Accessible Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton December 25, 2020

On the Syntax of French Qu’est-ce que Clauses and Related Constructions

Jean-Yves Pollock
From the journal Probus

Abstract

In the Romance domain, French is unique in having homophonous interrogative, exclamative and relative constructions sharing the same Que+est+ce+que string. The main goal of this article is to shed light on this enigmatic sequence. It will do so by investigating the rarely studied syntax of que, combien and ce que exclamatives and relatives and will show that the sequence initial Que in their Que+est+ce+que counterparts is the covert duplicate of the subsequent exclamative and relative (ce+)que clauses. The article extends the main features of this analysis to all Qui, quand, où,+est-ce que questions by showing that the ce que string following est in such questions is to be analysed, despite the spelling conventions of Modern French, as the complex complementiser of headless relatives. As the article proceeds, various questions concerning the syntax of similar clauses in other Romance languages are raised and the uniqueness of French is argued to be tied to the defective properties of est in these three constructions. Finally, its appendix extends and shows the fruitfulness of Kayne's ideas concerning the ce que complex determiner.


Corresponding author: Jean-Yves Pollock, Emeritus Professor, Université Paris Est, Marne la Vallee, France, E-mail:

Richie Kayne’s comments on an earlier draft of this article helped me get rid of serious empirical and conceptual mistakes. He shouldn’t be held responsible for those that may remain or for any of the outlandish ideas developed here. Many thanks to Richard Faure for his comments and for making available to me the data concerning children’s Qu’est-ce que constructions in Palasis et al. (2019) and to Nicola Munaro and Cecilia Poletto for their comments and invaluable comparative suggestions. I'd like to dedicate this article to the Memory of Hans Georg Obenauer, a close friend and a remarkable linguist.


Appendix: On Ce/CE que

I have so far used brute force in my dealings with que and ce que. I would like to try to be a little less rough and more precise. In order to do that, let me first go back to assertion C in Section 4, repeated in A:

  • A.

    Bare que is the same entity in interrogative, relative and exclamative clauses.

I observed in note 13 that such a claim implied that que’s respective values and properties in these three constructions depend on the layers of the HLP – or Low Left Periphery – they move to or through and on their function in the structure where they are first merged. Let me now also endorse Kayne’s idea that there are no interrogative or relative pronouns: all of these so-called pronouns are Qu-determiners. This then also applies to que and to other Qu-elements such as qui, où, etc.

On that view, (bare) que’s (surface) properties will also depend on what happens to its (null) complement. Taking our clue from ordinary questions and headed relatives such as, say, [Quelhomme] as-tu vu? ‘what man have you seen?’ and [L’hommeque] j’ai vu ‘The man who I saw’, let us claim that relative que’s (null) complement must adjoin to (some projection to) its left, along the lines of Vergnaud (1974), while interrogative que’s complement typically remains to its right. Let us further exploit the main results of Poletto and Pollock (2020): There are three different Qu-positions in the clause architecture. (A) The LLP hosts a Focus slot for interrogative Qu-determiners. (B) The HLP hosts a slot for free relative Qu-determiners. (C) The HLP also hosts various (high) slots for special question Qu-determiners.

Granted all this, let me now make the following conjectures:

  1. B.

    Relative que, interrogative que, exclamative queand complementiser que are always preceded by a demonstrative determiner: All these (bare) que’s are part of a complex Qu-determiner.

  2. C.

    In such complex Qu-determiners, the demonstrative can be lexical or non-lexical: [ce que]/[CE que].

Conjecture B is a generalisation of Kayne’s (2011) claim, taken over in this article without discussion, that ce que in (178a),

(178)
a.
Ce qu’on craignait est arrivé
‘What we feared has happened’
b.
Je tiens à ce que tu partes
‘I insist to ce+that you leave’ = I insist that you leave

is a complex relative Qu-determiner. The sheer existence of (178b) shows that there is also need for a complex complementiser in French.[49]

To shed light on conjecture C, let us consider (179) versus (180):

(179)
La chose (*ce) qu’on craignait est arrivé
‘The thing (*ce) that we feared has happened’ = The thing that we feared has happened
(180)
*(ce) qu’on craignait est arrivé
‘*(ce) that we feared has happened’ = What ….

Kayne (2011) relates (179) in French to (181b) in English

(181)
a.
What we feared has happened.
b.
*Something what we feared has happened.

However that may be, the pre-ce que position of the antecedent in (179) results from its crossing over ce que from a position immediately to its right. In that sense, assuming ce in ce que to be related to that in English, there’s a possible linkage to (182):

(182)
Whoi (did you say) (*that) ti came?

Along the same lines, one can relate (180) and (183),

(183)
*(That) which we feared has happened

whether that which in English is a complex relative determiner or not. Because of the constraints responsible for this state of affairs, CE is obligatorily null when it is preceded by lexical material in headed relatives such as (179) and must lexicalise in headless relatives such as (180).

