Activation levels

A fresh perspective on French wh in-situ



In the last five decades, French wh in-situ has been the center of much work in theoretical linguistics. Nonetheless, scholars still disagree on the distribution of these constructions, and on their interpretation. While whether or not wh in-situ is necessarily presuppositional has been debated for years (Cheng & Rooryck 2000, Baunaz 2011, Shlonsky 2012, a.o.), we believe this question is too narrow. Here, we investigate the ESLO 1-2 corpora of spoken French and provide a fresh understanding of in-situ questions based on the notion of ‘discourse activation’ (Dryer 1996, Larrivée 2019a, Garassino 2022). By demonstrating both the passage from a predominantly ex-situ system to a predominantly in-situ system, and a significant augmentation of non-context-bound in-situ occurrences, we redefine the conditions under which these structures are licenced in Hexagonal French, and how they have evolved from a micro-diachronic perspective (1970s-2010s).


wh in-situ, French, wh-interrogatives, interpretation, activation


Adams, Marianne. 1987. Old French, null subjects and verb second phenomena. PhD thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.

Adli Aria. 2004. Y a-t-il des morphèmes intonatifs impliqués dans la syntaxe interrogative du Français ? Le cas du qu-in situ . In M. Trudel & M. Selig (eds.), Nouveaux départs en phonologie: les conceptions sub- et supra-segmentales. 199-215. Tübingen : Narr.

Adli, Aria. 2006. French wh-in-situ Questions and Syntactic Optionality: Evidence from three data types. In Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft 25: 2. 163-203.

Adli, Aria. 2015. What you like is not what you do: Acceptability and frequency in syntactic variation. In Adli, A., García García, M. & Kaufmann, G. (eds.). Variation in language: System- and Usage-based Approaches. 173-200. Berlin/Boston: Walter De Gruyter.

Baunaz, Lena. 2005. The syntax and semantics of wh in-situ and existentials: the case of French. Leiden Working Papers in Linguistics 2/2: 1-27.

Baunaz, Lena. 2011. The Grammar of French Quantification, Dordrecht, Springer.

Baunaz, Lena. 2016. Wh-phrases in-situ: interface strategies. Acta Linguistica 63 (2): 125-168.

Baunaz, Lena & Cédric Patin. 2011. Prosody refers to semantic factors: evidence from French wh-words. In H.-Y. Yoo, E. Delais-Roussarie (eds.), Actes d’Interface Discours & Prosodie, 93-107.

Baunaz, Lena & Cédric Patin. 2012. Quand la prosodie et la sémantique vont de pair, le cas des mots-qu en français. In de Saussure L. & Rihs A. (eds). Etudes de sémantique et pragmatique françaises. 357-378. Berne: Lang.

Beauchemin, Normand, Pierre Martel & Michel Théoret. 1971-1974. Corpus sociolinguistique de l'Estrie. Université de Sherbrooke.

Beeching, Kate, Nigel Armstrong, & Françoise Gadet. 2009. Sociolinguistic variation in contemporary French. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Belletti, A. 2009. Structures and Strategies. Routledge Leading Linguists 16. New York.

Belletti, A. 2015. ‘The Focus map of clefts: Extraposition and Predication’. In U. Shlonsky (ed.) Beyond Functional Sequence. The Cartography of Syntactic Structures 10. Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax. Oxford University Press. 42-59.

Behnstedt, Peter. 1973, Viens-tu ? Est-ce que tu viens ? Tu viens ? Formen und strukturen des direkten Fragesatzes im Französischen. Tübingen, Narr.

Biezma, M. 2018. Givenness and the difference between wh-fronted and wh-in-situ questions in Spanish. Romance Languages and Linguistic Theory: Selected papers for Going Romance 29. John Benjamins. 21-39. doi:10.1075/rllt.13.03bie.

Blanche-Benveniste, Claire. 1997. A propos de Qu’est-ce que c’est et c’est quoi. Recherches sur le français parlé 14 : 127-146.

Boeckx, Cédric. 1999. Decomposing French questions. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 6/1: 69-80 .

Boeckx, Cédric. 2003. French Wh-in-situ Interrogatives as (C)overt Clefts, ms. Harvard University.

Bonan, Caterina. 2019. On clause-internally moved wh-phrases: Wh-to-foc, nominative clitics, and the theory of Northern Italian wh-in situ. Ph.D. thesis, Université de Genève.

Bonan, Caterina. 2021. Romance interrogative syntax. Formal and typological dimensions of variation. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Bošković, Željko. 1998. LF movement and the Minimalist Program. In N. T.Pius /K. Kusumoto (eds.), Proceedings of NELS 28. 43-57. Amherst, MA, GLSA.

