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In morphology and syntax, a clitic (/ˈklɪtɪk/ from Greek κλιτικός klitikos, "inflexional") is a morpheme that has syntactic characteristics of a word, but depends phonologically on another word or phrase. In this sense, it is syntactically independent but phonologically dependent, always attached to a host.[1] The term is derived from the Greek for "leaning".[2] A clitic is pronounced like an affix, but plays a syntactic role at the phrase level. In other words, clitics have the form of affixes, but the distribution of function words. For example, the contracted forms of the auxiliary verbs in I'm and we've are clitics.

Clitics can belong to any grammatical category, although they are commonly pronouns, determiners, or adpositions. Note that orthography is not always a good guide for distinguishing clitics from affixes: clitics may be written as separate words, but sometimes they are joined to the word on which they depend (like the Latin clitic -que, meaning "and"), or separated by special characters such as hyphens or apostrophes (like the English clitic ’s in "it's" for "it has" or "it is").


Clitics fall into various categories depending on their position in relation to the word to which they are connected.[2]


A proclitic appears before its host.[2] It is common in Romance languages. For example, in French, there is "il s'est réveillé" ("he woke up"), or "je t'aime" ("I love you").


An enclitic appears after its host.[2]

"Senate people-and Roman" = "The Senate and people of Rome"
"people (and) gods and" = "(both) men and gods"
  • Sanskrit: naro gajaśca = नरो गजश् च > with sandhi, नरो गजश्च
"the man the elephant and" = "the man and the elephant"
  • Sanskrit: Namaste < namaḥ + te, (Devanagari: नमस् + ते = नमस्ते), with sandhi change namaḥ > namas.
"bowing to you"
"(you) want-if" = "if you want"
  • Telugu: idi nā puvvu = ఇది నా పువ్వు (This is my flower). With enclitic ē which indicates certainty, this sentence becomes
Idi nā puvvē = ఇది నా పువ్వే (This is certainly my flower)


A mesoclitic appears between the stem of the host and other affixes. For example, in Portuguese, conquistar-se-á "it will be conquered", dá-lo-ei "I will give it", matá-la-ia "he/she/it would kill her". These are found much more often in writing than in speech. It is even possible to use two pronouns inside the verb, as in dar-no-lo-á "he/she/it will give it to us", or dar-ta-ei (ta = te + a) "I will give it/her to you". As in other Romance languages, the Portuguese synthetic future tense comes from the merging of the infinitive and the corresponding finite forms of the verb haver (< Latin habere), which explains the possibility of separating it from the infinitive.


The endoclitic splits apart the root and is inserted between the two pieces. Endoclitics defy the Lexical Integrity Hypothesis (or Lexicalist Hypothesis) and so were long claimed to be impossible. However, evidence from the Udi language suggests that they exist.[3] Endoclitics are also found in Pashto[4] and are reported to exist in Degema.[5]


One important distinction divides the broad term 'clitics' into two categories, simple clitics and special clitics.[6] This distinction is, however, disputed.[7]

Simple clitics

Simple clitics are free morphemes, meaning they can stand alone in a phrase or sentence. They are unaccented and thus phonologically dependent upon a nearby word. They only derive meaning from this "host".[6]

Special clitics

Special clitics are morphemes that are bound to the word they are dependent upon, meaning they exist as a part of their host. This form, which is unaccented, represents a variant of a free form that does carry stress. While the two variants carry similar meaning and phonological makeup, the special clitic is bound to a host word and unaccented.[6]


Some clitics can be understood as elements undergoing a historical process of grammaticalization:[8]

lexical item → clitic → affix[9]

According to this model from Judith Klavans, an autonomous lexical item in a particular context loses the properties of a fully independent word over time and acquires the properties of a morphological affix (prefix, suffix, infix, etc.). At any intermediate stage of this evolutionary process, the element in question can be described as a "clitic". As a result, this term ends up being applied to a highly heterogeneous class of elements, presenting different combinations of word-like and affix-like properties.[9]


One characteristic shared by many clitics is a lack of prosodic independence. A clitic attaches to an adjacent word, known as its host. Orthographic conventions treat clitics in different ways: Some are written as separate words, some are written as one word with their hosts, and some are attached to their hosts, but set off by punctuation (a hyphen or an apostrophe, for example).[citation needed]

Comparison with affixes

Although the term "clitic" can be used descriptively to refer to any element whose grammatical status is somewhere in between a typical word and a typical affix, linguists have proposed various definitions of "clitic" as a technical term. One common approach is to treat clitics as words that are prosodically deficient: they cannot appear without a host, and they can only form an accentual unit in combination with their host. The term "postlexical clitic" is used for this narrower sense of the term.[10]

Given this basic definition, further criteria are needed to establish a dividing line between postlexical clitics and morphological affixes, since both are characterized by a lack of prosodic autonomy. There is no natural, clear-cut boundary between the two categories (since from a historical point of view, a given form can move gradually from one to the other by morphologization). However, by identifying clusters of observable properties that are associated with core examples of clitics on the one hand, and core examples of affixes on the other, one can pick out a battery of tests that provide an empirical foundation for a clitic/affix distinction.

