LINGUIST List 14.260

Fri Jan 24 2003

Review: Syntax/Semantics: Steinbach (2002)

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  1. Andrew McIntyre, Steinbach (2002), Middle Voice

Message 1: Steinbach (2002), Middle Voice

Date: Mon, 20 Jan 2003 10:59:31 +0000
From: Andrew McIntyre <>
Subject: Steinbach (2002), Middle Voice

Steinbach, Markus (2002). Middle Voice: A comparative study in the
syntax-semantics interface in German. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Book Announcement on Linguist:

Andrew McIntyre, University of Leipzig

Imagine a language designed with the express purpose of rotting the
self esteem of linguists. In such a language constructions like (1)
and (2) would arguably have a rightful place:

(1)	Das Buch liest sich gut	
 the book reads itself well
 'The book reads well'
(2)	Es pennt sich gut im B�ro
 it sleeps itself well in the office
	'The office is a good place to sleep (in)'

Among the properties of such German constructions -middle
constructions- are the following. In (1) the normal objects of
'lesen/read' become subjects. In German, but not in English, a
reflexive pronoun appears. In (2), an intransitive verb trades its
usual human subject for an expletive subject and reflexive object. (1)
and (2) show the notorious 'adverbial effect': they are well-nigh
unacceptable without the modifiers 'gut/well' and 'im B�ro'. We are
left wondering how to handle the oxymoronic notion 'obligatory
modifier'. Much ink has been spilled in attempting to explain these
phenenoma, and the extant accounts -it seems to me- fail to satisfy.

Markus Steinbach's book makes what I see as a worthwhile contribution
to the study of middle constructions and German reflexive
constructions in general. I now summarise the descriptive points in
chapter 1. Alongside middles like (1-2), he also analyses the
following reflexive constructions:

(3)	a. Fritz rasierte sich	[reflexive reading]
 Fritz shaved 
 b. Gabi kritisierte sich
 Gabi criticised herself
(4)	Die T�r �ffnete sich	[anticausative reading]
 the door opened itself
 'the door opened'
(5)	Karl sch�mt sich	[inherent reflexive reading]
 Karl shames himself 
 'Karl is ashamed'

The genuine reflexive constructions in (3) are the also termed
'argument reflexives'; the reflexive is a nomal verbal direct object,
witness its ability to be coordinated with normal object NP's: 'Gabi
criticised herself and Dave'. In anticausatives like (4), the
reflexive construction alternates with a transitive one ('I opened the
door'). English lacks this type of reflexive. In 'the door opened
itself', the door opens by itself, not through another agent. This
intuition is absent in (4). Anticausative reflexives thus look like
valency reduction markers. Inherent reflexives like (5) (cf. English
'perjure/ disgrace/ betake/ vaunt oneself') look like semantically
vacuous arguments licensed by some stipulated c-selection
requirement. Here the (relevant sense of) the verb is obligatorily
reflexive. Steinbach calls all the above reflexives apart from (3)
'non-argument reflexives' because the reflexive does not obviously map
onto a semantic argument of the verb. The constructions noted above
are a crosslinguistic natural class, being distinguished by the same
morphological markers in language after language. The term 'middle
voice' is used for this natural class (the 'voice' part is needed to
distinguish middle voice in general from the narrower use referring to
constructions like (1) and (2). A reflexive pronoun is the typical
middle voice marker in Indo European languages. Chapter 2 gives more
empirical information about middle voice. Steinbach discusses the verb
classes acting as input to middle in German. We find middles with
transitives, unergatives, unaccusatives, ditransitives and resultative
constructions, but not with weather verbs. Middle acts on verbs with
at least one semantic argument. The subject of a middle is either
expletive 'es', cf. (2), or corresponds to the normal accusative
object of the verb. It is impossible to promote dative objects in
German middles. Steinbach reasons that promotion in middles is
sensitive to case, not thematic roles. This seems to be at variance
with Steinbach's observation that German marginally allows adjunct
middles like (6a,b). (I found these under; S:296 attests
another real example.) Here the subject corresponds to the NP
complement in an adjunct PP; cf. the near-synonymous impersonal
middles in (6c).

