Argument Structure in English Grammar

Meaning in Linguistics Related to Verb

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The word "argument" in linguistics does not have the same meaning as that word in common usage. When used in relation to grammar and writing, an argument is any expression or syntactic element in a sentence that serves to complete the meaning of the verb. In other words, it expands on what's being expressed by the verb and is not a term that implies controversy, as common usage does.

In English, a verb typically requires from one to three arguments. The number of arguments required by a verb is the valency of that verb. In addition to the predicate and its arguments, a sentence may contain optional elements called adjuncts.

According to Kenneth L. Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser in 2002's "Prolegomenon to a Theory of Argument Structure," argument structure is "determined by properties of lexical items, in particular, by the syntactic configurations in which they must appear." 

Examples and Observations on Argument Structure

  • "Verbs are the glue that holds clauses together. As elements that encode events, verbs are associated with a core set of ​semantic participants that take part in the event. Some of a verb's semantic participants, although not necessarily all, are mapped to roles that are syntactically relevant in the clause, such as subject or direct object; these are the arguments of the verb. For example, in 'John kicked the ball,' 'John' and 'the ball' are semantic participants of the verb 'kick,' and they are also its core syntactic arguments — the subject and the direct object, respectively. Another semantic participant, 'foot,' is also understood, but it is not an argument; rather, it is incorporated directly into the meaning of the verb. The array of participants associated with verbs and other predicates, and how these participants are mapped to syntax, are the focus of the study of argument structure." — Melissa Bowerman and Penelope Brown, "Crosslinguistic Perspectives on Argument Structure: Implications for Learnability" (2008)

Arguments in Construction Grammar

  • "Each part of a complex construction has a relation to some other part of the construction in construction grammar. The relations between parts of a construction are all cast in terms of predicate-argument relations. For example, in 'Heather sings,' 'Heather' is the argument and 'sings' is the predicate. The predicate-argument relation is symbolic, that is, both syntactic and semantic. Semantically a predicate is relational, that is, inherently relates to one or more additional concepts. In 'Heather sings,' singing inherently involves a singer. The semantic arguments of a predicate are the concepts to which the predicate relates, in this case, Heather. Syntactically, a predicate requires a certain number of arguments in specific grammatical functions to it: 'sing' requires an argument in the subject grammatical function. And syntactically, arguments are related to the predicate by a grammatical function: in this case, 'Heather' is the subject of 'sings.'" — William Croft and D. Alan Cruse, "Cognitive Linguistics" (2004)


  • "Note the unusual behavior of the verb 'rain,' which neither requires nor permits any arguments at all, except for the 'dummy' subject 'it,' as in 'It's raining.' This verb arguably has a valency of zero." — R.K. Trask, "Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts" (2007)

Conflicts Between Constructional Meaning and Lexical Meaning

  • "In cognitive linguistics, it is generally assumed that grammatical constructions are carriers of meaning independent of the lexical items they contain. The lexical items used in a construction, especially the meanings of the verb and its argument structure, have to be fitted into the construction frame, but there are cases where a conflict between constructional meaning and lexical meaning arises. Two interpretive strategies emerge in such cases: Either the utterance is rejected as uninterpretable (semantically anomalous) or the semantic and/or syntactic conflict is resolved by a meaning shift or coercion. In general, the construction imposes its meaning on the verb meaning. For example, the ditransitive construction in English exemplified in 'Mary gave Bill the ball' is in semantic and syntactic conflict with the syntax and meaning of the ditransitive construction. The resolution of this conflict consists in a semantic shift: the basically transitive verb 'kick' is construed ditransitively and coerced into the interpretation 'cause to receive by means of hitting with the foot.' This meaning shift is possible because there are an independently motivated conceptual metonymy means of action for action that makes the intended interpretation available to the hearer even if he or she has never before encountered the use of 'kick' in the ditransitive construction." Klaus-Uwe Panther and Linda L. Thornburg, "The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics" (2007)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Argument Structure in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Argument Structure in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Argument Structure in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 6, 2023).

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