Home » Articles » NG14. Varying the sequence of theta roles

NG14. Varying the sequence of theta roles

Languid SlogThis piece looks at sequences in which the arguments of a three-place predicate can appear in an English sentence.  This leads to an improvement in the way (auxiliary)__(participle) junctions are analysed in NG.

Problems with pre-verb material

The noun phrases that precede auxiliary is can have any role in a give sentence:

(5) Nero is giving Olivia to Poppaea

(11) Olivia is given to Poppaea by Nero

(12) Poppaea is given Olivia by Nero

And fronting brings more complication:

(13) Olivia Nero is giving to Poppaea

(14) Poppaea Nero is giving Olivia

(15) Olivia Poppaea is given by Nero

(16) * Poppaea Olivia is given by Nero

(15) and (16) are syntactically identical so they can’t both have the intended meaning, with THEME / OLIVIA and GOAL / POPPAEA.  To me (15) seems just about OK.

As well as their variety, the thematic roles of the NPs are problematic because they cannot be determined until later in the sentence: at the give participle in (5) and (15), and at to or Olivia in the other sentences.

At auxiliary is

Sentences beginning xxx is… create an incomplete proposition (null) / INST / XXX.  Sentences beginning yyy xxx is… create (null) / INST / XXX followed by (null) / INST / YYY.  In view of the conclusions drawn in LS2 to 6, yyy__is cannot be treated differently from xxx__is, although it’s assumed yyy__is is processed after xxx__is.

In sentence (14) for example:

At participle giving

The analysis has to allow for the pre-verb material being AGENT in (5), THEME-then-AGENT in (13) and GOAL-then-AGENT in (14).  Intuition says that what is created by is__giving is not as simple as shown in LS13.  Instead it is:


Triangles clearly show the null shared by THEME and GOAL.  In the tabular format, arrows may help:

The nulls are satisfied according to the principle defined in LS12.  First the xxx concept attaches to the AGENT proposition, then the yyy concept is shared by the THEME and GOAL propositions.

The table for (13) is:

The table for (14) is:

Getting the right result for (14) depends on giving__Olivia enigmatically having the effect shown.  That needs justifying but I’ll leave it for the discussion of the double-object form, which has giving__Poppaea followed by giving__Olivia.

Finally the revised table for (5) is:


…for one week?  Next time we’ll complete the set of active sentences with Nero is giving, including the double-object form.

There’ll be few surprises in that so we’ll also start looking at passives.  In preparation, you may like to start thinking about a solution for passives.  Clue: in passives, AGENT is never from a bare noun phrase, always from a preposition phrase.

Mr Nice-Guy



Last week’s problem

(9) To Poppaea Nero is giving Olivia

My solution incorporates this week’s approach to is__giving, but you should be able to see whether you got the rest right.

Did anyone ask ‘Why no to__Nero junction?’  My guess is that creation of (null) / GOAL / NERO is inhibited by the existence of (null) / GOAL / POPPAEA – crucially with full activation.

Another point: elsewhere we’ve seen a giving__to junction, so why is no to__giving shown here?  Another guess: if it created GIVE / GOAL / (null), it would add nothing.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.