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Review of  Unaccusative Verbs in Romance Languages

Reviewer: Ludwig Fesenmeier
Book Title: Unaccusative Verbs in Romance Languages
Book Author: Ian E. Mackenzie
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
History of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Catalan-Valencian-Balear
Language Family(ies): Romance
Issue Number: 18.611

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Author: Mackenzie, Ian E.
Title: Unaccusative Verbs in Romance Languages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Year: 2006

Ludwig Fesenmeier, Department of Romance Languages, University of Cologne

The purpose of the book is to question the Ergative Analysis, as discussed
on the basis of Romance languages. One here can identify, among
intransitive verbs, a subtype named unaccusative or ergative verbs whose
members share several syntactic features. These features are generally
assumed to be ''related to the fact that the apparent subjects of the verbs
in question [...] are 'deep' objects, and in some cases surface objects
also'' (p. 2). The author aims to show that a syntactic account of these
properties is ''both theoretically unnecessary and empirically inadequate''
and that ''alternative explanations are readily available'' (p. 5).


The book contains eight chapters, preceded by ''List of Tables'' (p. ix),
''Acknowledgement'' (p. x) and ''Sources of Historical Examples'' (pp. xi/xii).
The main text is followed by ''Notes'' (pp. 187-211), ''References'' (pp.
212-219) - including the editions mentioned on pp. xi/xii - and ''Index''
(pp. 220-230), containing both names and concepts.

The first chapter, ''The Ergative Analysis and the Unaccusative Hypothesis''
(pp. 1-16) introduces the subject, providing the general background and
briefly presenting most of the syntactic features to be discussed in the
following six chapters. The final chapter, ''Conclusion'' (pp. 182-186),
offers a short synthesis of the results achieved. As just mentioned,
chapters 2 to 7 (ranging in length from 10 up to 58 pages) investigate in
some detail the different properties of the phenomena at issue and propose
respective ''alternative explanations'', each chapter concluding with a brief

The property dealt with in chapter 2 (pp. 17-38) is ''Expletive Inversion'',
since this construction ''has often come to be seen as an unaccusative
diagnostic'', even if it ''is not the most widely cited'' (p. 18) as such. The
Romance examples are taken from French as a non-null subject language. The
author discusses two approaches in establishing ''a link between the
relevant empirical data and the 'deep-object' analysis of unaccusative
subjects'' (p. 37): expletive inversion is incompatible with unergative
verbs since ''the expletive originates in the position in which unergative
subjects originate'' (pp. 37-8) or since such constructions ''call for
partitive/inherent case on the [expletive] associate'' (p. 38), which by
hypothesis is excluded for unergative verbs. Adducing some counterexamples,
he concludes that both analyses are unreliable and proposes an alternative
approach, according to which it is the ''striking presentational capability''
of most of the so-called unaccusative verbs, ''rather than their syntax,
that explains their frequency in the expletive construction'' (p. 33). More
generally, the function of the expletive construction, which occurs not
only with unaccusative verbs (ex. 1) but also with passives (ex. 2),
reflexive passives (ex. 3) and unergative verbs (ex. 4), would be that of
preventing ''the verb from being accented and hence focused'' (p. 38):

1. IL EST ARRIVE quelque chose de très drôle. (ex. 1, p. 17)
2. IL A ETE ELU beaucoup de femmes. (ex. 89, p. 36)
3. IL SE CONSTRUIT beaucoup d'immeubles dans cette ville. (ex. 70, p. 31)
4. IL A REGNE un silence de mort. (ex. 76, p. 33)

The topic of the third chapter is ''Partitive Cliticization'' (pp. 39-69;
henceforth PC), which refers to ''the quantified noun pattern of extraction''
(p. 40) as realised in the clitic pronouns NE and EN in Italian and Catalan:

