Participant roles of subjects

On Language Log, Mark Liberman has returned to the antique (and deeply inadequate) assumptions of school grammar, in a piece on Stanley Fish’s recent booklet “How to Write a Sentence: And How To Read One“:

in his tour of great sentences, there’s almost no syntactic analysis — and neither is there any careful analysis at any other level of linguistic structure. Nor is there any advice to the reader about where or how to learn more about the structure and function of these “little world[s] made cunningly” …

This is probably just as well, because what little linguistic analysis Prof. Fish gives us is full of assumptions from old-fashioned grade-school grammar, about whose inadequacies he’s curiously incurious. If he were writing about about the body, he’d be enthusing about the precarious balance of the four humours; but since he’s writing about syntax, his central assumption — obviously false and curiously unexamined –  is that sentences are all about agents, actions, and (optionally) things acted upon

As a contribution to this discussion, I offer a file I’ve been assembling for some years (for introductory syntax courses) confronting one piece of the Agent-Action View of syntactic organization, in which the building blocks of syntax are identified semantically — as agents, actions, and (optionally) patients (things acted upon) — rather than (correctly) by syntactic category (like NP and V) and syntactic function (like subject, predicator, and (direct) object). This piece is the association between subjects and agents, which is much more complex than in the Agent-Action view: in the real world, agents are sometimes expressed by non-subjects (as in the by-phrases of agentive passives) and subjects very often denote non-agent participants in some situation; concomitantly, the predicators in clauses with non-agentive subjects don’t denote actions (but other sorts of situations).

There’s still some relationship between subjects and agents, but that relationship isn’t identity.

On to the inventory of the participant roles of subjects.

(In this inventory t marks a predicator that takes at least two NP arguments, one of them the subject; and i marks one that takes only one NP argument, the subject.)

(Note: The predicators in the inventory are merely examples of their types.)

1.1.  agent subjects: all the usual suspects (both t and i)

1.2.  instrument subjects [these can be thought of as agent-like but inanimate]

t OPEN, DESTROY,…: The key opened the door. The hammer destroyed the vase.

i WORK, DO, SUFFICE, BE ENOUGH,…: Will this do (for plugging that leak)?

1.3.  patient/affected subjects (see also 4.1)

1.3.1. passive-like constructions

i passives: The castle was destroyed by barbarians.

t passivoid NEED, WANT: My shirt needs/wants washing.

i OSR raising: This shirt is   tough/a bear   to wash.

1.3.2. others

t FALL / ACCEDE / SUBMIT… (TO): The castle fell (to the barbarians).

t ACCRUE TO, DEVOLVE ON,…: Power accrues to the victors.

t CONCERN, TURN ON, REVOLVE AROUND,…: The play concerns poverty.

i VANISH, DISAPPEAR, APPEAR, TURN UP,…: The castle vanished.


t CONTRACT, CATCH, GET: I contracted/caught/got a cold

i DROP, FALL, ROLL, FLOAT,…: The apple dropped.

i BURGEON, GROW (UP), DEVELOP,…: The little tadpoles grew.

i ACCUMULATE, ACCRETE, PILE UP,…: Junk accumulated in the attic.

i PROLIFERATE, DOUBLE, MULTIPLY, HALVE…: Good ideas proliferated.

i STAND, BID FAIR: Thousands of employees stand to lose their jobs.

t RESIST, BEGGAR: This music resists/beggars description.

1.4.  recipient subjects

t INHERIT, GET, RECEIVE, WIN, LOSE,…: Chris inherited the family fortune.

t GET, TAKE:  Chris got/took much criticism.

t SPROUT, GROW, DEVELOP,…: Terry unaccountably sprouted wings.

t DESERVE: Sandy deserved fame.

2.  predicatee subjects

t RESEMBLE, BE/LOOK… LIKE: Terry resembles an afghan hound.

t BE, BECOME, REMAIN, STAY,…: Eric Blair became George Orwell. He was a writer. He was the author of Animal Farm.

i BE, BECOME, REMAIN,…: Kim remained happy.  The cake was delicious.

i GET, TAKE: Kim got/took sick.

i ABOUND: Good ideas about linguistics abounded.

3.  spatiotemporal course (event/path/extent) subjects

t TAKE, CONSUME, LAST,…: The talk took three hours.

t COVER, EMBRACE,…: The trip covers three miles of hard climbing.

t ORIGINATE / START / BEGIN / END / FINISH / CULMINATE IN / WITH: The play starts with a confrontation. The path ends in a cliff.

i ENSUE, OCCUR, TAKE PLACE, HAPPEN,…: A fight ensued.

i ELAPSE, PASS,…: Three hours elapsed.

4.1.  experiencer subjects

t APPRECIATE, VALUE, DELIGHT IN, LIKE, DETEST,…: I appreciate fine wines.

t TASTE, SMELL, HEAR, SEE, NOTICE,…: I smelled gas.

t EXPERIENCE, UNDERGO, WITHSTAND,…: I underwent an operation. I experienced pain.

t SUFFER, ESCAPE: No one suffered/escaped damage.

t DISCOVER, REALIZE, THINK, KNOW,…: I realized the answer. [“mental-action verbs”]

t WIN, LOSE,…: We lost the race.

t HAVE: I had my car burn up (on me).

