Rice University
Linguistics Colloquium

Jan. 24, 2008
Back to Colloquium Schedule

Competing strategies in person marking: double-marking vs. economy

Marja-Liisa Helasvuo, University of Turku, Finland


According to Sacks and Schegloff (1979), there is a general preference for minimization in reference to persons in conversation: reference to persons is "preferredly done with a single reference form". (Sacks & Schegloff 1979: 16). To put it simply, in English the reference form functions as the subject, whereas for example in Hebrew, subject pronouns are typically ellipted and person reference is conveyed through agreement marking on the verb in past and future tenses (Hacohen and Schegloff 2006). Levinson (2007) discusses "optimizing" in reference to persons based on data from Rossel Island and notes that there are (at least) three principles at work: economy (cf. Sacks and Schegloff's minimization), recognition (cf. Sacks and Schegloff's recipient design), and circumspection. According to the recognition principle, speakers should restrict the set of referents so as to achieve recognition. The economy principle says that speakers shouldn't over-restrict the set of referents explicitly, and according to the principle of circumspection, speakers should not over-reduce the set of referents explicitly.

In my presentation I will discuss these principles or strategies in the light of Finnish. In principle, the predicate verb agrees with the subject in number (singular vs. plural) and person (1st, 2nd and 3rd) in Finnish (see e.g. Helasvuo & Laitinen 2006). In standard Finnish, (non-3rd-person) subjects are generally not expressed (i.e. zero anaphora is the norm), and verbs are marked for person and number of the subject. In other words, standard Finnish follows the principle of minimization (cf. Sacks and Schegloff 1979) or economy (Levinson 2007). When subjects are overtly expressed, however, they carry out some special discourse function (e.g. contrast). The system of standard Finnish is thus similar to that of conversational Hebrew (cf. Hacohen & Schegloff 2006). In contrast, in colloquial Finnish it is more common for both the subject pronoun and the person marking on the verb to occur. There is thus a preference for double-marking in the 1st and 2nd person rather than for minimization. In typological work, it has been noted that this kind of "grammatical agreement" or "non-pro-drop" seems to be typologically rare (see Siewierska 1999, Dahl 1990). In colloquial Finnish, double-marking is the norm, whereas single-marking (minimization) occurs in certain conversational contexts (such as in the answer part of a question-answer adjacency pair).

Interestingly enough, in the 3rd person and in the 1st person plural there is an independent tendency that works towards minimization. Namely, in the 3rd person plural the predicate does not show agreement with the subject in number and in the 1st person plural, it is common to use a passive verb form together with the 1st person plural pronoun to convey 1st person plural reference. Here, the principle of economy is clearly at work, and in my talk, I will consider these patterns also in light of the principles of circumspection and recognition (cf. Levinson 2007). Thus, there seem to be contrasting strategies that function simultaneously when making reference to person in colloquial Finnish.


Hacohen, Gonen and E. A. Schegloff. 2006. "On the Preference for Minimization in Referring to Persons: Evidence from Hebrew Conversation." Journal of Pragmatics 38:1305-1312.

Helasvuo, Marja-Liisa & Lea Laitinen. 2006. "Person n Finnish: Paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations in interaction". Grammar from the human perspective: Case, space and person in Finnish ed. by Marja-Liisa Helasvuo & Lyle Campbell, 173-207. CILT 277. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Levinson, Stephen C. 2007. "Optimizing person reference: Perspectives from usage on Rossel Island." Person reference in interaction: Linguistic, cultural and social perspectives ed. by N. J. Enfield & Tanya Stivers, 29-72. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sacks, Harvey & Emanuel A. Schegloff. 1979. "Two preferences in the Organization of Reference to Persons in Conversation and Their Interaction". Everyday Language: Studies in Ethnomethodology ed. by George Psathas, 15-21. New York: Irvington.

Siewierska, Anna 1999. "From anaphoric pronoun to grammatical agreement marker: why objects don't make it." Folia Linguistica 33/2: 225-251.