8.6 Subcategories

We saw in Chapter 7 that we can group words into categories according to their behaviour. In this unit, we see that we can divide up the category of Verbs into subcategories according to what kind of complement a verb takes.

Check Yourself

Video Script

Let’s consider a simple sentence, Jamie might bake cupcakes.This is a perfectly grammatical English sentence, and we can account for it all using x-bar structure. If we change the verb bake to the verb eat, our sentence is still grammatical, Jamie might eat cupcakes. And that makes sense of what we know about how categories work — we group verbs together into the verb category because they behave the same way.

But what about these sentences?

Jamie might arrive cupcakes.

Jamie might hope cupcakes.

Are these grammatical? My mental grammar doesn’t generate these, and I bet yours doesn’t either. And their ungrammaticality isn’t just a matter of them not making semantic sense, either. Since the verb arrive often has something to do with a location, we could try changing cupcakes to Toronto, but the sentence is still ungrammatical: the grammar of English does not generate the sentence, Jamie might arrive Toronto. But why aren’t these sentences grammatical? There’s no doubt that arrive and hope are verbs, and they seem to fit into the same x-bar structure that was grammatical for lots of other sentences. Why doesn’t our mental grammar generate the sentence Jamie might hope cupcakes?

It’s something to do with the verbs themselves. Some heads are picky about the kinds of complements they’re willing to take. And this is especially true for verbs. Within the large category of verbs, we can group verbs further into subcategories according to the kinds of complements they take. For each head, the mental lexicon stores not just syntactic category information, but also subcategory information. The subcategory information tells us what kinds of complements each head will accept. So let’s look at a few verb subcategories.

Transitive Verbs have one complement, a noun phrase, so they have this basic structure. The verb baked is transitive when it has an NP or DP complement like cupcakes. Here are some other transitive structures:  drank coffee, likes Linguistics, needs money, speaks Mandarin.

When there is a noun phrase in the complement of a verb, we call it the direct object. And the direct object NP or DP doesn’t have to be a single word. It could be a fairly complex phrase itself. As long as it’s a noun phrase and it’s the complement of a verb head, we call it the direct object, and the verb is a transitive verb.

Intransitive verbs have no complement at all. These are verbs that describe an action or state that involves just a single participant, like sneezed or arrived or dances or slept.

There’s a small set of verbs that are called ditransitives. They’re a little special because they have two complements, but for them to count as ditransitives, they have a special kind of behaviour, called the dative alternation. The best example of a ditransitive verb is the verb give. Take a look at this structure and notice that the V-head gave has two sisters — two complements — the NP cupcakes and the PP to Sarah. But this verb give has another possible grammatical structure that means exactly the same thing. In this alternate structure, the verb has two NP complements. The NP Sarah, which was the complement to the preposition in the other structure, is now the first complement, and cupcakes has become the second complement.

The fact that our mental grammar generates both these structures for this verb and its complements is called an alternation. There are other alternations in our mental lexicon, but this particular one is called the dative alternation, which comes from the Latin word for give. Most of the verbs that allow the dative alternation are verbs that have a meaning that’s related to giving.  Send is another example:

She sent a letter to her grandmother. // She sent her grandmother a letter.

Or to hand someone something:

She handed a coffee to her friend. // She handed her friend a coffee.

The last subcategory of verbs to talk about is another small one, but it’s an interesting subcategory.  Some verbs take complements that are entire sentences. Each of these verbs, hope, doubt, wonder, ask, has a complement that could stand alone as a sentence:

Ann hopes that the Leafs will win.

Bev doubts that the Leafs can win.

Carla wondered if she should cancel her season’s tickets.

Divya asked whether Eva liked hockey.

Each of these sentences, or clauses, is embedded inside the larger sentence.  And each one is introduced by a word from the category of complementizers. The words that, if, and whether are called complementizers because they introduce complement clauses.  Let’s look at the structure of one of these sentences.

First, the embedded clause, which could stand as a sentence in its own right — it has a tense feature in the T-head position. The complement to the T-head is, as always, a VP. In this clause, the verb is intransitive so it has no complements, and the entire phrase is made up of the word win. This clause has a subject, a DP in the SpecTP position, the Leafs.

So this whole TP could be a sentence in its own right, but we know that in this case, it’s embedded inside a larger sentence — it’s the complement to the verb hopes. And often when a clause is in complement position, it gets introduced by a complementizer, which is a head of its own that we label as C. Notice that because the complementizer that is a C-head, there is also a C-bar and CP level as well.

Now from here on it’s quite simple. This whole CP is simply the complement of the verb hopes, so it’s sister to the V-head and they’re both daughters of V-bar. And then this matrix clause has its own T-head, T-bar and TP levels, and the subject NP in SpecTP is Ann.

OK, let’s recap. We’ve seen now that in addition to category information, the mental lexicon includes subcategory information for some heads. Verbs belonging to different subcategories are choosy about the form their complement takes. This means that it would be possible for a given sentence to be ungrammatical even if it has an x-bar structure if the complement is the wrong kind for that subcategory of head.  And we’ve looked at four different verb subcategories:

  • transitive verbs have one NP or DP as their complement
  • intransitive verbs have no complements
  • ditransitive verbs have two complements that can alternate position in the dative alternation
  • and there is a set of verbs that take clauses as their complements


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