4.2.  experience-source subjects

4.2.1. with experiencer objects

t DELIGHT, PLEASE, ENTERTAIN,…: Fine wines delight me. That you are smiling pleases me. [cf. DELIGHT etc. in 7]

t REPULSE, DISGUST, DELIGHT, AMAZE,…: Snails disgust me. That you are smiling repulses me. [cf. REPULSE etc. in 7]

t ANGER, DISTRESS, AMUSE,…: Bad manners anger me. That pigs can’t fly amuses me. [cf. ANGER etc. in 7]

t PUZZLE, BAFFLE, BEWILDER, CONFUSE,…: Your attitude puzzles me. That you are smiling puzzles me. [cf. PUZZLE etc. in 7]

4.2.2. others

t MAKE, CAUSE: Snails make me sick.  They cause me to vomit.

t OCCUR/COME TO,…: The answer occurred to me.

t REMIND: This wine reminds me of artichokes.

t STAND FOR, SYMBOLIZE, MEAN,…: The flag symbolizes the nation to me.

t FIT, SUIT, SATISFY,…: Your proposal suits me perfectly.

i TASTE, SMELL, SOUND, LOOK,…: The wine tasted awful (to everyone).

5.1.  spatiotemporal / abstract container / possessor / location subjects (see also 1.4)

t BOAST, HAVE,…: Huber Heights boasts many fine brick homes.

t STAR, FEATURE,…: These movies star Freddy the Pig.

t COMPRISE, CONTAIN, INCLUDE,…: The university comprises six divisions.

t TAKE, USE, MEASURE,…: The tank takes ten gallons.

t SWARM/CRAWL WITH…: The valley is crawling with new houses.

t FIND, SEE: Friday found Chris in Boston.

t SPORT, WEAR, HAVE ON,…: Chris sported a new coat.  Chris sports a moustache.

t DISPLAY, SHOW, EVIDENCE,…: Kim’s face showed no surprise.

t AFFORD: Can you afford this dinner?

t OWN, HAVE, POSSESS,…: I own two houses.

i WELL, BRIM, FILL,…: My eyes welled/brimmed/filled with tears.

5.2.  spatiotemporal / abstract content / possessed / located subjects (see also 2)

t DOT, MAKE UP, CONSTITUTE,…: Many fine brick homes dot Huber Heights.

t STAR/FEATURE IN,…: Freddy the Pig stars in these movies.

t FILL, SPAN,…: Ten gallons fill the tank.  The town fills the valley.

i STAND, SIT, LIE,…: Many fine houses lie in the valley.

i WELL: Tears welled in my eyes.

5.3.  spatiotemporally (or metaphorically) ranked subjects

t BORDER (ON), ABUT (ON),…: The Netherlands borders/abuts (on) Germany.

t LAG (BEHIND), TRAIL, EXCEED,…: The U.S. lags (behind) /trails/exceeds Japan.

t FOLLOW, PRECEDE,…: Kim follows/precedes Sandy in the procession.

5.4.  subjects of incipient states

i LOOM, THREATEN: Disaster loomed (over us). Disaster threatened us.

6.1.  source subjects (see also 1.2, 4.2)

t EXUDE, PRODUCE, GIVE OFF,…: The cave gave off a foul odor.

t AFFORD, SUPPLY, GIVE,…: The bluff affords us an excellent view.

t LEAD TO, RESULT / CULMINATE / EVENTUATE IN,…: Rash actions lead to trouble.

t ENTAIL, MEAN, SUGGEST,…: Your proposal means that we learn to fly.

t AMOUNT TO, COUNT FOR,…: Your comments amounted to nothing.

t BELIE: Your expression belies your words.

6.2.  product subjects

t ISSUE / SPRING/ ARISE FROM,…: A foul odor issued from the cave.

t SPRING / ARISE / FOLLOW/ COME FROM, FOLLOW ON, COME OF,…: Trouble follows from rash action.

t DEPEND/HINGE/HANG ON,…: The result depends on a trick.

7.  dummy subjects

t DELIGHT, PLEASE, ENTERTAIN,… [experiencer object]: It pleases me that you are happy. [cf. DELIGHT etc. in 4.2]

t  REPULSE, DISGUST, DELIGHT,… [experiencer object]: It repulses me that you are smiling. [cf. REPULSE etc. in 4.2]

t ANGER, DISTRESS, AMUSE,… [experiencer object]: It amuses me that pigs can’t fly. [cf. ANGER etc. in 4.2]

t PUZZLE, BAFFLE, BEWILDER,… [experiencer object]: It puzzles me that you are smiling. [cf. PUZZLE etc. in 4.2]

t BEHOOVE, BENEFIT, HELP,…: It behooves you to attend to their words.

i SEEM, APPEAR,…: It seems (to me) that that pig is flying.

i HAPPEN, TURN OUT,…: It happened that there were no penguins there.

i RAIN, SNOW, BE MUGGY,…: It’s raining (in Seattle).

3 Responses to “Participant roles of subjects”

  1. F. Escobar Says:

    Current stances on syntax notwithstanding, I do get the sense that the difference between the agent theory of syntax and the contemporary understanding of syntax are less like bodily humors vs. modern science and more like classical mechanics vs. quantum mechanics. In other words, the agenty theory works a lot of the time, but one gets to a point in which “all those reliable rules about balls on inclined planes start to fail” (as Rivka Galchen put it in TNY a few weeks ago). In fact, there is much good that thinking in terms of agents can do to keep prose well kempt and graceful… even if such thinking fails miserably when you probe deeper or want to make a theory or a system. But this is all about a mere twig on the massive oak of this discussion. The list you have posted is revealing.

  2. Ask AZBlog: passive query « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] I can see two reasons why this analysis might not be obvious to everyone. One possible reason is that (2) and (2′) have subjects that don’t denote Agents and verbs that don’t denote Actions; instead, the subjects denote Experiencers and the verbs denote Experiences. Some discussion of participant roles of subjects here: […]

  3. Sexual lexical semantics | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] my survey of the participant roles of subjects (here), I didn’t include Patient-subject fuck (and screw etc.), but I think now that it should be […]

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