3 Some basic linguistic relations

In Chapters 1 and 2, we presented various pieces of evidence for the existence of syntactic structure in human language. The facts presented there raise a basic question - what is the basis of syntactic structure? In this chapter, we introduce three fundamental linguistic relationships that underlie syntactic structure. Two of these relationships, argumenthood and modification, are at bottom semantic relationships (although the expression of argumenthood is more constrained in natural language than purely semantic considerations would dictate), whereas the third, predication, is purely syntactic.


Semantic valency

The most obvious factor that determines how vocabulary items combine has to do with their meaning, a point most conveniently illustrated with verbs. From the point of view of a simple formal semantics, the verb laugh is a function from entities to truth values, as illustrated in (1). Entities that laugh are associated with the value T(rue); entities that don't with the value F(alse). In the world described in (1), Beatrice, Gary, Lukas, and Tina laugh, and Chris and Eva don't.

By convention, entities are indicated by boldface, sets are enclosed in curly brackets, and ordered pairs are enclosed in angle brackets. It is also conventional to indicate denotations of expressions by enclosing the expressions in special square brackets. These special brackets are not part of the HTML character set, so we use two ordinary square brackets instead.

(1)     [[ laugh ]] = { Beatrice T,
Chris F,
Eva F,
Gary T,
Lukas T,
Tina T }

Laugh can combine with a single argument, which denotes an entity. Intuitively, we can think of arguments as the central participants in a situation. Combining laugh with an argument (say, Lukas) has a syntactic effect and a corresponding semantic effect. The syntactic effect is to yield the sentence in (2a). (For simplicity, we disregard the semantic contribution of the past tense morpheme -ed here and in what follows.) The corresponding semantic effect is to apply the function in (1) to the argument; that is, to select the entity denoted by the argument in the function in (1) and to return the associated value. In the example at hand, the sentence comes out as true, as shown in (2b).

(2) a.   Lukas laughed.
b.   T

On the other hand, combining Chris with laughed yields Chris laughed with a truth value of F.

In addition to denoting simple functions, verbs can also denote recursive functions. For instance, a transitive verb denotes a function from entities to a second function, the latter of the same type as just described for the intransitive verb laugh (a function from entities to truth values). So the transitive verb invite might denote the function in (3).

(3)     [[ invite ]] = { Chris ( Andrew T ) ,
David ( Andrew T ) ,
Eddie ( Andrew F ) ,
Chris ( Brian F ) ,
David ( Brian F ) ,
Eddie ( Brian T ) }

Combining invite with a theme argument (say, David) has the syntactic effect of yielding the phrase in (4a). As before, the corresponding semantic effect is to select the entity denoted by the argument in (3) and to return the associated values, as shown in (4b).

(4) a. invited David
b.   [[ invited David ]] = { ( Andrew T ) ,
( Brian F ) }

Further combining invited David with an agent argument (say, Andrew) yields the sentence in (5a) and the truth value in (5b). This second step in the derivation of a transitive sentence is exactly equivalent to the first and only step that is necessary in an intransitive sentence.

(5) a.   Andrew invited David.
b.   [[ Andrew invited David ]] = T

It is important to understand that the order of the arguments in (3) reflects derivational order (the order in which the arguments combine structurally), not their superficial linear order. Given purely semantic considerations, it is equally easy to write functions in which derivational order is congruent with linear order. See Exercise 3.1.

Verbs like laugh and invite are instances of one-place and two-place predicates, respectively. The term predicate here refers to a vocabulary item, with a focus on its capacity to combine with one or more arguments. The number of arguments that a predicate requires is its semantic valency.

The relations denoted by predicates can involve more than two arguments. An example of a three-place predicate is give, which denotes the relation among a set of givers, a set of gifts, and a set of recipients. Even more complex relations are possible. For instance, rent is a five-place predicate denoting a relation among landlords or other sorts of owners, tenants, rental property, amounts of money, and lengths of time (lease terms).


In principle, a predicate's valency might completely determine the syntactic structure that it appears in. The ungrammaticality of the sentences in (7) would fall out directly from such a system.

