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Monadic Verbs:Unergative and Unaccusative Verbs

1.0. Structure and derivation

1.1. Unaccusativity diagnostics
1.2. Argument structure
2.0. Distribution

0.0. Verb subcategorization (verb classes)

Within the category of lexical verbs, we

distinguish several classes, in terms of their
syntactic and argument structure.

a. The unergative class monadic verbs, i.e.

one-argument verbs, where the argument is
external and is assigned the Agentive role by the
verb. The external argument is the initiator or
the protagonist of the event described by the
verb. This argument is projected into the spec
position of IP, in order to be checked for the
Nom. case by Inflection/tense. These are the
truly intransitive verbs, such as:
(1) run, work, play, smile, strut, grin, laugh,
jog, walk, swim, kneel, bow, cheat, lie, study,
whistle, dance, crawl etc. These verbs express
voluntary action, manner of speaking (e.g.
whisper, shout, mumble, grumble, growl, bellow,
etc.); predicates describing sounds made by
animals: bark, neigh, roar, chirp, oink, meow;
certain involuntary bodily processes: cough,
sneeze, hicough, vomit, throw up, sleep, cry,
breathe, etc.

b. The unaccusative class - monadic verbs as

well, but their unique argument is an internal
argument, which is assigned Nominative, not
structural case (i.e. Accusative, hence their
name, cf. Burzios generalization, 1987), for the
fact that they cannot be assigned Accusative case
by the lexical verb; thus, the NP internal
argument of the lexical verb raises to the SpecIP
position where it receives case from I/T. This
movement is called A-movement, and is similar to
the passive and Raising movements. A-movement
occurs if an NP lacks structural Case and there
is a local Case position that is not assigned a
Unaccusativity concerns the fact that such
configuration can be associated with the lexical
entry of a verb. In such a case, the S-structure
subject originates as a D-structure direct object
that lacks Accusative case; such verbs are also
called ergative verbs. Passives are a class of
derived unaccusatives. Verbs that lack D-
structure direct objects are called unergatives;
they are true intransitives.

1.0. Structure and derivation

Some of the strongest evidence for
unacccusativity comes from Italian, in which the
subject of intransitives may appear postverbally:
a. Arriva Giovanni. (unaccusative)
b. Telefona Giovanni.(unergative)

What makes these two sentences different?

Let us look at their derivational trees;

a. VP b. VP

e V DP V


arriva Giovanni Giovanni telefona

Moreover, Italian is a pro-drop language,

i.e. the subject position is null or null, and
the case-marked lexical NP (Giovanni) is
generated in SpecVP, not in SpecIP. The lexical
verb, having strong inflecitonal features, raises
to I, therefore, the word order is:

(2) [IP pro II telefona SpecV GiovanniVtV].

The key distinction between a. and b. is that the
argument of an unaccusative verb in a. is
generated as a complement as if it were the
object of a transitive verb, but the argument of
an unergative verb is generated as its specifier
in the same position as the subject of a
transitive verb.The evidence shows that these NPs
must move to subject position; therefore, we
assume that they lack Case as a consequence of a
lexical property of the verb. The correlation of
Case with theta-role has come to be known as

Burzios generalization:

A verb can assign Accusative case only if it

assigns a theta-role to its subject.

Unaccusative verbs cannot assign Acc case because

their subject position is not assigned a theta-
role. In Italian, those verbs that reveal a
property of ne-cliticization (ne=of it/them) are
also the verbs that take the auxiliary verb
essere as contrasted with avere:

a. Giovanni e/*ha arrivato.

b. Giovanni *e/ha telefonato.
a. Ne arrivano molti.

1.1. Argument structure

Verbs that do not assign a theta-role in subject
position are called non-thematic verbs.

NP V [+ V NP [- V NP
[+ V +Nom] [+, +Nom] [+
+Nom] +Acc] -Acc]
Jai achete des cahiers Je suis arrive(e). Jai bien dormi

