The role of lexical semantics in argument selection, Part 1

As observed in Syntax, Part 3: Argument Structure, there are a number of potential complements for verbs, and not all seem to be available for all verbs, and in Syntax, Part 4: Thematic Roles, I presented the idea of thematic roles. So how are the argument structure (what complements it can take) of a verb or the thematic roles it has to assign determined? One relatively common approach is to state that argument structure is essentially arbitrary, and learned on a word by word basis. After all, it does not seem that meaning constrains argument structure very well, as there are words with very similar meanings, yet different argument structure. For example, we can see that eat and cook can be either transitive or intransitive, whereas devour and microwave are both obligatorily transitive.

(25a) I ate (the meatballs)
(25b) I devoured the meatballs

(26a) I cooked (my dinner)
(26b) I microwaved my dinner

However, there is an increasingly more popular theory of lexical information that says that the meaning of a word determines its argument structure. This seems to me to be intuitive and potentially more economical. First, it seems that some verbs simply cannot take arguments very well based on their meanings. To show this, I will look at just a subset of all verbs, those verbs where the subject does some action which causes a change of state in the object, such as kill. It is very easy to imagine that English could also allow an intransitive use of these verbs, creating another subset of verbs, those verbs where the subject (potentially habitually) does some action which causes a change of state in objects, but not one specified by the sentence. In fact, English does allow this construction sometimes, as shown in the following sentences

(27a) He kills for money.
(27b) Smoking kills.

On the other hand, at the far other end of the spectrum, we have that subset of verbs which consists of intransitive sentences that seem to have subjects, but no possible objects, such as die. It is hard to imagine die being used transitively (unless we use die to mean ’cause to die’, like kill, which some languages do allow, but that’s a separate issue). So it certainly seems like certain semantic constraints exist on argument structure. However, linguists such as Jackendoff, Beavers, Levin, and Pinker have all argued that verb meaning is decompositional, that is, that there are primitive meanings which, when combined, make up all of the meanings of verbs. What these are, I will save for a later post, but causation (mentioned above in the ’cause to die’ example) is one of them, as is the ‘change of state’. This point of view is attractive for the following reason: languages have tens of thousands of words. If the human brain simply stored these each as primitive concepts, it would be less economical than having some basic concepts. As well, our provided definitions of words do not always seem adequate. For example, the dictionary provides as a definition of paint ‘to coat, cover, or decorate (something) with paint’. But, as Jackendoff notes in the introduction to Lexical and Conceptual Semantics, we would not want to consider dipping a paintbrush into a can of paint to be painting it. Our notions of words seem to be very sensitive to the physical manner of an action, even if our definitions are not.

So if we consider the semantics of a verb to be decompositional, and to determine its argument structure, we are left with some important questions:

What are the primitives of verb meaning?
How do they determine argument structure?
If they do not, what does?
These are the topics that interest me and were the basis for my thesis, and will be the subject of the next few posts.

Note: I am still in the midst of getting into a potential job, so I may or may not be as regular a poster as I should like.


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