5. Se NE sono perduti sette. (ex. 5, p. 39)
6. Jo l'altre dia EN vaig veure un a la Rambla. (ex. 6, p. 39)

The argumentative relevance of PC resides in allowing systematic
distinction between unaccusative and unergative subjects. The author sets
out with a critical evaluation of various formal-syntactic accounts and
concludes that none of them provide a compelling reason ''to expect that the
operation [= PC] will be impossible from unergative postverbal subjects''
(p. 54). The author reasonably makes his point with, among others, the two
following examples containing unergative verbs:

7. Es poden inscriure 12 jugadors per equip i al ser de futbol 7, EN
JUEGUEN 7. (ex. 44, p. 55)
8. Al CNR lavorano 7.500 persone, mentre al CNRS NE LAVORANO 26.000. (ex.
48, p. 55)

Subsequently, the author presents a different approach which links the
licensing of PC to two types of information structure: according to this
view, PC would only be possible with the subjects of unergative verbs in
the case of wide focus, while unaccusative verbs would license PC with both
wide and narrow focus. However, as is immediately pointed out, examples
such as 8 and others (see pp. 57/58), have in fact narrow focus.
Nevertheless, while stating the ''general absence'' of ''a systematic
unaccusative-unergative asymmetry'' (p. 60) as far as PC is concerned,
Mackenzie well acknowledges that unaccusative subjects turn out to be more
easily compatible with PC than their unergative counterparts. Taking into
account not only Italian and Catalan data, but also some French sentences
which present expletive inversion, he suggests that the possibility of PC
with the subjects of intransitive verbs depends on the presentational
capability or incapability of the latter. Such a view is confirmed,
according to the author, by the PC-behaviour of adjectives (stage-level vs.
individual-level predicates, see pp. 63-4) and of ''(indefinite) direct
objects'' (p. 65).

Chapter 4 (pp. 70-102) is dedicated to ''Bare Subjects'' whose distribution
in the Romance null subject languages is often assumed to correlate with
the unaccusative-unergative distinction (see p. 70), i.e. only unaccusative
verbs would be compatible with these types of subjects. The data are mainly
taken from Spanish, ''but the main conclusions would in broad terms be
applicable to Catalan, Portuguese and Italian'' (p. 70). The author first
offers some sentences containing unergative verbs and postverbal bare
subjects, concluding that ''the occurrence of bare subjects with unergatives
[...] is a routine matter'' (p. 77). He then goes on to show that the
possibility of verbs to have bare subjects, as opposed to overtly
quantified subjects, depends largely on two semantico-pragmatic factors:
bare subjects are given preference ''when, and only when, the
quantificational meaning associated with the latter is incompatible with
the context or with the speaker's target assertion'' (see ex. 9 and 10
below); bare subjects are also preferred when the 'verb + bare
subject'-construction ''occur[s] in contexts in which an appropriate
non-subject argument can be determined'' (p. 101). Such would be the
requirement for the assertion to be complete. This is due to the fact that
''a complex consisting in a verb and a (non-generic) bare noun corresponds
to a monadic predicate'' (p. 90; see ex. 11 below).

9. (a) De ese agujero ESTUVIERON SALIENDO HORMIGAS durante tres horas.
(b) ??De ese agujero ESTUVIERON SALIENDO UNAS HORMIGAS durante tres
horas. (ex. 53/54, p. 84)

10. (a) PARTICIPAN NIÑOS en muchas guerras africanas.
(b) ??PARTICIPAN UNOS NIÑOS en muchas guerras africanas. (ex. 66/67,
p. 87-8)

11. (a) POR AQUÍ pasan trenes.
(b) ?Pasan trenes. (ex. 77a/b, p. 92)

Besides, the following observations also appear to be of some relevance:
the distinction between individual-level and stage-level predicates (see
pp. 95-99 and ex. 12 below) and the condition of the bare subject to form
the informational nucleus (see pp. 99-101 and ex. 13 below).