(6)	a. Die Schuhe laufen sich hervorragend
 The shoes walk themselves excellently
 'These shoes make for excellent walking'
 b. Die weisse Wolle strickt sich viel leichter als die blaue Wolle
 the white wool knits itself much easier than the blue wool
 'Knitting is easier with the white than the blue wool'
 c. Es l�uft/strickt sich hervorragend {in diesen Schuhen/mit dieser
 It walks/knits itself excellently {in these shoes/with this wool}

After giving more details on anticausative and inherent reflexives,
Steinbach (46) turns to the typology of middle voice
constructions. Crucial is the existence of two-form languages (Kemmer
1993), where we find strong and weak reflexive forms (Russian 'sebja'
vs. '-sja', Dutch 'zichself' vs. 'zich'). The weak reflexive is
formally more grammaticalised and is further to the right on the cline
'word-clitic-affix-zero'. It is confined to special verb classes,
e.g. verbs of grooming and posture change, quintessential 'reflexive'
processes. Middle markers must be weak forms. English is a two form
language: its weak form is zero. Thus, the English glosses of the
German reflexives in (1) and (3a) (but not (3b)) are intransitive
rather than reflexive. Steinbach's claim is that German lacks a strong
reflexive. (Note for Germanists: S:156ff argues that 'sich selbst'
(=emphatic 'oneself') is not gramaticalised as a strong reflexive, but
is a regular use of the focus particle 'selbst', which can focus any
kind of NP ('Maria selbst'). I add that Steinbach's claim is also
supported by the synonymous focus particle 'selber'. Disagreeing with
Steinbach would force one to posit two German strong reflexives, 'sich
selbst' and 'sich selber', straining credulity given that both can
focus any type of NP.)
Chapter 3 is a detailed literature survey. Syntactic analyses
(actually: existing syntactic analyses) are argued to be problematic
(These include English-oriented analyses emaphasising parallels with
passive, analyses using a pro subject, and analyses assuming the
reflexive to bind the subject argument.) Lexicalist analyses fare no
better, since they merely stipulate facts like obligatory adverbials,
reflexives etc., rather than explaining them. This moves Steinbach to
adumbrate a 'postsyntactic' theory where middles are derived 'at the
syntax-semantics interface'.
Chapter 4 proposes that argument and non-argument reflexives have an
identical syntax: both are direct objects. Steinbach assumes an early
Minimalist non-Kaynean syntax for German in which direct objects are
case-licensed in an agreement projection just above a head-final
VP. (Steinbach (204) cites Chomsky 1995 without page numbers in
defense of the agreement projections; this is unfortunate given
Chomsky's abandonment of them in chapter 4.) The claim that
non-argument reflexives are syntactically identical to argument
reflexives forces Steinbach to show why the former differ from the
latter in being unable to be coordinated, focussed (using stress or
focus particles) or fronted. I think Steinbach succeeds in this.
Chapter 5 is about binding theory. Steinbach notes empirical problems
with Chomsky's (1981) binding theory. Steinbach's binding theory
modifies Reinhart & Reuland (1993), notably in order to capture
non-argument reflexives, ignored by other binding theorists. It is
hard to do justice to the complexities of the theory in a short
space. Here is my attempt. Steinbach stipulates a General Condition on
A-Chains (GCC) which says that an argument chain must (a) be headed by
a case-marked link with the feature [+R], and (b) contain exactly one
[+R] element. ([+R] roughly stands for 'referentially independent',
but see below.) Unlike other theories where reflexives are specified
as [-R], Steinbach leaves German reflexives unspecified
w.r.t. [R]. The [-R] specification gives the nonargument reading,
while [+R] gives the argument reading. With [-R], the GCC forces the
reflexive to be construed as part of an argument chain, so that it
ends up mediating the linking between the subject and its base
position (=complement of V). With argument reflexives, there are two
distinct argument chains. That they are coindexed is due to the
semantic part of the binding theory, which uses an adaption of Pollard
& Sag's (1994) Principle A: a [+R] must be bound by a less oblique
argument of the same predicate. Steinbach argues that oblicity should
be defined in terms of case rather than in terms of thematic roles as
in Pollard & Sag.

