WORKSHOP: The mirror asymmetry: Long-distance subject/object asymmetries from a theoretical and empirical perspective.

It is a well-known fact that clause-bound (short-distance) A’-dependencies (wh-questions, relatives) are typically less marked than object A’-dependencies. This is visible in first and second language acquisition, in language processing, in comprehension and production, in typical as well as a-typical populations. For relative clauses, this subject/object asymmetry has been formalized in terms of the Accessibility Hierarchy (Keenan & Comrie, 1977), which describes the fact that subject positions are easier to relativize than non-subject positions. This hierarchy by and large appears to carry over to wh-questions as well (Hawkins, 2003).

Somewhat surprisingly, a reverse asymmetry seems to hold for long-distance (LD) A’-dependencies (long-distance meaning: A’-dependencies spanning more than one clause). Crosslinguistically speaking, subjects are harder to extract from embedded clauses than non-subjects (cf. McDaniel et al., 2015). Many languages therefore employ some sort of alternative strategy to form LD subject dependencies, such as complementizer deletion or alternation, clausal pied-piping, resumptive prolepsis and scope marking (cf. Rizzi & Shlonsky, 2007). Whether or not such alternative strategies involve LD movement proper is something which is not always evident. The reverse asymmetry is furthermore visible in L1 (Roeper & De Villiers, 2011) and L2 acquisition (Jordens, 1991; Juffs & Rodríguez, 2014), in diachronic change (Schippers & Hoeksema, 2021) in acceptability judgment data (Featherston, 2005; Kiziak, 2010) and sentence processing (Schippers et al., 2020).

The problem with LD subject extraction is perhaps best known because of the that-trace or COMP-trace effect in English, for which a wide variety of explanations have been given, including syntactic accounts (Rizzi, 1990), informational-structural accounts (Bennis, 1986; Bayer, 2005), a processing-related explanation (Hawkins, 2003), a production-related account (McDaniel et al., 2015) and prosodic accounts (Kandybowicz, 2008). Rizzi & Shlonsky (2007) propose the COMP-trace effect in English is due to a universal ban on LD subject extraction (criterial subject freezing). This is meant to account for the fact that crosslinguistically, LD subject extraction appears banned almost without exception. However, notable and stubborn exceptions to this rule are languages like German and Dutch. Current formal syntactic explanations often run into the trouble of predicting absolute ungrammaticality for LD subject extraction. However, in many cases the effect seems to be gradual and variable (even for English, cf. Sobin, 1987), suggesting an extragrammatical explanation for LD subject/object asymmetries and COMP-trace-related effects. 


The difficulties associated with LD subject/object asymmetries have been the topic of extensive research and debate in formal frameworks, with the issue far from being settled (Pesetsky, 2017).  Up to now, the topic has received relatively little attention from more empirically driven lines of research, such as psycholinguistics, language acquisition and variationist linguistics (both synchronically and diachronically). This workshop therefore has as its goal to bring together researchers that work on LD subject/non-subject asymmetries from different fields of research and frameworks. The overarching research question that this workshop aims to answer (and which all presentations should address) is: Which factor causes the LD subject/object asymmetry? Relevant subquestions related to this central question are (amongst others):

  • Is there a general, universal constraint on LD subject movement or are there exemptional languages/contexts?
  • Which alternative strategies are employed to form LD subject dependencies, what is their syntactic and semantic structure, and how do they relate to LD movement proper?
  • Are there LD subject/object asymmetries in language processing, production and comprehension? What kind of conclusions can be drawn from this (i.e. can LD subject/object asymmetries be reduced to processing and/or production considerations)?
  • Are there LD subject/object asymmetries in L1 and L2 acquisition and what can be learned from this?
  • What kind of diachronic and synchronic (e.g. dialectal) variation in LD subject/object asymmetries effects can be observed?

In addition to empirically grounded work (research on language production and processing, first and second language acquisition, corpus linguistics, etc.), we also welcome (novel) formal explanations for LD subject non/subject asymmetries. Furthermore, since a lot of the research on LD subject/object asymmetries is on larger, well-known languages such as English and French, we particularly welcome research on lesser-known languages and varieties and typologically different languages.


Provisional dates for the workshop: 22 & 23 August 2022, University of Oldenburg.


In case of any further questions, please contact Ankelien Schippers:



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Schippers, A., Vogelzang, M. and Öwerdieck, D., (2020). COMP-trace effects in German: the role of processing. Nordlyd, 44(1), pp.117-132.

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