Argument Assignment

Linguistics 322

We now consider lexical insertion to take place at the beginning of grammar. We will be able to cover the entire topic here. but lets start with the simplest construction--an intransitive verb. Let us start with the following structure:


Recall that arguments are not ordered in proposition structure. Lexical insertion does not assign the order and the exact position of an argument. Syntax established the word order of complement to heads and modifiers to heads. We may observe that nearly all argument marked for theme are complements of the verb. Let us suppose the following default rule:

(1)    Theme Assignment

 Theme is structurally assigned to complement of the head (predicate) that  assigns it.

Rule (1) formally assigns the theme argument to the complement of the verb generating structure (1). Verbs such as die, which are intransitive and assign theme to its argument, are called unaccusative verbs. (see Internal Subject Hypothesis).

There is another kind of intransitive verb--ergative verbs. Ergative verbs assign the theta role agent. Many linguists believe that this argument is assigned to Spec-V or it is adjoined to V--let us call this position the external position. An example of an ergative verb is

(2)    John left.

(3)    Birds fly.

The difference between unaccusative verbs and ergative verbs in English syntax is subject. In unaccusative verbs the theme argument may follow the verb in some cases:

(4)     There blows the noon whistle.

(5)     There goes Mary.

(6)     There goes the morning train to Paduccah.

(7)     There arrived a package at the front door.

(8)     *There runs John.

(9)     *There dies the bird.

(10)    *There walks the neighbor.

One problem arises. The verb go normally assigns agent to its main argument, yet (4) is perfectly fine. Perhaps the verb is focusing on the movement (theme) here as in (5), not on the source of locomotion (agent).

The D-structure for (3) is the following (if other linguists are right):


If a verb assigns an agent and a theme, the theme is assigned to the complement (direct object) position of the verb--the position that is immediately to the right of the verb to the internal argument position (the internal argument position). The remaining argument (agent) is assigned to the external argument position:

(12)     Bill played cards.


The first complement is assigned the accusative Case ([-Nom]) by the verb through feature agreement. The second complement can not be marked for Case by the verb since it is not governed by the verb. To satisfy the Case filter but more importantly, to satisfy Prom-Targeting, the the external argument (the agent) is targeted by Prom:



Bill can only be assigned Case once it is targeted by Prom, to which the feature [+Nom] is copied. Go to Raising.


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