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Cognitive Linguistics

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Volume 21, Issue 3 (Jan 2010)


Fields and settings: French il and ça impersonals in copular complement constructions

Michel Achard
  • Corresponding author
  • Rice University
Published Online: 2010-08-24 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/COGL.2010.016


This paper argues that in the context of the copular complement construction (est possible que ‘is possible that’ for example), French possesses two impersonal constructions respectively introduced by il ‘it’ and ça (c') ‘this’. This analysis runs counter to most syntactic accounts which structurally distinguish impersonals (il) from dislocated (ça) constructions. Two arguments are proposed in defense of the two impersonals analysis. First, following the Cognitive Linguistics tradition, it shows that il should not be considered a meaningless dummy but a referential (albeit general) expression. Secondly, a comparison with ceci ‘this’, a pronoun with an unquestionable cataphoric sense, reveals that ça cannot be considered a cataphoric pronoun, and that its meaning within the context of the copular complement construction is very close to il's. Consequently, the syntactic competition between these two pronouns reflects their conceptual overlap, and their distribution in discourse is motivated by their semantic differences. Beyond its relevance to the understanding of the il/ça distribution, the analysis presented in this paper not only argues in favor of a broader account of impersonals than syntactic accounts generally advocate, but also provides a way of constraining the kinds of constructions which receive the impersonal label.

Keywords:: Impersonal constructions; Cognitive Grammar; Demonstrative pronouns; Setting constructions

About the article

Address for correspondence: Dept. of Linguistics, Rice University, MS23 6100 Main Street Houston USA 77005-1892. Email:

Received: 2009-08-14

Revised: 2010-02-22

Published Online: 2010-08-24

Published in Print: 2010-09-01

Citation Information: Cognitive Linguistics, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/COGL.2010.016.

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