Friday, July 11, 2008

Null Subjects

This appeared on Channel NewsAsia’s website on 13 June 2008: ‘Malaysian PM says struck succession agreement with deputy’.

The full form of the sentence is, of course (omitted words underlined):

Malaysian PM says he has struck a succession agreement with his deputy.

The dropping of the subject pronoun he in the first sentence would be extremely unusual in Standard English. While pronouns are often dropped in special registers like diaries (think Bridget Jones’s Diary), this would not generally be allowed in embedded that-clauses.

Hence, while it would be possible in Standard English to say:

Ø Went to Oxford Street this morning.

where Ø denotes a dropped subject (known in theoretical syntax as a ‘null subject’), the following would not be possible:

Henry says Ø can meet me tonight.

This is despite that being omitted from the embedded that-clause. In Singapore English, however, null pronouns are so pervasive that they are commonly encountered even in formal written English, particularly in news headlines.

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