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Review of  Nonverbal Predication

Reviewer: Lorie Heggie
Book Title: Nonverbal Predication
Book Author: Isabelle Roy
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 25.5115

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This monograph is a revised version of Roy’s 2006 dissertation from the University of Southern California. In this book, the author addresses questions of structure and semantic-pragmatic interpretation related to predication in copular structures. She limits the domain of inquiry to strictly predicative sentences such as in ‘John is sick/a teacher’ and does not consider specificational nor identificational nor equative copular sentences. In so doing, Roy is able to elaborate on the properties of strictly predicational copular sentences and the possible interpretations available for the postcopular element. She notes that although the class of predicational sentences is generally agreed upon, there is still considerable variation across languages with respect to the actual forms (e.g., bare nominal vs. presence of the indefinite article in French), a fact that needs explanation. Her goals thus are to 1) determine a “fine-grained” typology of predicational sentences and nonverbal predicates in general, and 2) establish correlations between the semantic properties of predicates and their syntactic configuration. The book is divided into three parts: an introduction and general discussion of assumptions and issues, the analysis of meanings and structures of nonverbal predicates, especially for French, and the extension of the analysis to nonverbal predication in Russian, Spanish, and Modern Irish.

In Part One, Roy establishes the basic assumptions for the analysis and the primary concerns to be addressed by her analysis. Following Bailyn and Rubin (1991), Bowers (1993), Svenonius (1994) and Adger and Ramchand (2003), predication is hypothesized as stemming from the projection of a Pred(ication) head, where the nonverbal predicate is the complement of Pred. Allowing for a ‘be’ of equation as well as a ‘be’ of predication, she assumes that the ‘be’ of predication is a non-lexical copula that is a reflex of Tense and Aspect. She wants to argue that any interpretational differences that one sees across predicational copular sentences must come from the internal syntax of the postcopular expression. She is thus adopting a neo-constructivist view of the lexicon. where properties of words result from structural differences in the syntax, and are not inherent to the lexical item, following Borer (2005). Another important aspect of the analysis is that it is set in a “neo-Davidsonian” event-based approach to predicates where propositions are not directly predicated of individuals, but instead the mediation is between individuals and events. Taking her example of ‘Brutus stabbed Caesar’, the verb ‘stab’ is described on this assumption as taking three arguments instead of two, the third argument being an event. She is thus arguing that nonverbal predicates such as adjectives and nominals contain an eventuality variable.

Once these basic foundations are established, the author lays out the core issues that the analysis will address: the “meaning variation” problem, the categorical problem, and the copula problem. The first problem relates to the fact that an analysis of nonverbal predication relying on stage-level predicate (SLP) and individual-level predicate (ILP) interpretations cannot account for the variation found across nonverbal predicational sentences. Noun Phrases (NPs) in English have been hypothesized to be ILPs but data from French, Spanish, Russian, and Modern Irish provide evidence that nominals need to be subjected to a more complex heuristic.

The second problem relates to the fact that some languages exhibit clear differences in morphology depending on whether the postcopular element is a nominal or another form of predicate, such as an adjectival phrase (AP) or prepositional phrase (PP). If these constituents are to be treated as a single class of complements to Pred, their internal structure will need to be elaborated in a way that captures their predicative function while capturing their interpretative differences.

The third problem, the copula problem, relates to the fact that a number of languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Modern Irish, and Scottish Gaelic, exhibit two forms of ‘be’ in copular sentences. In the past, the choice of verb form has been reduced to the predicational/identity sentence dichotomy, or to the ILP/SLP distinction; however, data from Russian and Spanish provide evidence that a binary contrast does not provide a sufficient explanation.

Part Two of the monograph provides the primary analysis, where the author proposes a three-way distinction for postcopular predicates: defining, characterizing, and situation-descriptive. Defining and characterizing predicates are attributive and nominal while situation-descriptive predicates are not nominal. All of the nonverbal predicates are predicational, have a different basic syntax for each type and carry a Davidsonian eventuality variable. This tripartition of predicates is then a reflex of aspectual differences in the types of eventuality states. Prior to this analysis, states were envisioned as non-structured eventualities that are homogenous and non-atomic (not containing any discrete parts). Roy argues, on the other hand, for a position where nonverbal statives exhibit aspectual differences related to the internal structure of the eventuality they describe. These aspectual differences differ according to two criteria: the maximality criterion and the density criterion. The maximality criterion addresses whether a property is salient enough to “define” a person without any perceptible subparts; it expresses the maximal quantification over the eventuality. The density criterion is for the nonverbal predicates that contain subparts, and asks whether the subparts can be divided or not, resulting in two values -- dense (i.e., homogenous) and non-dense.

To illustrate these concepts with examples, consider the sentences below.

1. Paul est/était [un acteur]. (‘Paul is/was an actor.’)

2. Paul est/était [acteur]. (‘Paul is/was actor.’)

3. Paul est [absent]. (Paul is absent.’)

The nonverbal predicate in (1) is defining, and thus, maximal. It is a classification of an individual bearing this property. The nonverbal predicate in (2) is characterizing and non-dense. The nonverbal predicate in (3) is situation-descriptive and dense. To capture these differences syntactically, Roy argues that ‘un acteur’ contains a Number Phrase (NumP) that expresses a maximal eventuality, ‘acteur’ has a Classifier Phrase (ClP) that reflects atomic eventualities, and ‘absent’ is simply an Adjectival Phrase (AP) containing an unstructured, mass eventuality (i.e., it is dense).