I pause to consider Steinbach's choice to characterise argument
reflexives as [+R]. This may seem an odd use of the [R] feature, which
normally stands for 'referentially independent'. Note 10, p. 219
comments that Reinhart & Reuland use of [R] as a purely
morphosyntactic feature not directly associated with reference. If
Steinbach understands [R] in this sense (contrary to what the equation
of [-R] with 'referentially deficient' on p. 183 suggests but in
conformity with the possible specification of reflexives as [-R]),
then we would want some kind of independent semantic characterisation
of what the essence of [R] actually is. Without this, [R] be seen as a
mere trick serving merely to reformulate a descriptive problem more
elegantly. Perhaps future work can rectify this problem.

Chapter 6 is really two chapters. 6.1 explores the differences between
middles, anticausatives and unaccusatives. Two things can happen to
argument variables:

-Saturation (=binding by some semantic operator)
-Reduction (=removal from the semantic representation)

The middle reading arises from saturation by a generic operator (see
on ch. 7). Reduction is responsible for anticausative and inherent
reflexive structures. There is a discussion of the factors licensing
anticausative formation. Steinbach (231) assumes that it is licensed
when the verb does not require its subject to have any particular
mental state and when the event can be perceived as happening by
itself; there is strangely no mention of the 'internal causation' of
Levin & Rappoport (1995), although that book is cited. See H�rtl
(2003) for more on the German data. There ensues a brief and
inconclusive discussion of whether unaccusativity is syntactically
encoded. No attempt is made to determine when a change of state verb
will be reflexive or non-reflexive in German. See Labelle (1992) on
the parallel French problem. It is hard to assess whether Steinbach
is right in applying reduction (cf. section 6.1 above) to inherent
reflexives. S:232 asserts without evidence that they 'seem to be
derived from an underlying two-place representation'. Steinbach (233)
leaves open whether the inherent reflexive follows (a) from the verb
meaning or (b) lexical stipulation. Let us take this further. If there
are verbs where (b) holds, then I see two possibilities. One is that
the reflexive is synchronically just a dummy argument
idiosyncratically c-selected by the verb. If so, then reduction cannot
apply. The second possibility is that what is stipulated is not the
reflexive itself, but that reduction has to apply. This should not
shock us given that similar stipulations are needed for obligatorily
passive verbs

(7)	Mervyn got reincarnated (but *'God reincarnated Mervyn'), 
 He is rumoured to be an alien (but *'Bild-Zeitung rumored him to be 
 an alien').

and even obligatory middles:

(8)	a. She scrubs up well/nicely 'She dresses up effectively, looks nice
 when dressed up'
 b. *She scrubs up (* unless taken in sense of (a), 
 as can be brought out with an emphatic 'really')
 c. *She scrubbed (herself, her daughter) up for the party

Thus, at least in my variety, 'scrub up' has a sense 'dress up' which
is licensed only in the middle construction, although I see no earthly
reason why this should be so. Thus, we seem to have independent
evidence that for the stipulation of obligatory operations of the type
envisioned by Steinbach. On the other hand, it seems hard to believe
that every dummy object is due to an obligatory reduction or
saturation operation, witness cases like 'live it up, leg it, wing it'
listed in Postal & Pullum (1988).

Section 6.2 discusses the status of dative in German. The theory
predicts that nonargument reflexives should have structural case, so
Steinbach must give independent arguments for the non-structural
status of German datives. Some of the material is based on Vogel &
Steinbach (1998), who analyse dative NP's as adjuncts. Even though I
argue against structural dative in German in work in preparation, I
should alert non-Germanist readers to some problems. Steinbach notes
that nominative and accusative determiners are formally identical
outside the masculine singular. This is used in arguing that dative
(unlike accusative) needs special morphological marking. Steinbach
does not mention that many German dialects syncretise accusative and
dative yielding the ''Akkudativ''. Some other arguments in 6.2 indeed
show that nominative and accusative pattern as a natural class, but do
not show that dative is not structural. For instance, Steinbach notes
that the first item in a synthetic compound can correspond to an
accusative but not a dative, but the same holds for English
('gift-giving' but *'children-giving' (on beneficiary reading), where
there is no morphological dative and where the indirect object is
structural ('the children were given gifts'). I advise caution with
the multiple datives in (43) on page 253, since some informants I
consulted dislike them. This need not refute Steinbach's
datives-qua-adjuncts-position, since processing difficulties may
affect an otherwise grammatical sentence.

