Linguistics Blocking
Franz Rainer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • 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. In order to gain some initial understanding of the phenomenon, let us vaguely define it with Mark Aronoff’s Word Formation in Generative Grammar (Aronoff 1976, cited under Introductory Works) 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. Regular phrases can also be blocked by idiomatic combinations. 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.

Introductory Works

Since its introduction in Aronoff 1976, the term blocking has become widely established in linguistics. Its inclusion into textbooks, glossaries, and linguistic encyclopedias bears witness to this fact. A succinct encyclopedia article is Aronoff 1994. Among the textbooks, which generally also contain a glossary of morphological terms, it will suffice to mention, in chronological order, Bauer 1988, Carstairs-McCarthy 1992, Haspelmath 2002, Aronoff and Fudeman 2005, as well as Lieber 2010.

  • Aronoff, Mark. 1976. Word formation in generative grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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    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.

  • Aronoff, Mark. 1994. Blocking. In The encyclopedia of language and linguistics. Vol. 1. Edited by R. E. Asher and J. M. Y. Simpson, 373–374. Oxford: Pergamon.

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    A short lexicon article on blocking.

  • Aronoff, Mark, and Kirsten Fudeman. 2005. What is morphology? Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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    Blocking is treated in a dedicated section, viz. 8.2.5, pp. 218–219, as well as on p. 235 of the glossary.

  • Bauer, Laurie. 1988. Introducing linguistic morphology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

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    Blocking is treated in section 5.4, pp. 66–68, as well as on p. 238 of the glossary.

  • Carstairs-McCarthy, Andrew. 1992. Current morphology. London and New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203206720E-mail Citation »

    Blocking is treated on pp. 33–34.

  • Haspelmath, Martin. 2002. Understanding morphology. London: Arnold.

    E-mail Citation »

    Section 12.4, pp. 249–250, is dedicated to “Blocking strength and frequency.” The term is also part of the glossary on p. 266.

  • Lieber, Rochelle. 2010. Introducing morphology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Blocking is dealt with in section 10.4, pp. 186–188, as well as on p. 198 in the glossary.

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