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Review of  Unaccusativity at the Syntax-Lexical Semantics Interface

Reviewer: Paul Kershaw
Book Title: Unaccusativity at the Syntax-Lexical Semantics Interface
Book Author: Malka Rappaport Hovav Beth Levin
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 4.1110

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[Moderators' note: we actually have 2 reviews of the Levin book to
post: the one by Paul Kershaw which follows, and another by Daniel
Seely. Since they are both rather lengthy, we'll post them in separate
messages. So stay tuned for a second look at _English Verb Classes
and Alternations_. We hope these different opinions will generate
some lively discussion.]

Comments on: Levin, Beth 1993 English Verb Classes and Alternations: A
preliminary investigation. The University of Chicago Press.-- Paul Kershaw,
Michigan State University, [email protected]

Description of the content: This book may be divided into three parts, to wit,
the introduction and parts one and two. The introduction, pp. 1-21, lays down
the theoretical foundation of the book. The book attempts to "delimit... and
systematiz[e] the facets of verb behavior" on the assumption that "the behavior
of a verb, particularly with respect to the expression and interpretation of
its arguments, is to a large extent determined by its meaning" (both quotes, p.1).

Part 1 consists of a series of diathesis alternations which distinguish various
verb classes, organized into major subtypes of alternations. For instance, the
alternations in section consist of transitivity alternations, "involving a
change in the verb's transitivity" (p. 25), exemplified by alternations between
NP V NP and NP V frames (i.e., +[__ (NP)] subcat) and between NP V NP and
NP V PP frames. This set includes alternations such as in (1)
(= Levin's (12)), (2) (= Levin's (38)), and (3) (= Levin's (113)):
(1) a. Jane broke the cup.
b. The cup broke.
(2) a. Mike ate the cake.
b. Mike ate.
(3) a. Jill met with Sarah.
b. Jill met Sarah.

Part two consists of a series of verb classes, in each of which the members
have some semantic commonality, and together observe certain alternations and
properties. The idea is to minimize the cognitive load required by the
lexicon. Rather than knowing, for instance, that "flinch" does not allow an
object NP, and therefore does not participate in causative alternations, nor
allow a cognate or a reaction object, a speaker of English need only know that
"flinch" is a flinch verb, as are "cower", "cringe", "recoil", "shrink", and
"wince", and possibly "balk", and that the properties of flinch verbs in
general is as given above (for flinch verbs, p. 223).


First of all, as a reference book, this book is well laid out. Most sections
consist of a list of references, a group of examples, and comments on the
section. Part one seems fairly well organized, although I wondered why
conative alternations (1.3, pp. 41-42, as in (84) Paula hit (at) the fence.)
deserved a section separate from preposition drop alternations (1.4, pp. 43-44,
as in (102) Martha climbed (up) the mountain. and (113) Jill met (with) Sarah).
Also, some sections lack adequate comments, and it often seemed more
appropriate the give the comments before, not after, the examples -- it is
often distracting to read the examples before finding out what they're examples

There were a few other unnecessary distractions. One was the definite
preference for feminine proper names, which struck me as just as annoying and
inappropriate as the traditional preference for masculine proper names
(especially as agents). Also, for instance, Levin writes of one alternation,
2.13.3 Possessor and Attribute Alternation, "This alternation should probbly
not be recognized as a separate alternation, because it arises simply as a
consequence of the fact that admire-type psych-verbs show both possessor and
attribute objects" (p. 76). Why list an alternation and then qualify it by
saying it shouldn't be there? Why not eliminate it altogether? As with the
conative/prep-drop distinction, there may be a motivation, but Levin doesn't
express one.

Finally, as specific criticisms go, Levin perpetuates the implicit binary or
tertiary acceptibility judgements even when they don't seem necessary. For
instance, 1.2.2 Understood Body-Part Object Alternation (pp. 34-35) involve the
omission of conventionally understood objects ((40) The departing passenger
waved (his hand) at the crowd. vs. (41) Jennifer craned *0/her neck.) This
should predict that the acceptability of dropped objects should become more
acceptable if the verb is contextualized. For instance, while (44b) Celia
braided. seems odd out of context, it can easily be made (more) acceptable in
context (e.g., Janine permed her hair, and Stephanie combed it out straight,
but Celia always braided.). This seems like the sort of prediction Levin would
want to make, but doesn't.

What bothered me most, though, was the brevity of the theoretical section -- 21
pages. After all, Levin is accounting for one aspect of verbal behavior that
is typically reserved for syntax (i.e., the subcategorization of verbs for
arguments and theta-roles) by using semantic grouping. It would seem like this
book, then, would be an excellent forum for discussing the role that semantics
has in syntax, if any. It's not certain at what level these alternations take
place: are they pre-syntactic (that is, is one of several possible argument
structures for a verb determined at a lexical level, with this information
passed on to the syntax)? Or is the argument structure determined during the
syntactic derivation, with an interplay between syntax and semantics?
Specifically, I am interested in how the material laid out here meshes with a
theory such as in Grimshaw's 1990 Argument Structure (MIT Press), which Levin
cites examples from but does not (as far as I can tell) discuss in the brief
theoretical section. In Grimshaw, specific roles are for the most part
irrelevant (only the number and configuration of roles is important); for
Levin, specific roles seem very important.

To be sure, Levin is discussing the lexicon here, and not syntactic
derivations. But that is not as straightforward a defence as it sounds, since
she doesn't make clear exactly what the difference is. The idea of classing
verbs according to the syntactic behavior/argument structure is hardly new; the
idea of defining these classes by semantics, as Levin does, is tantalizing.
But the "preliminary" in the title definintely needs stressing: without an
expanded theoretical background justifying and delineating what it is she's
doing, its precise purpose is not clear. Persuant to this, it is this
theoretical background which I think to be the most relevant for discussion
here on the Linguist List.