In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islands

  • Introduction
  • Early Treatments of Islands
  • Later Developments and Unifying Approaches
  • Island Constraints in Minimalism
  • Condition on Extraction Domain
  • Left Branch Condition
  • Coordinate Structure Constraint
  • Across the Board Wh-Movement
  • Islands in Wh-In-Situ Languages
  • Islands and Interpretation of Multiple Wh-Questions
  • Repair of Island Violations: Ellipsis
  • Repair of Island Violations: Resumption
  • Repair of Island Violations: Pied-Piping
  • Strong versus Weak Islands
  • Crosslinguistic Differences
  • Islands and Scope
  • Processing of Islands
  • Acquisition of Islands

Linguistics Islands
Barbara Citko
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0101


In general terms, the term island refers to a configuration that blocks syntactic dependencies (e.g., movement) across it. Islands have been at the core of syntactic research since John Robert Ross’s 1967 seminal dissertation on the topic, Constraints on Variables in Syntax, and they continue to inspire new research and lead to new discoveries. The core areas of research are best captured by the following questions, which will serve as an organizing tool in what follows: (i) What kinds of dependencies are constrained by islands? (ii) What kinds of configurations constitute island violations? (iii) Do islands cluster into types? (iv) Are islands reducible to more general syntactic principles? (v) Are islands reducible to more general non-syntactic (processing, pragmatic, semantic) principles? (vi) Are all islands created equal? (vii) What factors influence the acceptability of island violations, and under what circumstances do they disappear altogether? (viii) Is there any crosslinguistic variation with respect to islandhood? And (ix) how are islands acquired (by both first and second language learners)? Islands are also discussed in Movement by Omaki and Yoshida in a broader context of movement dependencies (see in particular the references contained in Constraints on Movement).

Early Treatments of Islands

The references in this section are the representative early treatments in the literature on islands; they identified, described and named many of the islands that are still a subject of vivid discussions and debates. Also included in this section are early attempts at unifying island constraints and combining different islands into more general types. While the formalism and technical apparatus used in some of these works may no longer be current, they offered a wealth of data and established important empirical generalizations. For example, Chomsky 1964 and Ross 1967 offered initial characterizations of island constraints; A-over-A constraint and many individual island constraints, respectively. Bresnan 1976 provided a more nuanced view of the A-over-A condition. Cattell 1976, Chomsky 1973, Chomsky 1977, and Chomsky 1981 are included here either for their attempts to unify the individual island constraints (see also the citations in the section Later Developments and Unifying Approaches) or to extend them to other types of constructions (besides wh-questions). Erteschik-Shir 1973 is an early source on semantic and pragmatic factors that determine domains that are not opaque to extraction.

  • Bresnan, Joan. 1976. On the form and functioning of transformations. Linguistic Inquiry 7:3–40.

    This paper points out problems with Chomsky’s original formulation of the A-over-A principle and suggests relativizing it to structural conditions on transformations instead.

  • Cattell, Ray. 1976. Constraints on movement rules. Language 52:18–50.

    DOI: 10.2307/413206

    This article tries to reduce Ross’s Complex NP, Sentential Subject, and Coordinate Structure Constraint from more general well-formedness constraints (which he dubs the NP Ecology Constraint and the Overcrowding Principle).

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1964. Current issues in linguistic theory. In The structure of language: Readings in the philosophy of language. Edited by J. A. Fodor and J. J. Katz, 50–118. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    This is the source that led to many later works on island constraints and provided the point of departure for Ross’s 1967 dissertation. It was also an important early source for the A-over-A Condition.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1973. Conditions on transformations. In A Festschrift for Morris Halle. Edited by Anderson and P. Kiparsky, 232–286. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

    This was the first attempt to explain Ross’s island constraints. It proposed subjacency to replace Ross’s Complex NP Island Constraint, the Specified Subject Condition, and the prohibition against extraction out of indirect questions (later known as the Wh-Island Condition). Other important conditions proposed in this work include the Superiority Condition and the Tensed-S Condition, as well as Comp-to-Comp movement and the principle of Strict Cyclicity.

  • Chomsky, N. 1977. On wh-movement. In Formal syntax. Edited by P. Culicover, T. Wasow, and A. Akmajian, 71–132. New York: Academic Press.

    This is an important source for a number of reasons. It established diagnostics of wh-movement as movement involving (apparent) unbounded dependencies and exhibiting island effects. It also showed that wh-movement is not limited to wh-questions and that it includes other processes, such as relativization, topicalization, comparative or exclamative formation. It was also an important milestone in the reduction of all movements to two general types: Move NP and Move WH (later generalized to Move Alpha), and in the development of the Principles and Parameters model.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on government and binding: The Pisa Lectures. Holland: Foris.

    This work marks the beginning of the Principles and Parameters framework. It reformulated the island conditions in terms of bounding nodes subject to parametric variation. It also introduced the Empty Category Principle (ECP).

  • Erteschik-Shir, Nomi. 1973. On the nature of island constraints. PhD diss., MIT.

    This dissertation proposed a semantic condition on extraction, in which presupposition played an important role. It also contrasted the behavior of English and Danish with respect to islands.

  • Ross, John Robert. 1967. Constraints on variables in syntax. PhD diss., MIT.

    This dissertation, later published in book form (Ross, John Robert. 1986. Infinite Syntax! Norwood, NJ: Ablex), is considered foundational for a number of reasons. First, it started a program to deconstruct the A-over-A Principle. Second, it described many fundamental island constraints that are still being used in the literature, including the Complex Noun Phrase Constraint, the Specified Subject Condition, the Coordinate Structure Constraint, and the Left Branch Condition. Third, it identified two types of rules—the so-called chopping rules and copying rules—and proposed that only the former are subject to island constraints.

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