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Review of  Unaccusativity at the Syntax-Lexical Semantics Interface

Reviewer: T. Daniel Seely
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: 4.1111

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''English Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary
Investigation.'' By Beth Levin. Chicago and London: The
University of Chicago Press, 1993. Pp. xviii, 348.

Reviewed by T. Daniel Seely, Eastern Michigan

Beth Levin's ''English Verb Classes and
Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation'' (hence-
forth EVC) is an excellent reference book. It presents
syntactic and semantic information which is valuable
and easy to use. The book is rich in well-organized
data (there are thousands of entries in the verb index
and the bulk of the book is made up of dozens of
diathesis alternations and verb classes), it is
thoroughly documented (there are some 800 references),
and it has important theoretical implications (nicely
traced in the Introduction). It is, in short, an
impressive accomplishment and it has become an
indispensable part of my linguistics library.
EVC is a ''set of resource materials'' which can be
used in a great many ways (more on that later). But it
is not just a disconnected list of verb alternations
and semantic subgroupings. Rather, it represents a
well-conceived enterprise whose overall coherence can
be found in the ''hypothesis of semantic determination,''

(1) The meaning of a verb determines its syntactic

[Important corollaries of (1) are:

a. If the members of a set of verbs S share some
meaning component M, then the members of S can be
expected to exhibit the same syntactic
behavior(s), and

b. If the members of a set of verbs S exhibit the
same syntactic behavior(s), then the members of S
can be expected to share some meaning

This hypothesis is the book's guide, an extensive
elaboration of its requirements and implications is the
book's substance. The Introduction to EVC, for
example, presents, illustrates, and defends (1), Part I
systematizes many of the syntactic behaviors (verb
alternations) relevant to it, and Part II contains some
of the ''... semantically coherent verb classes'' that
result from using it as a probe for ''linguistically
relevant aspects of verb meaning'' (an exploitation of(1)b).
That is the frame, let me now add some of the picture.
As is made clear in the Introduction, (1) is
controversial but worth pursuing; controversial in
light of apparent counterexamples, but worth pursuing

(2)a. some of the counterexamples turn out on closer
inspection to actually support it,

b. it has important theoretical implications
regarding the nature and content of the lexicon,

c. it gives rise to a powerful research tool.

The very readable Introduction covers each of these
points; I summarize below.
The counter-example that Levin considers, from
Rosen (1984), is this: The Italian verbs ''russare''
(snore) and ''arrossire'' (blush) share the meaning
component ''bodily process'' while exhibiting disparate
syntactic behavior--the former is unergative, the
latter unaccusative. (1) must therefore be wrong. As
for the defense, Levin argues that the case is damaging
only if there is reason for assuming that ''...the
semantic notion ''bodily process'' plays a part in
determining a verb's status with respect to the
Unaccusative Hypothesis.'' As it turns out, there are
other semantic components of these verbs (involving
activity vs change of state) which predict divergent
behavior and which arguably do relate to the
Unaccusative Hypothesis. Further details need not
concern us here (indeed, the discussion in the
Introduction on this point is essentially review of
other work, by Levin et al and others). The more
general point is that (1) requires determining the
appropriate meaning components, something which while
necessary is not always easy. [Moreover, maintaining
(1) in the face of apparent counter-examples encourages
us to look for, and perhaps discover, meaning
components which might not have emerged otherwise.]
Turning now to (2)b, the theoretical implications
of the hypothesis of semantic determination are
important indeed. A traditional view of the lexicon is
wonderfully captured by Di Sciullo and Williams (1987).
''The lexicon,'' they write, ''is like a prison--it
contains only the lawless, and the only thing that its
inmates have in common is lawlessness.''

[NOTE that Levin herself gives the earlier and somewhat
less vivid statement of Bloomfield (1933): ''The
lexicon is really an appendix of the grammar, a list of
basic irregularities.'' I use the Di Sciullo-Williams'
quote (with full realization that there are great
differences between Bloomfield and Di Sciullo-Williams)
because I like it a great deal but also to set acontext for
a mild criticism. Although EVC has a tremendous bibliography,
there are a number of conspicuous gaps. There is no referenceto Di Sciullo and
Williams, for instance. Nor is there
reference to work on s- and c-selection by Grimshaw (1979)
and Pesetsky (1982), work which is clearly and directly
relevant to (1).]