Roy uncovers this typology through careful diagnostics tied to a sentence’s acceptance or non-acceptance of temporal and spatial modifiers, whether it has iterative, interruptive meanings, life-time effects, the type of subject that may appear, the kind of question the sentence answers, whether the sentence can take a ‘when’-clause, and whether it can take a perfective aspect in the verb, amongst others. To illustrate just one of these tests, the lifetime effects test is illuminating. Taking the sentences in (1) and (2) on their past reading, the sentence in (1) implicates that Paul is dead (i.e. defining), whereas the sentence in (2) with a bare nominal allows for temporal modification as in (4) (i.e., characterizing).

4. Paul était (*?un) acteur dans sa jeunesse. (‘Paul was an actor in his youth.’)

Note that the English versions of these sentences are ambiguous between the two readings. French, as well as Spanish, provides the opportunity to disambiguate the readings. Digging more deeply into bare Nouns (N), Roy demonstrates the lack of homogeneity in this class of sentences, and thus, the inadequacy of analyzing these predicates as SLPs.

In Part Three, Roy extends her analysis to Russian, Spanish, and Modern Irish. Russian supports the three-way distinction of dense/non-dense/maximal predicates by providing clearly grammaticalized marking of the predicate nominal as either nominative or instrumental case for the maximal (defining) and non-dense (characterizing) categories, respectively. Spanish, a Romance language similar to French with respect to the distribution of nonverbal predication, offers a different kind of challenge as it has two forms of ‘be’, ‘ser’ and ‘estar’. The interesting result here is that, given a three-way distinction of nonverbal predication in Spanish and a non-lexical copula that is a reflex of the syntactic environment, Roy is able to uncover a categorical account for ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ whereby these forms may be considered allomorphs, ‘ser’ taking the nominal forms (i.e., maximal, defining and non-dense, characterizing) and ‘estar’ taking the dense, situational-descriptive complements. Lastly, Modern Irish provides a second example of a language with two versions of ‘be’. This language provides further support for the typology while also enhancing it with the addition of a habitual statement under the category of characterizing sentences, a sentence-type also observed in Russian.


This monograph tackles a very difficult topic, predicative copular sentences, in such a way as to make longstanding linguistic problems look fairly straightforward. The argumentation is well-designed, carefully organized, and thorough, addressing past analyses and building on earlier work, most recently that of Martin (2008). Not surprisingly, the proposed solution lies at the interface of semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. The fact that such an interface could be identified for nonverbal predication and extended to multiple languages is commendable, and supports the direction of this research.

Copular sentences, however, will continue to provide fertile ground for discussion, given that there is still so much that remains unresolved. Predicative copular sentences have been generally regarded as one of the more solid parts of our understanding of copular sentences, and Roy points out to us that perhaps we should have started there a long time ago. Undoubtedly, the data from French has opened up a typology for postcopular elements that will most certainly continue to bear fruit, and will encourage more research in the neo-constructivist vein where internal syntactic structure takes on more of the work once thought to be in the lexicon.

Recent discussion of copular sentences in the past few decades has spent a lot of time on equatives and specificational sentences. The status of the inverted definite descriptor in sentences such as ‘The teacher is John,’ or ‘The problem is his handwriting,’ has been discussed in numerous places (Heggie 1989, 1990; Moro 1997; Heycock and Kroch 1997; den Dikken 2006; Nishiyama 2008; Heycock 2012; Heggie and Iwasaki 2014; among many others). On the hypothesis that the precopular NP in these sentences is predicational, and not referential, we are left with the interesting question of how the typology explicated in this monograph may be extended to definite descriptors in inverted copular sentences. This question is clearly an area for future research.


Adger, D. and G. Ramchand (2003) Predication and equation. Linguistic Inquiry, 34 (3): 325-360.

Bailyn, J.F. and E.J. Rubin (1991) The unification of instrumental case assignment in Russian. In A. Taborio and V. Harbert (eds), Cornell Working Papers in Linguistics. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 17-37.

Borer, H. (2005) Structuring Sense. Volume II: The Normal Course of Events. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bowers, J. (1993) The syntax of predication. Linguistic Inquiry, 24 (4): 591-656.

Heggie, L. (1989) Constructional focus and equative sentences,'' in the Proceedings of West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics VIII, 154-166.

Heggie, L. (1990) On reference in copular contexts, In P. Hirschbühler and K. Koerner (eds), Romance Languages and Modern Linguistic Theory, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, Publisher.

Heggie, L. and E. Iwasaki (2013) The Inverse Copular Construction Revisited: Pragmatic Ambiguity and Dual Syntactic Positions, ms.

Heycock, C. (2012) Specification, agreement, and equation in copular sentences, Canadian Journal of Linguistics / Revue canadienne de linguistique 57(2): 209–240.

Heycock, C. and A. Kroch (1997) Inversion and equation in copular sentences. Paper presented at the workshop on (Pseudo)clefts at the Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprach- wissenschaf (ZAS), Berlin.

Martin, F. (2008) Les prédicats statifs: Étude sémantique et pragmatique. Paris/Bruxelles: De Boeck.

Moro, A. (1997) The Raising of Predicates: Predicative Noun Phrases and the Theory of Clause Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nishiyama, Y. (2008) Non-referentiality in Certain Noun Phrases. In T. Sano, M. Endo, M. Isobe, K. Otaki, K. Sugisaki, and T. Suzuki (eds), An Enterprise in the Cognitive Science of Language: A Festschrift for Yukio Otsu. Hituzi Linguistics in English No. 8, Hituzi Syobo Publishing, 13-25.

Svenonius, P. (1994) Dependent Nexus: Subordinate Predication Structures in English and Scandinavian Languages. Ph.D. thesis. University of California, Santa Cruz.
Lorie Heggie is a retired Associate Professor of French and Linguistics from Illinois State University. Her research interests include all copula phenomena and the syntax-semantics-pragmatics interface.

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