Reciprocal pronoun

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Reciprocal Pronouns are a type of Anaphor which can be used to refer to a noun phrase mentioned earlier in a sentence. The reciprocal pronouns known in English are one another and each other and they form the category of anaphors along with Reflexive Pronouns (Eg: myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves).

Theoretical and background information[edit]

Within the theory of Generative Grammar, and within phrase-structure grammar, Binding Theory explains how anaphors share a relationship with their referents.

Binding Principle A of this theory states:

  1. X binds Y if and only if X c-commands Y, and X and Y are coindexed,
  2. Anaphors must be locally bound within the binding domain of the clause containing the DP Determiner phrase.

In Binding Theory, the category of anaphor includes both reflexives and reciprocals, which is a problem, since they are distributed differently.

To visually examine reciprocal pronouns within sentence structure, and see the differences in their distribution, X-bar theory tree diagrams will be examined below.

Reflexive Vs. Reciprocal[edit]

Reflexive Pronouns are used similarly to reciprocal pronouns in the sense that they typically refer back to the subject of the sentence.

(1) John and Mary like themselves.
(2) John and Mary like each other.

The main difference between reflexives, as in example 1, and reciprocal pronouns, as in example 2, is that reflexives are used when the subject acts upon itself. Reciprocals are used when members of a plural subject act on other members of the same subject. Reciprocal Pronouns are used in many languages to refer to plural noun phrases, and when used, they indicate a reciprocal relationship between the members of the plural noun phrase. This means the action being completed by some member (x) of the subject is being completed towards member (y) of the subject, while member (y) could be acting on member (x), and (z), and so on, assuming that each member of the 'each other' relationship was included in the meaning of the antecedent.

Below are examples of reciprocal pronouns and how their relationship to their antecedents contrasts to cases of reflexive pronoun relationships, and regular transitive relationships, and how they behave in relation to direct object pronouns in the same situation. Let R denote Relationship, and let the variables(for example, (x, y) ) within brackets be a function of R in a relationship.

Logical Form Example Pronominal Form Referential Dependency Scenario (Set of girls, Anne and Betty)
R(x, y) The girls saw her. (regular) pronoun x≠y (x and y are distinct) A saw someone female, B saw someone female
R(x, x) The girls saw themselves (in the mirror) Reflexive Pronoun x=y (x and y are not distinct) A saw A in the mirror and B saw B in the mirror.
R(x, y) AND (y, x) The girls saw each other in the mirror Reciprocal Pronoun R(x,y) AND R(y,x) A saw B in the mirror and B saw A in the mirror

Therefore, we can look at a reciprocal relationship using this notation as such, using the verb 'saw' as the action used in a reciprocal relationship. Saw, R(Anne, Betty) and (Betty, Anne).

Distribution of Reciprocal Pronouns[edit]

Although both reciprocal and reflexive pronouns are both classified as anaphors, there are some distributional differences between them. For example, reciprocal pronouns can appear in the subject position of noun phrases, whereas reflexives cannot.


(3) a. John and Mary like each other's parents. 
    b. *John likes himself's parents.
(4) a. All of the students would know if each other had the answers.
    b. *The student would know if himself had the answer.

In example 4b with the reflexive anaphor, the embedded clause's Complementizer Phrase (CP) beginning with the word "if", cannot introduce a subject noun phrase.

Although in many cases, either a reflexive or a reciprocal pronoun could appear in the same structural position, in some cases, the asymmetry occurs when a reciprocal may be bound to its antecedent, but a reflexive may not.

The following examples from (Lebeaux, 1983) show that in some sentences, either type of anaphor could be used: “John and Mary like themselves/each other”. Either pronoun used in this sentence would be locally bound (it's antecedent is in the same clause, the clause is the Binding domain), which would follow Binding Theory's Binding Principle A: that an anaphor must be bound in its binding domain). A case in which we can see the differences in distribution with these “each other” reciprocal constructions is different positions in different clauses, and in tensed sentences (in this case, with the future tense).

(5) a. John and Mary think that each other will win.
    b. John thinks that himself will win.
phpSyntaxTree image

As we can see in the X-bar Theory tree diagram, the reciprocal pronoun is in the subject position of the embedded clause, which is introduced by complementizer "that". It would be ungrammatical to have a reflexive pronoun in this position, and the sentence above "John thinks that himself will win" is ungrammatical.

In this case, the reciprocal pronoun is not necessarily the ideal construction, but the reflexive is not a possible grammatical sentence. This suggests that while reflexives require a proper binder, reciprocals may appear in positions that aren't governed this way, and can even be in a different clause than the antecedent. .

The differences can be summarized as follows:

Reciprocals are subject to binding theory,
Reflexives are subject to binding theory, and must be properly governed.[1]

Typology of Reciprocals[edit]

Different language examples[edit]


Examining the semantic relations of reciprocity, we see further differences within reciprocal relationships, such as those between each-the-other and each other relations. In general, if it is possible to divide a set into subsets such that within each subset an each-the-other relationship holds, then the whole set of events can be described by an each other sentence. “Each other” constructions characterize an entire set of individuals (as outlined by their antecedents), but allow for some vagueness in their interpretation. In contrast, each-the-other constructions appear to characterize each member of a set. Therefore, we can see that "each other” doesn't force a strict distribution's interpretation. If we separate "each" and "other", we can get different interpretations.