Continuing our main discussion, lexical information
should be minimized. If (1) is true, lexical
information can be minimized in rather dramatic
fashion. As Levin explains (and I quote here somewhat
extensively to give the reader a feel for Levin's very
accessible style)

If the syntactic properties of a verb indeed follow
in large part from its meaning, then it should be
possible to identify general principles that derive
the behavior of a verb from its meaning. Given such
principles, the meaning of a verb will clearly have a
place in its lexical entry, but it is possible that
the entry will need to contain little more. And
since a word's meaning is necessarily idiosyncratic,
the inclusion of a word's meaning in its lexical
entry conforms to Bloomfield's characterization of
the lexicon as a locus of idiosyncrasy. (p. 11)

And a bit later Levin summarizes:

Taking this approach seriously requires a
re-evaluation of previous assumptions concerning the
contents of lexical entries, since it suggests that
they may contain less information than has sometimes
been proposed. Specifically, if there are indeed
correlations between verb meaning and verb behavior,
some properties that might have been included in
lexical entries because they were thought to be
idiosyncratic could turn out on further examination
to be predictable from verb meaning and could be
eliminated from a verb's lexical entry. (p. 12)

Much recent work, as Levin notes, considers these
conceptually very satisfying ideas. Levin's work
represents a significant step in creating the empirical
basis for realizing them.
(2)c, the final point, is that the hypothesis of
semantic determination gives rise to a powerful
research tool. What this amounts to is an exploitation
of (1)b. If the members of some set of verbs behave
alike with respect to diathesis alternations (i.e. if
they exhibit the same syntactic behavior), then there
should be some meaning component which they have in
common. And ''the availability of this technique for
investigating word meaning is important since it can be
quite difficult to pin down the meanings of words using
introspection alone.'' (p 15)
The members of the set of verbs {CUT, hack, saw,...},
for example, participate in the same alternations. Using
''cut'' as the representative case, they are found in the
middle construction (3), the conative alternation (4), and
the body-part possessor ascension alternation (5):

(3)a. Kimi cut the bread
b. Bread cuts quite easily.

(4)a. Kimi cut the bread.
b. Kimi cut at the bread.

(5)a. Kimi cut Bill's arm.
b. Kimi cut Bill on the arm.

This contrasts with the sets {BREAK, crack, rip,
shatter, snap, ...}, {TOUCH, pat, stroke, tickle, ...},
and {HIT, bask, kick, tap, ...}. Using the uppercase
verb as the representative, the following pattern of
behavior emerges (I use Levin's convenient table in the
interest of space, the reader can easily plug in the
relevant examples):

Conative: No Yes Yes No
Body-Part Ascension: Yes Yes Yes No
Middle: No No Yes Yes

Levin then shows that these sets have common meaning
components. Simplifying, the BREAK group doesn't
require contact nor motion but does involve change of
state. The CUT group requires contact and motion; Hit
requires contact and motion but is not change of state,
and TOUCH needs contact, no motion, and is not change
of state. Overall, then, there is a clear relation
between the syntactic behavior and key elements of
meaning. And it is also clear that without the
syntactic pattern as a guide, we might not have grouped
the words together to look for the shared meaning.
Consequently, Levin's research tool bears fruit.
Levin's book is rich in detail and it points
toward extremely fruitful further research. The issues
above are important as is the book's more general aim
of ''[paving] the way toward the development of a theory
of lexical knowledge.'' Progress can be made only if
the foundations are put into place. Levin's book is a
solid foundation indeed.

As a final note, let me point out that although my
comments have focussed on (some of) Levin's theoretical
underpinnings, I have found many practical uses for the
book. It has helped in making up exercise sets for
syntax, semantics, and morphology classes, for example,
it made checking the verbs of example sentences in a
psycholinguistic study much easier, and it has been
invaluable (my student's tell me) for creating
exercises of various sorts in TESOL. It is, after all,
a reference work and like all good references it is
limited only by the imagination of its user. At one
point Levin states ''... I hope that [this book] will be
a valuable resource for linguists and researchers inrelated fields.'' A hope
most certainly realized!


Bloomfield, L. (1933) ''Language,'' Holt, New York.
Di Sciullo, A. M., and E. Williams (1987) ''On the
Definition of Word,'' Linguistic Inquiry Monograph 14,
MIT Press, Cambridge.
Grimshaw, J. (1979) ''Complement Selection and the
Lexicon,'' Linguistic Inquiry 10, 279-326.
Pesetsky, D. (1982) ''Paths and Categories,'' MIT
Rosen, C. (1984) ''The Interface between Semantic Roles
and Initial Grammatical Relations,'' in D. M.
Perlmutter and C. Rosen, (eds) (1984) ''Studies in
Relational Grammar 2,'' University of Chicago Press,
Chicago, Il.