Chapter 7 deals with three topics specific to middles. 7.1 is about
genericity. It is well known that middles 'lack specific time
reference' (Levin 1993), being generic events, witness the simple
present in English cases like (1a). Remember that section 6.1 suggests
that middle involves not reduction (argument deletion) but saturation
(binding by an operator). Steinbach assumes that the generic operator
that binds the event variable also binds the variable of the
unexpressed argument. In an illuminating discussion, Steinbach derives
the following intuitions/facts, among others:

-that middles attribute a property to the promoted subject and hold it
 responsible for the situation, 
-that middle constructions are somehow 'modal'
-that individual-level predicates cannot input to middles
-that the unrealised argument receives an arbitrary interpretation.

Steinbach also gives a fairly satisfying explanation for the
'adverbial effect' (the tendency whereby middles are often bad without
adverbials: 'the book reads *(well)'), which relies on the interaction
between genericity, information structure and general informativeness
considerations. (Goldberg & Ackerman 2001 independently reach similar
conclusions.). The theory extends to cases where adverbials are not
needed, like the following example I heard:

(9)	The thread won't pick up. It's part of the carpet.

Section 7.3 is a likewise illuminating discussion of adjunct middles
like (6a,b).
Chapter 8 summarises the book and notes some conclusions and open


My overall evaluation is positive. The book reads easily. (An
exception is the use of endnotes rather than footnotes. I implore all
publishers to eliminate this annoying and unnecessary nuisance to the
reader.) The book is necessary reading for everyone interested in
reflexivity, middle voice, middle constructions and German
grammar. The data take Steinbach into many diverse issues (information
structure, case, binding, genericity...). It is perhaps utopic to
expect a more adequate coverage of the literature and data by one
author in a book of the same length (337 pages with references and
index). Inevitably, some relevant literature will be missed
(e.g. Pesetzsky 1995 and Bouchard 1995 on Romance reflexives and
binding) and some topics will be given too short a shrift. On the
latter score, I should note the absence of a serious theory of
argument realisation (beyond reflexives). We read (p. 205) that German
has a 'very simple' linking system where spec,VP is for the first
argument of the verb and complement of V is its second argument. This
cannot accommodate three-place verbs. The theory is only 'very simple'
because it lacks empirical content: there is no semantic definition of
'first' and 'second' argument, nor are we told why the respective
arguments should be linked as they are. This can be read as an
invitation to combine one's favourite linking theory with Steinbach's
ideas on reflexives, but not every linguist is at liberty to do
so. For instance, many theories assuming some variant of Uniformity of
Theta Assignment, such as the generative linguists following Hale &
Keyser (1993) in assuming that agents/causers enter the syntax as
specifiers of performative/causative light verbs, will have to
jettison either their own theory or Steinbach's idea that the
non-reflexive NP occupies the position normally reseved for the

To the criticisms I made while summarising the book, I now add couple
of other minor points.

Steinbach makes no recommendations concerning the use of middle as a
test; it has been variously claimed to diagnose affectedness (Hale &
Keyser 1993:82 and Levin 1993:26, Jackendoff 1996:312, fn. 7),
unaccusativity (Hale & Keyser ibid.) and the status of the direct
object in a resultive construction as argument of the verb (Carrier &
Randall 1992:188ff). Linguists using middles to diagnose something
are bedevilled by the delicacy of the judgements. Hence, Steinbach
gives inconsistent judgements for the same sentence ((20a) p.29
vs. (16b) p. 84), fortunately without detriment to his
argumentation. English middles are also fraught with
uncertainty. Should we reject (10a) but countenance (10b), as do
Carrier & Randall (1992: 190)? How should we judge the other the
sentences in (10)? To me (10d) sounds better than (e), and the German
translation of (d) is better than the English, but I would not bet my
house (or my theory) on this.

