In morphology and syntax, a clitic (/ˈklɪtɪk/ KLIT-ik, backformed from Greek ἐγκλιτικός enklitikós "leaning" or "enclitic"[1]) 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.[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.

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 they depend on (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").


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Clitics fall into various categories depending on their position in relation to the word they connect to.[1]


A proclitic appears before its host.[1]


An enclitic appears after its host.[1]


Some authors postulate endoclitics, which split a stem and are inserted between the two elements. For example, they have been claimed to occur between the elements of bipartite verbs (equivalent to English verbs such as take part) in the Udi language.[3] Endoclitics have also been claimed for Pashto[4] and Degema.[5] However, other authors treat such forms as a sequence of clitics docked to the stem.[6]


One distinction drawn by some scholars divides the broad term "clitics" into two categories, simple clitics and special clitics.[7] This distinction is, however, disputed.[8]

Simple clitics

Simple clitics are free morphemes: can stand alone in a phrase or sentence.[example needed] They are unaccented and thus phonologically dependent upon a nearby word. They derive meaning only from that "host".[7]

Special clitics

Special clitics are morphemes that are bound to the word upon which they depend: they exist as a part of their host.[example needed] That form, which is unaccented, represents a variant of a free form that carries stress. Both variants carry similar meaning and phonological makeup, but the special clitic is bound to a host word and is unaccented.[7]


Some clitics can be understood as elements undergoing a historical process of grammaticalization:[9]

     lexical item → clitic → affix[10]

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.[10]


One characteristic shared by many clitics, shared with affixes, 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: that, like affixes, they cannot appear without a host, and can only form an accentual unit in combination with their host. The term postlexical clitic is sometimes used for this sense of the term.[11]

Given this basic definition, further criteria are needed to establish a dividing line between clitics and affixes. There is no natural, clear-cut boundary between the two categories (since from a diachronic 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.[12] 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).[13]

Zwicky and Pullum postulated five characteristics that distinguish clitics from affixes:[13]

An example of differing analyses by different linguists is the discussion of the possessive marker ('s) in English. Some linguists treat it as an affix, while others treat it as a clitic.[14]

Comparison with words

Similar to the discussion above, clitics must be distinguishable from words. Linguists have proposed a number of tests 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. Six such tests are described below. These are not the only ways to differentiate between words and clitics.[15]

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 sentential clitics to appear in "second position", after the first syntactic phrase or the first stressed word in a clause:[10][16]

Indo-European languages

Germanic languages


English enclitics include the contracted versions of auxiliary verbs, as in I'm and we've.[18] Some also regard the possessive marker, as in The Queen of England's crown as an enclitic, rather than a (phrasal) genitival inflection.[19]

Some consider the infinitive marker to and the English articles a, an, the to be proclitics.[20]

The negative marker -n't as in couldn't etc. is typically considered a clitic that 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.[21]

Other Germanic languages

Celtic languages

In Cornish, the clitics ma / na are used after a noun and definite article to express "this" / "that" (singular) and "these" / "those" (plural). For example:

Irish Gaelic uses seo / sin as clitics in a similar way, also to express "this" / "that" and "these" / "those". For example:

Romance languages

In Romance languages, some have treated the object personal pronoun forms as clitics, though they only attach to the verb they are the object of and so are affixes by the definition used here.[6][13] There is no general agreement on the issue.[22] For the Spanish object pronouns, for example:

Portuguese allows object suffixes before the conditional and future suffixes of the verbs:[23]

Colloquial Portuguese allows 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":[24]

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.

Slavic languages


Serbo-Croatian: the reflexive pronoun forms si and se, li (yes–no question), unstressed 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), unstressed 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 unstressed present tense of htjeti ("want/will"; ću, ćeš, će, ćemo, ćete, će)

These clitics follow the first stressed word in the sentence or clause in most cases, which may have been inherited from Proto-Indo-European (see Wackernagel's Law), even though many of the modern clitics became cliticised much more recently in the language (e.g. auxiliary verbs or the accusative forms of pronouns). In subordinate clauses and questions, they follow the connector and/or the question word respectively.

Examples (clitics – sam "I am", biste "you would (pl.)", mi "to me", vam "to you (pl.)", ih "them"):

In certain rural dialects this rule is (or was until recently) very strict, whereas elsewhere various exceptions occur. These include phrases containing conjunctions (e. g. Ivan i Ana "Ivan and Ana"), nouns with a genitival attribute (e. g. vrh brda "the top of the hill"), proper names and titles and the like (e. g. (gospođa) Ivana Marić "(Mrs) Ivana Marić", grad Zagreb "the city (of) Zagreb"), and in many local varieties clitics are hardly ever inserted into any phrases (e. g. moj najbolji prijatelj "my best friend", sutra ujutro "tomorrow morning"). In cases like these, clitics normally follow the initial phrase, although some Standard grammar handbooks recommend that they should be placed immediately after the verb (many native speakers find this unnatural).


Clitics are however never inserted after the negative particle ne, which always precedes the verb in Serbo-Croatian, or after prefixes (earlier preverbs), and the interrogative particle li always immediately follows the verb. Colloquial interrogative particles such as da li, dal, jel appear in sentence-initial position and are followed by clitics (if there are any).


Other languages

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Crystal, David. A First Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1980. Print.
  2. ^ 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 "What is a clitic? (Grammar)". Archived from the original on 2004-05-10. Retrieved 2004-04-16..
  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.), September 18, 2005. 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 Martin Haspelmath (2022) 'Types of clitics in the world’s languages'
  7. ^ a b c Miller, Philip H. "Clitics and Phrasal Affixes." Clitics and Constituents in Phrase Structure Grammar. New York: Garland, 1992. N. pag. Print.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Hopper, Paul J.; Elizabeth Closs Traugott (2003). Grammaticalization (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-80421-9.
  10. ^ a b c Klavans, Judith L. On Clitics and Cliticization: The Interaction of Morphology, Phonology, and Syntax. New York: Garland Pub., 1995. Print.
  11. ^ Klavans, Judith L. On Clitics and Cliticization: The Interaction of Morphology, Phonology, and Syntax. New York: Garland Pub., 1995. Print.
  12. ^ Zwicky, Arnold (1977). On Clitics. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ a b Zwicky, Arnold M. "Clitics and Particles." Language 61.2 (1985): 283–305. Print.
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  17. ^ Spevak, Olga (2010). The Constituent Order of Classical Latin Prose. In series: Studies in language Amsterdam / Companion series (vol. 117). ISBN 9027205841. Page 14.
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  19. ^ 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.
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  21. ^ Zwicky, Arnold M.; Pullum (1983). "Cliticization vs. inflection: the case of English n't". Language. 59 (3): 502–513. doi:10.2307/413900. JSTOR 413900.
  22. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-05-18. Retrieved 2014-05-18.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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  24. ^ 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. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2014-03-12. Retrieved 2014-03-11.((cite journal)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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  29. ^ James Hye Suk Yoon. "Non-morphological Determination of Nominal Particle Ordering in Korean" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-27.
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