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In syntax, a sluicing construction is one in which the sentential part of an interrogative clause is elided; this typically occurs only in constituent questions (not polar questions). (Sluicing is also used as the name of the transformation that produces these surface forms, and as a synonym for ellipsis in these constructions.)

Sluicing is illustrated in (1) and (2), which correspond to the nonelliptical (3) and (4) in meaning.

(1) Phoebe wants to eat something, but she doesn't know what.
(2) Jon doesn't like the lentils, but he doesn't know why.
(3) Phoebe wants to eat something, but she doesn't know what she wants to eat.
(4) Jon doesn't like the lentils, but he doesn't know why he doesn't like the lentils.

Under some accounts, the ellipsis in (1) and (2) has structure equivalent to that in (3) and (4), but differ from (3) and (4) only in that this structure is elided (or unpronounced), as indicated by the angled brackets in (5) and (6):

(5) Phoebe wants to eat something, but she doesn't know what <she wants to eat>.
(6) Jon doesn't like the lentils, but he doesn't know why <he doesn't like the lentils>.

Sluicing is found both in embedded (or 'indirect') questions, as in (1) and (2), as well as in matrix (or 'direct') questions:

(7) - Somebody is coming for dinner tonight.
- Who?

In some languages, sluicing can leave behind more than one WH phrase (multiple remnant sluicing), according to Jason Merchant. Constructions like the following

(6) *Someone wants to eat something, but I don't know who what.

are considered grammatical in languages like Japanese, Turkish, Russian, and others.

Sluicing was analyzed and so named by John Robert Ross (in Ross 1969). Sluicing raises a potential problem for syntax, as the elided content seems to form a non-constituent. Ross's solution was to analyze sluicing as involving regular wh-fronting followed by ellipsis of the sister constituent of the wh-phrase. This analysis has been expanded in greater detail in Merchant 2001, which is the most comprehensive treatise on sluicing and ellipsis. However, as with most work on ellipsis, reading Ross's work is a good place to start understanding it.

References

  • Chung, Sandra, William Ladusaw, and James McCloskey. 1995. Sluicing and Logical Form. Natural Language Semantics.
  • Ross, JR. 1969. Guess who? CLS.
  • Merchant, Jason. 2001. The syntax of silence: Sluicing, identity, and the theory of ellipsis. Oxford University Press.
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