Traditional approaches to verbal periphrasis (compound tenses) treat auxiliary verbs as lexical items that enter syntactic derivation like any other lexical item, via Selection/Merge. An alternative view is that auxiliary verbs are inserted into a previously built structure (e.g., Bach 1967, Arregi 2000, Embick 2000, Cowper 2010, Bjorkman 2011, Arregi and Klecha 2015). Arguments for the insertion approach include auxiliaries’ last-resort distribution and the fact that, in many languages, auxiliaries are not systematically associated with a given inflectional category (Bjorkman’s (2011) “overflow” distribution). Here, I argue against the insertion approach. I demonstrate that the overflow pattern and last-resort distribution follow from Cyclic Selection (Pietraszko 2017)—a Merge counterpart of Cyclic Agree (Béjar and Rezac 2009). I also show that the insertion approach makes wrong predictions about compound tenses in Swahili, a language with overflow periphrasis. Under my approach, an auxiliary verb is a verbal head externally merged as a specifier of a functional head, such as T. It then undergoes m-merger with that head, instantiating an External-Merge version of Matushansky’s (2006) conception of head movement.

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