Clitics in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Clitic in grammar
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In English morphology and phonology, a clitic is a word or part of a word that is structurally dependent on a neighboring word (its host) and cannot stand on its own.

A clitic is said to be "phonologically bound," which means that it's pronounced, with very little emphasis, as if it were affixed to an adjacent word. 

Clitics are usually weak forms of functional elements such as auxiliaries, determiners, particles, and pronouns.

Examples and Observations of Clitics

"Certain tensed forms of auxiliary verbs have, in addition to their weak forms, clitic versions, which merge phonologically with an adjacent word, their host. Thus, we've is pronounced like weave, and he'll like heel, while I'm rhymes with time, and so on. . .
"The clitic forms of am, have, and will consist of a single consonant: /m, v, l/. In the case of are, it is not possible to give a satisfactory representation for the clitic itself, as the host + clitic combination may not be phonologically divisible into two corresponding parts. For example, they're in BrE is usually homophonous with locative there."
(Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Clitics 's and 've

"One interesting property of clitics that differentiates them from other affixes is that while an affix will be limited to attaching to a stem that is a particular type of lexical category, such as a verb, a clitic is not so limited. It can attach to entire phrases or even words with other clitics. Consider the English possessive clitic 's and verbal clitic 've in the following examples (which indicate things that can be said, even if they wouldn't necessarily be captured this way in orthography):
- The student's assignment
- The student of psychology's assignment
- The student that we invited's assignment
- The student dressed in red's assignment
- The student who went out's assignment
- The men's assignments have been done, but the women's've not."
(Dani Byrd and Toben H. Mintz, Discovering Speech, Words, and Mind. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)

Proclitics and Enclitics

"There are . . . instances where two words are combined without forming a compound in the usual sense. The negative word not and a relatively small number of frequently occurring words (mostly verbs) can be contracted and attached to other words. Usually, they are attached at the end as enclitics: she's (she is or she has), don't (do not). Occasionally they are proclitics: d'you (do you), 'tis (it is). The combination of both types of clitics appears in 'tisn't. Although they are not isolated orthographically or in other respects, we can regard these clitics as reduced forms of words."
(Sidney Greenbaum, The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University. Press, 1996)

Clitics and Affixes

"The distinction between clitics and affixes is naturally fluid: e.g. English -n't in haven't or aren't is a clitic by some criteria but has been claimed as an affix by others. So too is the boundary between clitics and full words: e.g. unstressed to is a clitic, by some relevant criteria, in I have to [haftə] go."
(P.H. Matthews, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. Oxford University Press, 1997)

Controversies With Clitics

"In phonology, the prosodic structure of clitics is much debated. Mostly, clitics are prosodically deficient in that they fail to meet prosodic minimality conditions. For instance, unlike prosodic words, clitics need not consist of a full vowel. Moreover, clitics often exhibit different phonological behaviour from other categories...

"From a morphological point of view, it is questionable whether a distinct morphological category of clitics is linguistically desirable beyond a purely descriptive means. In recent analyses, it has been proposed to accommodate clitics in one of the categories 'word' or 'affix.'

"The syntactic status of clitics is no less controversial. As for pronominal clitics, one of the main problems is whether they are arguments as proposed by Kayne (1975) and many others, or whether they are functional heads as proposed by, e.g., Sportiche (1996)."

(Birgit Gerlach and Janet Grijzenhout, Introduction. Clitics in Phonology, Morphology and Syntax. John Benjamins, 2000)

From the Greek, "leaning"

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Nordquist, Richard. "Clitics in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Clitics in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Clitics in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).