Clitics generally have grammatical meaning, rather than lexical meaning.  Most belong to closed classes like pronouns, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, and conjunctions. They usually attach to the edges of words, outside of derivational and inflectional affixes.

      Clitics are not always obvious, because analysts tend to jump to conclusions about whether something is a word or an affix. When you get data in written form, decisions about where to put spaces have already been made. Clitics may be written either as words or affixes, perhaps inconsistently.

        One type of clitic that is easy to spot is one that attaches to a variety of different types of words. An example is the possessive –‘s, as it is used in colloquial spoken English.

(24)   a.  [the woman]’s tennis racket.

  1. [anyone who likes children]’s ideas about child-rearing
  2. [the one with red on’]s atrocious behavior
  3. [people who hurry]’s ideas about politeness
  4. [someone who types quickly]’s job prospects

here, -‘s attaches to a head noun, a nonhead noun, a preposition, a verb, and an adverb. This property of many clitics is sometimes called PROMISCUOUS ATTCHMENT. Affixes, on the other hand, usually attach to only one type of word. But, there is a generalization about possessive –‘s; it always attaches to the last word in the noun phrase.


Clitics are often classified based on two dimensions:

  • where they attach
  • how word-like versus affix-like they are.

Let’s consider each of these classifications.

Where does it attached? Proclitics and enclitics

Clitics may be classified based on whether they attaché at the beginning or end of another word. A PROCLITIC is a clitic that is phonologically attached to the beginning of some other item, like a prefix. Many phonologically reduced forms in English are proclitics.

(29)   … ðI= pensl ……

         (where did) the pencil (go)?

(30)   … n= æpl, n= Ə= trƏk, n= Ə= bol.

          (Santa brought me) ‘n apple, ‘n a truck, ‘n a ball ….

(31)  gIt  n= ðI= kɑr

        Git ‘n th’ car

An ENCLITIC is a clitic that is phonologically attached to the end of some other item, like a suffix. The two clitics ‘s in (20) are enclitics, as is =cie ‘in’ in (25) and =si ‘3f’ in (26).

How word-like or affix-like is it? Unstressed words, bound words, and phrasal affixes

       However, it is far more significant to classify clitics based on how word-like or affix-like they are. Some clitics are essentially words with the phonological properties of affixes, others are essentially affixes with a few syntactic properties of words.

       Of those clitics that are essentially words, we can distinguish two subtypes. Some are simply words that are never stressed or can occur without stress, such as the reduced forms of the  and in mentioned in (29)—(31).

       A morpheme should not be considered phonologically bound simply because it is stressless. We call such morphemes UNSTRESSED WORDS, and consider them to be clitics only marginally.

       English has two homophonous contractions ‘s (form has and is): both are clearly verbs and thus are syntactically free. But, both undergo the same morphophonemic alternation [s/z/iz] as the noun plural –(e)s and the verb third person singular –(e)s. since these rules only apply within phonological words, these contractions are phonologically bound. Thus they are clitics, for more reasons than just being unstressed. They are called BOUND WORDS, since they are essentially words which happen to be phonologically bound.

       In contrast to bound words, some clitics are essentially affixes, but they have the odd characteristic that they attach to a whole phrase, rather than a specific word. The English possessive –‘s discussed in (24) is the standard example of this type of clitic. Such clitics are called PHRASAL AFFIXES.

Term CLITIC refers to two quite different types of morphemes: bound words and phrasal affixes. In fact, these two types probably shouldn’t both be called by the same label. When we use the term CLITIC for both, it implies that they have significant characteristics in common. In fact, about all they have in common is that they tend to get confused with each other.

How to handle clitic in a formal grammar

Clitics that are essentially words (bound words)

The English preposition in, we list the  reduced form /n/ next to the full form in the lexicon. When it comes time to insert some form of this word in a tree, we are free to choose either the full or reduced form.

(40)   P                                      (English)

        ‘ In, n      location in a place

Similarly, if bound words are alternate forms of ordinary (free) words, we list both forms, as in the verb be.

(41)   V [SUBCAT <NP[Su], [NC]>]


Clitics that are essentially affixes (phrasal affixes)

      Phrasal affixes are handled in the grammar like any other inflectional affix; they are added with an inflectional spellout rule. The only unusual thing about the rule is that it refers to a phrasal category—in this case, NP.

(42)         NP

          [Gen case]

              [X}           à  [Xz]

     This rule applies in the following way to add the possessive suffix to the possessor NP the king of England:

Like all inflectional spell out rules, (42) does not apply to possessive pronouns, whose forms are listed explicitly in the lexicon like all irregular stems.