LINGUIST List 4.122

Tue 23 Feb 1993

Disc: Subject/Object Asymmetry

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  1. , 4.108 Subject/Object Asymmetry and Idioms
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Message 1: 4.108 Subject/Object Asymmetry and Idioms

Date: Wed, 17 Feb 93 22:11:08 ES4.108 Subject/Object Asymmetry and Idioms
From: <>
Subject: 4.108 Subject/Object Asymmetry and Idioms

David Pesetsky suggests that it does not matter if long-held views
are shown to be wrong unless this "entailed the incorrectness of some
more general claim". Now, I have heard this kind of talk so often
it does not surprise me to hear it again, but I wonder exactly what
that is supposed to mean. For EVERY claim that has ever been made,
and then refuted, you can find a "more general" claim which we may
safely proclaim is what we really care about. If, for instance,
we discover that no feature of language is innate, that there is no
such thing as syntax, that there are no transformations or theta-roles,
etc., etc., I am sure someone will point out that these really were not
the interesting claims of Chomskyan linguistics after all.

In addition, as has often been pointed out, it is by no means clear
whether many of the more general claims that Pesetsky is referring to
CAN in principle be refuted. For example, the general claim that the
whole subject-idiom issue started with was twofold: (a) it was claimed
that idioms had to have the same constituent structure as the rest of
the language and (b) that there is such a thing as a VP.
Now, once it was pointed out that there are plenty of idioms that do
not fit this picture, suddenly it turned out that this was not the issue
at all, and that only the asymmetry between the allegedly impossible
S-V idioms and the possible V-O ones that was relevant.
In other words, if there were no idioms like 'The jury is out on...',
then that would be an argument for subject-object asymmetry, but since
they do exist, their existence is irrelevant to this issue. By the same
token, I am sure that once my examples ('The vultures are circling ....,
'The spirit moved ....', 'Der Teufel reitet ...', 'Diabli wzie,li ....',
etc.) are accepted as genuine, it will turn out that their existence
is also not relevant to the issue of subject-object asymmetry and hence
lacks theoretical interest.
Does this not mean that it is becoming more and more difficult
to find evidence which will be accepted as contradicting the
subject-object asymmetry? Is it not the case that it becomes
a matter of taste or politics and not of fact when a general
claim will be given up and when it will be insulated from counter-
examples by a suitable shift of ground?

Finally, let me point to the work of Howard McKaughan, the man
who introduced the term 'topic' into Philippine linguistics together
with the claim that the class of NPs referred to as 'topics' in
Philippine languages is importantly different from subjects in
languages like English. After a number of years, McKaughan realized
that his reasoning was wrong (he had thought that subjects are
necessarily agents, you see, something he apparently got out of
Bloomfield's Language), and he published a retraction beginning
with the immortal words "Forgive me, reader,...". Paradoxically,
McKaughan was not even wholly wrong, for there are other reasons
for distinguishing these Philippine NPs from English subjects, but
even so he followed the practice common in many fields of retracting
something which he came to see as a mistake. I do not see why this
should be a worse way for a scientist to act than the more familiar
pattern which we have seen in the case of the subject idiom controversy,
and in many similar cases alluded to by Hudson and Matthews in their
postings on this topic.

Alexis Manaster Ramer

P.S. Matthews asks whether the work on language games in phonology
is such a case. I think so, and beg to refer those interested in
this topic to two forthcoming papers of mine ("L'arbitraire de
Chine" and "Thinking Back to Cuna") as well as my 1981 thesis
("How abstruse is phonology?").
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Message 2: (GMT)

Date: 22 Feb 1993 15:27:59 +0000 (GMT)
From: <>
Subject: (GMT)

I believe that anyone who has seriously studied idioms in the context of
generative grammar would accept (1) as a factual base for English:

(1) a. Subject idioms are attested
 b. Subject idioms are more marked than object idioms.

However, for (1) to make sense we should try to define what a subject
idiom is, and we should have a theory of markedness. I will not try to
come up with a theory of markedness, because it crucially depends on the
kind of theoretical framework you believe in. But I think we can/should
say more about the definition of subject idiom regardless of the theoretical
framework. This way we can make sure that the discussion on subject
idioms will not continue to be muddled. (And it was as David Pesetsky
rightly observed)

Suppose subject idioms would be defined as in (2):

(2) A subject idiom is a verbal idiom whose subject contains lexically
 fixed material

Such a definition could include proverbs (as De Reuse rightly observes),
but it depends on how `verbal idioms' are defined. In (3) a parametrized
definition is given:

(3) A verbal idiom is a fixed phrase that
 a. contains a verbal head and its arguments, or
 b. contains a verbal head and its arguments, the verb may be freely
 tense-inflected, or
 c. contains a verbal head and its arguments, the verb may be freely
 tense-inflected and there is at least one open argument position,
 or one of the arguments contains an open argument position.

The a-clause of (3) gives a very minimal restriction on the format of
verbal idioms. The b- and c-clause of (3) further restrict the notion of
verbal idioms. (3b) and (3c) add parameters that indicate how syntactically
transparent a verbal idiom is, i.e. to what extent the arguments of the verb
are fixed and to what extent the verb itself is fixed. Only if one would
choose (3a) would proverbs be included.
(Of course, for a proper discussion on subject idioms one should also include
predicativeheads other than verbs, such as adjectives, nominals or PP's. But
I will discard that here.)
Finally, we should define the notion 'fixed phrase'. We can take either
(4a), or (4b):

(4) a. A fixed phrase is a multi-lexemic expression in which the
 combination of lexemes is restricted given the semantic
 interpretation of that expression in a linguistic community.
 b. A fixed phrase is a constituent or a series of constituents for
 which the semantic interpretation is not a compositional function
 of the formatives of which it is composed.

(4a) is more or less similar to the one on given in my 1992-ms on subject
idioms, and (4b) is a slight reformulation of Fraser (1970).

There are lot of choices to be made and every choice will give different
results with respect to the number of attested subject idioms. Especially
the definitions in (4) are a problem. When is the semantic interpretation of
a constituent noncompositional?

PS. Note that Keenan (1976) (Towards a Universal definition of "subject") was
the first (or one of the first?) in generative theorizing to notice the
relevance of idiomaticity w.r.t. the status of subjects.

Martin Everaert
Utrecht University
Research Institute for Language and Speech
Trans 10, 3512 JK Utrecht, The Netherlands
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