What was just said is enough to explain why (184a, b) surface as shown, but it is not enough to account for (184c):[50]

(184)
a.
[[[La chose]iCE que ti ]j[on redoutait tj] est arrivée]]]
b.
[[[CHOSE]i ce que ti ]j [on redoutait tj ] est arrivé]]]
c.
[[CE que CHOSE]i [redoutes ti ]]-tu ]]?

Why couldn’t CE lexicalise, yielding the sharply ungrammatical (185)?

(185)
*Ce que redoutes-tu?
‘Ce what fear you?’ = Ce what are you fearing?

That would only be possible if CHOSE could cross over CE que. Under Poletto and Pollock’s (2020, section 7) analysis, that would only be possible if CE que could move to the Focus position of the LLP, which it can’t: *Il a fait (ce)que? (he’s done what?). This is because in fine sentences such as Il pense à quoi? (He’s thinking of what = what is he thinking of?) or il a vu laquelle (He saw which one = Which one did he see?), the clause is typed as a question by (string vacuous) remnant VP movement to the Ground slot of the LLP. In such cases, the HLP to which à quoi and laquelle move in sentences such as A quoi il pense? A quoi pense-t-il? (What is he thinking of?) Laquelle il a vue? Laquelle a-t-il vue? (Which one did he see?) hosts the relative-like structures of à quoi – CHOSE à quoi – or laquelle – CHOSE laquelle.[51] Since no such ‘low’ interrogative typing is possible in the case of que, the slot to which CE que CHOSE moves in (185) via the computations yielding SCLI constructions must be Rizzi’s Interrogative Force, typing the sentence as a question, which precludes CHOSE from crossing over CE que. So only Que redoutes-tu? (What fear you? = What are you afraid of?), analysed as in (184c), can be derived.[52]

This overall framework also tells us why the sentences in (186) are to be analysed as indicated:

(186)
a.
Je ne sais [PRO [CE que CHOSE]i penser ti ]
‘I don’t know CE what THING (to) think’
b.
Je ne sais [[CHOSE]i [ce que] ti]]j elle pense tj]
‘I don’t know Ce what she thinks’
(187)
Je sais [[CE] que] [Pierre est un génie]]
‘I know CE that Pierre is a genius’

In (186a) que has moved/cliticised to a slot in the vP below the LLP,[53] which as shown by the severe ungrammaticality of (188),[54]

(188)
*Le livre que lire
‘The book which to read’

cannot host the suitable relative layer. Consequently, CHOSE cannot cross over the CE que determiner and CE must remain non-lexical. In example (186b) on the contrary, the null complement of CE que has been extracted because the left periphery in which the complex determiner and its complement are standing is a relative layer (cf. Poletto and Pollock 2020, section 7 and passim).

Before commenting on (187), let us go back to questions such as (189) under the analysis suggested in Section 8.

(189)
Où est-ce que tu vas?
‘Where is ce that you go?’ = where are you going?

Conjecture B says its input structure must be (189):

(190)
[εP ε [SC [HLP CE que [IP tu vas où]] où]]

Relative moves to the HLP yielding (191):[55]

(191)
[εP ε [SC [HLP où CE que [IP tu vas Où]] où]]

As seen earlier, interrogative then ‘erases’ (voids) relative upon identity:

(192)
[εP ε [SC [HLP Où CE que [IP tu vas Où]] où]]

At this point, lexicalisation of ce becomes necessary, for the same reason it is obligatory in (184–186b): it is preceded by a null entity to its immediate left. This yields (193) and finally (194) after interrogative (together with its null complement PLACE, not shown here) has moved to the specifier of the copula ε.

(193)
[εP ε [SC [HLP Où ce que [IP tu vas Où]] où]]
(194)
[εPOù ε [SC [HLPce que [IPtu vas Où]] Où]]
Où est-ce que tu vas?

Essentially the same analysis obtains for examples such as (195), already discussed in Section 8, to be analysed as in (196) (=[171], [172] and [173]):

(195)
a.
A qui est-ce que tu as prêteras la voiture?
‘To whom is ce that you will lend the car?’ = Who will you lend the car to?
b.
Pour qui est-ce que tu voteras?
‘For whom is ce that you’ll vote?’ = Who will you vote for?
d.
A quoi est-ce que tu fais allusion?
‘To what is ce that you allude?’ = What are you referring to?
(196)
a.
[εP [à qui] ε [[HLP [A QUI ce que] [IPtu prêteras la voiture A QUI]]]
b.
[εP [pour qui] ε [[HLP [POUR QUI ce que] [IPtu voteras POUR QUI]]]
c.
[εP [à quoi] ε [[HLP [A QUOI ce que] [IPtu fais allusion A QUOI]]]

As already noted, (195) only differ from the very colloquial (197) in having one extra step moving the Qu-determiners (and their null complements) to the specifier position of ε.[56]

(197)
a.
A qui que tu prêteras la voiture?
‘To whom that you will lend the car’ = Who will you lend the car to?
b.
Pour qui que tu voteras?
‘For whom that you’ll vote? = Who will you vote for?
d.
A quoi que tu fais allusion?
‘To what that you allude’ = What are you referring to?