(6) a. The men are hugging each other.
    b. Each of the men is hugging the others.

In the first example, it is evident that every member of the set "the men" must be in some reciprocal relationship of hugging at some unspecified point during the time frame of the hugging event, while the second example allows us to infer that each of the men hugged every other man in the group of men who participated in the hugging event [2]

In examining the scope of reciprocal pronouns, we can see that in English, we can consider that the antecedent must be plural and must receive at least a (weakly) distributed interpretation.[3] In viewing "each other" as one pronoun, "each" is not assigned scope as a quantifier, thus allowing for a weaker distribution. The distributivity of the above example #2 is not enforced down to the level of all individuals, as opposed to #1, in which "each" as a separate entity and a quantifier enforces strict distributivity.

The use of reciprocal pronouns and reciprocal constructions is not restricted to the English language. Below are some examples from other languages.


In English, the reciprocal "each other" is a noun phrase that takes an argument position of a syntactic predicate, whereas in Chichewa, the reciprocal is an intransitive verbal affix "-an-" However, the meaning of the reciprocal corresponds in both languages. These reciprocals of "each other" and "-an-" both require a group antecedent. (1) is interpreted relative to members of the group denoted by the reciprocal antecedent "the boys." The same holds true in Chichewa. The Chichewa reciprocal also requires a group antecedent, and the example is interpreted with respect to members of the group:

7) a. The boys are hitting each other.
   b. Mbidzi zi-ku-meny-an-a.
      The zebras are hitting each other.[4]


The reciprocal pronouns in Dutch are elkaar and mekaar. Elkaar is a single morpheme and is equivalent to the reciprocal pronoun 'each other' in English, while mekaar is equivalent to the reciprocal pronoun 'one another' in English. The difference between these two reciprocal pronouns in Dutch is in terms of their use and frequency of use. Mekaar is used less often, mainly in colloquial speech and in children’s speech.

Similar to English, elkaar requires the antecedent in same clause:

(8) Jan en Marijke slaan elkaar.
    Jan and Marijke hit each other.[5][6]

Different forms of Reciprocal Pronouns[edit]

Free Reciprocal Pronouns[edit]

Person-marked free pronouns

These have a similar pattern to personal pronouns, as they don’t require an antecedent to determine their reference because they show the person or number of categories directly. These are common in the Chadic language Hausa:

mun tsall`ak¯e j¯unan-m `u
1pl.aux jumped recp-1pl
We jumped over one another

(Evans 2008: 58 (26))

Person-unmarked free pronouns

Person-unmarked free pronouns occur in languages that do not have distinct forms for all persons. This is commonly found in German. Unlike person-marked pronouns, person-unmarked free pronouns cannot occur in contexts where the pronoun is modifying the noun (ie. each other’s parents), and in contexts where there is a non-subject antecedent (ie. introduced them to one another).

Die beiden Angeklagten beschuldigten sich gegenseitig und ihre Nachbarn.
the   both  defendants    accused     rec   mutually  and their neighbours.
The two defendants accused each other as well as their neighbours.

(Evans 2008: 59 (28))

Bound Reciprocal Pronouns[edit]

Bound pronominal reciprocal affixes

Reciprocal pronouns can be affixed to either the verb, or to the auxiliary base, as in Warlpiri:

Ngarrka-jarra-rlu ka-pala-nyanu paka-rni.
man-du-erg ipfv-3du.sbj-ref strike-npst
 The (two) men are striking each other.

(Evans 2008: 60 (30))

Reciprocal pronominal clitics

Reciprocal pronominal clitics are commonly found in the Romance languages. These are seen in French and Spanish as 'se' and Italian 'si'. In finite clauses, they are preverbal, and in nonfinite clauses and infinitive constructions, the clitic follows the verb.

In the Australian language Wanyi, reciprocal pronominal clitics differentiate between person and number, and can attach to other elements, not restricted to attaching to just the verb.

Daba=bulangka kirriya-wiya-a muwa.ji-ni.
hit=3du.ref woman-pair-erg/loc jealous-erg/loc
Two women are hitting each other (i.e. fighting) being jealous.

(Evans 2008: 63 (34b))


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lebeaux, D (1983). "A Distributional Difference between Reciprocals and Reflexives". Linguistic Inquiry. 
  2. ^ Fiengo & Lasnik (1973). "The Logical Structure of Reciprocal Sentences in English.". Foundations ofLanguage. 
  3. ^ Williams (1991). "Reciprocal Scope.". Linguistic Inquiry 22 (1): 159–173. 
  4. ^ Dalrymple, McHombo, Peters, M., S.A., S. (1994). "Semantic similarities and syntactic contrasts between Chichewa and English reciprocals". Linguistic Inquiry 25 (1): 145–163. 
  5. ^ Philip, W (2000). "Adult and Child Understanding of Simple Reciprocal Sentences". Language. 
  6. ^ Koster&Reuland, J&J (1991). Long Distance Anaphora. Cambridge University Press. 
  7. ^ Evans, N. (2008). E. Konig & V. Gast, ed. Reciprocals and reflexives: Theoretical and typological explorations. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 33–104.