Binding Theory (ARTS2692)

Binding theory describes the conditions on the structural relations between different nouns. The three types of nouns are as follows. Aside from being semantically different, they also have different syntactic distributions.

Binding theory can be explained, very simply, with the difference between the following:

"NP verb'd pronoun" vs " NP verb'd pronoun(self)"
e.g. "Heidi hit her on the head" vs "Heidi hit herself on the head".

It defines how the NPs relate (did Heidi hit herself or someone else?)


Type of Nouns: Proper Names, Common Nouns

These express content; their meaning comes from referring to an entity.

E.g. Bill Clinton, Harry Potter, The woman in blue, A teddy bear


Type of nouns: she, he, him, her, me, you, etc

Pronouns may get meaning from another word in the sentence, or from external context.

E.g. "Art said that he played Basketball". If 'he' is 'Art' it's getting meaning from the sentence whereas if he is 'David' the meaning comes from external context.


Type of noun: pronoun(self) - himself, herself, yourself, ourselves etc

Anaphors get meaning from another NP in the sentence. Words that end in -self refer to a pronoun or r-expression earlier on. The pronoun/r-expression the anaphor relates to is known as the antecedent.

E.g. "Heidi bopped herself on the head with a zucchini"

Syntactic Restrictions on Anaphors

The antecedent for an anaphor can be the subject of the sentence, but not an NP inside the subject.

i.e. "Heidi's mother dressed herself" - herself can refer to "Heidi's Mother", but not to "Heidi".


Each NP in a phrase is given an index, to note which entity it refers to.


  • $[Colin]_i \text{ gave } [Andrea]_j \text{ } [a\text{ }basketball]_k$
  • $[Art]_i \text{ hurt } [himself]_i$

Co-Indexing and Co-Reference

If two NPs have the same index then they co-refer to the same entity and hence they are co-indexed.

Binding Theory

Binding theory is what we use to draw the rules relating to different pronouns and anaphors (pronominal and anaphoric elements).
A binds B iff A c-commands B and A and B are co-indexed.

The binding domain of a NP is the clause that contains it.

Anaphoric Binding Examples

  • "Heidi danced with herself" = This is fine, the antecedent 'Heidi' is in the same domain as the anaphor 'herself'
  • *"Anna said that Bob danced with herself" = This is not fine, the antecedent "Anna" is not in the binding domain of the anaphor 'herself'.

Pronoun Binding Examples

  • "Heidi[i] bopped her[k] on the head with the zucchini" = This is fine, the pronoun is not bound.
  • *"Heidi[i] bopped her[i] on the head with the zucchini" = This is not fine because the pronoun [i] is bound to something in its domain.
  • "Heidi[i] said that she[i] danced with Art" = This is fine, the pronoun is not bound in its domain.

R-Expression Binding Examples

  • *"Heidi[i] kissed Miriam[i] = This is not fine, the R-Expression is bound