Pied Piper Construction

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In linguistics , the Pied Piper Construction is a term for a certain class of interrogative and relative clauses . In them, the question word or the relative pronoun does not act as a sentence-introducing element on its own, but rather draws further material with it into the sentence-introducing position. The term was introduced in 1967 by John Robert Ross and is based on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hameln (who in a similar way pulled the rats out of town with him through his flute playing).


  • Simple sentence-introducing relative pronoun compared with a Pied Piper construction:
(Die Ratten),  die     Hubert erfolglos zu fangen versucht hatte
(Die Ratten), die zu fangen   Hubert erfolglos versucht hatte.
  • Further examples:
An wessen gute Eigenschaften denkst du?
Der Papst, an dessen gute und schlechte Eigenschaften ich gerade nicht denken will, …
Mir ist unklar, einen wie großen Anteil  er übernehmen will.
Wie schnell gefahren ist er denn?

Grammatical Analysis

For the formation of interrogative clauses and relative clauses there is usually a rule that stipulates that a question or relative pronoun must be placed at the beginning of the sentence. This can be explained in such a way that the position introducing the sentence (in generative grammar the position of the complementary , i.e. the place where subordinate conjunctions are also found) has a characteristic "question sentence" that must be compared with the corresponding characteristic of the question word (analogous for relative clauses).

The problem with the Pied Piper construction is that question and relative pronouns are embedded more deeply. For example, the above example "how much of a share he wants to take over" is an indirect question in which a whole noun phrase (i.e. the noun "share" with its attributes) was put in front. Only the word like carries the feature “question” , and this is merely a more detailed definition of the adjective attribute that occurs within this noun phrase. Therefore, the question word is not the grammatical head of the construction and, according to conventional ideas, cannot project its question feature onto the entire preceding noun phrase. Then it is not clear why the whole noun phrase "a ... part" can be affected by the prefix rule.

As a solution, it is proposed in the specialist literature to change the rules for the transfer of features in these constructions so that the question or relative feature can exceptionally spread to the entire larger phrase and this is then treated as a question or relative pronoun as a whole.

A problem that remains is the differences between languages, which pied piper designs are allowed and which are not. For example, there are differences between German and English in this regard:

Englisch: Reports [the height of the lettering on the covers of which] the government prescribes …
Deutsch nicht:  * Berichte, [die Höhe der Beschriftung deren Umschläge] die Regierung vorschreibt …
Deutsch: Eine Sonate, [die zu spielen] Freude macht
Englisch nicht:  * A sonata [which to play] is fun

Individual evidence

  1. See e.g. B. Sternefeld 2007, p. 395ff.
  2. Sternefeld p. 396f.


  • Fabian Heck: On pied piping: Wh-movement and beyond. de Gruyter, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-11-020605-0 .
  • JR Ross: Constraints on Variables in Syntax. Cambridge, Mass. 1967
    published as: JR Ross: Infinite Syntax . New York 1981.
  • Wolfgang Sternefeld: Syntax. A morphologically motivated generative description of German. Stauffenburg, Tübingen 2007.
  • Susanne Trissler: Syntactic conditions for w-characteristics: For the formation of interrogative w-phrases in German. Dissertation, University of Tübingen, 2000 ( summary with link to PDF file ).

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