Bošković, Željko. 2000. Sometimes in [Spec, CP], sometimes in situ. In R. Martin, D. Michaels, J. Uriagereka (eds.), Step by Step. Essays on Minimalist Syntax in Honor of Howard Lasnik. 53-88. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Boucher, Paul. 2010. Wh-questions in French and English. Mapping syntax to information structure. In C. Breul & E. Göbbel (eds.), Comparative and contrastive studies of information structure, 101-137. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Canel, Angela. 2012. Les interrogatives in situ en français : une étude syntaxique. Tesi di Laurea. Università Ca' Foscari Venezia.

Chang, Lisa. 1997. Wh-in-situ phenomena in French, MA thesis, University of British Columbia.

Cheng, Lisa Lai-Shen 1991. On the Typology of Wh-questions. Ph.D. thesis, MIT. Distributed by MIT Working Papers in Linguistics.

Cheng, Lisa Lai-Shen & Rooryck, Johan. 2000. Licensing wh-in-situ. Syntax 3/1, 1-19.

Cheng, L. L.-S. & Rooryck, J. 2002. Types of Wh-in-situ. Unpublished MS. Leiden University.

Coveney, Aidan. 1989. Pragmatic constraints on interrogatives in spoken French. York Papers in Linguistics 13: 89-99.

Coveney, Aidan. 1995. The use of the QU-final interrogative structure in spoken French. Journal of French Langage Studies 5: 143-171.

Coveney, Aidan. 1996 (2002). Variability in Spoken French: interrogation and negation. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Coveney, Aidan 2011. L’interrogation directe. Travaux de linguistique 63, 112-145.

Cresti, Emanuela & Massimo Moneglia. 2005. C-ORAL-ROM. Integrated Reference Corpora for Spoken Romance Languages. Amsterdam-Philadelphia, John Benjamins.

Crystal, David. 1991. A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics. 3rd ed. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.

Dagnac, Anne. 2013. La variation des interrogatives en français. hal-00988751v2

Dekhissi, Laurie. 2013. Variation syntaxique dans le français multiculturel du cinéma de banlieue. Ph.D. thesis, University of Exeter.

Déprez, Viviane, Kristen Syrett, and Shigeto Kawahara. 2013. The interaction of syntax, proso- dy, and discourse in licensing French wh-in-situ questions. Lingua 124 (1): 4-19.

Dryer, Matthew S. 1996. Focus, Pragmatic Presupposition, and Activated Propositions. Journal of Pragmatics 26: 475-523.

Elsig, Martin. 2009. Grammatical Variation across Space and Time: The French interrogative system. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Enç, Mürvet. 1991. The semantics of specificity. Linguistic Inquiry 22. 1-25.

Etxepare, Ricardo & Myriam Uribe-Etxebarria. 2005. In-situ wh-phrases in Spanish: locality and quantification. Recherches linguistiques de Vincennes 33, 9-34.

Faure, Richard & Katerina Palasis 2021. Exclusivity! Wh-fronting is not optional wh-movement in Colloquial French. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 39, 57-95.

Ferguson, Charles A. 1959. Diglossia. Word 15, pp. 325-340.

Foulet, Lucien. 1921. Comment ont évolué les formes de l’interrogation? Romania 47, pp. 243-348.

Gadet, Françoise. 1989. Le français ordinaire. Paris: Colin.

Gadet, Françoise. 2007. La variation sociale en français. 2e éd. Paris: Ophrys.

Gadet, Françoise. 2021. Le changement linguistique. Langage et société (Hors série) : 41-46.

Garassino, Davide. 2022. A contrastive perspective on French and Italian wh-in situ questions : A discourse-pragmatic approach. In Functions of Language 22 (1): 25-57.

Glasbergen-Plas, Aliza, Stella Gyllia & Jenny Doetjes. 2021. The prosody of French wh-in-situ questions: echo vs. non-echo. Journal of Linguistics 57: 569-603. doi:10.1017/S0022226720000158

Guryev, Alexander. 2017. La forme des interrogatives dans le Corpus suisse de SMS en français. Étude multidimensionnelle. Ph.D. thesis. Université de Neuchâtel and Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle..

Guryev, Alexander & François Delafontaine. 2015. La variabilité formelle des questions dans les écrits SMS. Travaux neuchâtelois de linguistique 63: 129-152.

Guryev, Alexander & Pierre Larrivée. Routines discursives comme contextes d’émergence de l’interrogative partielle in situ en diachronie. Langue française 212 (4)), 75-90.

