Rediscovering a hidden classic: Comrie (1999) on explaining some universals of coreference marking

The following language universal seems to be poorly known, even among aficionados of universals:

Universal 1

Coreference marking tends to be longer in more local domains, and shorter in more extended domains.

The correctness of this universal, due to Comrie (1999), has not been systematically documented, but there are excellent reasons to think that Bernard Comrie was right in his far-sighted claims. And in addition, I think he proposed the correct explanation (see below). (But note that Comrie talks about “degrees of markedness” (p. 341), not about “length of marking”; the context makes it clear that he does indeed mean the latter.)

By “local domain”, Comrie means the verb and its arguments, while the adjuncts are less local, and subordinate clauses are still less local. So the generalization of Universal 1 can be illustrated by English and Russian, because the longer anaphoric forms (himself, sebja) are obligatory in the most local domain, not possible in the most extended domain (subordinate clauses), with variation in intermediate domains (clause-level adjuncts and possessors). This is illustrated by his examples (19)-(29).











Comrie then goes on to show that Universal 1 also makes the right predictions for languages with three types of anaphoric constructions, e.g. Japanese (zibun zisin, zibun, and Ø) and Tamil (where there is additional verbal marking of coreference in the most local domain).

Japanese is well-known for having zero anaphora corresponding to English her/him/them, but Comrie then shows that “zero anaphora” is actually found also in English and Russian subordinate clauses, as in (44) and (49) – in the latter, only Russian allows it, and in the former, both languages also require a special form of the verb (the infinitive). But crucially, these cases obey the generalization of Universal 1.






Most linguists have not considered reflexive pronouns and infinitival constructions together, and have thus missed what looks like a correct generalization. And what is nice about it is that it can be explained as an evolutionary adaptation – an instance of efficient asymmetric coding, like so many other general aspects of grammar. The key observation is the following:

Observation 1

Coreference is less likely in more local domains, and more likely in more extended domains.

So the reason why we get longer anaphoric marking in an agent-patient domain (as I also noted in my recent LSA talk) is that it is simply not very likely that the patient is the same as the agent (If John saw someone, it is unlikely that it is himself that he saw). Languages are flexible, and over time they often develop an efficient coding system, with longer forms for less expected situations, and shorter forms (or zero) for more expected situations.

This insight is present in Comrie’s paper, but perhaps not quite transparently. Instead of “likelihood” (as in Observation 1), Comrie talks about “the normal situation”, or “the most natural situation”, or “the unmarked situation”. These are somewhat confusing terms (especially “unmarked”, because the word “marked” is also used in the sense of formal length), but a careful reading of this (beautifully written) paper makes it clear that Comrie means exactly this. Let me quote two passages:

“The normal situation in terms of our conceptualization of the world is for an action that includes more than one participant to have an agent acting on a patient that is a distinct entity from the agent. In other words, the most natural situation is for the argments of a predicate to be non-coreferential.” (Comrie 1999: 341)

“The unmarked situation is to have “referential continuity” (“topic cntinuity”). Specia marking is used to indicate deviation from this pattern…” (Comrie 1999: 343)

Comrie did not himself make any frequency counts, and there seems to be very little work in this direction (but see Haspelmath 2008; Ariel 2008 for some frequency counts of a few languages). In general, linguists seem to be more interested in meaning-form correspondences, even though form-frequency correspondences clearly provide the best explanations. Comrie himself is a bit ambivalent about the nature of his explanation: On the one hand, he recognizes that there is an overarching pattern, accounting both for reflexive marking and coreference in extended domains, but he also says that he provides a “cognitive explanation” for the local domain, and that the principle for the extended domain has a “discourse basis” (1999: 335). While “cognition” and discourse no doubt play an important role, it seems much simpler to say that all the patterns he discusses have an explanation in terms of efficient asymmetric coding.

Most work on reflexive pronouns comes from the generative tradition (of “binding theory”, e.g. Reinhart 1983; Reuland 2011), and many intriguing language-particular patterns have been found. However, I am not aware of any similarly simple and powerful generalization to have emerged from this literature. Reuland (2011: 186) invokes a principle called IDI (“inability to distinguish indistinguishables”) and says that it is “a general property of computations”, seen also in the Obligatory Contour Principle in phonology. However, how exactly the ungrammaticality of *Jane1 saw her1 follows from this principle (while at the same allowing Jane washed, where agent and patient are identical) is not easy to see in Reuland’s highly complex system.

So it seems to be worthwhile revisiting Comrie’s old paper and trying to build a larger theory of anaphoric forms and constructions on it.


Ariel, Mira. 2008. Pragmatics and grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Comrie, Bernard. 1999. Reference-tracking: Description and explanation. Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 52(3–4). 335–346.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2008. A frequentist explanation of some universals of reflexive marking. Linguistic Discovery 6(1). 40–63.

Reinhart, Tanya. 1983. Anaphora and semantic interpretation. London: Routledge.

Reuland, Eric J. 2011. Anaphora and language design. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

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