Perlmutter originally made an outline of the

unaccusative verbs (1978/84):
a. predicates expressed by adjectives describing
size, shape, weight, colour, smell, state of
mind: huge, oval, reddish, angry.
b. predicates wh. entail an internal argument in
subject position (Burzios default
unaccusatives): burn, fall, drop, sink, float,
ooze, gush, hang, dangle, sway, wave, tremble,
shake, languish, flourish, thrive, drown,
stumble, trip, roll, succumb, dry, boil, seethe,
lie, sit, bend, etc. (most of these verbs admit
causative alternation that is why they have
been called ergative verbs).
c. inchoatives: melt, freeze, evaporate,
solidify, crystallize, dry out, scatter,
disperse, split, burst, explode, fill, etc.
d. predicates of existence and appearance or
e. predicates of involuntary emission of sound:
smell, light: shine, glitter, glisten, glow,
jingle, clink, clang, snap (involuntary),
crackle, pop, stink, smell etc.
f. aspectual predicates: begin, start, stop,
cease, continue, remain, stay, survive, know,
Unaccusatives a rather heterogeneous class.
Ultimately, the unaccusatives are formed of two
classes: verbs of being and appearing; verbs of
location (entailing the existence of two internal
arguments: lie, sit, remain). All the other
classes of verbs, admitting transitive
causativity, are ergatives. Verbs which couple
the basic regimes of transitives and
intransitives forma specialized class of verbs
called ergatives. The verb lexeme may predicate,
without any difference in its phonological form,
a one-term intransitive configuration or a two-
term transitive one:
Sarah moved the branch. The branch moved.
Ergatives could be considered as a sub-class of
causatives, which, as different from lexical and
morphological causatives, derive a transitive
verb from an intransitive one by a zero
morphological modification. The intransitive
renders an inchoative meaning; it denotes a
(resulting) mutation, without possibly expressing
the animate causer: The branch moved by Sarah.
Causation is made explicit in the transitive
construction (Sarah moved the branch).
Other ergative verbs: begin, break, burn, change,
drop, improve, melt, roll, sink, stir, turn, etc.
These verbs accept causative alternation, this
being their essential property.

1.2. Unaccusativity diagnostics

Verbs differ from other categories in how they
assign the theme theta-role. Verbs assign a theme
theta role to an internal argument (one that is
inside the smallest projections of the verb)
whereas corresponding adjectives and nouns assign
this role to an external argument (one that is
outside at least the smaller projections of the
head, and perhaps outside the entire maximal
projection). As a result, the theme-subject of a
verb may behave like the direct object of a
transitive clause in certain respects, but the
theme-subject of a noun or adjective does not.
Morphosyntactic phenomena that reveal a
similarity between transitive objects and the
sole argument of certain intransitive verbs are
known as unaccusative diagnostics
(Levin&Rappaport-Hovav, 1995).
Here is M.Bakers empirical generalization
a.The theme argument of a verb is an internal
b.The theme argument of an adjective or noun is
an external argument.
The VP-internal subject hypothesis states that
the NP that the internal argument is raised
through NP movement to a position outside the
maximal projection of the theta-marking head.
Marantz (1984) and Kratzer (1996) take this
view of Agent NPs. The reason agents are
found outside the basic VP is that they are
not strictly speaking arguments of the verb
at all. Rather they are introduced into the
clause by a higher head that Kratzer calls
Voice and Chomsky (1995) calls v standing for
light verb. In contrast, the theme NP is an
argument of a comparable verb, hence it must
be inside the VP, because all true arguments
are internal.
2. Distribution
Let us consider the italicized arguments in
unaccusative constructions such as the following:
1. There arose an unfortunate misunderstanding.
2. There came a cry of anguish from inside the
3. There appeared a ghostly face at the window.
4. There could have occurred a diplomatic
5. In front of the house, there stands a statue
of General Noriega.
6. There have arisen several problems.

In some respects, the italicized arguments seem

to behave like complements, for example they
occupy the postberbal position canonically
associated with complements. However, in other
ways, they seem to behave like subjects, as they
agree with the verb preceding them (e.g. stand,
which is a singular form wh. agrees with the
singular nominal a statue. Moreover, the
postverbal argument carries the nominative case
associated with subjects, not the
objective/accusative case associated with
complements. These verbs which allow there-
insertion and a postverbal subject, as an
internal argument in a dethematized position are
unaccusatives. As a difference from these verbs,
the Unergatives do not allow there- insertion and
postverbal subjects:
( ) a. *There complained many passengers.
b. *In the dentists surgery, there groaned
a toothless patient.
c. *There waved a boy from the window.
d. *There apologized a newcomer for the
These verbs have AGENT subjects and no overt
object. unaccusative arguments, on the contrary,
are nonagentive arguments.
A further difference bet. unaccusatives and the
other two classes (unergatives and transitives)
relates to the adjectival use of their perfective
participle forms. As the examples below indicate,
perfective participle form of unaccusatives can
be used adjectively, to modify a noun:
( ) a. The train arrived at platform 4 is our
train for London Euston.
b. They arrested a business man recently
returned from Thailand.
c. Several facts recently come to light
point to his guilt.
d. A number of objects gone from the church
were found in his room.
e. OJ is something of a fallen hero.

