Pro-drop language

A pro-drop language (from "pronoun-dropping") is a language in which certain classes of pronouns may be omitted when they are in some sense pragmatically inferable (the precise conditions vary from language to language, and can be quite intricate). The phenomenon of "pronoun-dropping" is also commonly referred to in linguistics as zero or null anaphora.

In everyday speech there are often instances when who or what is being referred to can be inferred from context. Proponents of the term "pro-drop" take the view that pronouns which in other languages would have those referents can be omitted, or be phonologically null. Among major languages, what might be called a pro-drop language is Japanese (featuring pronoun deletion not only for subjects, but for practically all grammatical contexts). Chinese, Slavic languages, and American Sign Language also exhibit frequent pro-drop features.

Some languages might be considered only partially pro-drop in that they allow deletion of the subject pronoun. These null subject languages include many Romance languages such as Spanish, Italian, Occitan, Catalan, Portuguese, and Romanian (French is the most notable exception), as well as all the Balto-Slavic languages.



Consider the following examples from Japanese:

Kono kēki wa oishii. Dare ga yaita no?
"This cake is tasty. Who baked it?"

Shiranai. Ki ni itta?
know-NEGATIVE. like-PAST?
"I don't know. Do you like it?"

The pronouns in bold in the English translations (it in the first line, I, you, and "it" in the second) appear nowhere in the Japanese sentences, but are understood from context. If nouns or pronouns were supplied, the resulting sentences would be grammatically correct but unnatural. (Learners of Japanese as a second language, especially those whose first language is non-pro-drop like English or French, often make the mistake of supplying personal pronouns where pragmatically inferable. This is an example of language transfer.)

Altaic languages

Altaic languages like Turkish are also pro-drop.

Geldiğini gördüm.
Coming-POSSESSIVE saw.
I saw you/him/her/it come.
The subject "I" above is easily inferrable as the verb gör-mek is declined in the first person simple past tense form. The object pronoun is supposed to be deduced from the context; where context is not clear enough, it should be supplied. For example, if one wants to make it sure that it was the person spoken to who was seen, one would say:

Senin geldiğini gördüm.


English is considered a non-pro-drop language. Nonetheless, subject pronouns are almost always dropped in commands (e.g., Come here); and in informal speech, pronouns and other words, especially copulas and auxiliaries, may sometimes be dropped, especially from the beginnings of sentences:

  • [Have] you ever been there? or [Have you] ever been there?
  • [I'm] going to the store. [Do] [you] want to come [with me]?
  • Seen on signs: [I am/We are] out to lunch; [I/we will be] back at 1:00 P.M.
  • What do you think [of it]?I like [it]! (only in some dialects)

When answering a question, the sentence structure of the question is often dropped from the answer.

  • So, what did you think of the play? — [I think that the play was ] excellent!
  • When will you be coming back home? — [I will be coming back home] tomorrow.
  • How are you feeling today? — [I am feeling] tired.

In speech, when pronouns are not completely dropped, they are more often elided than other words in an utterance.

Note that these elisions are generally restricted to very informal speech and certain fixed expressions, and the rules for their use are complex and vary among dialects.

Null-subject languages

Romance languages

Most Romance languages (with the notable exception of French) are often categorised as pro-drop too, although only in the case of subject pronouns. Unlike in Japanese, however, the missing subject pronoun is not inferred strictly from pragmatics, but partially indicated by the morphology of the verb. Example:

¿Ves este tronco? Sería bueno para la fogata. Está completamente seco. (Spanish)
Vês este tronco? Seria bom para a fogueira. Secou completamente. (Portuguese)
See this log? Would be good for the campfire. Is completely dried (Spa) / Dried completely (Port). (literal, direct translation)
(Do) you see this log? It would be good for the campfire. It has completely dried. (idiomatic translation)

Spanish and Portuguese are also notable amongst Romance languages because they have no specific pronouns for circumstantial complements (arguments denoting circumstance, consequence, place or manner, modifying the verb but not directly involved in the action) or partitives (words or phrases denoting a quantity of something). Compare the following:

Slavic languages

All Slavic languages behave in a similar manner to the Romance pro-drop languages. Example:

"Vidim ga. Ide / Видим га. Иде." Serbo-Croatian
Vidim ga. Prihaja. Slovene
"Виждам го. Идва." Bulgarian
Widzę go. Idzie Polish
Vidím ho. Ide Slovak
"Вижу [его]. Идёт". Russian
See-1stPERS-SING he-ACC. Come-3rdPERS-SING.
"I see him. He is coming."

Here he in the second sentence is inferred from context. In Russian even the objective pronoun "его" can be omitted in the present and future tenses (both imperfect and perfective). In most Slavic languages (especially the East Slavic ones), this rule is broken in the past tense of both imperfective and perfectve, since the conjugations agrees with the gender of the person. As with the Romance languages mentioned above, the missing pronoun is not inferred strictly from pragmatics, but partially indicated by the morphology of the verb (Вижу, Widzę, Vidim, etc...)

Finno-Ugric languages

In Finnish, the verb inflection replaces first and second person pronouns in simple sentences, e.g. menen "I go", menette "all of you go". Pronouns are typically left in place only when they need to be inflected, e.g. me "we", meiltä "from us". In the Estonian language, a close relative of Finnish, the tendency is less clear. It generally uses explicit personal pronouns in written language, but these are often omitted in spoken language.

