8.7 Grammatical Roles

We use grammatical role labels to identify the syntactic position of Noun Phrases within each clause. It’s vital to remember that grammatical role labels are defined strictly according to syntactic positions, not according to the meaning of a noun phrase or its semantic relationship to the verb. We’ll come back to this idea in the next chapter.

The subject NP is the NP that appears in the Specifier of TP.  The underlined phrases in the following sentences are all subjects of their respective clauses.

Zora kicked the soccer ball.

Yasmin guessed that Xavier would probably be late.

That tall woman nearly knocked me over.

The view from the top floor is quite impressive.

Understanding Calculus takes a lot of work.

The town where I was born recently elected a new mayor.

The direct object NP is the complement to a Verb head.  Each of the following underlined phrases is a direct object.

Zora kicked the soccer ball.

Xavier’s lateness annoyed Yasmin.

William convinced Veronica that class was cancelled.

Ursula asked the fellow who works at Tim Horton’s what time the store closed.

Stefanie bought a gift certificate for $100 for her mother.

If we refer to an NP simply as the object, by default we mean the direct object, not the indirect object (see below).

If a Verb head takes a complement that is some category other than an NP, then that complement phrase does not count as a direct object. The phrases following the verbs in these sentences are NOT direct objects, even though they are complements to V-head, because they are not NPs.

Yasmin guessed Xavier would be late.

Rana seemed unhappy.

The parcel was on the porch.

We can identify two additional grammatical roles for NPs, according to the syntactic positions they occupy. An indirect object only appears with a ditransitive verb. It is the NP that alternates between being the complement of a P-head and the complement of a V-head, for a verb that allows the dative alternation. The underlined phrases below are all indirect objects:

Stefanie bought a gift certificate for her mother.

Stefanie bought her mother a gift certificate.

Quinn texted directions to the party to her friends.

Quinn texted her friends directions to the party.

Preeti sent a bouquet of flowers to her aunt.

Preeti sent her aunt a bouquet of flowers.

If a verb does not allow the dative alternation, then it does not have an indirect object.

If an NP appears as the complement to a preposition, but does not an alternate position to become the complement of a verb in the dative alternation, then it is not an indirect object, but an oblique. Oblique is the catch-all label for all other positions that NPs can occupy in a sentence.  The underlined phrases below are all obliques:

Oscar bought a bicycle from that store on Locke Street.

Norma left her business card on the table.

Massimo watched a documentary about antibiotics.

These four labels: subject, direct object, indirect object, and oblique, describe Noun Phrases only in terms of what position they occupy in a clause. Look at the following two sentences:

A famous food critic reviewed this restaurant.

This restaurant was reviewed by a famous food critic.

Even though the person who does the reviewing is the same person (the famous food critic) in both sentences, the NP a famous food critic is not the subject of both sentences, only of the first. The subject of the second sentence is the NP this restaurant. Grammatical role labels describe the syntactic position of noun phrases.


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