(7) a. * Lukas laughed the train. (one-place predicate; superfluous argument)
b. * Andy invited. (two-place predicate; missing theme argument)

The actual situation, however, is more complex. For instance, eat denotes a relation between eaters and food. It is therefore a two-place predicate, like invite. However, unlike invite, eat has both a transitive and an intransitive use, as illustrated in (8).

(8) a. Transitive:   The children have eaten their supper.
b. Intransitive:   The children have eaten.

Notice that the semantic properties of eat remain constant in (8). In other words, (8a) and (8b) are both interpreted as involving the ingestion of food, even though there is no explicit mention of food in (8b).

In view of the mismatch between the semantic and syntactic properties of eat in sentences like (8b), it is useful to distinguish between semantic and syntactic arguments. As mentioned earlier, we can think of semantic arguments as central participants in a situation. Syntactic arguments, on the other hand, are constituents that appear in particular syntactic positions (see Chapter 4 for further discussion). Semantic arguments are typically expressed as syntactic arguments, but the correspondence between the two is not perfect, as (8b) shows.

We will use the term transitivity to refer to the number of syntactic arguments that a verb combines with, and we can then divide verbs into three subcategories as in (9).

We are using the term 'transitivity' in a slightly unorthodox way. Traditionally, the term refers to the number of a verb's objects, which is one less than the number of its arguments. Thus, as the terms imply, an intransitive takes no objects, and a ditransitive takes two.

(9) Degree of transitivity    Number of syntactic arguments

Intransitive 1
Transitive 2
Ditransitive 3

Because of mismatches as in (8), it turns out to be quite rare for verbs to belong to just one syntactic subcategory. (10) shows some two-place verbs besides eat that can be used either transitively or intransitively. The slashes separate the arguments from the predicate and each other.

Basically transitive Intransitive use
(10) a. He / interrupted / the meeting. He / interrupted.
b. Amy / knits / sweaters. Amy / knits.
c. They / are reading / a book. They / are reading.

Conversely, certain one-place verbs can be used not only intransitively, but also transitively, as illustrated in (11). Notice that the verb and its object in the transitive examples are etymologically related, or cognate. For this reason, the transitive use of one-place verbs as in (11) is known as the cognate object construction.

Basically intransitive Transitive use
(11) a. Dennis / died. Dennis / died / a peaceful death.
b. Lukas / laughed. Lukas / laughed / an infectious laugh.
c. Mona Lisa / was smiling. Mona Lisa / was smiling / a mysterious smile.

Further, it is possible to use some basically three-place verbs not just ditransitively, but transitively and even intransitively.

Basically ditransitive Transitive use Intransitive use
(12) a. We / teach / college students / syntax. We / teach / college students.
We / teach / syntax.
We / teach.
b. He / told / me / the whole story. He / told / me.
He / told / the whole story.
He / better not tell.

Finally, it is possible to use basically two-place verbs ditransitively.

Basically transitive Ditransitive use
(13) a. I / baked / a delicious cake. I / baked / my friends / a delicious cake.
b. She / sang / a lullaby. She / sang / her baby / a lullaby.


Events are associated with more or less central participants and properties. The central participants are the semantic arguments just discussed. Properties of a situation typically taken to be less central, such as manner, time (point in time, duration, frequency), place (location, origin, destination), reason (cause, purpose), and so on, can be expressed by modifiers.

Arguments and modifiers both introduce restrictions on the denotation of a predicate, and the relationships of argumenthood and modification do not differ in this respect. For instance, the situations denoted by invite David (where David is an argument) are a subset of those denoted by invite, just as the situations denoted by laugh uproariously (where uproariously is a modifier) are a subset of those denoted by laugh.

Modifiers of verb phrases are typically adverbial phrases or prepositional phrases, but noun phrases can serve as modifiers as well (see Exercise 3.3). In the following examples, the modifier is in italics, and the verb phrase that it modifies is underlined.

(14) a.   Manner: He read the letter carefully.
b.   Point in time: They discussed the proposal in the afternoon.
c. Duration: She kept their books for five years.
d. Frequency: I read the Times quite often.
e. Location: We met the students in my office.
f. Path: We followed along the path.
g. Origin: We set out from Bangalore.
h. Destination: We arrived in Benares.
i. Cause: He threw it away out of spite.
j. Purpose: I sent the message to warn everyone.