An affix syntactically and phonologically attaches to a base morpheme of a limited part of speech, such as a verb, to form a new word. A clitic syntactically functions above the word level, on the phrase or clause level, and attaches only phonetically to the first, last, or only word in the phrase or clause, whichever part of speech the word belongs to.[11] The results of applying these criteria sometimes reveal that elements that have traditionally been called "clitics" actually have the status of affixes (e.g., the Romance pronominal clitics discussed below).[12]

Zwicky and Pullum postulated five characteristics that distinguish clitics from affixes:[12]

  1. Clitics do not select their hosts. That is, they are "promiscuous", attaching to whichever word happens to be in the right place. Affixes do select their host: They only attach to the word they are connected to semantically, and generally attach to a particular part of speech.
  2. Clitics do not exhibit arbitrary gaps. Affixes, on the other hand, are often lexicalized and may simply not occur with certain words. (English plural -s, for example, does not occur with "child".)
  3. Clitics do not exhibit morphophonological idiosyncrasies. That is, they follow the morphophonological rules of the rest of the language. Affixes may be irregular in this regard.
  4. Clitics do not exhibit semantic idiosyncrasies. That is, the meaning of the phrase-plus-clitic is predictable from the meanings of the phrase and the clitic. Affixes may have irregular meanings.
  5. Clitics can attach to material already containing clitics (and affixes). Affixes can attach to other affixes, but not to material containing clitics.

An example of differing analyses by different linguists is the discussion of the possessive ('s) in English, some linguists treating it as an affix, while others treat it as a special clitic.[13]

Comparison with words

Similar to the discussion above, clitics must be able to be distinguished from words. There have been a number of linguistic tests proposed to differentiate between the two categories. Some tests, specifically, are based upon the understanding that when comparing the two, clitics resemble affixes, while words resemble syntactic phrases. Clitics and words resemble different categories in the sense that they share certain properties with them. Six such tests are described below. These, of course, are not the only ways to differentiate between words and clitics.[14]

  1. If a morpheme is bound to a word and can never occur in complete isolation, then it is likely a clitic. In contrast, a word is not bound and can appear on its own.
  2. If the addition of a morpheme to a word prevents further affixation, then it is likely a clitic.
  3. If a morpheme combines with single words to convey a further degree of meaning, then it is likely a clitic. A word will combine with a group of words or phrases to denote further meaning.[contradictory]
  4. If a morpheme is required to be in a certain order with respect to other morphemes within the construction, then it is likely a clitic. Independent words enjoy free ordering with respect to other words, within the confines of the word order of the language.
  5. If a morpheme’s allowable behavior is determined by one principle, it is likely a clitic. For example, "a" proceeds indefinite nouns in English. Words can rarely be described with one such description.
  6. In general, words are more morphologically complex than clitics. Clitics are rarely composed of more than one morpheme.[14]

Word order

Clitics do not always appear next to the word or phrase that they are associated with grammatically. They may be subject to global word order constraints that act on the entire sentence. Many Indo-European languages, for example, obey Wackernagel's law (named after Jacob Wackernagel), which requires clitics to appear in "second position", after the first syntactic phrase or the first stressed word in a clause:[9]

  • Latin had three enclitics that appeared in second or third position of a clause: enim 'indeed, for', autem 'but, moreover', vero 'however'. For example, quis enim potest negare? (from Martial's epigram LXIV, literally "who indeed can deny [her riches]?"). Spevak (2010) reports that in her corpus of Caesar, Cicero and Sallust, these three words appear in such position in 100% of the cases.[15]

Indo-European languages

Germanic languages


English enclitics include the contracted versions of auxiliary verbs, as in I'm and we've.[16] Some also regard the possessive marker, as in The Queen of England's crown as an enclitic, rather than a (phrasal) genitival inflection.[17]

The English articles a, an, the and the infinitive marker to are considered by some to be proclitics.[18]

The negative marker n’t as in couldn’t etc. is often thought to be a clitic developed from the lexical item not; linguists Arnold Zwicky and Geoffrey Pullum argue, however, that the form has the properties of an affix rather than a syntactically independent clitic.[19]

Other Germanic languages

[dubious ]

