Argument Structure

Lately, we have been considering different dimensions of meaning. So, for example, when we were looking at the English pronoun “it” in the following expression:

(1) “Look, I’ve got an apple, and I want you to hold it”

We can describe its grammatical meaning as ‘third person, singular.” Another way of looking at it; whatever “it” is, it cannot be the speaker, or the person spoken to, and it cannot be more than one. We know, furthermore, that ‘it’ may refer to ‘an apple’ in our example sentence, it can refer to something else besides an apple (perhaps the speaker is a beautiful but troubled blonde woman and she would like you to hold her pet snake, while she inspects an apple). Finally, ‘it’ may not refer to anything at all. That is, the expression ‘hold it’ can be interpreted, under the right circumstances, as the message ‘halt’!

Now I would like to dedicate this week’s blog entry to an aspect of this last dimension of meaning mentioned in the paragraph above. We have called “it” in the expression “hold it” (meaning ‘halt’) an expletive. In this case, ‘it’ has nothing to refer to. Note that “hold it” in this sense cannot be paraphrased by *“hold your body” or “hold your motion.” We have considered that the presence of ‘it’ is mandated by the fact that ‘hold’ is a so-called transitive verb, a word that requires both a subject and an object. Hence the impossibility of (3) below in comparison with (2):

(2) I want you to hold it!
(3) *I want you to hold!

In the terminology of Heidi Harley (English Words: A Linguistic Introduction), content listemes have an argument structure as part of their meaning. That is, part of the meaning of the listeme “hold” is that it establishes a relationship between two arguments: there must be a holder and a holdee . . . at least in the grammatical sense. (Can you tell me what term Harley would use for each of these arguments?). This is the case, even if the logic of the expression does not require them. Just as for the more contentful dimensions of words, we must also learn their argument structure, something that cannot always be predicted by semantic content. Consider the following sentences:

(4) Adam ate voraciously.
(5)*Adam devoured.

Why is (4) a grammatical sentence of English but not (5)? Note that we cannot appeal to meaning, as these two sentences mean essentially the same thing!

Lexical listemes may be associated with a range of different arguments. Consider the case of “like” below:

(6) Adam likes Eve.
(7) Adam likes going to school.
(8) Adam likes to go to school.

In (6) we see that like takes a so-called simple argument—a noun phrase. In (7) and (8), by contrast, like takes a propositional argument, a gerund in the case of (7) and an infinitive phrase in the case of (8). Again, to stress the distinction between structure and meaning, let’s look at the superficially antonymous set of sentences below:

(9) Adam dislikes Eve.
(10) Adam dislikes going to school.
(11) *Adam dislikes to go to school.

Note that there is no way to predict from the meaning of ‘dislikes’ that sentence (11) is ungrammatical. Its paraphrase is perfectly legal:

(12) Adam hates to go to school.

Hence we can see that argument structure is quite a separate thing from the lexical content of a listeme.

We have seen situations in this essay where meaning and structure clash. Harley points out, towards the end of our reading for this week, that when this happens, structure always ‘wins.’ Thus she points out that although ‘coffee’, for instance, is a mass noun (notice we quantify it with ‘much’ and not ‘many’), we may force a ‘count’ interpretation of this mass noun:

(13) I’ve had three coffees today. (‘coffees’ now means ‘cups of coffee’)

Adjectives have the structural diagnostic of permitting comparison. That is why a sentence like (14) below could be heard, even though the semantics seem to prohibit it:

(14) Today was the most perfect day I’ve had in a long time.

Here’s Noam Chomsky’s famous sentence:

(15) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

As a testament to the priority of structure over content, note just how well (15) works compared to the more meaningful but structurally impossible (16)

(16) *John sleep bed nights.


Can you think of some examples in your native language which illustrate the showdown between structure and meaning?