12. (a) Me GUSTAN las ostras. (ex. 88, p. 97; individual-level predicate)
(b) Me APETECEN ostras. (ex. 89, p. 97; stage-level predicate)

13. (a) Hablaron expertos INTERNACIOALES. (ex. 113, p. 100)
(b) ?Hablaron expertos. (ex. 112, p. 100)

''Perfect Auxiliary Selection'' is the topic of chapter 5 (pp. 103-161),
which deals mainly with Italian, since ''the Ergative Analysis and the
Unaccusative Hypothesis are inspired primarily by the Italian situation''
(p. 103): it is commonly assumed that intransitive Italian verbs which take
ESSERE as their perfect auxiliary are unaccusative, these verbs being
consequently put in a group together with passives, raising predicates
(PARERE and RISULTARE, among others) and reflexives. In the first part of
the chapter, Mackenzie discusses (purely or, at least, primarily) syntax-
and semantics-based approaches which are both committed to an analysis in
strictly synchronic terms. It is precisely this perspective the author
rejects as inadequate, arguing, instead, in the second part that ''the
limited semantic regularities'' observed in auxiliary selection, especially
when one compares French and Italian, ''are a residue of an earlier more
unified semanticism'' (p. 130). The basic idea put forward is that in late
Latin/early Romance constructions containing a form derived from Latin ESSE
and a perfect participle are to be interpreted as 'copula + adjective
denoting a resultant state', the ESSE-form being considered a state verb
(see p. 137). Mackenzie argues that the modern situation results from a
''process of conventionalization, whereby specific auxiliary assignments
became categorically associated with specific verbs or with specific
strands of meaning within the overall semanticism of given verbs'' (p. 161).
Such would be the case with stative verbs which are systematically
ambiguous depending on their state and achievement readings (see ex. 14
below). Another case would be verbs that formerly had an achievement
reading and lost it (see ex. 15 below).

14. (a) AVANZA della pasta. (State) (ex. 138a, p. 147)
(b) È AVANZATA della pasta. (Achievement) (ex. 138b, p. 147)

15. Per grande spazio BASTÒ il rovinìo delle pietre che cadevano giù. (ex.
154, p. 151)

Chapter 6 (pp. 162-171) deals with ''Past Participle Agreement'' as a
presumed diagnostic for unaccusativity. The author shows at first the
circumstances under which participle agreement can be observed in French
and Italian: intransitive (including reflexive) verbs which take
ESSERE/ÊTRE as auxiliary, transitive reflexive verbs and direct object
clitics (ex. 9/10, p. 163: Giovanni LA ha accusatA, Je LES ai achetéS).
According to some formal-syntactic approaches, these phenomena can be given
a unified explanation and, thus, ''past participle agreement phenomena can
be seen as providing indirect support'' for the ''ergative analysis of
unaccusative verbs'' (p. 165). Nevertheless, given the assumptions in (at
least some of) the approaches discussed here, one would expect lack of
agreement in the passive (ex. 18, p. 166: Furono catturatI/*catturatO
quattro presunti membri dell'ETA), while agreement ''might seem to be MORE
likely'' (p. 166) in cases such as ''Ils ont FAIT/*FAITES des recherches''
(ex. 21, p. 166). Thus, as far as past participle agreement is concerned,
''no single principle can be expected to have general applicability'' and,
therefore, such phenomena ''cease to count as evidence for the ergative
analysis of unaccusative verbs'' (p. 167). Mackenzie suggests considering
the modern synchronic situation as the result of a fragmentation process of
a ''genuinely unified pattern'' (p. 168) in Latin, i.e. ''the participle
agrees with its argument'', as in ''[In ea provincia pecunias magnas
collocatas] habent.'' (ex. 24, p. 168; ''[...]'' indicates a small clause).

