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Verb argument

From Academic Kids

A syntactic verb argument, in linguistics, is a phrase that appears in a relationship with the verb in a proposition. Typical syntactic arguments are the subject and the direct object, which are usually termed "core arguments".

Arguments can be optional or compulsory. The core arguments are compulsory. If a verb has one core argument (the subject), it's intransitive; if it has two, it's transitive. Some verbs (like English give) have three core arguments (the third is an indirect object). The number of compulsory 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.

Core arguments can be suppressed, added or exchanged in different ways, using voice operations like passivization, antipassivization, application, incorporation, etc.

Every language marks the core arguments of verbs using case, word order or a mixture of both, though some rely heavily on context for disambiguation.

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 in 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.

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