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Review of  Argument Structure and Syntactic Relations

Reviewer: Michael T. Putnam
Book Title: Argument Structure and Syntactic Relations
Book Author: Maia Duguine Susana Huidobro Nerea Madariaga
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 23.2222

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EDITORS: Maia Duguine, Susana Huidobro, and Nerea Madariaga
TITLE: Argument Structure and Syntactic Relations
SUBTITLE: A cross-linguistic perspective
SERIES TITLE: Linguistics Today/Linguistik Aktuell 158
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2010

Michael T. Putnam, Department of Germanic & Slavic Languages & Literatures, Penn
State University


As designated by the title of this volume, this collection of papers provides
new theoretical perspectives on argument structure. In the introduction of this
volume, the editors (hereafter, DHM) introduce the three core questions that
these contributions address (adapted from p. 1):

1. The ‘inventory question’, i.e., How expansive or restrictive is the inventory
of theta-roles and the aspect/event structure that determine argument structure?
Do either of these units act alone or is a combination of both of them necessary
(see e.g. Ramchand 1997, 2008)?

2. The ‘hierarchy question’, i.e., Are arguments realized according to a
hierarchy similar to Baker’s (1988) notion of Uniform Theta Assignment
Hypothesis (UTAH) or not?

3. The ‘projection question’, i.e., Is argument structure projected from the
lexical items themselves (common in lexicalist approaches) or is the
alternative, neo-constructionist view superior?

In their introduction, DHM lay their cards on the table with respect to their
views on these matters. Concerning the ‘inventory question,’ DHM lauds
Ramchand’s (1997) research that seeks to find a correspondence between semantic
features and syntactic constituents that have only largely been regarded as
coincidental previous to her research in this domain of linguistic inquiry. In
Ramchand’s system, Davidsonian event semantics takes presence over theta-roles
in determining the argument structure of a given predicate. A similar line of
argumentation is adopted by DHM with respect to the ‘hierarchy question’
introduced above. Here, DHM point out that event-structure-based approaches to
argument structure (such as those advocated by Ramchand’s work) avoid the
problematic issues of linking theta-roles and designated syntactic positions,
which is often inconsistent from one linguist to another. These approaches are
able to consider other elements in the sentence (e.g. adverbials, semantic
properties of the objects, the addition of plurals, mass nouns, measure phrases,
etc.) that can play a decisive role in determining the argument structure of a
predicate. Lastly, DHM advocate an approach to the ‘projection question’ in line
with recent proposals by Borer (2005), Ramchand (1997, 2008), and others who
suggest that the properties of argument structure are not directly derived from
the properties of specific lexical entries. Once again, the event structure
establishes the syntactic structure, and thus, the syntactic positions of
arguments are largely responsible for determining their argument structure.

The papers in this volume are the written versions of talks given at the
“Workshop on Argument Structure and Syntactic Relations” held at the University
of the Basque Country in May 2007.

The fourteen contributions found in this volume are divided into four
sub-sections: (i) Semantic and Syntactic Properties of Event Structure; (ii) A
Cartographic View on Argument Structure; (iii) Syntactic Heads involved in
Argument Structure; and (iv) Argument Structure in Language Acquisition.

In the first section (Semantic and Syntactic Properties of Event Structure),
Maria Babicheva and Mikhail Ivanov begin this volume with their contribution
entitled “Aspectual composition in causatives.” In their research, Babicheva and
Ivanov provide an analysis of both the aspectual composition of non-derived
verbs and derived causative verbs. They argue for two types of aspectual
composition that can be found in natural languages: (i) Type 1, the “English
type,” where the telicity of a verb is determined by the reference properties of
its direct object; and (ii) Type 2, the “Russian type,” where an obligatory
telic verb imposes quantization on its direct object. In their analysis, they
propose that a unified event structure for causatives makes it possible to unify
these different types of aspectual composition under one structure.

Next, Ekaterina Lyutikova and Sergei Tatevosov (“Atelicity and
anticausativization”) engage in a discussion of the interaction between argument
structure and eventuality type by taking a closer look at the interaction
between anticausativization and (a)telicity. Lyutikova and Tatevosov argue that
inertia modality can be introduced at different levels within the light-verb
phrase (vP), which explains why different kinds of non-culmination (especially
with respect to accomplishments) are affected by anticausativization in a
variety of different ways.

Furthermore, Jonathan E. MacDonald’s study (“Minimalist variability in the verb
phrase”) discusses language variation from a Minimalist perspective. In this
context, MacDonald discusses aspectual differences observed in English and
Russian, with the latter licensing a clustering of inner aspectual properties
that the former language lacks. MacDonald accounts for the presence (or lack
thereof) of aspect based on the presence of a functional project specified for
aspect, namely AspP. In the remainder of his contribution, MacDonald discusses
how cross-linguistic and intra-linguistic variation regarding aspect can and
should be treated as separate issues in a Minimalist analysis.

