Empty referential subjects in Old English prose: A quantitative analysis
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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As Present-Day English with but a few exceptions requires fully overt referential subject pronouns in finite clause structures, the occurrence of empty referential pronominal subjects at the Old English stage of the language is notable and intriguing. While many have commented on the presence of such empty subjects in Old English, there exists very little systematic empirical research in this area of historical English syntax. The present article makes a contribution to this area by presenting an empirical survey of the occurrence of empty referential subjects in eleven Old English prose texts, along with a quantitative analysis of a number of structural variables deemed relevant for the permissibility of the phenomenon. It is shown here that empty subjects occur much less frequently than suggested by previous research. I therefore argue that previous accounts have overestimated the “idiomaticity” of this phenomenon in Old English. I also reject the hypothesis that subject pronouns can be realised as empty only in cases where the referent of the omitted pronoun is easily recoverable, whether through verbal inflections or discourse prominence.