Grammatical relations

Old version (Fall 2006) - current version here Grammatical relations must be carefully distinguished from thematic roles. In what follows, we illustrate three grammatical relations: subject, first object, and second object. The apparent contradiction between the existence of second objects and the binary-branching hypothesis is discussed in Chapter 7.

Subjects are ordinarily the only argument to precede the predicate in English. As the examples in (1) illustrate, a great variety of thematic roles can be expressed as subjects.

Be careful not to confuse the grammatical relation of subject with the thematic role of agent. The existence of passive sentences is a clear indication that the two notions are not synonymous (cf. (1a) with (4a)).

(1) a. Agent:   The lions devoured the wildebeest.
b. Instrument:   This key opens the door to the main office.
c. Cause:   Hurricane-force winds demolished much of the town.
d. Experiencer:   The rhesus monkey had never seen snow before.
e. Recipient:   The workers were given a raise.
f. Goal:   The summit wasn't attained until years later.
g. Path:   An unpaved road led up to the shanty.
h. Theme:   The wildebeest was devoured by the lions.
i. "   The ball rolled down the hill.

First objects are the noun phrase argument that typically follows a transitive verb. Again, a wide variety of thematic roles can be expressed as first objects.

(2) a. Instrument:   You should use this key for the door to the main office.
b. Experiencer:   The children's drawings pleased their parents no end.
c. Recipient:   They gave the workers a raise.
d. Goal:   We reached our hotel after a subway ride of less than ten minutes.
e. Path:   We drove the scenic route.
f. Measure:   The performance lasted two hours.
g. Theme:   The lions devoured the wildebeest.
h. "   We rolled the ball down the hill.

As the name implies, second objects only occur with ditransitive verbs. Unlike the other grammatical relations, second objects are thematically very restricted---namely, to themes, as illustrated in (3).

(3)   Theme:   They gave the workers a raise.

Nevertheless, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the thematic role of theme and the grammatical relation of second object. This is because, although second objects must be themes, themes don't need to be expressed as second objects. They can also be mapped onto subjects (as in (1h,i)) or first objects (as in (2g,h)).

Finally, it should be noted that most thematic roles are not restricted to being expressed as bare noun phrases, but can also be expressed as prepositional phrases.

(4) a. Agent:   The wildebeest was devoured by the lions.
b. Instrument:   The door to the main office can be unlocked with this key.
c. Cause:   Much of the town was demolished by hurricane-force winds.
d. Experiencer:   Snakes are feared by many people.
e. Goal:   I'd like to send this package to France.
f. Path:   Lucky raced across the lawn to the edge of the forest.