Chapter 7 (pp. 172-181) is about ''Participial Absolutes'', more precisely
about ''a subset of small clause-type constructions involving past
participle'', where only the participle of an unaccusative verb ''co-occurs
and agrees with a lexical subject in the same clause'' (p. 172), while such
constructions would not be possible together with unergative verbs:

16. Salidos los padres jesuitas [...] (ex. 1, p. 172)
17. *Jugados los niños [...] (ex. 2, p. 172)

It has been shown, though, that such a restriction holds only in the case
of an overt subject (''BUSSATO alla porta, Gianni entrò'', ex. 7, p. 173).
Mackenzie instead argues that ''there is no compelling syntactic motive for
assuming unergative subjects to be incapable of occurring in participal
absolutes'' (p. 179) and offers indeed some counterexamples from Italian and
Spanish (see ex. 18 and 19 below). He nevertheless acknowledges the
''undeniable unergative-unaccusative asymmetry in terms of overall
productivity'' of such constructions (p. 179).

18. Una volta BOLLITO il brodo, immergerci la zucca in pezzetti. (ex. 20,
p. 178)
19. CENADOS los niños, salimos al cine. (ex. 23, p. 178)

The explanation offered for this asymmetry resides in the fact that the
participal clause always indicates a resultant state and that, therefore a
term capable of an achievement or accomplishment reading must be present.
Since unaccusative verbs typically have precisely such meanings, while
unergative verbs more often than not are activity terms, the asymmetry
observed ''falls out straightforwardly from the aspectual composition of the
two classes'' (p. 179).


The basic idea of the book under review is to show that the distinction
between unaccusative and unergative verbs within the overall group of
intransitive verbs, as encompassed in formal-syntactic approaches, raises a
large amount of problems both as far as theory-internal consistency and
descriptive adequacy are concerned. Furthermore, it turns out that
apparently contradictory empirical findings can be analysed coherently once
different explanations are taken into account.

I think Mackenzie has well shown that it is far from clear how, from an
methodological point of view, the unaccusative/unergative-distinction and
the different phenomena discussed here are related, and that sometimes the
empirical data poses some problems with regards to the theoretical claims.

Such problems, then, are theory-internal in nature and can thus only be
treated and possibly resolved theory-internally, but, as Mackenzie rightly
points out, it is equally legitimate to look for other explanations, e.g.
within analytical paradigms which differ from the formal-syntactic one.

As far as expletive inversion (ch. 2), partitive cliticization (ch. 3), and
bare subjects (ch. 4) are concerned, the author does actually propose an
alternative explanation in semantico-pragmatic terms. For an explanation to
the occurrence of intransitive verbs in absolute participle constructions
(ch. 7), the author resolves to a purely semantic approach.

The problems that arise concerning perfect auxiliary selection (ch. 5) and
past participle agreement (ch. 6) are, by contrast, attributed to a purely
synchronic approach, a situation which according to Mackenzie, is the
result of the evolution of the various Romance languages, diverging from a
rather unified picture at an earlier point in time: such an analysis thus
falls short of taking into account the possibility of contemporaneous
existence of phenomena which actually have originated at different moments
in the history of the language.

The alternative ideas put forward by Mackenzie can thus be grouped together
in two basic categories and one might have wished that this difference had
been made more explicit and/or would have also been reflected in the
overall organization of the book. Formally adopting his own distinction in
the overall structure of the book would have stressed the doubtful,
commonly presumed interdependence between the various phenomena discussed.

A discussion of the problems which, according to Mackenzie, arise by the
formal-syntactic analysis vis-à-vis the different matters seems beyond the
scope of the present review. What can be said is that the approaches
proposed by the author do appear rather promising and undoubtedly worthy of
further investigation. I however will equally not discuss them in greater
detail, for the data offered for illustration turns out to be rather

- except for the historical examples (see in particular ch. 5, but also ch.
6), many of the modern examples adduced do not seem to be authentic, but
rather constructed (and sometimes unnatural, too, e.g. ''Unos amigos
llegaron.'' (ex. 73b, p. 33); on p. 33 is given the example ''Il A RÉGNÉ un
silence de mort'' (ex. 76), an expression which usually appears in the
imperfect ''Il RÉGNAIT un silence de mort'');

- undoubtedly, other examples are authentic, but the sources are indicated
only very rarely (in most cases, they can be retrieved via Google);

