Verb argument

Verb argument

In linguistics, a verb argument is a phrase that appears in a syntactic relationship with the verb in a clause. In English, for example, the two most important arguments are the subject and the direct object.[1]

Nearly all languages identify which phrases in a sentence take which argument role of the verb using case marking of the arguments, i.e. by case government (e.g. Latin), adpositions (e.g. Japanese), word order (e.g. English) or a mixture of these, though some rely heavily on context for disambiguation.

Information about the arguments themselves such as grammatical gender, grammatical number, grammatical person etc. may be indicated by case marking of the argument itself (dependent-marking language) or marked on the verb (head-marking language).


Verb arguments in English

In English, the two most important arguments are the subject and the direct object, which are called core arguments. The subject must be present in all well-formed clauses, and intransitive verbs do not accept any other arguments. Transitive verbs accept an optional object argument. A few verbs (like English give) may also accept a third core argument, the indirect object; those verbs are sometimes called ditransitive. The number of core arguments of a verb is called its valency.

Non-core arguments are also called "oblique arguments" or "complements". They are usually adpositional phrases showing time ("in the morning"), location ("at home"), beneficiaries ("for her"), etc. And yet, this description underplays the importance of complements since they also complete copulative patterns, which are among the most common sentence patterns in English. Thus, for instance, the sentence "Wikipedia is a poor source for knowledge" contains two complements: the noun phrase (with embedded adjective phrase) "a poor source" and the noun phrase "for knowledge."

Core arguments can be suppressed, added, or exchanged in different ways, using voice operations like passivization, antipassivization, application, incorporation, etc. Oblique arguments, however, can simply be omitted without any grammatical adjustment (with the exception of complements that complete copulative patterns, as described above).

Semantic verb arguments

Verb arguments are presented above from the syntactic point of view. However, verbs have semantic arguments, which may or may not correspond to the syntactic ones. In actual utterances only the syntactic arguments are realized, but the semantic arguments can be inferred from the meaning of the proposition.

Typical semantic arguments are the agent and the patient. Many verbs have other semantic arguments. Languages differ regarding which semantic arguments must surface as compulsory syntactic arguments.

For example, in English, the verb put requires three syntactic arguments: subject, object, locative (e. g. He put the book into the box). It also has 3 semantic arguments: agent, theme, goal. On the other hand, the Japanese verb oku "put" has the same semantic arguments, but the syntactic arguments differ, since Japanese does not require three syntactic arguments, so it is correct to say Kare ga hon o oita ("He put the book"). The equivalent sentence in English is ungrammatical without the required locative argument.

The English verb eat has two semantic arguments, the agent (the eater) and the patient (what is eaten), but only one required syntactic argument (the subject) and only optionally a second syntactic argument (the object).

Most languages allow for impersonal propositions, where the verb can have no syntactic arguments (cf Spanish llueve "it rains"). English verbs always require at least one syntactic argument (even if it is a dummy it, as in it rains). (See also pro-drop language).

Voice operations, such as passivization, can change the syntactic argument valency or exchange one syntactic argument with another, but the semantic arguments remain as they were. Compare the following sentences:

  • She ate a cake.
  • A cake was eaten by her.

In both cases the semantic arguments are she (the agent) and a cake (the patient), but the first sentence has the syntactic arguments subject and object, while the second has subject and (optional) agentive complement.

See also


  1. ^ Geeraerts, Dirk; Cuyckens, Hubert (2007). The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0195143787. 

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