  • Old Norse: The definite article was the enclitic -inn, -in, -itt (masculine, feminine and neuter nominative singular), as in álfrinn "the elf", gjǫfin "the gift", and tréit "the tree", an abbreviated form of the independent pronoun hinn, cognate of the German pronoun jener. It was fully declined for gender, case and number. Since both the noun and enclitic were declined, this led to "double declension". The situation remains similar in modern Faroese and Icelandic, but in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, the enclitics have become endings.
  • Dutch: 't definite article of neuter nouns and third person singular neuter pronoun, 'k first person pronoun, je second person singular pronoun, ie third person masculine singular pronoun, ze third person plural pronoun
  • Plautdietsch: "Deit'a't vondoag?": "Will he do it today?"
  • Gothic: Sentence clitics appear in second position in accordance with Wackernagel's Law, including -u (yes-no question), -uh "and", þan "then", ƕa "anything", for example ab-u þus silbin "of thyself?". Multiple clitics can be stacked up, and will split a preverb from the rest of the verb if the preverb comes at the beginning of the clause, e.g. diz-uh-þan-sat ijōs "and then he seized them (fem.)", ga-u-ƕa-sēƕi "whether he saw anything".

Romance languages

In the Romance languages, the object personal pronoun forms are sometimes claimed to be clitics; others claim that they are actually affixes, as they only attach to the verb they are the object of.[12] There is no general agreement on the issue.[20] In Spanish, for example:

  • lo atamos [loaˈtamos] ("it tied-1PL" = "we tied it"; can only occur with the verb it is the object of)
  • melo [ˈdamelo] ("give me it")

Colloquial European Portuguese allows object suffixes before the conditional and future suffixes of the verbs:[21]

  • Ela levá-lo-ia ("She take-it-would" – "She would take it").
  • Eles dar-no-lo-ão ("They give-us-it-will" – "They will give it to us").

Colloquial Portuguese of Brazil and Portugal and Spanish of the former Gran Colombia allow ser to be conjugated as a verbal clitic adverbial adjunct to emphasize the importance of the phrase compared to its context or with the meaning of "really" or "in truth":[22]

  • Ele estava era gordo ("He was was fat" – "He was very fat").
  • Ele ligou é para Paula ("He phoned is Paula" – "He phoned Paula (with emphasis)").

Note that this clitic form is only for the verb ser and is restricted to only third-person singular conjugations. It is not used as a verb in the grammar of the sentence but introduces prepositional phrases and adds emphasis. It does not need to concord with the tense of the main verb, as in the second example, and can be usually removed from the sentence without affecting the simple meaning.


In the Indo-European languages, some clitics can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European: for example, *-kʷe is the original form of Sanskrit (-ca), Greek τε (-te), and Latin -que.

  • Latin: -que "and", -ve "or", -ne (yes-no question)
  • Greek: τε "and", δέ "but", γάρ "for" (in a logical argument), οὖν "therefore"

Slavic languages

[dubious ]

  • Russian: ли (yes-no question), же (emphasis), то (emphasis), не "not" (proclitic), бы (subjunctive)
  • Czech: special clitics: weak personal and reflexive pronouns (mu, "him"), certain auxiliary verbs (by, "would"), and various short particles and adverbs (tu, "here"; ale, "though"). "Nepodařilo by se mi mu to dát" "I would not succeed in giving it to him". In addition there are various simple clitics including short prepositions.
  • Polish: -by (conditional mood particle), się (reflexive, also modifies meaning of certain verbs), no (emphasis), -m, -ś, -śmy, -ście (personal auxiliary), mi, ci, cię, go, mu &c. (unstressed personal pronouns in oblique cases)
  • Croatian: the reflexive pronoun forms si and se, li (yes-no question), unemphasized present and aorist tense forms of biti ("to be"; sam, si, je, smo, ste, su; and bih, bi, bi, bismo, biste, bi, for the respective tense), unemphasized personal pronouns in genitive (me, te, ga, je, nas, vas, ih), dative (mi, ti, mu, joj, nam, vam, im) and accusative (me, te, ga (nj), je (ju), nas, vas, ih), and unemphasized present tense of htjeti ("want/will"; ću, ćeš, će, ćemo, ćete, će)

