In this post I will discuss one of the more important (and, in some quarters, more controversial) ideas in modern theories of grammar. This is that there are some elements (“words”, if you like) which are present syntactically but phonologically have no form – which means they are there but we can’t see or hear them.

There are all sorts of examples of this. Take, for one, the following sentence:

Which kitten did Lucy buy?

Now, which kitten here is semantically the object of buy – compare the sentence Lucy did buy a kitten. That second sentence is an example of the fact that in English objects usually come after verbs. But this doesn’t seem to be the case in Which kitten did Lucy buy? For this reason and others linguists have suggested that which kitten starts off after the verb and is “copied” to the front of the sentence: but only the first copy you reach is pronounced. So the sentence really looks something like this:

Which kitten did Lucy buy which kitten?

Another example is not from English. Lots of languages allow pronouns like and they to be left unspoken in some contexts. Spanish is a good example:

Vivo en Cambridge.
live-I in Cambridge

There is no pronoun here (the same meaning is conveyed through the suffix -o on the verb). But there are good reasons for believing all sentences need to have a subject, even in a language like Spanish. So it’s suggested that there is a pronoun there, in the normal place, it just has a “zero phonetic realisation” – it doesn’t contain any sounds that need to be pronounced, so you can’t hear it.

There are examples a bit like this in English to. Here’s another sentence:

It is important to feed yourself.

yourself is a sort of word called a “reflexive pronoun”, which basically means it needs to refer back to something earlier in the sentence. Hence in a sentence like You like yourselfyourself refers back to you. But in It is important to feed yourself there’s nothing for yourself to refer back to. Therefore, we can postulate a silent pronoun, which is also useful as it gives us a subject for to feed, a bit like the following:

It is important you to feed yourself.

(Note that, in this instance, the sentence would be ungrammatical if the pronoun was pronounced.)

As a final, relatively easy example, compare the following two sentences:

Harry said that he would freeze the fish-fingers.
Harry said he would freeze the fish-fingers

Spot the difference? The two sentences are identical except that one has that in and one doesn’t. One way of looking at this is to claim that the second sentence does contain an element equivalent to that, it just happens to be silent.

So we can conclude from this and many more examples that not everything in a sentence is necessarily pronounced, and that we can learn a lot about language by looking beyond what we hear to things that we don’t.