclitics include:

  • a ____ in a desk
  • an ____ in an egg
  • the ____ in the house

The contraction n’t as in couldn’t etc. has been shown to have the properties of an affix, rather than a syntactically independent clitic.[7] In English, clitics must be unstressed, but not as a full word cannot be unstressed.

  • I have not done it yet.
  • I’ve not done it yet.
  • I haven’t done it yet.
  • I’ven’t done it yet. (dialectal non-standard)

Stress also prevents cliticization as follows:

  • I don’t know who she is. (*I don't know who she’s.)
  • Have you done it? —Yes, I have. (*Yes, I’ve.)
  • He’s not a fool. —He is a fool! (*He’s a fool!) cf. He’s not a genius, either.

Romance languages

In the Romance languages, the articles and direct and indirect object personal pronoun forms are clitics. In Spanish, for example:

  • las aguas [laˈsaɣwas] ("the waters")
  • lo atamos [loaˈtamos] ("it tied-1PL" = "we tied it")
  • melo [ˈdamelo] ("give me it")

According to most criteria, in fact, the pronominal clitics in most of the Romance languages have already developed into affixes.[8]

There is still some debate as to whether or not this change from clitic to affix has occurred with French subject pronouns. Subject pronouns, especially, are still considered clitics as they force a topicalized reading of a coindexed XP.[9]

Although mesoclisis is extremely formal in Brazilian Portuguese and tends to be circumscribed in lesser formal registers by avoiding synthetical future/conditional verb forms, European Portuguese still allows clitic object pronouns to surface as mesoclitics in colloquial situations:[10]

  • Ela levá-lo-ia ("She take-it-would" — "She would take it").
  • Eles dar-no-lo-ão ("They give-us-it-will" — "They will give it to us").

Indo-European languages

In the Indo-European languages, some clitics can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European: for example, *-kʷe is the original form of Sanskrit , Greek τε, and Latin -que.

  • Latin: -que and, -ve or, -ne (yes-no question)
  • Greek: τε and, δέ but, γάρ for (in a logical argument), οὖν therefore
  • Russian: ли (yes-no question), же (emphasis), то (emphasis), не "not" (proclitic), бы (subjunctive)
  • Dutch: 't definite article of neuter nouns and third person singular neuter pronoun, 'k first person pronoun, je second person singular pronoun, ie third person masculin singular pronoun, ze third person plural pronoun
  • Plautdietsch: "Deit'a't vondoag?": "Will he do it today?"
  • Czech: special clitics: weak personal and reflexive pronouns (mu, "him"), certain auxiliary verbs (by, "would"), and various short particles and adverbs (tu, "here"; ale, "though"). "Nepodařilo by se mi mu to dát" "I would not succeed in giving it to him". In addition there are various simple clitics including short prepositions.
  • Swedish: Definite articles are attached to the end of the nouns (enclitic), like in the other Scandinavian languages. Examples: "en pojke" "a boy", "pojken" "the boy", "pojkarna" "the boys"; "en flicka" "a girl", "flickan" "the girl"; "ett barn" "a child", "barnet" "the child"
  • In Old Norse, the definite article is expressed in the enclitics "-inn" (masc.) eg. alfrinn "the elf" dvergrinn "the dwarf" and haukrinn "the hawk", "-in" (fem.) gjǫfin and "-it" (neut.) treit "the tree".

Other languages

  • Hungarian: the marker of indirect questions is -e: Nem tudja még, jön-e. "He doesn't know yet if he'll come." This clitic can also mark direct questions with a falling intonation. Is ("as well") and se ("not... either") also function as clitics: although written separately, they are pronounced together with the preceding word, without stress: Ő is jön. "He'll come too." Ő se jön. "He won't come, either."
  • Japanese: all particles, such as the genitive postposition (no) and the topic marker (wa).
  • Korean: The copula 이다 (ida) and the adjectival 하다 (hada), as well as some nominal and verbal particles (e.g. , neun).[11] However, alternative analysis suggests that the nominal particles do not function as clitics, but as phrasal affixes.[12]
  • Arabic: a series of suffixes standing for direct object pronouns and/or indirect object pronouns (as found in Indo-European languages) if suffixed to verbs, possessive determiners if suffixed to nouns, and pronouns if suffixed to particles.
  • Luganda: -nga attached to a verb to form the progressive; -wo 'in' (also attached to a verb)

See also


  1. ^ SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms: What is a clitic?
  2. ^ Harris, Alice C. (2002). Endoclitics and the Origins of Udi Morphosyntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199246335.  
  3. ^ Craig A. Kopris & Anthony R. Davis (AppTek, Inc. / StreamSage, Inc.) Endoclitics in Pashto: Implications for Lexical Integrity (abstract pdf)
  4. ^ Kari, Ethelbert Emmanuel (2003). Clitics in Degema: A Meeting Point of Phonology, Morphology, and Syntax. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa. ISBN 4872978501.  
  5. ^ Hopper, Paul J.; Elizabeth Closs Traugott (2003). Grammaticalization (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-80421-9.  
  6. ^ Zwicky, Arnold (1977). On Clitics. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.  
  7. ^ Zwicky, Arnold M.; Pullum (1983). "Cliticization vs. inflection: the case of English n't". Language 59 (3): 502–513. doi:10.2307/413900.  
  8. ^ Monachesi, Paola; Philip Miller (2003). "Les pronoms clitiques dans les langues romanes". in Danièle Godard (ed.) (in French). Les langues romanes: Problèmes de la phrase simple. Paris: CNRS Editions. pp. 67–123. ISBN 978-2-271-06149-2.  
  9. ^ De Cat, Cécile (2005). "French subject clitics are not agreement makers" (PDF). Lingua 115: 1195–1219. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2004.02.002. Retrieved 2006-12-15.  
  10. ^ Gadelii, Karl Erland (2002). "Pronominal Syntax in Maputo Portuguese (Mozambique) from a Comparative Creole and Bantu Perspective" (PDF). Africa & Asia 2: 27–41. ISSN 1650-2019. Retrieved 2006-09-20.  
  11. ^ Chae, Hee-Rahk (1995). "Clitic Analyses of Korean "Little Words"". Language, Information and Computation Proceedings of the 10th Pacific Asia Conference: 97–102. Retrieved 2007-03-28.  
  12. ^ James Hye Suk Yoon. "Non-morphological Determination of Nominal Particle Ordering in Korean" (PDF).  

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