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    The syntax of Irish

  The verbal area
  The nominal and pronominal areas
  The prepositional area
  Sentence structure

Irish, along with the other Celtic languages, is a post-specifying language. This means that elements which qualify other elements follow the latter, e.g. adjectives which qualify nouns follow these (see examples below). In normal declarative sentences the word order is VSO (Verb – Subject – Object). This order must be adhered to and if elements of a sentence are moved to the front for the purpose of topicalisation (highlighting an element in a sentence), then this is done via clefting (second sentence in the following).

Chuaigh Síle go Sasana anuraidh. Is go Sasana a chuaigh Síle anuraidh.
[went Sheila to England last-year] [is to England that went Sheila last-year]
‘Sheila went to England last year.’ ‘It’s to England that Sheila went last year.’

In keeping with its post-specifying nature, Irish places adjectives after nouns and the genitive after the nominative.

leabhar spéisiúl [book interesting] ‘an interesting book’
leabhar Sheáin [book-NOM John-GEN] ‘John’s book’

The word order noun + genitive is often used as an equivalent to English compounds, a type of loan-translation, e.g. cárta phoist [card post-GEN] ‘postcard’, siopa leabhar [shop book-GEN_PL] ‘bookshop’. Post-specification applies irrespective of the complexity of the noun-modifying phrase as seen from the following examples.

inneal nua múchta tine [machine new extinguished fire] ‘new fire engine’
lucht slat iascaireachta [people rods fishing-GEN] ‘people who fish using rods’
seribhís bailiú broscair [service collecting rubbish-GEN] ‘rubbish collecting service’

The verbal area

The verb system of Irish has been greatly simplified since the earliest period. What is left is a system with three tense distinctions – present, past and future – and a formal distinction between indicative and subjunctive. These distinctions are made by inflectional endings, and in the past and subjunctive, by an initial mutation as well. Because of the large number of former verb forms, many suppletive forms survive rendering the paradigms of common verbs irregular (there are about 10 such verbs in modern Irish).

Non-finite verb forms

There is no infinitive in Irish. What corresponds to that of English is a non-finite verb form, traditionally known as the ‘verbal noun’ (Christian Brothers 1977: 126-30), abbreviated as ‘VN’ in the following, which can be the equivalent of an infinitive complement or the progressive in English.

Ba mhaith leis dul (VN) amach. ‘He wants to go out.’
[would like with-him going out]

Tá Brian ag foghlaim (VN) na Fraincise. ‘Brian is learning French.’
[is Brian at learning French-GEN]

When this non-finite verb form occurs with sentences expressing purpose, the preposition chun ‘in order to’ is found.

Chuaigh Nóra amach chun móin a fháil. ‘Nora went out to get turf.’
[went Nora out in-order-to turf get-VN]

The infinitival phrase has the word order Obj + Verb-NON-FINITE with the particle a before the verb form much like English to. This applies to any such structure, irrespective of whether the sentence expresses purpose or not. For an infinitival phrase in the negative, gan ‘without’, i.e. ‘not to’, is used instead of a.

Mhol sé dúinn teach a cheannach. ‘He advised us to buy a house.’
[advised he to-us house to buy-VN]

Dúirt sí linn gan a bheith dána. ‘She told us not to misbehave.’
[told she with-us without be misbehaved]


Irish has several aspectual categories which are expressed with particular structures. Progressive aspect can be expressed using and a non-finite verb form (the verbal noun). This can contrast with a simple present which suggests an iterative action, much as in English.

Tá sí ag scríobh leabhar nua. ‘She is writing a new book.’
[is she at write-VN book new]

Scríobhann sí leabhar nua gach bliain.
‘She writes a new book every year.’
[writes she book new every year]

To express habituality (Ó Sé 2001: 123), Irish makes use of a particular verb form (this verb conjugates in the present) which, like , combines with a non-finite verb form (the verbal noun).

Bíonn sí ag scríobh go luath gach maidin.
[is-HABITUAL she at write-VN early every morning]
‘She is always writing early in the morning.’

The passive in Irish

In Irish, the passive is not realised by reversing subject and object. Instead a structure with ‘is’ and a past participle is used (Stenson 1981: 148-50 and Ó Siadhail 1989: 299). Where an agent is to be expressed, this is done by employing an appropriate prepositional pronoun (second example below).

Tá an obair déanta.‘The work has been done.’
[is the work done-PP]

Tá an obair déanta agam. ‘The work has been done by me.’
[is the work done-PP at-me]

The nominal and pronominal areas

Nouns and determiners In Irish, nouns are distinguished by gender and case in a manner which derives ultimately from Indo-European. There are two genders and two cases (nominative and genitive), although previously there were more and a few opaque examples of earlier cases still exist, e.g. in Éirinn ‘in Ireland’, which is a former dative.
Irish has only one article, the definite article. In an indefinite context there is no article, so that the absence of an article is equivalent to an indefinite one in English.