Continuing this section, Jaume Mateu (“On the l-syntax of manner and causation”)
argues for a systematic approach to argument structure that is an extension of
Hale & Keyser's (2005) l(lexical)-syntax with respect to manner inflation. Here,
Mateu argues for a compromise of sorts between ''conservative'' proposals (e.g.
Folli & Harley 2006) and more ''radical'' ones (e.g. Borer 2005).

In the final chapter of this section, Petra Sleeman and Ana Maria Brito
(“Nominalization, event, aspect and argument structure: A syntactic approach”)
discuss the distinction between process nouns (i.e. complex event nominals) and
result/object nouns that is commonly assumed in the literature (see e.g.
Grimshaw 1990 as an example of an approach that makes this distinction). Sleeman
and Brito maintain that both process and result nouns have a + agentive and -
agentive parametric value associated with differences in their respective
argument structures. A result of their analysis is that these two types of nouns
are eventive and can be unified under a common analysis due to the fact that
their distinctive difference is argued to be merely aspectual in nature.

Leonard H. Babby (“The syntax of argument structure”) leads off the second
section of this volume (A Cartographic View on Argument Structure). Babby voices
criticism of generative approaches to argument structure that regard “the
syntax” to be the primary computational system. Babby outlines the nuts and
bolts of his approach to this problem, which include the existence of Argument
Structure (AS) and the important role it plays in determining the “argument
structure” of predicates. In this system, morphosyntax is defined as the
relation between syntactically relevant information encoded in a verb’s AS, the
affix-driven operations that alter initial AS representation, and the syntactic
structure projected from derived AS (see Babby 2009 for a more detailed
treatment of this approach).

John Bowers (“Argument structure and quantifier scope”) closes out this short
section by focusing on structural/syntactic properties of argument structure.
The core idea discussed in this contribution involves the merging of three basic
categories, namely, Ag(ent), Th(eme), and Appl(icative) item, into syntactic
structure. Bowers argues that the proper ordering of these thematic units is
opposite to what is commonly assumed in the literature (e.g. Ag > Th > Appl; see
also Bowers 2010). In support of his claims, Bowers argues in favor of active
Ag(ent)s and the by-phrase in passive constructions being licensed in the same
structural position.

Section 3 (Syntactic Heads involved in Argument Structure) opens with Angel J.
Gallego’s “An l-syntax for adjuncts,” where he adopts an l-syntactic approach to
VP adjuncts/modifiers, which he analyzes as PPs undergoing Merge with the VP -
similar to high applicatives in Pylkkaenen’s (2008) analysis.

In the next paper, Javier Ormazabal and Juan Romero (“The derivation of dative
alternations”) suggest that the classical derivational treatment of double
object constructions and dative constructions are in desperate need of an
update. Similar in some respects to Gallego’s approach to VP adjuncts/modifiers
in the previous chapter, Ormazabal and Romero suggest that these structural
alterations are triggered by preposition (applicative) incorporation and
Case/Argument-relational considerations.

The next two contributions, by Benat Oyharcabal (“Basque ditransitives”) and
Waltraud Paul and John Whitman (“Applicative structure and Mandarin
ditransitives”), take a closer look at the treatment of ditransitive
constructions in Basque and Mandarin Chinese, respectively. Oyharcabal makes use
of Pylkkaenen's (2008) high and low Applicative-functional projects in order to
account for ditransitive clauses in Basque. Paul and Whitman also adopt this
system in arguing that applicative heads always appear above the lexical VP,
regardless of the semantics of the construction. In their analysis, Paul and
Whitman make a distinction between ''thematic applicatives'', which select a
nominal expression and a VP as arguments (parallel to Pylkkaenen's ''high''
applicatives) and ''raising applicatives'', which appear in the same structural
position as thematic applicatives, but differ crucially in their inability to
select an underlying nominal argument.

Lastly, Knut Tarald Taraldsen (“Unintentionally out of control”) discusses the
morphosyntax of a particular type of Norwegian get-passive construction, where
it is possible for the subject to receive an agentive interpretation even when
his/her actions are unintentional. Taraldsen’s analysis makes a strong argument
for Ramchand’s (2008) system, within which he develops his analysis of this
unique type of get-passive in Norwegian.

The fourth and final section of this volume (“Argument Structure in Language
Acquisition”) includes two studies on the acquisition of argument structure.

Hamida Demiradache and Oana Lungu’s study (“Zero time-arguments in French child
language”) argues that zero-tenses in L1 French surface as either past or present.

Finally, Sigal Uziel-Karl’s contribution “Reevaluating the role of innate
linking rules in the acquisition of verb argument structure: Evidence from child
Hebrew” provides evidence against the acquisition of Verb Argument Structure
(VAS) being regulated by a set of universal, innate linking rules between
thematic-roles and syntactic functions (cf. Pinker 1984).