Haegeman, Liliane, André Meinunger & Aleksandra Vercauteren. 2014. The architecture of it clefts. Journal of Linguistics 50(2): 269-296.

Hamlaoui, Fatima. 2009. La focalisation à l’interface de la syntaxe et de la phonologie: le cas du français dans une perspective typologique. Ph.D. thesis, Université Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle.

Hamlaoui, Fatima. 2011. On the role of phonology and discourse in Francilian French wh-questions. Journal of Linguistics 47: 129-162.

Hopper, Paul. 1987. Emergent grammar. In Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 13. 139-157.

Huková, Lubomíra. 2006. La variation syntaxique des interrogatives directes en français parlé. Master thesis, Universizita Karolva v Praze.

Jiménez, M. L. 1997. Semantic and pragmatic Conditions on Word Order in Spanish. Ph.D. thesis. Georgetown University.

Kato, M. 2013. Deriving "wh-in-situ" through mouvement in Brazilian Portuguese. In V. Camacho- Taboada, Á. L. Jiménez Fernández, J. Martín-González & M. Reyes-Tejedor (eds) Information Structure and Agreement. Linguistics Today/Linguistik Aktuell 197. The John Benjamins Publishing Company. 175-192. doi:10.1075/la.197.06kat.

Labov, William. 1996. When intuitions fail. In McNair, L. et al. (eds.), Papers from the Parasession on Theory and Data in Linguistics 32, 77-106

Larrivée, Pierre. 2016. Les interrogatives in-situ sont-elles pragmatiquement marquées en français vernaculaire ? Investigation synchronique et historique. Paper presented at the Kolloquium Konstanz, June 2016.

Larrivée, Pierre. 2019a. Historical pragmatics, explicit activation and wh in situ in French. In I. Feldhausen, M. Elsig, I. Kuchenbrandt & M. Neuhaus (eds.), Romance languages and linguistic theory 15. Selected papers from ‘Going Romance’ 30, Frankfurt, 114-132. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Larrivée, Pierre. 2019b. Contextes promoteurs et émergence des questions in situ en français In A. Dufter, K. Grübl & T. Scharinger(eds). Des parlers d’oïl à la francophonie: Contact, variation et changement linguistiques. 97-116. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Manzini, Maria Rita & Savoia, Leonardo Maria. 2005. I dialetti italiani e romanci. Morfosintassi generativa I-III. Edizioni dell’Orso.

Marchello-Nizia, Christiane. 1999. Le français en diachronie: douze siècles d'évolution. Éditions Ophrys.

Marchello-Nizia, Christiane. 2003. Le français dans l'histoire. In Yagello, M. (eed.), Le grand livre de la langue française, 11-88.

Martineau, France & Marie-Claude Séguin. 2016. Le Corpus FRAN : réseaux et maillages en Amérique française , Corpus 15.

Massot, Benjamin. 2010. Le patron diglossique de variation grammaticale en français. Langue française 168.4 : 87-106.

Mathieu, Eric. 1999. WH in situ and the intervention effect. UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 11: 441-472.

Mathieu, Eric. 2002. The syntax of non-canonical quantification: a comparative study. Ph.D. thesis, University College London.

Mathieu, Eric. 2004. The mapping of form and interpretation: the case of optional WH-movement in French. Lingua 114: 1090-1132. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2003.07.002

Mathieu, Eric. 2009. Les questions en français: micro- et macro-variation. In F. Martineau, R. Mougeon, T. Nadasdi, M. Tremblay (eds.), Le français d’ici: études linguistiques et sociolinguistiques sur la variation du français au Québec et en Ontario, 37-66. Toronto : GREF.

Mathieu, E. 2016. The Wh parameter and radical externalization. In L. Eguren, O. Fernández Soriano & A. Mendikoetxea (eds.), Formal grammar and syntactic variation: Rethinking parameters, 252-290. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mcculloch, Gretchen. 2019. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. New York, NY: Riverhead Book. 10.1386/eme_00039_5

Meillet, Antoine. 1912. L’évolution des formes grammaticales. Scientia 12: 384-400.

Mosegaard Hansen Maj-Britt. 2013. Negation in the history of French. In D. Willis, C. Lucas & A. Breitbarth. (eds.), The history of negation in the languages of Europe, 51-76, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Munaro, N. 1999. Sintagmi interrogativi nei dialetti italiani settentrionali. Rivista di Grammatica Generativa. Monografie. Unipress.

Obenauer, Hans-Georg. 1994. Aspect de la syntaxe A-barre – Effets d’intervention et mouvement des quantifieurs. Ph.D. thesis, Université de Paris VIII.