By contrast, participle forms of transitive or

unergative verbs cannot be used in the same way,
as we can see below:
*The man committed suicide was a neighbour of
*The thief stolen the jewels was never captured.
*The man overdosed was Joe Doe.
*The yawned student eventually fell asleep in

In this respect, unaccusative verbs resemble

passive participles, which can also be used
adjectively (cf. a changed man, a battered wife,
a woman arrested for shoplifting etc.).
Locative inversion:
( ) a. On the stage appeared a huge rabbit.
b. In this forest exist many magical
c. From behind the clouds appeared the
Unaccusatives do not transitivize with null
morphology. The examples below are not possible
even though the pragmatics of both situations are
controlled in a way that would allow the causer
to be able to cause the event of appearing, and
the state of existing:
( ) a. *The magician appeared the rabbit
out of the hat.
b. *God existed the universe.

Course 7: Unergatives

3. Unergatives
3.0. Change of location verbs
Verbs that indicate change of location: jump,
march, run, skip, swing, turn, walk, travel,
hurry, rush, dash are treated as being single-
layered thematic specifier verbs, which is the
traditional unergative structure given below,


Bill V XP

These verbs can be transitivized with null
(causative) morphology:
a. Bill ran his dog in the park.
b. Mary walked his guests to the door .
Two more properties: they admit cognate objects:
a. Bill ran five miles in the race.
B . Mary walked a quiet walk in the woods.
They admit passive formation:
a. A long walk was walked in the woods.
b. Five miles were run by Bill in the race.
The external argument of unergatives is assigned
the Agent- theta role and is the initiator of
some event, the controller and protagonist of the
event, therefore, it controls or monitors the
action and it may also interfere with the
respective activity.
3.1. Unergative verbs with particle
(lexically complex verbs, selecting one argument,
traditionally called complex phrasal verbs).
They evince a high degree of idiomaticity. The pa
rticle conflates with the lexical verb and
together they form an adjoined structure: V ->
e.g. stump across=move across heavily, often in
anger/irritation; break in, sit in, take off,
walk out, come down.
Besides locative and directional particles, we
should also mention the aspectual particles,
which refer to a temporal dimension of the event.
Aspectual Prts may render the ingressive
(incipient) character of an event:
1. a. We set forth on the last stage of our
b. They set out to win support for their
c. She set about the job of putting her
things in good order. (cf. Serban, D., 1982)
The durative aspect is rendered by on and away
which are specialized for indicating the
continuation of the event. Most verbs combine
freely with on. Away is more limited
contextually. (She was
grumbling/muttering/laughing away (cf. Serban,
Other examples: get up, pass away, go out, die
out, warm up, cheer up. Up indicates
intensification of an action (The runners were
warming up before the race).
- Insertion of adverbial modifiers (intensifiers)
such as right, straight may occur with context
where the Prt has a Locative or Directional
e.g. The electricity supply went straight off
when the cable was cut. The dwarfs rushed
straight inside.
- Nominalization of these verbs results in
hiphenated noun forms: break-in, make-up, sit-in,
take-off, or in fully inked forms such as:
flypast, splashdown.
Nominalizations commonly occur in two possible
- a possible transitive configuration predicted
by a very general activity verb (do, stage, make,
take and the relatively dummy have) followed by a
nominalized form functioning as DO (of the non-
contrastive type). The sentence is in a
paraphrase relationship to the basic string
predicated by the Verb^Prt adjunction:
do ones make-up, do a break-in, stage a sit-in,
have a quick warm-up, make a smooth take-off.
- Stylistic preposing of the particle:
( ) Away flew the remnants of her tattered hat.
( ) In the sun went.
- Inherent reflexives
Another class of simple intransitives
(unergatives) which evince lexical complexity
includes verbs which are inherently reflexive:
absent onself, bestir oneself, avail oneself
of smth. pride oneself on something (Vi+Refl.
Course 7 (II)

2. The VP Shell Derivation of unergatives,

unaccusatives, and ergatives
(1) Mary sleeps.
(2) The vase broke.
(3) Tom broke the vase.
According to the Larsonian shell theory,we can
derive the unergative (truly intransitive)
predications as follows:

(1) TP

e T

T vP

-s NP v

v VP


Mary sleep e t

A sentence where the predication resembles an

unaccusative reading, where the internal argument
behaves like a complement in that it originates
within the VP core but it is externalized so as
to be checked for Nominative case, in spec vp and
then in spec TP can be derived below:

(2) TP

e T

T vP

NP v
v VP

-ed NP V


the vase break tV t

(3) TP

e T

T vP

-ed NP v

v VP



Tom break e tV the vase

The Verb V incorporates into v to create the

transitive (i.e. causative) verb break.
In (2) the verb takes a non-agentive subject,
which is generated VP-internally, in complement
position, from where it moves to Spec of vP, in
an external position, after having been assigned
a theta-role by V. Then it moves to spec TP, to
get Nom case. In (3), break is a transitive verb,
including the operator CAUSE, therefore, there is
an Agent which performs the event of breaking [a
As to the analysis of unaccusatives, we can
account for the generation of the internal
argument if we rely on the light verb analysis
and we adopt the vp-shell analysis for the
expletive sentence:
(4) There came a cry of anguish from inside the

VPs have a complex structure, comprising an inner

VP core and an outer vp shell, and some (e.g.
AGENT) arguments originate within the outer vp
shell, while other (e.g. THEME) arguments
originate within the inner VP core.
(5) TP


A cry of anguish T vp

DP v

t v VP

came DP V

t V PP
t from inside the
(6) TP


There T vp

D v
v VP

came DP V

a cry of anguish V PP
t from inside
the house
We might suppose that a cry of anguish in the
structure above is in Spec-VP, that came
originates in V and raises to v, and that
there originates in the non-thematic spec-
vp position and from there it raises to
spec-TP. TP has the subject a cry of
anguish and vp has a trace of there as its
subject and TP has there as its subject. We
might suppose that the case/agreement
properties of the subject a cry of anguish
and the agreement properties of the verb
came are attracted to T, and there checked
(so that came is singular because its
subject is singular). This would allow us
to account for the fact that the
unaccusative verb agrees with its
postverbal argument, as we see from
sentences such as: Every so often, there
comes a cry of anguish from inside the

Ergative predicates
Thus far, the verb phrase structure contained
verbs with a single complement. such verbs can
easily be acocmodated within the binary branching
framework adopted here, since all we need say is
that a verb merges with its complement to form a
binary branching V-bar constituent. However, a
particular problem for the binary branching
framework is posed by the three-place predicates
like run the ball down the hill, fill the bath
with water, break the vase into pieces, put the
ball on the table, etc.
Let us now consider the following pairs of
(7) a. We rolled the ball down the hill.
b. The ball rolled down the hill.
(8) a. He filled the bath with water.
b. The bath filled with water.
(9) a. They withdrew the troops from the
occupied territories.
b. The troops withdrew from the occupied
Such verbs that can be used either with three or
with two arguments are called ergative verbs.
Moreover, these verbs can also be used as a one-
place predicate:
(10) The ball rolled.
The bath filled.
The troops withdrew.
The ship sank.
The vase broke.
In all these cases, whether we have to do with
one, two or three place predicates, the Theme
role is always played by the same argument, i.e.
the ball, the bath, the troops, the ship, the
vase. That is these NPs, even if placed before
the verb, not after it, are interpreted as Theme,
while the doer or Agent of the action is always
the same as well, when it surfaces at S-structure
(in the a cases above). If we adopt Larsons VP
shell theory, according to which the verb moves
from its original (post-subject) position into a
higher position to the left of the Theme NP.
Following Larson (1988, 1990), Keyser&Hale (1991,
1993, 1994) and Chomsky (1995b), let us suppose
that the b examples are simple VPs, but the a.
examples are complex double-VP structures which
comprise an outer vp shell with an inner VP core
embedded within it. In the sentence:
The ball rolled down the hill,
the V rolled is merged with its PP complement
down the hill to form the V-bar rolled down the
hill ; this is then merged with the DP the ball
to form a VP with the structure:
(11) VP



the ball rolled down the hill

The resulting VP will then be merged with a null

tense affix to form a T-bar constituent; the
subject the ball will then be raised to Spec-TP
(by A-movement), as in the structure below
(simplified by ignoring attraction of the
tense/agr features of rolled to T.

