Deconstructing possession

Nora Boneh*, Ivy Sichel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


The paper argues that clausal possession is to be decomposed into three distinct, independently attested, syntactic configurations, each associated with its own meaning. These include Location, represented as an ordinary small clause, the Part-Whole relation, which always has a complement structure within DP as its source, and an applicative structure ApplP, the source of (in)alienable possession, where humans are treated as special. The analysis we propose focuses on Palestinian Arabic and extends to English clausal possession and its realizations across have and be. Palestinian Arabic overtly distinguishes a number of ingredients which in other languages enter into possession less transparently: It marks Location and Part-Whole relations by distinct prepositions, it features a full-agreement/no-agreement distinction associated with scope, and, lacking have, it keeps separate P° and be, the ingredients often assumed to enter into its composition. The picture which emerges is partly familiar and partly new. We argue that the notion possession is never linguistically encoded as such, since none of the underlying representations proposed is associated exclusively with possession. We also argue that the subject in possessive clauses is a derived subject with both have and be. We attribute the differences between Palestinian Arabic and English to a difference in their agreement systems, which in conjunction with Economy, forces P° to extract from its PP, and leads to the formation of have. If we are correct, the cross-linguistic distribution of have and be may further reduce to parametric differences in agreement systems.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1-40
Number of pages40
JournalNatural Language and Linguistic Theory
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements We thank audiences at IATL23, CSSP5, MSM2, The Porter Interdisciplinary colloquium at Tel Aviv University and the departmental seminar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for questions and comments. The paper has greatly benefited from the thorough and constructive comments of three anonymous reviewers, to whom we are grateful. We also thank Marcel den Dikken for his detailed and enlightening remarks on various versions of the manuscript. Very special thanks to our informants, Hadil Karawani, Hanin Karawani, Khawla Rihani & Shireen Siam, for their insight into the data and ongoing patience with our questions. All errors remain our own. Research for this project was partially funded by the Israel Science Foundation grant #0322358 to Ivy Sichel.


  • Agreement alternation
  • Applicatives
  • Domain extension
  • EPP
  • Economy
  • English
  • Location
  • Locative Inversion
  • Palestinian Arabic
  • Part-Whole
  • Possession


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