Because of their semantically peripheral character, modifiers are syntactically optional. The converse is not true, however. Not all syntactically optional constituents are modifiers; recall from (8b) that semantic arguments aren't always expressed.

Verb phrases are not the only category that can be modified. For instance, nouns are often modified by adjective phrases, prepositional phrases, or relative clauses.1

(15) a. a very important period
b. a period of great import
c. the car that just turned the corner

Moreover, adjective phrases and prepositional phrases, the quintessential modifiers, can themselves be modified.

(16) a. very proud of her progress
b. surprisingly good to eat
(17) a. almost in the dark
b. right behind the shed


The two linguistic relations discussed so far - argumenthood and modification - are basically semantic notions that are optionally expressed in the syntax. In this section, we introduce a third relation, predication, which differs from argumenthood and modification in being an irreducibly syntactic relation. By this, we mean that predication is not always semantically motivated.

Expletive it

In (18a), the italicized that clause functions as the sole syntactic argument of the adjective evident, on a par with the noun phrase in (18b). (For simplicity, we disregard the copula as semantically vacuous.)

(18) a.   That they are corrupt is evident.
b.   Their corruption is evident.

An indication of the semantic equivalence of the two expressions is the fact that they can both serve as a short answer to the question in (19a).

(19) a.   What is evident?
b.   That they are corrupt.
Their corruption.

In addition to (18a), a synonymous variant, (20), is available in which the that clause appears at the end of the entire sentence. The original position of the that clause is occupied by the expletive pronoun it.

The term 'expletive' means that the pronoun does not refer to a discourse entity in the ordinary way that pronouns do (see Referential versus expletive it for more discussion concerning the distinction between these two uses of it).

(20)     It is evident that they are corrupt.

Given that the that clause satisfies the semantic requirement of evident for an argument in both (18a) and (20), the presence of the expletive pronoun in (20) is striking and unexpected. From a semantic point of view, one might therefore expect it at the very least to be optional. But this is not the case, as the ungrammaticality of (21) shows.

(21)   * Is evident that they are corrupt.

The ungrammaticality of (21) leads us to conclude that there exists a purely syntactic well-formedness condition requiring all clauses to have a subject.

Earlier, we saw that it is possible for arguments to be semantically necessary and yet not to be expressed in the syntax. Expletive subjects represent roughly the converse of this situation, being cases where an expression that is not motivated by semantic considerations is nevertheless obligatory in the syntax.

Aristotelian versus Fregean predicates

We will refer to the requirement just mentioned as the subject requirement. According to it, every clause consists of a subject and a predicate (independently of semantic requirements). The term 'predicate' as used here has a different sense than in our earlier discussion concerning argumenthood; it refers to what remains of a clause when its subject is removed.

When we say 'subject', we don't mean 'simple subject.'

For clarity, we can use the term 'Aristotelian predicate' for this sense, since the observation that all sentences consist of a subject and a predicate goes back (at least) to Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Predication is the relation between a subject and an Aristotelian predicate. So (22a) and (22b) are two alternative ways of stating the subject requirement.

(22) a.   Every clause has a subject.
b.   Every clause is an instance of predication.

The sense of 'predicate' that we used earlier, in which the term refers to a single vocabulary item, is much more recent and can be attributed to one of the founders of modern logic, the mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925). Accordingly, we can use the term 'Fregean predicate' for this sense. What Frege made explicit is that Aristotle's division of a clause into subject and predicate is simply the first of a potential series of such bifurcations. Just as it is possible to peel off, as it were, the subject of a clause, leaving the Aristotelian predicate, it is possible to further peel off any arguments (and modifiers) contained within the Aristotelian predicate, yielding in the final instance a single vocabulary item, the Fregean predicate.

Fruitful as Frege's analytic insight is, we should not let it obscure the key difference between subjects and other constituents of a clause: namely, that constituents contained within an Aristotelian predicate must be licensed by semantic considerations (in other words, these constituents are present because of semantic considerations), whereas the subject, which is external to the Aristotelian predicate and combines with it, is required independently of semantic considerations.

In the following examples, the Aristotelian predicate of the largest clause is in italics, and the Fregean predicate is underlined. As the increasingly complex sentences show, Aristotelian predicates are recursive categories. Fregean predicates, on the other hand, not being phrases, are not.