In (197) CE remains obligatorily null because it is preceded by a lexical antecedent, while it must lexicalise in (195).[57]

At long last, let me now return to (187), repeated in (198):

(198)
Je sais [CE que [Pierre est un génie]]
‘I know CE that Peter is a genius’

This structure and a simple-minded extension of the analysis shown in (193) and (195) will no doubt have led the reader to wonder why (199) does not surface as the horrendously bad (200):

(199)
Qui crois-tu que Marie a vu?
‘Who think you that Marie has seen?’ = Who do you think Marie has seen?
(200)
*Qui crois-tu ce que Marie a vu?
‘Who think you ce that Marie has seen?’ = Who do you think Marie has seen?

since interrogative qui (and its null complement) might be thought to move successive cyclically to the pre-CE position, thereby inducing its lexicalisation. My answer is that in (standard) French, the slot to/through which interrogative and relative QU-determiners move is not pre-CE but rather the XP position in (201):

(201)
CE XP que

If so, CE will remain silent, as it must, in all sentences such as (199) and in the embedded clauses of (171). The next claim will then be that movement to/through XP in (202),

(202)
XP CE que

is only available in those dialects and sociolects which productively use root questions such as (203),

(203)
a.
Où que tu crèches?
‘Where that you live? = Where do you live?
b.
A qui que tu prêteras la voiture?
‘To whom that you will lend the car’ = Who will you lend the car to?
c.
Pour qui que tu voteras?
‘For whom that you’ll vote? = Who will you vote for?
d.
A quoi que tu fais allusion?
‘To what that you allude’ = What are you referring to?

which, as we claimed, underlie (root) Qu-est-ce que questions.

Let me end these remarks with exclamatives such as (204), (205) and (206), analysed in sections 4 and 6 as in (207), (208) and (209):

(204)
Que Marie est jolie!
(205)
Ce que Marie est jolie!
(206)
Ce que Marie travaille!
(207)
[Que [JOLIE]] Marie est jolie [QUE JOLIE]!
(208)
[Ce que [JOLIE]] Marie est jolie [CE QUE JOLIE]!
(209)
[Ce que [QUANTITE]] Marie travaille [CE QUE QUANTITE]

Given the framework developed in this appendix and assuming, as stated in B and C that exclamative que falls under our two conjectures – the null assumption – these structures should be modified as follows:

(210)
[CE Que [JOLIE]] Marie est jolie [CE QUE JOLIE]!
(211)
[[JOLIE] [ce que [JOLIE]] Marie est jolie [CE QUE JOLIE]![58]
(212)
[[QUANTITE] [ce que [QUANTITE]] Marie travaille [CE QUE QUANTITE]!

Speakers such as Martinon (see footnote 5) or Richard Faure, who find sentences such as (54) – repeated under (213) – fine in ‘elevated’ style,

(213)
a.
Que Marie travaille!
‘What Marie works!’ = How much Marie works!
b.
Que Marie ronfle!’
‘What Marie snores!’ = How loudly Mary snores!
c.
Que Marie lit de livres!
‘What Marie reads of books!’ = How many books Marie reads!
d.
Que Marie aime Paul!’
‘What Marie loves Paul!’ = How much Marie loves Paul!

and speakers who accept sentences such as (214) and (215),

(214)
Ah, que je regrette de ne pas pouvoir vous aider!
‘Ah, what I regret not to be able to help you’ = I am so sorry I can’t help you
(215)
Ah, que je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir!
‘Ah, what I laugh to see myself so beautiful in this mirror!’ = Ah, how I laugh …

can be described as allowing for structures such as (216) and (217):

(216)
[CE que [QUANTITE]] [{Marie, je} {regrette, ris} [CE QUE QUANTITE] ….]!
(217)
[CE que [QUANTITE]] [{Marie}{travaille, ronfle, aime Paul, lit [CE QUE QUANTITE] (de livres)}]!

In this perspective, the diachronic evolution alluded to in note 5 may be ascribed to the replacement of (216)–(217) by (2011)–(212), i.e. to the generalisation of ce que free relative-like structures for exclamatives which, given our generalisations in A and B in this Appendix, can in turn be related to bare que’s inability to head embedded questions in Modern French (see example (50) above Poletto and Pollock (2020) and Poletto & Pollock (2004, note 40) for a late example of archaic usage).

It seems plausible to argue further that the fact that sentences such as (217) are retained in ‘elevated’ style by speakers such as Richard Faure and the fact that (216) are acceptable in my French should be seen as a consequence of abundant exposure to similar sentences in classical literature and/or to the (normative) teaching of schools and lycées.

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Published Online: 2020-12-25
Published in Print: 2021-05-26

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