English No Matter Construction: A Construction-based Perspective*

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    The expression no matter, combining with an interrogative clause X, expresses ‘it doesn’t matter what the value is of X’ and displays many syntactic and semantic peculiarities. To better understand the grammatical properties of the construction in question, we investigate English corpora available online and suggest that some of the irreducible properties the construction displays can be best captured by the inheritance mechanism which plays a central role in the HPSG and Construction Grammar. We show that the construction in question has its own constructional properties, but also inherits properties from related major head constructions.


    no matter , construction-specific , free ranger , exhaustive , conditional , sluicing , copula deletion

  • I. Introduction

    English employs many different types of the so-called ‘free-range’ constructions as illustrated in the following (Culicover 1999):

    Syntactically, those in (1) are different from those in (2) in that in the former the subordinate clause is a complement of the expression no matter or prepositions like regardless of or despite whereas the clause in the latter functions rather as an adjunct.1 All these examples contain a bracketed subordinate clause, and in terms of meaning each all implies that the value of the clause can be allowed to range freely. To put it in a different term, the free range subordinate constructions semantically take scope high in the main clause and place restrictions on the domains of operators in their scope. These subordinate constructions, as noted by Rawlins (2008), thus basically convey ‘indifference’ in the sense that it does not matter what the book costs. This in turn means that the result expressed by the main clause will ensue irrespective of the content of the concessive subordinate clause.

    In this paper, among these free range expressions, we focus on the properties of the no mater construction (henceforth NMC), while referring to the other free range constructions when necessary. In particular, we will show that many of the grammatical properties that the NMC carries are quite unpredictable and unique in many respects. We then try to offer a construction-based analysis in which the construction inherits general properties from its supertype while having its own constructional constraints leading to its irregularities (cf. Kim and Sells 2008, Michaelis 2011, Sag et al. 2003).

    1Huddleston and Pullum (2002: 761) name such constructions ‘exhaustive conditional’, while Rawlins (2008) classifies these into three main types, ‘alternative unconditional’ ((2b)), ‘constituent unconditional’ ((2a)), and ‘headed unconditional’ ((1)).

    II. Distributional Possibilities and Internal Structure

       1. Distributional Possibilities

    As noted in Quirk et al. (1985) and others, the NMC can take the full range of an interrogative clause as seen from the following attested examples:2

    The possibility of having else in such examples indicates that examples like (3) are interrogatives, rather than relative clauses. This is evidenced by the data in (4): the expression else can occur in the indirect question as in (4a) or in the complement clause of no matter, but not in the noninterrogative free relative clause.

    The NMC basically functions as a modifier to the main clause, restricting its possible range. The modifying property can be observed from its distributional possibilities in sentence initial, medial, or final position:

    These distributional possibilities indicate that the NMC is a subordinate clause modifying the main clause though its internal structure can be different from other subordinate clauses.

    In terms of selectional and distributional possibilities, other free rangers can also select an interrogative clause and modify a main clause:

    However, differences come from the fact that unlike these free rangers, no matter cannot occur with a canonical NP unless it is a ‘concealed question’ NP:3

    As seen in (7a), the canonical NP the weather cannot be the complement of no matter. However, as the attested COCA examples in the following show, concealed question NPs like the time or the reason can serve as its complement:

    Since the clause introduced by whether and if can function as an indirect question, we expect that the clause may combine with no matter. Our corpus search also meets the expectation:

    An intriguing fact we observe from the corpus search is that no matter can also combine with a finite CP (cf. Nakajima 1998, Culicover 1999, Fodor 2001). Consider the following attested examples:

    We take such cases as a different construction since the meaning of the no matter clause here is not ‘free range’ but interpreted as a ‘concessive’ construction, as evidenced from their paraphrase possibilities:

    The other free rangers with similar meanings do not license a finite CP or S as their sentential complement even though they freely occur with an NP:


    The no matter construction with the finite CP declarative clause can even function as an independent clause, as also noted by Rawlins (2008):

    What this implies is that the no matter with a finite S is a fixed sentential construction with its own force, expressing to list things that do not matter or providing explanation for unconditional or ‘concessive’ claims.

    Based on these observations, we assume that there are two different types of the NMC, one combining with an interrogative clause with an unconditional meaning and the other expressing a concessive meaning with a declarative S or CP. In this paper, we focus on the former otherwise noted.4

       2. Relatedness with the Verb and Noun Counterpart

    The behavior of no matter is unpredictable either from that of the verb matter or from the noun matter.