This volume brings together scholars with diverse research backgrounds in
linguistics (e.g. language acquisition, syntax, semantics) and an interest and
expertise in divergent issues related to the “argument structure” of natural
languages. The expansive empirical coverage of languages (including Basque,
Catalan, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, English, Scandinavian languages,
Russian, Nenets, Karachay-Balkar, Turkish, Hebrew, and Mandarin Chinese) is
impressive and points the way for continued research on other languages and
language families not directly addressed in this volume. From a conceptual
standpoint, collectively, these papers represent a growing trend in research on
“argument structure”, which is to incorporate event semantics into these types
of analysis. As a matter of fact, according to Borer (2005) and Ramchand (1997,
2008), event semantics takes precedence over traditional concepts and machinery
such as theta-roles, a fixed hierarchy established for theta-roles (UTAH), and
strongly lexicalist approaches to argument structure. The collective body of
research presented in this volume makes a strong case for the plausibility of
this model and suggests that the preliminary “answers” that DHM provide for the
three core questions that they introduce at the beginning of this volume are
indeed worthy of serious consideration.

In spite of the fact that the original ideas presented in these papers are now
roughly five years old, the analyses put forward in the majority of these papers
make strong contributions to our understanding of diverse empirical data while
also contributing to the on-going theoretical debates involving the core three
questions outlined above. To expand upon this point, I consider the
contributions of Bowers (''Argument structure and quantifier scope'') and
Taraldsen (''Unintentionality out of control'') in a bit more detail. Bowers'
contribution - which also served as the foundation of later, more detailed work
(e.g. Bowers 2010) - puts forward the radical claim that the traditional
ordering of thematic roles assumed in most, if not all, versions of Minimalist
syntax is backwards. He efficiently shows how his reversal of the ordering of
the traditional thematic hierarchy commonly assumed according to UTAH is more
accurate and conceptually efficient in accounting for quantifier scope. Bowers'
claims are indeed thought-provoking and force scholars to revisit this often
unchallenged facet of argument structure. In a similar light, Taraldsen, making
exclusive use of Ramchand's (2008) first-phase syntax, provides a novel sketch
of how to deal with unintentional causer arguments that could also be expanded
into a discussion of get-passives cross-linguistically. In contrast to Bowers'
piece, Taraldsen's study does not place any relevance on thematic roles and, as
a result of adopting Ramchand's system, places proto-agent arguments near the
top of the first-phase (VP), as is commonly assumed in Minimalist syntax. Both
analyses are well-articulated and thoughtfully argued with empirical support,
although they clearly contrast in key areas. This apparent heterodoxy should not
be interpreted as a weakness of this volume or this research program in general,
but rather as a sign of a theoretical shift in dealing with the connection
between argument structure, event semantics, and other (morpho)syntactic
operations. In my view, the next stage of productive discussion and debate in
this area of generative linguistics should involve detailed comparisons of the
different predictions of some of these competing models, and this collection of
papers should be lauded as a first step in that direction.

Although the scholarship in this volume is clearly presented and represents
innovative, cutting-edge approaches to argument structure and its relation to
other syntactic operations, the majority of the papers would be quite difficult
to fully comprehend without sufficient background in recent literature dealing
with the proposed intimate relationship between syntax and event semantics (see
e.g. especially Borer 2005 and Ramchand 1997; 2008). Therefore, the primary
audience for this volume would likely be graduate students and researchers with
a high level of familiarity with these recent proposals and subsequent research
that has developed there from.


Babby, Leonard. 2009. The syntax of argument structure. Cambridge: CUP.

Baker, Mark. 1988. Incorporation: A theory of grammatical function changing.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Borer, Hagit. 2005. The natural course of events. Oxford: OUP.

Bowers, John. 2010. Arguments as relations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Folli, Raffella. and Heidi Harley. 2006. On the licensing of causatives of
directed motion: Waltzing Matilda all over. Studia Linguistica 60.2: 121-155.

Grimshaw, Jane. 1990. Argument structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hale, Ken & Samuel Keyser. 2005. Aspect and the syntax of argument structure.
In: The syntax of aspect: Deriving thematic and aspectual interpretation, N.
Erteschik-Shir and T. Rapoport (eds.), 42-64. Oxford: OUP.

Pinker, Steven. 1984. Language learnability and language development. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.

Pylkkaenen, Lina. 2008. Introducing arguments. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ramchand, Gillian. 1997. Aspect and predication: The semantics of argument
structure. Oxford: OUP.

Ramchand, Gillian. 2008. Verb meaning and the lexicon: A first phase syntax.
Cambridge: CUP.

Michael Putnam is an Assistant Professor of German & Linguistics at Penn State University. His research foci include: philosophy of language, morphology, syntax, semantics, (morpho)syntax-semantics interface issues, bilingualism, and heritage linguistics.