(23) a. The tabby cat enjoys catnip immensely.
b. They have found that the tabby cat enjoys catnip immensely.
c. My downstairs neighbor suspects that they have found that the tabby cat enjoys catnip immensely.

Expletive there

In English, further evidence for the purely syntactic character of the subject requirement comes from the expletive there construction. (24) illustrates an ordinary sentence and the corresponding expletive there construction (see
Adverbial versus expletive there for more discussion concerning the expletive use of there).

(24) a.   Several vexing questions remain.
b.   There remain several vexing questions.

Just as expletive it occupies the position that would otherwise be occupied by a clausal subject, expletive there occupies the position that would otherwise be occupied by a noun phrase subject. And just as in the case of expletive it, omitting expletive there results in ungrammaticality.

(25)   * Remain several vexing questions.

It should be pointed out that not every English sentence has an expletive there counterpart. Rather, expletive there is subject to a licensing condition (a necessary condition for its occurrence) that can be stated roughly as in (26).

(26)     For expletive there to be grammatical as the subject of a clause, the (Fregean) predicate of that same clause must be a verb of existence or coming into existence.

In the following examples, the (Fregean) predicate licensing expletive there is highlighted in green.

(27) a. After their military defeat, there arose among the Plains tribes a powerful spiritual movement.
b. There is a problem.
c. There began a reign of terror.
d. In the end, there emerged a new caudillo.
e. There ensued a period of unrest and lawlessness.
f. There exists an antidote.
g. There follows a section on the care of gerbils.
h. There has occurred an unfortunate incident.
i. There remains a single course of action.

Predicates that aren't verbs of (coming into) existence don't license expletive there. This is the reason that the following examples are ungrammatical; the non-licensing (Fregean) predicates are highlighted in red.

(28) a. * There came more than sixty dignitaries.
b. * There continued the same problem.
c. * There rang the mail carrier.
d. * There sang an impressive choir from Russia.
e. * There walked a poodle into the room.

Some special cases

Nonfinite clauses. The instances of predication provided so far have all been finite clauses like those in (29).

(29) a.   He laughed uproariously.
b. It will seem that they won the game.
c. There is a problem.

Nonfinite clauses like those in (30) are also instances of predication; the clauses at issue are set off by brackets.

(30) a.   We expected [ him to laugh uproariously ].
b. We expected [ it to seem that they won the game ].
c. We expected [ there to be a problem ].

At first glance, it might seem preferable to treat the italicized noun phrases in (30) as objects of expected, rather than as subjects of the embedded nonfinite clause the way we have done. However, such an approach faces at least two difficulties. First, the relation between the italicized and the underlined constituents in the nonfinite embedded clauses in (30) is analogous to the relation between the undoubted subjects and predicates of the finite embedded clauses in (31).

(31) a.   We expected that [ he would laugh uproariously ].
b. We expected that [ it would seem that they won the game ].
c. We expected that [ there would be a problem ].

Second, in (30a), the thematic relation of agent that the noun phrase him bears to the phrase to laugh uproariously is the same as that between the subject he and its predicate laughed uproariously in (31a). If him were the object of expected rather than the subject of the nonfinite clause, we would be forced to admit the otherwise unprecedented pairing of the thematic role of agent with the grammatical relation of object.

Small clauses. Because of the parallel between the nonfinite and finite embedded clauses in (30) and (31), it makes sense to treat to in to infinitive clauses as the nonfinite counterpart of a modal like would. There also exist instances of predication without any overt counterpart to a modal at all.2 (See the supplementary material on Modals and auxiliary verbs in English for a definition of the term 'modal' and discussion.) Such instances of predication are called small clauses (the idea behind the name is that the absence of a modal element makes them smaller than an ordinary clause). (32)-(35) provide some examples of small clauses; the captions indicate the syntactic category of the small clause's (Aristotelian) predicate (which is underlined).

(32) a. Adjective phrase We consider [ the proposed solution completely inadequate ] .
b. They proved [ the theory false ] .
(33) a. Noun phrase They called [ the actor a traitor ] .
b. I consider [ Mark Judy's closest collaborator ].
(34) a. Prepositional phrase They made [ him into a star ] .
b. I want [ everyone off the boat ] .
(35) a. Verb phrase (bare verb) God let [ there be light ] .
b. Verb phrase (gerund) I hear [ the cat scratching at the door ] .

