Referential effects on verb agreement: Finnish numeral-noun constructions




This paper explores seemingly puzzling subject-verb agreement patterns with Finnish numeral noun constructions (NNCs, e.g. three birds) in subject position, which can occur with singular or plural verbs. This alternation is not predicted by current theories. Building on properties of Finnish independent of NNCs, I argue that the Finnish data can be reconciled with prior analyses if we analyze verb number marking as dependent on referential properties of the NNC. I suggest that NNCs with singular verbs do not involve agreement, but rather a default verb form that surfaces in contexts involving existential construal, while NNCs with plural verbs are a true case of (semantic) agreement. According to my analysis, the lack of subject-verb agreement with existentially-interpreted NNCs is related to the fact that, more generally, existentially-construed subjects do not trigger verb agreement in Finnish (which presumably stems from their underlying syntactic position, given the discourse-configurational nature of Finnish). By arguing that subject-verb agreement in Finnish NNCs is variable and depends on existential vs. definite construals, while agreement patterns in the nominal domain are more rigid, these data pose a challenge to attempts to unify agreement mechanisms in the verbal and nominal domains.

Author Biography

  • Elsi Kaiser, University of Southern California
    Department of Linguistics