Optionality in grammar


William McGregor: Optionality in grammar and language use
Linguistics. Volume 51, Issue 6, Pages 1147–1204, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: 10.1515/ling-2013-0047, November 2013

This paper investigates optionality in grammar and language use, and argues that there is optionality and optionality, and thus that it is essential that we be much more careful than hitherto in categorizing linguistic entities as optional. Equipped with a suitably constrained construal of the term, it is possible to formulate testable generalizations about optionality. Specifically, it is always meaningful in the sense that the contrast between use and non-use of a given linguistic element conveys meaning; use and non-use are never in absolutely free variation. Furthermore, there are restrictions on the type of meaning associated with the two contrasting paradigmatic “forms”. It is always a type of interpersonal meaning, concerning the domain of joint attention. It is further suggested that the connection between form and meaning is motivated, and thus this represents another domain in which the linguistic sign emerges as non-arbitrary. Evidence for the proposed meaning is presented from case studies of five diverse domains of grammar: complementizers, case markers, definiteness markers, person and number markers, and NP ellipsis. While these case studies only scratch the surface of the range of optional phenomena in the world’s languages, they provide sufficient circumstantial evidence to make an initial case for the proposals; they also raise numerous questions for future investigation.