An carr nua a cheannaigh sí. ‘The new car she bought.’
[the car new that bought she]

Tá carr nua ag teastáil uaithi. ‘She needs a new car.’
[is car new at need-VN from-her]

The range of the definite article is greater than English and it is used in statements of a general nature.

An teangeolaíocht ‘linguistics’
[the linguistics]
An fhealsúnacht ‘philosophy’
[the philosophy]
An bheirt agaibh ‘both of you’
[the both at-you]
An chuid is mó di ‘most of it’
[the part is most of it]
Tá an tsláinte go dona leis. ‘His health is bad.’
[is the health badly with-him]
Is tusa an fear cliste. ‘You’re a clever man indeed.’
[is you-EMPHATIC the man clever]

Personal pronouns

Irish has a formal distinction between first and second person singular personal pronouns, ‘you-SG’ and sibh ‘you-PL’, although it does not use the latter for formal address (as opposed to Scottish Gaelic where such usage exists).

An bhfuil in ann canadh? ‘Can you-SG sing?’

Ar ghlac sibh an cuireadh? ‘Did you-PL get the invitation?’

Demonstrative pronouns

These are formed in Irish by using the definite article before a noun and the adverbs sin ‘that’ or seo ‘this’ immediately after the noun in question. Demonstratives are very common in Irish and together with a prepositional pronoun, usually a form of ag ‘at’, are used to express possession or relevance. There is also a third demonstrative indicating distance, úd ‘over there’, comparable to archaic yonder in English.

An teach sin ‘That house’
[the house that]
An ceann seo ‘This one’
[the one this]
An baile seo againne ‘Our town’
[the town this at-us]
An cnoc úd ‘Yonder hill’
[the hill yonder]

The prepositional area

Prepositions play a greater role in Irish compared to English. Where one has a verb in English, one frequently finds a noun in Irish, due to the strong nominalising tendency of the language. In such situations, syntactic relations like subject and object are frequently expressed by means of prepositions with personal pronouns. These combinations resulted in the earliest stages of Irish in synthetic forms of preposition plus pronoun, a few examples of which are given in the following. Because of the clarity of the semantic relations which are expressed by such prepositional pronouns, sentences may occur in which no verb is present.

Tá dhá orlach agam air. ‘I am two inches taller than him.’
[is two inches at-me on-him]

Tháinig meirg orainn chuige. ‘We grew angry with him.’
[came anger to-him on-us]

Níl seachaint agat air. ‘You cannot avoid it.’
[is-not avoidance at-you on-it]

Seo chugainn í. ‘Here she is coming towards us.’
[here to-us she]

There are also more figurative usages of such prepositional pronouns. For instance, the preposition air ‘on’ is frequently employed to express the relevance of an action to the speaker.

D’imigh an siúinéir orm. ‘The carpenter left me.’
[went the carpenter on-me]

Múchadh an tine orm. ‘The fire went out on me.’
[extinguished the fire on-me]

Ghoid siad an carr orm. ‘They stole the car on me.’
[stole they the car on-me]

The preposition in has a metaphorical usage which relies on the combination of in ‘in’ plus é ‘it’ (= ann) and which expresses existence.

Drochlá a bhí ann. ‘It was a bad day.’
[bad-day that was in-it]

Sin an méid atá ann. ‘That’s all there is.’
[that the amount that-is in-it]

Sentence structure


Relative clauses are introduced in Irish by the relative particle a ‘that’ which has a negative counterpart, nach ‘not-that’. It is common for a resumptive pronoun to occur when the verb in the relative clause takes a prepositional object (second example below) or when the structure involves a noun and prepositional pronoun (third example). This then refers back to the antecedent in the main clause.

Sin an t-alt a bhí mé a scríobh. ‘That’s the article I was writing.’
[that the article that was I at write-VN]

Seo an fear ar bhuail mé leis inné. ‘This is the man I met yesterday.’
[this the man that met I with-him yesterday]

An bhean a bhfuil faitíos uirthi. ‘The woman who is afraid.’
[the woman that is fear on-her]

Sin teanga nach dtuigim. ‘That’s a language I do not understand.’
[that language not-that understand-I]

There is no special form of the relative pronoun in the genitive, unlike English. The form ar in the first sentence below is the form of the relative pronoun used before vowels and /h/ (here: th- = [h]).

An bhean ar thug a hiníon cabhair dó.
[the woman that gave her daughter help to-him]
‘The woman whose daughter helped him.’

An buachaill a ndíolann a athair leabhair.
[that boy that sells his father books]
‘The boy whose father sells books.’


