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What is a clitic? (Grammar)



A clitic is a morpheme that has syntactic characteristics of a word, but shows evidence of being phonologically bound to another word.

  • Phonologically bound but syntactically free
  • Function at phrase or clause level
  • Cannot be integrated into standard discourse without being bound to some other form
  • Often have grammatical rather than lexical meaning
  • Belong to closed classes like pronouns, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, and conjunctions
  • Usually attach to the edges of words, outside of derivational and inflectional affixes
  • Often attach to several syntactic categories of words such as head noun, non-head noun, preposition, verb, or adverb
  • Phonologically unstressed

A clitic may have a nonclitic alternant.

Examples (English)
  • The contraction of the morpheme is, as in

  • What's going on?
  • The possessive marker 's, as in

  • The man in the black coat's book.

Here are the two kinds of clitics:

  • proclitic, occurring at the beginning of a morpheme
  • enclitic, occurring at the end of a morpheme


Clitics that occur on the last element of a clause will always cliticize to the end of that element. (See Payne, T. 1997b)

  A clitic is a kind of
Comparison and contrast: clitic versus affix

Here is a table that compares and contrasts clitics and affixes:

  • Clitic


    Functions above the word level syntactically and on the word level phonologically.

    Functions on the word level syntactically and phonologically.

    May attach to words belonging to a variety of syntactic categories.

    Attaches to words belonging to a single syntactic category.

    May attach to words or whole phrases.

    Attaches to single words.

    Occurs at the edge of a word.

    May occur within or at the edges of a word.

  • Sources

    Crystal 1980 64


    Hartmann and Stork 1972 38


    Anderson, S. 1985 158


    Klavans 1982 xi-xiv, 74–76, 83, 93–95, 100–101


    Zwicky 1977 5

    See also

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