    Let us consider the main properties of the verb matter. The verb matter is canonically used as a pure intransitive verb selecting no object:

    The verb matter can sometimes be used with an optional PP[to] complement:

    There are cases where the verb matter at first glance seems to take a clausal element including an interrogative as its complement, but a closer look tells us that the clausal element is in fact extraposed to the sentence final position:

    The extraposed property can be checked with the fact that we cannot replace the subject it here with a canonical NP:

    The expression no matter is also different from the noun matter. The noun matter behaves differently from no matter in many respects. One obvious difference is, as noted in Culicover (1999), that the NP no matter, in which no functions as a specifier, does not take an interrogative clause:

    But when the noun matter is used in a different context with other than no, matter can appear with an interrogative clause:

    Once again note that such a case cannot combine with an interrogative clause and functions as a free ranger:

    The copula omission also tells us that no matter is different from the construction introduced by the verb or noun matter (cf. Culicvoer 1999):

    As noted here, in both cases no copula ellipsis is licensed.

    As we have seen here so far, the expression no matter is different from its verb and noun counterparts in many respects. In addition, it displays certain differences from other rangers too.

    2The corpora we use in this research include 410 million words COHA (Corpus of Historical American English), COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English), 100 million words BNC (British National Corpus), and 100 million words TIME Magazine Corpus of American English. All of these are freely available online.  3‘Concealed question’ NPs are those that can be interpreted as questions when they are complements of question-embedding verbs as in the following: (i) a. Kim has forgotten the price of the book. (=Kim has forgotten what the price of the book is.) b. Kim knows the time of meeting. (=Kim knows what the time of the meeting is.) For detailed discussion, see Grimshaw (1979).  4As hinted by Nakajima (1998), we could, of course, collapse these two into one type of construction, but following Rawlins (2008), we at this point differentiate these two.

    III. Ellipsis in the No Matter Construction

       1. Copula and Aux VP Ellipsis

    In the NMC, we observe that the verb form of BE is frequently omitted when the conditions on the subject are satisfied. However, there are certain constraints on the subject to license its omission. For example, as given in (22), the subject must be a definite NP: it cannot be a pronoun or proper N, an indefinite generic, a quantified NP, or a demonstrative NP (cf. Haspelmath 1997, Culicover 1999):

    Our corpus search also supports this claim:

    We take this definite and generic condition on the ellipsis in the NMC is due to its interaction with the ‘copula’ ellipsis in English. For example, as noted in the literature, English comparative correlative construction also licenses the copula ellipsis with similar constraints on the subject:

    However, note that what can be elided is not just the auxiliary verb be, but we can elide the entire VP including the copula, as noted by Culicover (1999: 115):

    If we allow only the copula be to be elided, examples like (25d) or (25b) might be acceptable contrary to the fact. This seems to be a difference from the copula ellipsis in correlative comparatives like (24). In this sense, the possibility of omission with the copula be is much flexible in the NMC.

       2. Sluicing

    Since no matter combines with an interrogative clause, the construction may be sensitive to the so-called sluicing which applies to interrogatives (cf. Ginzburg and Sag 2000, Merchant 2011). In fact, corpus examples give us many instances of sluicing:

    As long as the sluiced expression is a sentential constituent, we have legitimate cases:

    As in canonical sluicing, we do not have sluicing with whether or if in the NMC:

    IV. An Analysis: Interactions between the Lexicon and Constructions

       1. Internal and External Syntax

    Before we provide an analysis for the NMC, consider the other types of free ranger or unconditional constructions:

    As noted earlier, semantically, as noted by Rawlins (2008), all these are similar in that they are unconditional in the sense that the consequent ‘main’ clause is entailed irrespective of the antecedent ‘free range’ clause. For example, there is an ‘unconditional’ semantic relation between the two situations s1 (expressed by the antecedent clause denoting a question) and s2 (expressed by the main clause). Following Rawlins (2008), we take the antecedent here denotes not a proposition but an ‘issue’ that encodes a set of alternatives, corresponding to the possible answers to the question.5 For example, (30a) can be represented as (30b):

    This in turn means that the exhaustive conjunction of conditionals will be determined by the alternatives to the wh-word:

    These syntactic and semantic properties lead us to assume the following constructional constraints general to the so-called unconditional constructions:

    The constraints specify that the unconditional construction unconditional-cx syntactically modifies a sentence denoting the proposition s2, with which the construction’s own denotation s1 is in an unconditional-frame relation.6 Note that this s1 denotes an ‘issue’ encoding a set of alternatives. This will then generate a simplified structure like the following for both alternative and headed unconditional constructions:


    As clearly represented by the structure, we can observe that the unconditional antecedent takes scope over the main clause, placing restrictions on the domains of operators in the scope.

