The was-w construction in German
A case study in type-coercion
The so-called was-w-construction in German has received a fair amount of attention in recent syntactic theorizing. Most of the discussion has focused on the properties of was.
One line of research maintains that was is a scope marker that indicates the semantic scope of the wh-phrase in the embedded interrogative clause. The alternative view, usually referred to as the indirect analysis, was first developed with respect to Hindi (Dayal 1994) and then generalized to German (Dayal 1996). It holds that the was of the was-w-construction is associated not with the embedded wh-phrase, but rather with the embedded clause as a whole.
Hinrichs and Nakazawa present some novel evidence in favor of an indirect analysis of the was-w construction. However, the main focus of their research is on two questions that by comparison have received little attention, namely:
- what is the set of matrix predicates that can enter into this construction, and
- how can one account for the curious fact that predicates that ordinarily do not license wh-complements allow such complements in the was-w-construction?
On the basis of Ginzburg and Sag's verb classification (Ginzburg and Sag, in preparation) Hinrichs and Nakazawa identify a natural class of predicates that license this construction and utilize the notion of type coercion to account for the apparent mismatch between the syntactic form of the embedded interrogative and its semantic function.