Elsewhere Principle in Linguistics

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In linguistics, the Elsewhere Principle is the proposition that the application of a specific rule or operation overrides the application of a more general rule. Also known as the Subset Principle, the Elsewhere Condition, and the Paninian Principle.

American linguist Stephen R. Anderson points out that the Elsewhere Principle is "invoked by [Stephen R.] Anderson (1969), [Paul] Kiparsky (1973), [Mark] Aronoff (1976), Anderson (1986), [Arnold M.] Zwicky (1986), etc., with antecedents going back to [the fourth century BC Sanskrit grammarian] Pāṇini, [19th-century German linguist] Hermann Paul, and probably others" (A-Morphous Morphology, 1992).

Examples and Observations

"[T]he basic case of competition in morphology can be characterized by the Elsewhere Principle: a more specific form is preferred over a more general one where both are in principle grammatical. By definition, competitors are those forms that can be used to express the same concepts. It is possible, therefore, that competing structures are generated in different components, in particular, morphology and syntax.

"A well-known example involves the English comparative affix -er, which must attach to short (maximally bisyllabic) adjectives . . .. This morpheme is in competition with the syntactic modifier more, which can in principle attach to both short and long adjectives, and is therefore the more general form. In the context of short adjectives, the Elsewhere Principle dictates that -er blocks more . . .. (We add (19e) to show that in circumstances where the Elsewhere Principle does not apply more can indeed modify short adjectives.)

(19a) Bigger
(19b) *Intelligenter
(19c) *More big
(19d) More intelligent
(19e) Bigger means 'more big'

This classical application of the Elsewhere Principle demonstrates that a morphological complex can be in competition with a syntactic phrase. . . .

"It does not seem too much to say that one of the core phenomena of morphology, and perhaps of grammar in general, is that one form can compete with, and hence block, others. The classical cases of such competition involve inflectional morphology as regulated by the Elsewhere Principle. . . . [W]e have argued that there are many more examples of competition, which differ from the classical case in terms of the nature of the candidates and the selecting restraints."

(Peter Ackema and Ad Neeleman, "Word-Formation in Optimality Theory." Handbook of Word-Formation, ed. by Pavol Štekauer and Rochelle Lieber. Springer, 2005

Mapping Rules

"An idiosyncratic mapping rule need not mention a single morpho-syntactic terminal; it can also apply to combinations of (morpho-)syntactic material. For example, next to the mapping rules that associate TOOTH with /tooth/ and PLURAL with /z/, there is a mapping rule which relates [TOOTH PLURAL] to [/teeth/]. This rule can be formulated as follows, where P(X) stands for the phonological realization of a syntactic entity X:

If PLURAL selects (a category headed by) TOOTH,
then P(TOOTH, PLURAL) = /teeth/

Since this mapping rule is more specific than the one that only mentions PLURAL, the elsewhere principle states that the latter is blocked where the former can apply, ruling out *[/tooth/ /z/]. Note that this does not mean that the lexicon contains multiple morpho-syntactic morphemes that represent plurality (there is only one plural affix)."

(Peter Ackema and Ad Neeleman, Morphological Selection and Representational Modularity." Yearbook of Morphology 2001, ed. by Geert Booij and Jaap van Marle. Kluwer, 2002)

Illustration and Qualification

"Two elements are important in the Elsewhere Principle. First, it inactivates rules in particular cases as a property of the rule system as a whole. Second, it does so in virtue of a logical relationship between rules: entailment between application conditions. The rule that is inactivated by a second rule applying to the same case applies to all cases to which the second rule applies.

"The English plural is formed by adding a morpheme -s to the end of a stem. A number of words have special plurals, such as goose, which has the plural geese. The existence of the nonregular plural (a remainder of an older plural; formation by means of vowel shift) rules out the regular form *gooses.

"The rule that assigns geese has the application condition stem = goose, which is more specific than the application condition stem = X4 for the regular plural formation. It follows by the Elsewhere Principle that the regular rule for plural formation does not apply to goose.

"There is an important caveat with the Elsewhere Principle: It does not always lead to the right conclusion. It is sometimes possible for the irregular form to coexist with the regular form, and sometimes there is neither an irregular nor a regular form. In these cases, the Elsewhere Principle would predict the absence of a regular form or the presence of a regular form, respectively, predictions that are not borne out by the facts. It follows that in these cases another explanation needs to be sought."

(Henk Zeevat, "Idiomatic Blocking and the Elsewhere Principle." Idioms: Structural and Psychological Perspectives, ed. by Martin Everaert et al. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1995)

Further Reading

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Nordquist, Richard. "Elsewhere Principle in Linguistics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/elsewhere-principle-linguistics-1690586. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Elsewhere Principle in Linguistics. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/elsewhere-principle-linguistics-1690586 Nordquist, Richard. "Elsewhere Principle in Linguistics." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/elsewhere-principle-linguistics-1690586 (accessed June 2, 2023).