- some examples are well attested, but have a quite particular status (see
ex. 106 and 107, p. 140 (repeated on p. 174): ''O ci andate già MANGIATI
[...]'' (ex. 107): such a construction seems to be exclusive to verbs such

- a few examples, which are supposed to be grammatical, are immediately
judged ungrammatical by native speakers (see ex. 41 and 42, p. 25: ''Il a
été construit CETTE MAISON en 1890'' (ex. 42); in the mini-dialogue ''-Ho
trovato noccioline. -Noccioline, LE ho trovate anche io'' (ex. 16, p. 75),
quoted from an article on Spanish, according to native speakers the second
turn is ungrammatical);

Another problem concerns statements such as ''in French [...] passives
select AVOIR in the perfect'' (p. 12; see also p. 117) which is definitely
wrong, since they well select ÊTRE (it is the latter that takes AVOIR as
its auxiliary); thus one cannot argue that French passives match up ''rather
conspicuously with unergatives'' (p. 12), as opposed to Italian (see p. 11).
It is equally not the case that Italian CAPITOLARE selects ESSERE as
perfect auxiliary, as is affirmed on p. 121 and p. 128 with regards to ex.
42 and 65. Discussing the 'stop'-sense of (Old) Italian STARE, Mackenzie
quotes the example given in 20, taken from Dante Alighieri's DIVINA
COMMEDIA, and comments that ''presumably SI STANNO is an intransitive
reflexive and STEA is transitive'' (p. 152).

20. Se i piè SI STANNO, non STEA tuo sermone. 'If your feet are stayed, do
not stay your speech.' (ex. 161, p. 152)

Under the entry STARE in the ENCICLOPEDIA DANTESCA (2. ed, Roma: 1984, vol.
V, pp. 409-413), however, one reads that ''[i]n un numero assai ristretto di
esempi, s. è impiegato assolutamente a indicare il persistere di una certa
condizione o situazione'' (§ 1.1, p. 410), and among the illustrations given
one finds precisely the sentence in question followed by the comment ''(il
secondo caso)''. Such an expert judgement casts considerable doubt on the
transitive interpretation proposed by Mackenzie.

One thus can state that sometimes the author's handling of the data is
rather casual, an impression which appears to be confirmed also on the
formal level: there are some annoying typographical errors
(''iNdentificarsi'' (p. 10, ex. 14), ''assEssino'' (p. 44, ex. 19/20), ''pocChi''
(p. 83), ''Sietro'' (p. 137, ex. 99), ''CrestomaNzia'' (p. 212, Arese (ed.)
1955)) and incorrect bibliographical references (the title of Schiaffini
without SECOLI (pp. xi and 218); on p. xi Cappelli's edition of IL LIBRO
DEI SETTE SAVI is stated as being 1865 (date of its first publication),
but on p. 213 one reads 1986, while the correct year of the reprint is
1968); in many of the historical examples omissions are not indicated (see,
e.g., ex. 147, p. 149, where the first part is missing: ''TOUT CE, FET ELE,
lessiez ester et [...]''); the Latin sentences are taken from a dictionary,
but some of them are indeed authentic, yet slightly different (e.g., ''Aqua
conclusa facile corrumpitur'' (ex. 174, p. 156) vs. ''Conclusa autem aqua
facile corrumpitur'' (Cicero, DE NATURA DEORUM)).

To sum up, the views proposed in the book under review seem worthy of a
systematic in-depth analysis which, however, should be based, wherever
possible, on data derived from authentic language corpora, both spoken and
written, often easily accessible online (see, e.g., ''Frantext'' for French,
the corpus used in the ''Opera del Vocabolario Italiano'', ''CREA'' and ''CORDE''
provided by the Real Academia Española, and the ''Integrated Reference
Corpora for Spoken Romance Languages'' (see

Ludwig Fesenmeier teaches Romance linguistics at the Department of Romance
Languages, University of Cologne, and is currently working on his
post-doctoral thesis on lexical synonymy in the Romance languages.

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