(12) TP


the ball T VP


t V PP

rolled down the


How can we derive the sentence: We rolled the

ball down the hill?
Let us suppose that once the VP structure has
been formed, it is then merged with an abstract
causative light verb, i.e. a null verb with much
the same causative interpretation as a verb like
make (i.e. we made the ball roll down the hill).
Let us suppose that the light verb is affixal in
nature (i.e. strong head) and that the verb
rolled raises to adjoin to it (producing a
structure which can be paraphrased literally as
We made + roll the ball down the hill). The
resulting v-bar structure is then merged with the
subject we (which is assigned the theta role
AGENT by the causative light verb), to form the
complex vp below:

( ) vp

D v

we v VP

V v DP V

rolled 0 the ball V PP


Subsequently, the vp merges with an abstract

tense affix to form a T-bar, and the subject we
raises into Spec-TP to check its nominative case,
as in the structure below:

we T vp
D v
t v VP
V v DP V

rolled 0 the ball V PP

t down the

The objective case carried by the DP the ball is

checked by the transitive verb rolled (or perhaps
by the light verb v=o).

Course 8

2. Transitivity - a semantic feature triggering

its own syntactic structure (2-argument

a. causativity (pull the strings (both non- and

figuratively; break ones leg)
b. communicational/relational (owe money to
someone; ask a question)

Verbs that select two arguments, an external and

a direct internal argument: buy a book, eat a
sandwich, lead a group, tell a story. The
lexical verb assigns a thematic structure to its
arguments: the causer of the event, the Agent,
and the patient or affected/moved/transferred
argument, i.e. the Theme role. Thus, the verb
develops the capacity to assign Accusative case
to its Theme argument, as long as it also has an
Agent, an external argument which is assigned
Nominative case by the functional head, i.e. I
(T). Structurally, the external argument is
derived externally, in the Spec of IP/VP and the
internal argument is derived internally, as a
complement of the governing lexical verb, where
it is case-marked.
2.1. The semantic properties of the internal
direct argument in a transitive construction
The direct object of a transitive verb often
measures out the event, it provides information
with respect to the boundaries of the event
denoted by the verb (cf. L.Avram, 2003: 209).
This kind of object is called affected object
(Tenny, 1987). In a verbal expression: He cut the
bread, the bread is the affected object, an
entity changed in some way by the event of
someone cutting it. The same would hold for: chop
a tree, break a glass, eat an apple, etc. The
direct object may also be the outcome of some
event caused by the Agent external argument, as
in: He built a house, They made a statue, The
musician composed a new sonnata, The novelist
wrote a new book. These objects are effected
objects (Serban, 1982) and they occur as direct
internal arguments of transitive verbs of
creation (carve, create, scupture, make, form,
build, erect, construct, compose, write, paint,
etc.). All these internal arguments (DO) have the
characteristics of a Patient theta-role.

2.2. Ditransitive predication

Besides the canonical transitive two-argument
structure, in English there is also a group of
verbs that take three, instead of two arguments,
such as: teach students English, tell someone
something, assign someone some task, write
someone a letter, feed an animal some food
(Pesetsky, 1995, apud L. Avram, 2003:210).
Besides these verbs, we can quote: give, show,
offer as well. These verbs are called
ditransitive. Syntactically, they are verbs that
take two objects, a DO (role: Theme) and a PO/IO
(role: Goal). The structural peculiarity of these
verbs is that they occur in two possible
positions, as in the frames below:

(a) [ NP (subject)- V NP (DO) PNP (PO)]

(b) [ NP (subject) - V NP1 (PO) NP2 (DO)]
Frame (a) structurally corresponds to sentence b.
below, while frame (a) corresponds to sentence b.
Out of these three arguments, one is the external
argument whose theta role is Agent, the other two
are both internal arguments, and their semantic
roles are: Theme and Goal, respectively.
( ) a. The teacher taught his students English.
b. The teacher taught English to his

Therefore, such verbs subcategorize for two

internal arguments, but they do not all
presuppose obligatory projection of both internal
arguments. Verbs such as give, show, offer, tell
would require obligatory projection of both
arguments, but verbs such as teach, feed, assign,
write do not (Pesetsky, Avram, ibidem).

Basically, transitivity is a syntactic rule,

which is applicable any time the lexical verb
develops the possibility of selecting an internal
argument, while also having an external one. That
is why verbs that entail an internal argument
(Theme) can detransitivize, i.e they can lose
it (e.g. eat, drink, etc.) or else, some others
can transitivize, in the sense that originally
one-argument verbs (dance, live, die) can acquire
their object (live a life, etc.), or they can
presuppose a causee (walk the dog, gallop the

3. Transitive alternations (Levin&Rappaport,

1995, 97?)