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  • External arguments in transitivity alternations: A layering approach by Artemis Alexiadou, Elena Anagnostopoulou, and Florian Schäfer
  • Malka Rappaport Hovav
External arguments in transitivity alternations: A layering approach. By Artemis Alexiadou, Elena Anagnostopoulou, and Florian Schäfer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 320. ISBN 9780199571949. $115 (Hb).

This monograph presents a comprehensive account of transitivity alternations involving the (non)expression of the external argument. It focuses on the causative alternation and both verbal and adjectival passives, drawing principally on data from English, Greek, and German, with reference to literature on other languages where available. Alexiadou, Anagnostopoulou, and Schäfer (AA&S) have been responsible for many leading ideas in current analyses of transitivity alternations, and the present volume, couched in the distributive morphology and bare phrase structure frameworks, integrates a wealth of empirical generalizations from decades of literature on these alternations with the authors’ ideas on the syntactic construction of verb meaning. The integration of the cumulative insights from previous literature into a specific theory raises many questions of implementation that are directly addressed in the volume. Other ancillary issues are explored in depth without conclusive answers.

The transitivity alternations under discussion are of particular theoretical relevance since they provide fertile ground for fleshing out ideas having to do with the decomposition of verb meaning. Two strands of research have given rise to ideas relating to the syntactic encoding of verb meaning; these merge in the analysis of the transitivity alternations in this book.

The first motivation for lexical decomposition developed from observations about systematic relationships between morphologically related classes of words, which share a basic lexical form. The triplet in 1 is illustrative: English and other languages abound in such triplets, though in many languages the forms are distinct and morphologically related.


a. The soup is cool.

b. The soup cooled.

c. The chef cooled the soup.

The event descriptions encoded in the sentences in 1 show systematic entailment relations among them and shared selectional restrictions on one of the arguments. These relations are captured by giving the sentences representations with a shared root and common substructures of structurally represented meaning involving primitive predicates such as CAUSE and BECOME. The representation associated with 1c contains that associated with 1b, which also contains that associated with 1a. These ideas can be traced back to the generative semantics literature (McCawley 1968, Lakoff 1970).

The second conceptual source for verbal decomposition derives from purported asymmetries between the subject and object of verbs. The verb is claimed to be semantically closer to its internal arguments than its external argument, with the ability to dictate special meanings for its composition with the former but not the latter. These observations give rise to the idea that the subject is not an argument of the verb (later, root) but receives its theta-role from a functional category. This idea dates back at least to Marantz 1984 and was made particularly prominent and given a formal implementation in Kratzer 1996. The two strands of research have merged in approaches that take arguments to be introduced by functional categories which are assigned interpretations similar to those proposed for structures with the primitive predicates (Borer 2005, Pylkkänen 2008, Ramchand 2008, and others). What is traditionally taken to be verb meaning is then portioned out to meaning attributed to the root, sometimes contextually determined, and meaning attributed to the functional categories. Causatives, anticausatives, and adjectival and verbal passives are the perfect testing ground for such theories since they have been argued to be distinguished from one another in terms of the numbers of functional categories and the presence or absence of the external argument and the syntactic nature of its realization. [End Page 471]

Ch. 1 introduces the range of data and the basic theoretical issues discussed in the book: the causative alternation, severing the external argument from the verb, the ontological categorization of roots, and the compositional construction of verb meaning.

Ch. 2 lays out AA&S’s view that causatives and their anticausative counterparts do not differ in event complexity. This position contrasts with positions that suggest that there are two layers of v in a causative...


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