Small clauses are typically arguments of verbs, but they can also be arguments of (certain) prepositions - notably with - as illustrated in (36).

(36) a. Adjective phrase: With the weather much less turbulent, flights were able to resume for the first time in days.
b. Noun phrase: With his wife an airline industry lobbyist, the senator's support for the bailout was hardly surprising.
c. Prepositional phrase: With all of their three kids in college, their budget is pretty tight.
d. Verb phrase (gerund):   With the parade passing right outside her living-room window, Jenny could not have had a better view of it.

Imperatives. Imperative sentences like (37) appear to lack a subject.

(37)     Come over here.

There is reason to believe, however, that they contain a second-person subject comparable to the pronoun you except that it is silent (the "you understood" of traditional grammar). For one thing, (37) has the variant in (38) in which the subject is explicitly expressed.

(38)     You come over here.

Another reason to assume that all imperatives contain a silent, yet syntactically active subject is that the grammaticality pattern in (39), where the subject is overt, has an exact counterpart in (40).

(39) a.   You shave { yourself, yourselves. }
b. * You shave you.
c. * You shave themselves.
(40) a.   Shave { yourself, yourselves. }
b. * Shave you.
c. * Shave themselves.


1. The alert reader will notice that in the examples we give, it is verb phrases, adjective phrases, and prepositional phrases that are modified, but nouns (not noun phrases). You will be able to explain this apparent asymmetry after reading Chapter 5.

2. Small clauses are exceptional in another regard: they are a further instance of constituents in which the constituenthood tests of Chapter 2 yield false negative results (at least for most speakers).


Exercise 3.1

A. Imagine a language Hsilgne that is exactly like English except that transitive predicates combine first with the agent, and then with the theme. Does (1) mean the same thing in Hsilgne as it does in English? Explain, using the discussion in connection with (3)-(5) in the text as a model.

(1)     Brian invited David.

B. Are you sure that you speak English and not Hsilgne? How do you know? In other words, what's the evidence for your conclusion?

Exercise 3.2

A. In your own words, discuss the difference between the terms 'modify' and 'refer'. Feel free to use illustrative examples, but be as concise as you can. (See Reference and related notions for discussion of the term 'refer'.)

B. In your own words, discuss the difference between 'modify' and 'predicate'. Feel free to use illustrative examples, but be as concise as you can.

C. This part of the exercise focuses on a fundamental distinction in lingiustics - that of form vs. function. In every-day usage, the term 'modifier', which refers to any expression that adds information about some other expression, is sometimes used interchangeably with the term 'adjective'. By contrast, linguists distinguish carefully between the two terms and define adjectives on the basis of morphosyntactic form rather than on the basis of function. For instance, many adjectives can appear in a comparative (better, more acceptable) or superlative (best, most acceptable) form. Moreover, in many languages (though not in English), adjectives are inflected for case, number, and gender to agree with the nouns that they modify or that they are predicated of.

Assuming the linguistic definition of 'adjective', give an example of an adjective (or adjective phrase) that is not a modifier, and give an example of a modifier that is not an adjective.

D. This part of the exercise is intended to help you get a better feel for the concept of 'small clause,' which many students find difficult. Make up some example sentences that you think might contain small clauses. Clearly indicate the sequence that you think is the small clause, and note how sure you are whether it is a small clause or not. You should feel free to make up examples about which you are unsure, since that way, your examples and our feedback on them will be maximally informative to both of us.

Exercise 3.3

A. This part of the exercise focuses on a fundamental distinction in linguistics - that of form vs. function. The function of modification is typically expressed by constituents of a certain form - namely, adverbial phrases or prepositional phrases, as in the examples in the body of the text. But modifiers can also take the form of noun phrases, as in (1).

(1)     Manner: They solved the problem another way.

Provide examples of noun phrase modifiers for the other types of modification illustrated in the chapter in (14), repeated for convenience as (2). (This is not necessarily possible for every type.)

(2) a.   Point in time: They discussed the proposal in the afternoon.
b. Duration: She kept their books for five years.
c. Frequency: I read the Times quite often.
d. Location: We met the students in my office.
e. Path: We followed along the path.
f. Origin: We set out from Bangalore.
g. Destination: We arrived in Benares.
h. Cause: He threw it away out of spite.
i. Purpose: I sent the message to warn everyone.