(10)	a. Competition Nikes run threadbare easily
 b. Teary-eyed witnesses believe easily
 c. The mountain climbs easy
 d. The wine drinks easily and well [attested once in internet]
 e. Only small hamburgers eat easily

There being no clear answer to these questions, it seems that middles
should be left well alone as diagnostics for anything. Either there
are too many as yet unknown pragmatic factors affecting their
unacceptability, or perhaps the Enlish and German middle are not fully
productive. (This possibility is neither assumed nor denied by
Steinbach.) Some readers may lament Steinbach's failure to mention
the reflexive found in resultative constructions ('er trank sich zu
Tode/he drank himself to death'), but this is not a
deficit. Coordination tells us that it is a special case of the
argument reflexive ('he shouted himself and the audience into a
frenzy'). See Levin & Rappaport (1995, 2001) and McIntyre (2001) for
different accounts.

In supporting his binding theory, Steinbach (200) is forced to argue
that exceptionally case-marked (ECM) subjects are semantic arguments
of matrix verbs as well as being case-marked by them. Thus 'John' is a
semantic argument of 'hear' in 'I heard John sing'. Steinbach's
reasoning is that 'hear John sing' entails hearing John, but 'hear
that John is singing' does not entail hearing him. I query this. The
entailments follow from the fact that the perception of an event
normally involves the perception of the participants. I say 'normally'
advisedly, because sometimes it is possible to perceive a situation
without perceiving the referrent of ECM NP. Various examples of this
type disconfirm the idea that ECM subjects are semantic arguments of
the perception verbs:

(12)	Ich sah den unsichtbaren Mann eintreten, weil er gerade eine
 Zigarre rauchte.
 'I saw the invisible man enter because he was smoking a cigar.'
(11)	I heard Fred being shouted at [I need not hear Fred]
 I saw the wind blow her hat off.
 Suddenly, I felt the fever leave me [reports if anything cessation of

It is purely for expository reasons that I have gone into more detail
criticising the book than praising it. I do not think that any of the
points I have criticised devalues the contribution of the book as a


Bouchard, D. 1995. The Semantics of Syntax. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.

Carrier, J., & Randall, J. (1992). The argument structure and
syntactic structure of resultatives. Linguistic Inquiry, 23, 173-234.

Chomsky, N., 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding. Cambridge
(Mass.): MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam, 1995 The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goldberg, A. & Ackerman, F. 2001. The Pragmatics of Obligatory
Adjuncts. Language. 77 4. 798-814.

Hale, K., & Keyser, S., 1993. On Argument Structure and the Lexical
Expression of Syntactic Relations. In: Hale, K. et al. (eds). The View
from Building 20. 53-110. Cambridge: MIT Press.

H�rtl, H. 2003. Conceptual and grammatical characteristics of
argument alternations. Linguistics 41, 5.

Jackendoff, R., 1996. The proper treatment of measuring
out... Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 14: 305-54.

Kemmer, S. (1993) The middle voice. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Labelle, M. (1992) ''Change of State and Valency'', Journal of
Linguistics 28, 375-414.

Levin, B. (1993). English verb classes and alternations. University
of Chicago Press.

Levin, B., & Rappaport Hovav, M. (1995). Unaccusativity. MIT Press.

McIntyre, A. 2002. Event paths, conflation, argument structure and VP
shells. Under revision for Linguistics. Ms. Leipzig

Pesetsky, D. 1995. Zero syntax: Experiencers and cascades. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.

Pollard, C. & Sag, I. (1994) Head-driven phrase structure grammar.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Postal, Paul M., and Geoffrey K. Pullum. 1988. ''Expletive noun
phrases in subcategorized positions.'' Linguistic Inquiry 19:635--670.

Rappaport Hovav, M. and B. Levin (2001) ''An Event Structure Account
of English Resultatives'', Language 77, 766-797.

Reinhart, T. & Reuland (1993) Reflexivity. Linguistic Inquiry 24,

Vogel, R. & Steinbach, M. (1998). The Dative - An Oblique Case.
Linguistische Berichte 173: 65-90.


Andrew McIntyre ( has a
postdoctoral research and teaching position at the University of
Leipzig, Germany. He is mainly interested in the syntax-semantics
mapping in the VP, e.g. argument linking, complex verb formation,
possessive constructions, syntactic lexical decomposition. He works
mainly on German and English.
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