Morphology - Unit Three - Lesson No. 20


Clitics are small grammatical elements that cannot occur independently and therefore cannot really be called free morphemes. However, they are not exactly like affixes either (Lieber 2009: 150).

A clitic is attached to a word (its host ) and the two are pronounced together but the two are treated separately at the level of syntax. For example, the contractions 's, 'll, and 'm in He’s running, I’ll be there and I’m not playing are all clitics.

At the level of phonology, a clitic is never stressed even when its host is. That is why it has been argued that n’t in couldn’t, won’t is not a clitic, since the not of the full form ( could not, will not ) can never be unstressed.

Clitics are of different types: those which precede the host are known as proclitics ; those which follow the host are enclitics ; and those (as in Portuguese) which are inserted into the word are mesoclitics (Trask 2007: 38-9).

There is another classification of clitics: simple clitics and special clitics. Simple clitics are defined as “unaccented variants of free morphemes, which may be phonologically reduced and subordinated to a neighboring word”. In English, forms like –‘ll and –d , as in the sentences below, are simple clitics:

  1. I’ll take the pastrami, please.
  2. I’d like the pastrami, please.


Special clitics are phonologically dependent on a host, as simple clitics are, but they are not reduced forms of independent words. Example from French:

I him see


1. Je vois Pierre.
I see Pierre
2. Je le vois.
3. *Je vois le
I see him

The pronoun le (him) is written separately but it depends on the word to its right. The pronoun le and the word vois are pronounced together, but the sentence (3) is not correct in French. Thus, le and other object pronoun forms in French are special clitics (Lieber 2009: 150-1).

In the level of syntax, clitics appear in the same position as one that can be occupied by the corresponding free word. In the level of morphology, they are not as closely bound to their host as inflectional affixes are. That is, they are frequently not very selective about the category of their host. Like affixes, they are pronounced as part of the host word. Unlike affixes, they don’t select a specific category of base and change its category or add grammatical information to it. Contracted forms like –ll or –d in English will attach to any sort of word that precedes them, regardless of the category, for example:

The kid over there’ll take a pastrami sandwich.


In conclusion, cliticization in different languages provides important data on the rules of constituent structure and phonology.

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