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In sentences such as:

  • They talked to one another

Is the string one another a constituent, or are the two words part of a mandatorily gapped coordination of preposition phrases (or even verb phrases)?

If they are a constituent, are they an asyndetic coordination?

If they are not a coordination, is this a headed phrase? In which case which word is the head here, and which the complement?

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(1) One another is not a syntactically complex phrase

The reciprocal one another is not well described as a case of asyndetic coordination because you cannot paraphrase its meaning as 'one AND another', as shown in (1).

(1) They talked to one anotherThey talked to one and another.

Furthermore, one another is not correctly described as a complex syntactic phrase with a head and a complement either. The reason is that complement selection is productive whereas one another is a fixed expression, as shown in (2) and (3).

(2) one does not freely select a complement
a. They like one another.
b. *They like one other.
c. *They like one the other.
d. *They like one all.
etc.

(3) another does not freely select a complement
a. They like one another.
b. *They like all another.
c. *They like each another.
d. *They like themselves another.
etc.

It follows that one another should be analyzed as neither a case of asyndetic coordination nor a complex headed syntactic phrase with a head and a complement. Rather, the expression should be described as a third category.



(2) What we know about one another

We can list the following points about one another:

First, it distributes like any other nominal phrase. For instances, it can take possessive 's like other nominal phrases, as shown in (4). It can also be coordinated with another nominal phrase, as in (5). The item is therefore pronominal in nature. For syntactic purposes it behaves like a single word, or a single pronoun, replacing a noun phrase.

(4) They try to understand [one another]'s culture
(cf. [John]'s culture, [The Queen of England]'s culture)

(5) They love [the new Star Wars movie] and [one another].

Second, the internal structure of one another is likely [one [another]], with another more deeply embedded than one, rather than [[one] another], with one more deeply embedded that another. That's because the historical ancestor of the structure had the corresponding hierarchy. This is illustrated by historical examples where one and another were split by the main verb, as in (6). Hence, [one [ ... [another]]] likely developed into [one [another]].

(6) they will [one] helpe [another] as brethren
Aggas, Edward (1588) The politicke and militarie discourses of the Lord de La Nouue

Third, there is no evidence that the modern form one another is a headed compound, as neither one nor another function as the semantic head of a compound. Hence, it not only functions as a single word from the perspective of syntax, but word-internally it also seems to be headless.

(7) one another ≠ a kind of another ≠ a kind of one
(cf. Orange juice = a kind of "juice")

Fourth and finally, the reason why there is no obvious head is likely that the historical ancestor involved a verb as the head of both one and another. Since the head was external to both items, the modern successor did not inherit an obvious head either.

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