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

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Terminology
  • The Early History of Research
  • Potential and Actual Words
  • Synonymy Blocking
  • Homonymy Blocking
  • The Relativity of the Blocking Effect
  • Affix Pleonasm
  • Psycholinguistic Approaches
  • The Nature of the Lexicon
  • Lexical Blocking versus Pattern Blocking
  • The Elsewhere Condition
  • Inheritance-Based Models and Optimality Theory

Linguistics Blocking
Franz Rainer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0185


“Blocking” is a phenomenon that is characteristic of human language in general, but its precise nature and scope are still controversial. As will become apparent, theoretical accounts of the phenomenon also differ widely. In order to gain some initial understanding of what blocking is about, let us vaguely define it with Mark Aronoff’s Word Formation in Generative Grammar (Aronoff 1976, cited under Overviews) as “the nonoccurrence of one form due to the simple existence of another” (p. 43). The most typical instantiations occur in inflection and derivation, where went blocks *goed, and thief blocks* stealer. Most linguists also allow for blocking to operate across the morphology-syntax boundary. The staple example here is the English comparative, where adjectives suffixed with -er are said to block the corresponding phrases consisting of more + adjective (e.g., bigger blocking *more big). The absence of regular semantic extensions is also sometimes attributed to blocking, e.g., the oddness of *(I don’t eat) pig “pig meat,” blocked by pork, or *(I like) cow “cow meat,” blocked by beef. Occasionally, blocking is claimed to operate syntax-internally, as when the ill-formedness of the French sentence type *J’ai vu lui (“I have seen him”) is attributed to the existence of the sentence type “Je l’ai vu” (literally “I him have seen”). Still more exceptionally, syntax is claimed to block morphology: the oddness of incorporated verbs such as to truck-drive, for example, has been attributed to the corresponding syntactic constructions of the type to drive trucks. In all these examples, the blocking and the blocked forms are synonyms. Some scholars, however, believe that a form can also be blocked by a homonym, as in *to spring/fall in France vs. to summer/autumn/winter in France.


Since its introduction in Aronoff 1976, the term blocking has become widely established in linguistics. The reader desirous to get an overview should start with Rainer 2016 and Gardani, et al. 2019. Both articles provide a comprehensive overview of the phenomenon of blocking in the wider context of competition in natural language.

  • Aronoff, Mark. 1976. Word formation in generative grammar. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

    This hallmark study of word formation in generative grammar contains the first intent to account for blocking in an explicit model of grammar. On blocking, cf. pp. 43–44 and 55–63.

  • Gardani, Francesco, Franz Rainer, and Hans Christian Luschützky. 2019. Competition in morphology: A historical outline. In Competition in inflection and word-formation. Edited by Franz Rainer, Francesco Gardani, Wolfgang U. Dressler, and Hans Christian Luschützky, 3−36. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    The authors provide a historical overview of the many attempts that have been made to come to grips with the phenomenon of competition in natural language, of which blocking in the strict sense of the term constitutes just one facet.

  • Rainer, Franz. 2016. Blocking. In Oxford Research Encyclopedias in Linguistics. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199384655.013.33

    This article is close in content to Gardani, et al. 2019, but its focus is on modern theorizing, while the former concentrates on the history of research.

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