    The NMC is a subtype of this general unconditional construction, inheriting these properties (cf. Kim 2008). However, it has its own idiosyncrasies, including the status of no matter. We take no matter as a complex word: the specifier no cannot be replaced by any other negative words (e.g., *little matter), the two words cannot be separated by any other expression (*no important matter), no conjunction of the specifier or head noun is allowed (*no and little matter, *no matter and issue). In addition, the expression no matter selects an interrogative clause as its complement as specified in the following:

    Since this construction is a subtype of the unconditional-cx, it will inherit the constraints in Figure 1. In addition, as a type of head-complement cx, the head no matter selects a sentential complement denoting a question whose value can be satisfied by any alternative value. The construction, inheriting the properties of its supertype construction unconditional-cx, will then generate a structure like the following:


    The structure correctly describes the fact that the NMC functions as a modifier to the main clause.

    Note that we do not place any restriction on the structure of its complement. The only requirement is that it denotes a question. This means that any well-type of non-inverted question-denoting sentence can appear here. For example, the interrogative clause also licenses a long distance dependency as observed from the following naturally occurring data:

       2. More on the Interactions with Other Constructions

    As we have seen earlier, the NMC also involves sluicing. This is natural since the complement of no matter is an interrogative sentence. Providing a complete analysis of sluicing is beyond the scope of this paper, but we can have a simple generalization like the following (cf. Ginzberg and Sag 2000, Merchant 2011):

    Since the constraint requires the wh-expression to function as a filler, we would not generate examples like the following, which we repeat here:

    Even though the whether and if-clause here functions as an interrogative complement of no matter, the clause cannot be sluiced since they are already resolved question with no wh-filler. Note that the antecedent of the sluiced clause has a clear antecedent within the same clause:

    The sluiced antecedent is the exercise is and the helicopter goes down, respectively, indicating the discourse salient property of the sluiced clause.

    A further complexity arises from the copula ellipsis in the construction:


    The ellipsis of the lower S is sluicing, but that of the circled VP is not. As noted in the previous section, we cannot simply say this is an ellipsis of the copula verb be. It is the ellipsis of the VP including the filler AP as its gap element. In addition, the subject must be a definite NP in such a case. An informal constraint would be something like the following:

    Even though we refer to the VP level, the VP consists of only the copula verb be and its complement of the copula verb is in fact the wh-filler. This kind of constraint will block examples in (25), some of which we repeat here:

    However, the informally-stated constraint will generate examples like the following:

    In addition, the condition on the external argument will block examples where the subject is indefinite or a simple pronoun:

    Given that the elided copula here has no semantic content, the copula-VP ellipsis including the sluicing data here is possible as long as its antecedent is discourse-salient. We leave out the exact formulations of these sluicing and copula-VP ellipsis in the present system, but we can at least observe that the NMC closely interacts with many other constructions including a variety of ellipsis.

    5This differentiates if-conditionals from unconditionals in that the antecedent of the if-conditional denotes a proposition while that of the unconditional expresses an issue because of its semantic contribution of the interrogative clause. See Rawlins (2008) for further discussion.  6For a detailed description of frame-based semantics, see Michaelis (2011).

    V. Conclusion

    We have shown that the expression no matter displays many syntactic and semantic peculiarities. In particular, it combines with an interrogative complement clause in terms of syntax and denotes an unconditional meaning in terms of semantics. That is, similar to other free-range or unconditional constructions, the NMC takes scope high in the main clause, placing restrictions on the domains of operators in the scope. We have also seen that the expression no matter is better treated as an irreducible complex word, though inheriting certain properties from both its noun and verb counterpart. In terms of syntax, the construction also interacts with sluicing and copula ellipsis which also show quite irreducible properties.

    Based on these observations and corpus search, we have sketched a construction-based analysis of the no matter construction. In particular, we have suggested that some of the irreducible properties the construction displays can be best captured by the inheritance mechanism which plays a central role in usage-based Construction Grammar: the NMC has its own constructional properties, but also inherits properties from related major head constructions. This way of describing the NMC in English supports the spirits of Construction Grammar where (a) all levels of description (including morpheme, word, phrase, and clause) are understood to involve pairings of form with semantic or discourse function, and (b) constructions vary in size and complexity and form and function are specified if not readily transparent, and more importantly (c) language-specific generalizations across constructions are captured via inheritance networks, reflecting commonalities or differences among constructions.

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  • 2. Fodor Janet Dean (2001) “Parameters and the Periphery: Reflections on Syntactic Nuts.” [Journal of Linguistics] Vol.37 P.367-92 google
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  • 4. Grimshaw Jane (1979) “Complement Selection and the Lexicon.” [Linguistic Inquiry] Vol.10 P.279-326 google
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  • 10. Michaelis Laura A. 2011 “Making the Case for Construction Grammar.” Sign-Based Construction Grammar. Eds. H. Boas and I. Sag. google
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  • 14. Sag Ivan A., Wasow Thomas, Bender Emily M. 2003 Syntactic Theory: A Formal Introduction google
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  • [Figure 1] Unconditional-construction in English
    Unconditional-construction in English
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  • [Figure 2] NMC in English
    NMC in English
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