Hungarian is also pro-drop, subject pronouns are used only for emphasis, as example (Én) megyek "I go", and because of the definite conjugation, object pronouns can be often elided as well; for example, the question (Te) láttad a macskát? "Did (you) see the cat?" can be answered with just láttam "(I) saw (it)", because the definite conjugation renders the object pronoun superfluous.


Modern Hebrew, like Biblical Hebrew, is a "moderately" pro-drop language. In general, subject pronouns are not dropped in the present tense, because a Hebrew verb in the present tense contains information about the subject. The following examples are illustrative :

I (m.) guard (ani shomer) = אני שומר

He guards (hu shomer) = הוא שומר

I (f.) guard (ani shomeret) = אני שומרת

Since the verb form itself does not distinguish between the first and third person, the pronouns in this case are not normally dropped.

In contrast, the past tense and the future tense are composed of "non-degenerate" conjugations — the verb has a different form for each grammatical person, and a properly conjugated verb contains all the information about the subject. The subjective pronoun is therefore normally dropped.

I (m./f.) guarded (shamarti) = שמרתי

He guarded (shamar) = שמר

I (m./f.) will guard (ehshmor) = אשמור

He will guard (yishmor) = ישמור

Many nouns can take suffixes to reflect the possessor, in which case the personal pronoun is dropped. In daily modern Hebrew usage, inflection of nouns is common only for simple nouns, and in most cases, personal pronouns are used. In Hebrew, personal pronouns are treated mostly like adjectives and follow the nouns which they modify. In biblical Hebrew, inflection of more sophisticated nouns is more common than in modern usage.

Generalizations across languages

Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Occitan and Romanian can elide subject pronouns only (Portuguese sometimes elides object pronouns as well), and they often do so even when the referent has not been mentioned. This is helped by person/number inflection on the verb. It has been observed that pro-drop languages are those with either rich inflection for person and number (Persian, Portuguese, etc.) or no such inflection (Japanese, Chinese, etc.), while languages that are intermediate (English, standard French, etc.) are non-pro-drop. While the mechanism by which overt pronouns are more "useful" in English than in Japanese is obscure, and while there are exceptions to this observation, it still seems to have considerable descriptive validity.

Other language families and linguistic regions

Among the Indo-European and Dravidian languages of India, pro-drop is the general rule, though many Dravidian languages do not have overt verbal markers to indicate pronominal subjects. Mongolic languages are similar in this respect to Dravidian languages, whilst all Paleosiberian languages are rigidly pro-drop.

Outside of northern Europe, most non-Bantu Niger-Congo languages, Khoisan languages of Southern Africa and Austronesian languages of the Western Pacific, pro-drop is the usual pattern in almost all linguistic regions of the world. In many non-pro-drop Niger-Congo or Austronesian languages like Igbo, Samoan or Fijian, however, the subject pronouns do not occur in the same position as a nominal subject and are obligatory even when the latter is present. In more easterly Austronesian languages like Rapanui and Hawaiian, subject pronouns are often omitted even though no other subject morphemes exist. Pama-Nyungan languages of Australia also typically omit subject pronouns even when there is no explicit expression of the subject. Many Pama-Nyungan languages, however, have clitics which often attach to nonverbal hosts to express subjects. the non-Pama-Nyungan languages of Northwestern Australia are universally pro-drop for all classes of pronoun. Papuan languages of New Guinea and Nilo-Saharan languages of East Africa are similarly universally pro-drop.

Among Native American languages, pro-drop is almost universal, as would be expected from the generally polysynthetic and head-marking character of the languages. This character generally allows eliding of all object pronouns as well as subject ones: indeed, most reports on Native American languages show even emphatic use of pronouns exceptionally rare. Only a few Native American languages, mostly language isolates (Haida, Trumai) are known to normally use subject pronouns.

History of the term

The term "pro-drop" stems from Noam Chomsky's "Lectures on Government and Binding" from 1981 as a cluster of properties of which "null subject" was one (for the occurrence of pro as a predicate rather than a subject in sentences with the copula see Moro 1997). According to this parameter, languages like Italian and Spanish may be classified as pro-drop languages, while English and French may not. The exploration of the properties related to the pro-drop was also crucial in identifying the notion of parameter. Empirically, the comparison between English and Italian became very important (cf. Rizzi 1982). Thus, a one-way correlation was suggested between inflectional agreement (AGR) and empty pronouns on the one hand and between no agreement and overt pronouns, on the other. It is worth noting that in the classical version, languages which not only lack agreement morphology but also allow extensive dropping of pronouns, like Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and others are not included, as is made clear in a footnote: "The principle suggested is fairly general, but does not apply to such languages as Japanese in which pronouns can be missing much more freely." (Chomsky 1981:284, fn 47). The term pro-drop is also used in other frameworks in generative grammar, like lexical functional grammar (LFG), but in a more general sense: "Pro-drop is a widespread linguistic phenomenon in which, under certain conditions, a structural NP may be unexpressed, giving rise to a pronominal interpretation." (Bresnan 1982:384). For a general history of this term within the development of syntactic theory see Graffi 2001.


  • Bresnan, Joan (ed.), 1982, The Mental Representation of Grammatical Relations, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Chomsky, Noam, 1981, Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures. Holland: Foris Publications. Reprint. 7th Edition. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1993.
  • Graffi, G. (2001) 200 Years of Syntax. A critical survey, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
  • Moro, A. 1997 The raising of predicates. Predicative noun phrases and the theory of clause structure, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.
  • Rizzi, L. (1982) Issues in Italian Syntax, Foris, Dordrecht.

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