Other languages

  • Hungarian: the marker of indirect questions is -e: Nem tudja még, jön-e. "He doesn't know yet if he'll come." This clitic can also mark direct questions with a falling intonation. Is ("as well") and se ("not... either") also function as clitics: although written separately, they are pronounced together with the preceding word, without stress: Ő is jön. "He'll come too." Ő sem jön. "He won't come, either."
  • Japanese: all particles, such as the genitive postposition (no) and the topic marker (wa).
  • Korean: The copula 이다 (ida) and the adjectival 하다 (hada), as well as some nominal and verbal particles (e.g. , neun).[23] However, alternative analysis suggests that the nominal particles do not function as clitics, but as phrasal affixes.[24]
  • Arabic: Suffixes standing for direct object pronouns and/or indirect object pronouns (as found in Indo-European languages) are suffixed to verbs, possessive determiners are suffixed to nouns, and pronouns are suffixed to particles.
  • Ganda: -nga attached to a verb to form the progressive; -wo 'in' (also attached to a verb)
  • Somali: pronominal clitics, either subject or object clitics, are required in Somali. These exist as simple clitics postponed to the noun they apply to. Lexical arguments can be omitted from sentences, but pronominal clitics cannot be.[25]

See also


  1. ^ SIL International (2003). SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms: What is a clitic? "This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 5.0 published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 2003." Retrieved from
  2. ^ a b c d Crystal, David. A First Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1980. Print.
  3. ^ Harris, Alice C. (2002). Endoclitics and the Origins of Udi Morphosyntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924633-5. 
  4. ^ Craig A. Kopris & Anthony R. Davis (AppTek, Inc. / StreamSage, Inc.) Endoclitics in Pashto: Implications for Lexical Integrity (abstract pdf)
  5. ^ Kari, Ethelbert Emmanuel (2003). Clitics in Degema: A Meeting Point of Phonology, Morphology, and Syntax. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa. ISBN 4-87297-850-1. 
  6. ^ a b c Miller, Philip H. "Clitics and Phrasal Affixes." Clitics and Constituents in Phrase Structure Grammar. New York: Garland, 1992. N. pag. Print.
  7. ^ Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo & John Payne (2011). There are no special clitics. In Alexandra Galani, Glyn Hicks & George Tsoulas (eds), Morphology and its interfaces (Linguistik Aktuell 178), 57–96. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  8. ^ Hopper, Paul J.; Elizabeth Closs Traugott (2003). Grammaticalization (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-80421-9. 
  9. ^ a b c Klavans, Judith L. On Clitics and Cliticization: The Interaction of Morphology, Phonology, and Syntax. New York: Garland Pub., 1995. Print.
  10. ^ Klavans, Judith L. On Clitics and Cliticization: The Interaction of Morphology, Phonology, and Syntax. New York: Garland Pub., 1995. Print.
  11. ^ Zwicky, Arnold (1977). On Clitics. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club. 
  12. ^ a b c Andrew Spencer and Ana Luís, "The canonical clitic". In Brown, Chumakina, & Corbett, eds. Canonical Morphology and Syntax. Oxford University Press, pp. 123–150.
  13. ^ Spencer, Andrew; Luis, Ana R. (2012). Clitics: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. pp. 292–293. ISBN 9781139560313. There are two alternatives that have been explored in recent literature. 
  14. ^ a b Zwicky, Arnold M. "Clitics and Particles." Language 61.2 (1985): 283-305. Print.
  15. ^ Spevak, Olga (2010). The Constituent Order of Classical Latin Prose. In series: Studies in language Amsterdam / Companion series (vol. 117). ISBN 9027205841. Page 14.
  16. ^ Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1614–1616. ISBN 0-521-43146-8. 
  17. ^ Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 480–481. ISBN 0-521-43146-8. 
  18. ^ What is a clitic?
  19. ^ Zwicky, Arnold M.; Pullum (1983). "Cliticization vs. inflection: the case of English n't". Language. 59 (3): 502–513. doi:10.2307/413900. 
  20. ^
  21. ^ Gadelii, Karl Erland (2002). "Pronominal Syntax in Maputo Portuguese (Mozambique) from a Comparative Creole and Bantu Perspective" (PDF). Africa & Asia. 2: 27–41. ISSN 1650-2019. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-09-20. Retrieved 2006-09-20. 
  22. ^ Bartens, Angela, and Niclas Sandström (2005). "Novas notas sobre a construção com ser focalizador" (PDF). EStudos em homenagem ao Professor Doutor Mário Vilela. 1: 105–119. Retrieved 2014-03-11. 
  23. ^ Chae, Hee-Rahk (1995). "Clitic Analyses of Korean "Little Words"". Language, Information and Computation Proceedings of the 10th Pacific Asia Conference: 97–102. Retrieved 2007-03-28. 
  24. ^ James Hye Suk Yoon. "Non-morphological Determination of Nominal Particle Ordering in Korean" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-27. 
  25. ^ Mereu, Lunella. "Agreement, Pronominalization, and Word Order in Pragmatically-Oriented Languages." Boundaries of Morphology and Syntax. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins, 1999. N. pag. Print.
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