Subordinate clauses can be formed in Irish with an adverb of time or manner introducing the clause. The adverb in question appears together with the relative pronoun a which follows it immediately.

Bhí sé sa Spáinn nuair a bhí sé ina mhac léinn.
[was he in-the Spain when that was he in-his student]
‘He was in Spain when he was a student.’

A peculiarity in this respect is the use of verbless concessive clauses introduced by and which in such instances has the meaning ‘although, despite’.

Chuaigh sé amach agus é go dona tinn.
[went he out and he badly ill]
‘He went out although he was very ill.’


The main means of topicalisation in Irish is by fronting. Because Irish is a strictly VSO language, no element can be shifted left of the verb in the same clause. As a consequence of this, fronting is achieved by clefting: the element to be highlighted is shifted into a main clause opened by a dummy is ‘it is’ and the remainder of the non-topicalised input is relegated to a subordinate clause. Various elements of a sentence can be topicalised in this manner.

Tá Feargal imithe go Gaillimh. ‘Fergal is gone to Galway.’
[is Fergal gone to Galway]

Is go Gaillimh atá Feargal imithe. ‘It’s to Galway that Fergal is gone.’
[is to Galway that is Fergal gone]

Is imithe go Gaillimh atá Feargal. ‘It’s gone to Galway that Fergal is.’
[is gone to Galway that is Fergal]

Is é Feargal atá imithe go Gaillimh. ‘It’s Fergal who’s gone to Galway.’
[is he Fergal that is gone to Galway]

Other instances of fronting do not involve clefting, but consist of a phrase which is juxtaposed with a following sentence and not formally a part of this. The link between the two is achieved by a pronoun which has an anaphoric function (í ‘she’, i.e. an múinteoir ‘the teacher’, in the following sentence).

An múinteoir óg san áit, is dóigh liom gurb as Corcaigh í.
[the teacher young in-the place, is suppose with-me that-is from Cork she]
‘The young teacher in the place, I suppose she is from Cork.’


Negative concord applies in Irish, i.e. more than one negated element can occur within a clause or sentence.

Ní dhearna sé tada Dé Luain seo caite. ‘He did nothing last Monday.’
[not did he nothing day Monday here spent]

Irish does not have contracted forms like nothing from not something. or never from not ever. Instead it has single lexical items, such as tada ‘nothing’ or riamh ‘ever’ which, when it occurs with a negated verb, has the meaning ‘never’.

Níor labhair sé le sagart riamh. ‘He has never spoken to a priest.’
[not spoke he with priest ever]


The number of studies on Irish syntax is quite limited. At present there are a few authors working in this area, the most well-known of whom is James McCloskey who has published a series of studies from a broadly generative perspective, starting with the revised version of his PhD thesis. Another scholar who has published a monograph in this field is Nigel Duffield. There is also a book by Nancy Stenson which offers an accessible overview of Irish syntax. Andrew Carnie has also published on Celtic syntax, specifically that of Irish.

There is additional literature on the syntax of the Celtic languages in general, especially the following edited volumes: Hendrick (ed.) 1990, Borsley and Roberts (eds) 1996, Carnie, Harley and Dooley (eds) 2005.

Borsley, Robert and Ian Roberts (eds) 1996. The syntax of the Celtic languages. A comparative perspective. Cambridge: University Press.

Carnie, Andrew and Eithne Guilfoyle (eds) 2000. The syntax of verb initial languages. Oxford: University Press.

Carnie, Andrew, Heidi Harley and Sheila Ann Dooley (eds) 2005. Verb First. On the syntax of verb-initial languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Christian Brothers 1977. New Irish grammar. Dublin: Fallons.

Duffield, Nigel 1995. Particles and projections in Irish syntax. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Hendrick, Randall (ed.) 1990. The syntax of the modern Celtic languages. Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 23. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

McCloskey, James 1979. Transformational Syntax and Model Theoretic Semantics: A Case-Study in Modern Irish. Dordrecht and Boston: Reidel.

Ó Sé, Diarmuid 1990. Tense and mood in Irish copula sentences. Ériu 41: 62-75.

Ó Sé, Diarmuid 2001. ‘Gnáthach agus leanúnach i mbriathar na Gaeilge’ [The habitual and continuous in the Irish verb], in Brian Ó Catháin and Ruairí Ó hUiginn (eds) Béalra. Aistí ar Theangeolaíocht na Gaeilge. [Speech. Essays on the linguistics of Irish] (Maynooth: An Sagart), pp. 123-45.

Ó Siadhail, Mícheál 1989. Modern Irish. Grammatical structure and dialectal variants Cambridge: University Press.

Stenson, Nancy 1981. Studies in Irish Syntax. Tübingen: Narr.