This week’s diathesis alternation

From the NYT yesterday, in “Who Will Watch the Charities?” by David Callahan:

Last week federal authorities disclosed that four cancer charities had bilked tens of millions of dollars from donors.

The subordinate clause here has a VP of the form:

(1) bilk MONEY from VICTIM

where I might have used one of the form:

(2) bilk VICTIM of MONEY

i.e., four cancer charities had bilked donors of tens of millions of dollars. Same verb, same participants in the event (a victim, some money), but different syntax: different argument structures, that is, different associations of the syntactic arguments (direct object DO and oblique object OO) with the participants. In more detail:

(1) V: bilk DO:MONEY P: from + OO:VICTIM

(2) V: bilk DO:VICTIM P: of + OO:MONEY

There is some tradition for referring to such a variation between argument structures as a diathesis alternation. In this case, both alternants are standard, and, so far as I can tell, are treated as such in the usage literature.

NOAD2 for bilk has both alternants, but treats them as semantically different — by building the different argument structures into its definitions:

obtain or withhold money from (someone) by deceit or without justification; cheat or defraud: government waste has bilked the taxpayer of billions of dollars.

– obtain (money) fraudulently: some businesses bilk thousands of dollars from unsuspecting elderly consumers.

I maintain that there’s only one bilk here, referring to an event involving money, a victim, and deceiful extraction. See the parallel discussion of blame — blame an event on a person, blame a person for an event — in a 2009 handout of mine, where I said:

Mark Liberman and I posted on blame on (“blame the failure on the software” vs. “blame the software for the failure”) a while back on Language Log. This was a hot usage item a hundred years ago, but the blame on variant has become entirely standard. Nevertheless, the proscription against blame on stuck around in usage advice for many years — MWDEU lists 16 items from 1906 through 1983 — and Mark and I were astonished to see it in Bryan Garner’s Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style (2000), in this sniffy advice:

In the best usage, one blames a person; one does not, properly, blame a thing on a person. E.g.: “I blame the fires on him.” (Read: I blame him for the fires .)

The Blame Zombie lurches on.

Both alternants here have clearly been standard for quite some time, but Garner (and some other peevers) insists on the older one as the only acceptable one (the blame on alternant seems to have been innovated around the beginning of the 20th century). Garner does, however, treat the two alternants as involving the same verb blame (though once again NOAD2 treats them as semantically distinct).

In fact, the usage literature on diathesis alternations is littered with peevish judgments, usually based on the fact that one alternant is more recent than the other; the implicit position is that we already have a syntax for the verb in question, so why should we add another? Sometimes speakers are accused of being “confused” about how to use the verb.

But as I have often pointed out on this blog, there are good reasons for creating new argument structures for existing verbs. For one thing, the new structures provide a way of marking arguments as discourse-new vs. discourse-old (Old Before New is an important factor in structuring discourse). For another, the difference between a direct object and an oblique object is often significant: the choice of DO can implicate a closer relationship between a situation and the relevant participant than the choice of OO, so alternants can differ pragmatically.

In the end, we have a collection of stable alternations (as with bilk), for which their history is (now) irrelevant; a few alternations (as with blame) that lurch through the landscape as zombie peeves; and a large collection of alternations involving an innovative variant that is not (yet) standard, as with confuse in confuse surfers for seals (here).

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