B. Here are some basic questions concerning the relationship between thematic roles and grammatical functions.

Exercise 3.4

A. Given the licensing condition on expletive there in (26), repeated here as (1), determine whether each of the grammaticality judgments in (2) is expected. (Assume the judgments given even if you do not share them.) The brackets indicate clause boundaries (of to infinitive clauses or small clauses).

(1)     For expletive there to be grammatical as the subject of a clause, the (Fregean) predicate of that same clause must be a verb of existence or coming into existence.

(2) a. Feynman suspected [ there to be a problem with the O-ring ] .
b. * Feynman suspected [ there a problem with the O-ring ] .
c. There was suspected [ to be a problem with the O-ring ] .
d. * There was suspected [ a problem with the O-ring ] .

B. Is the following argument valid?

The grammaticality contrast in (3) shows that expletive there cannot be an object. In (4), it therefore cannot be the object of want, but must be the subject of the to infinitive clause.

(3) a. There is a fly in the soup.
b. * I dislike there in the soup.
(4) I don't want there to be a fly in the soup.

Exercise 3.5

Using concepts introduced in this chapter, discuss the syntactic difference(s) between the two sentences in (1).

(1) a.   Winston considered the judges careful.
b.   Winston considered the judges carefully.

The sentences come from this source, but the discussion there of (1a) is confused. (Thanks to Rosemary George for tracking down the archived link.)

Exercise 3.6

A. The following headlines each have an intended reading and (possibly more than one) unintended humorous reading. Using the concepts introduced in this chapter and in the supplementary readings, explain the differences between the intended and unintended readings.

(1) a.   Greeks Fine Hookers
b.   Lawmen from Mexico Barbecue Guests
c.   Lawyers Give Poor Free Legal Advice
d. Lung Cancer in Women Mushrooms
(2)     Q. What did the Zen master say to the guy at the hot dog stand?
A. Make me one with everything.
(3)     It used to be that if someone spilled coffee in their lap, they simply called themselves clumsy. Today, too many people are calling themselves an attorney. (https://www.mlaw.org/wwl, accessed 30 Jan 03)
(4)     The comedian Dick Gregory tells of walking up to a lunch counter in Mississippi during the days of racial segregation. The waitress said to him, "We don't serve colored people." "That's fine," he replied, "I don't eat colored people. I'd like a piece of chicken."
(Steven Pinker. 1994. The language instinct. How the mind creates language. New York: Morrow. 115.)

B. Recall Exercise 1.3. (Re)formulate (and possibly improve/generalize) your answer to Part B in terms of the concepts introduced in this chapter.

Problem 3.1

A. Nonfinite clauses like the bracketed sequence in (1) are prima facie counterexamples to the subject requirement.

(1)     I promised [ to come on time ].

Provide as much evidence as you can for the existence of a silent subject in (1) and nonfinite clauses like it.

B. The availability of (2) in vernacular usage might tempt one to conclude that the subject requirement is not absolute in English.

(2)     Seems like they're finally getting somewhere.

Does (2) really show that expletive subjects are optional? Discuss, providing evidence.

Problem 3.2

The expletive there sentences in (1) are acceptable in modern English (though quite formal in style). Discuss.

(1) a.   At the end of the intermission, there sounded a silvery bell.
b. Then the curtain rose, and there waltzed onto the stage an exquisitely, but strangely dressed apparition.

Problem 3.3

Each of the sentences below contains a constituent that in turn consists of two subconstituents, as indicated by the bracketing. What are the linguistic relations among the subconstituents? Is is possible to tell unambiguously in every case? As usual, provide
evidence where you can.

(1) a.   [ [ Late ] [ that night ] ] , they pitched camp on the hill overlooking the creek.
b. [ [ Early ] [ the next morning ] ] , they headed off into the interior.
(2) a. The doe and her fawn silently bounded [ [ back ] [ into the forest ] ] .
b.   Meanwhile, [ [ back ] [ at the ranch ] ] , Abner was scarfing down breakfast.
c. [ [ Back ] [ in those days ] ] , life seemed simpler.