LINGUIST List 26.1134

Fri Feb 27 2015

Diss: Syntax: Irwin: 'Unaccusativity at the Interfaces'

Editor for this issue: Danuta Allen <>

Date: 22-Feb-2015
From: Patricia Irwin <>
Subject: Unaccusativity at the Interfaces
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Institution: New York University
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2012

Author: Patricia Irwin

Dissertation Title: Unaccusativity at the Interfaces

Dissertation URL:

Linguistic Field(s): Syntax

Dissertation Director:
Richard S. Kayne
Alec Marantz
Chris Barker

Dissertation Abstract:

In standard generative approaches, the central component of the grammar is the syntax. Syntax builds the structure of a sentence, and, at a certain point of structure-building, a syntactic object is sent to the two other components of the grammar: the semantic component, where meaning is computed, and the phonological/modality component, where the syntactic object is given form in sound. This dissertation contributes to our understanding of the ways in which syntactic structure has effects at the interfaces with syntax. It does so by focusing on unaccusativity, defined as a syntactic configuration in which a sentence has no external argument and a single VP-internal argument requiring structural case. This working definition of unaccusativity picks out two structural “direct object” positions. The syntactic analysis in the dissertation argues that the two resulting types of VPs correspond to two well-known classes of unaccusative predicates: those that denote changes of state (e.g., break, freeze), and those that denote motion and existence (e.g., arrive, drive up). This part of the dissertation discusses English unaccusativity diagnostics with respect to these two structures. Drawing on event-based approaches to argument structure, I argue that an agreement relationship between an event-introducing v head and the internal argument has consequences for the strong/weak determination of voice (or little-v, in a Chomskyan system) further along in the derivation. Turning to the interfaces, I argue that the two types of unaccusative structures have different properties at the interpretive interface. I argue that these differences are seen in the establishment of new discourse referents in English. My analysis starts from a long-standing observation in the functional literature: new discourse referents tend to occur as transitive direct objects rather than as subjects. I propose that transitive sentences allow existential closure at the VP level (over a direct object), only in the context of a predication, where a predication is defined as a semantically asymmetrical relationship between two phrases. I argue that this mechanism is available in only one type of unaccusative configuration. In other words, only one structural type of unaccusative sentence can establish a new discourse referent in the same way that a transitive sentence can. This argument is supported by a corpus study that compares the occurrence of old and new “subjects” of unaccusative and unergative predicates in a subset of the Switchboard Corpus that was independently annotated for NP information status. Turning to unaccusativity at the syntax-phonology interface, I show that the distribution of prosodic prominence in all-new unaccusative sentences of both structural types differs from that of all-new unergative sentences. Drawing on recent phase-based accounts of the syntax-prosody interface, I argue that both types of unaccusative VPs are selected for by a voice head that does not trigger spellout and that results in just one domain for accent assignment in all-new sentences. The presence of strong voice (Chomskyan v*) in unergative sentences results in either one or two domains for prosodic prominence in all-new unergative sentences. These differences are supported by an experiment in which participants pronounced all-new unergative and unaccusative sentences. The results of the production study support long-standing claims in the theoretical literature that all-new unergative and unaccusative sentences are pronounced differently.

Page Updated: 27-Feb-2015