Sloppy identity

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Sloppy identity is an interpretive phenomenon found in deletion contexts. It refers to one type of interpretation of ellipses which include an anaphoric element (e.g. Joan likes her picture, and Peter does too). Ellipses are generally interpreted identically to their antecedent, but this "identity" can be of two types if the antecedent is or contains an anaphoric element: The ellipsis anaphora can refer to the same item as the antecedent anaphora (strict identity), or it can refer to an analogous item (sloppy identity).


With ellipsis of the entire VP (the ellipsis site is marked by "[...]"):


  • Joan likes her picture, and Peter does [...] too.
  • (strict reading:) 'Peter likes her (=Joan's) picture, too.'
  • (sloppy reading:) 'Peter likes his (=Peter's) picture, too.'

With ellipsis of the object only (Otani & Whitman 1991):


  • Taroo-wa zibun-no tegami-o sute-ta Hanako-mo [...] sute-ta.
  • Taro-TOP self-GEN letter-ACC discard-PST Hanako-too discard-PST
  • (strict reading:) 'Taro threw out his letters, and Hanako threw them (=Taro's letters) out, too.'
  • (sloppy reading:) 'Taro threw out his letters, and Hanako threw out her letters, too.'

Consider (i):

(i)     Johni [VP likes hisi mother ], and Peter too

The missing VP in the right conjunct is interpreted as a copy of the VP in the left conjunct. However, two distinct interpretations may result:

(ii) a  Johni [VP likes hisi mother ], and Peterj too
        [VP likes hisi mother ]
     b  Johni [VP likes hisi mother ], and Peterj too
        [VP likes hisj mother ]

The b-interpretation is a case of sloppy identity: the index on his is not identical. Syntactic conditions on sloppy identity have been argued to mirror conditions on bound variable anaphora (Reinhart 1983).


Utrecht Lexicon of Linguistics


  • Dahl, Östen. 1972. "On so-called "sloppy identity" ". Gothenburg Papers in Theoretical Linguistics, volume 11. University of Gothenburg.
  • Otani, K. & Whitman, J. 1991. "V-raising and VP-ellipsis." Linguistic Inquiry 22:345-358.
  • Partee, Barbara H. 1978. "Bound variables and other anaphors." in: D. Waltz (ed.) Proceedings of TINLAP 2, 79-85.
  • Reinhart, T. 1983. Anaphora and Semantic Interpretation, Croom Helm: London.
  • Sag, Ivan. 1976. Deletion and Logical Form. Ph.D. dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Williams, Edwin. 1977. "Discourse and logical form." Linguistic Inquiry 8.1:101–139.