Oiry, Magda. 2011. A case of true optionality: Wh in situ patterns like long movement in French. Linguistic Analysis 37(1-2) : 115-142.

Pesetsky, D. 2000. Phrasal movement and its kin. Linguistic Inquiry Monograph 37. The MIT Press.

Pesetsky, David. 1987. Wh-in-situ: Movement and unselective binding. In E. Reuland & A. ter Meulen (eds.), The Representation of (In)definites. 98-129. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pohl, Jacques. 1965. Observations sur les formes d’interrogation dans la langue parlée et dans la langue écrite non littéraire. Actes du Xe Congrès International de Linguistique et de Philologie Romanes. Tome 2. Paris: Klincksieck.

Poletto, Cecilia. 2000. The Higher Functional Field. Evidence from Northern Italian Dialects. Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax. Oxford University Press.

Poplack, Shana. 1989. The care and handling of a mega-corpus. R. W. Fasold & D. Schiffrin (eds.). Language Change and Variation, 411-451. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Quillard, Virginie. 2000. Interroger en français parlé: études syntaxique, pragmatique et sociolinguistique. Ph.D. thesis,. Université de Tours.

Quillard, Virginie. 2001. La diversité des formes interrogatives : comment l’interpréter ? Langage et société 95, 57-72.

Rouquier, Magali. 2002. Les interrogatives en ‘qui/qu’est-ce qui/que’ en ancien français et en moyen français. Cahiers de Grammaire 27 : 97-120.

Rowlett, Paul. 2007. The Syntax of French. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rowlett, Paul. 2011. Syntactic variation and diglossia in French. Salford Working Papers in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics 1: 13-26.

Shlonsky, Ur. 2012. Notes on wh in situ in French. In L. Brugé, A. Cardinaletti, G. Giusti, N. Munaro, C. Poletto (eds.), Functional Heads. The Cartography of Syntactic Structures. Volume 7, 242-252. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Söll, Ludwig. 1985. Gesprochenes und geschriebenes Französisch, Berlin, Schmidt.

Starke, Michal. 2001. Move dissolves into merge: a theory of locality. Ph.D. thesis, University of Geneva.

Tailleur, Sandrine. 2013. The French Wh Interrogative System: Est-ce que, Clefting? Ph.D. thesis, University of Toronto.

Tailleur, Sandrine. 2022. Historical data for a contemporary debate: the use of wh-elements in 19th-20th c. Quebec French. Talk given at the Journée d'études ‘L'interrogative in situ : aspects formels, pragmatiques et variationnels’.

Tailleur, Sandrine. in prep. Partial interrogatives in Quebec French: a diachronic look at a spreading variant. In Dekhissi et al. Journal of French Language Studies. Special issue.

Tieu, Lyn. 2012. Semantic-pragmatic conditions on wh-in-situ in English. Poster presented at the 86th Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, Portland.

Trudgill, Peter. 2020. Sociolinguistic typology and the speed of linguistic change. Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics 6(2).

Tuaillon, Gaston. 1975. Analyse syntaxique d’une carte linguistique : ALF 25 : « Où vas-tu? ». Revue de linguistique romane 38 : 79-96.

Valdman, Albert .1968. Normes pédagogiques: Les structures interrogatives du français, International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching 5, 3-10.

Walner, Ramona. 2018. French wh-in-situ questions: Why ‘giveness’ doesn’t explain all. Talk given at GenWH 2018, 18.01.2018. University of Geneva.

Zimmermann, Michael. 2018. A Corpus of WH-in-Situ Interrogatives from Contemporary Hexagonal French Literary Prose Writing, Konstanz, Fachbereich Linguistik der Universität Konstanz.

Zimmermann, Michael & Katharina Kaiser. 2019. Refining current insights into the wh-in-situ interrogative construction in French: the case of Contemporary Hexagonal French. Romanistisches Jahrbuch 70 (1): 123-157.

Zribi-Hertz, Anne. 2011. Pour un modèle diglossique de description du français : quelques implications théoriques, didactiques et méthodologiques. Journal of French Language studies 21.2 : 231-256.

Zubizarreta, María Luisa. 2003. Intervention effects in the French wh-in-situ construction. Syntax or interpretation?. In: R. Núñez-Cedeño, L. López, R. Cameron (eds.), A Romance Perspective on Language Knowledge and Use. Selected Papers from the 31th Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages (LSRL), Chicago, 19-22 April 2001. 359-379. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Author Biographies

Lena Baunaz, Université de Genève

Université de Genève

Département de linguistique

Collaboratrice scientifique

Caterina Bonan, University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge

Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages

Department of Italian

Postdoctoral researcher




Download data is not yet available.