In this course I teach you a more advanced way to study the grammar of verbs in order to help you learn foreign languages. These lessons are part of nativlang.com's series of linguistics courses for language learners. The course comes with the following requirements and recommendations:
- Required: Take our Intro to the Grammar of Words (basic morphology) or possess equivalent knowledge
- Required: Take our Intro to the Grammar of Sentences (basic syntax) or possess equivalent knowledge
- Required: Any previous experience studying one or more foreign languages
- Recommended: Purchase, study and complete all exercises in Native Grammar: How Languages Work
- Recommended: Be in the process of learning or start to learn a new foreign language
The word morphosyntax has two parts. The first, morph, relates to the form of words and parts of words, which you studied in the introduction to morphology. The second, syntax, the use and order of words in a sentence. So, when you put the two together, it stands that morphosyntax must have something to do with issues in grammar that require us to understand both the form of individual words and the function of words within a sentence.
Given that working definition, you might be able to brainstorm examples of morphosyntax that we've already covered. Noun declensions and verb conjugations both count, as do issues like the agreement between nouns, adjectives and articles in Spanish or French.
In this lesson, we'll explore a specific aspect of morphology that hasn't been covered in the previous couple lessons on grammar. It's your first step toward a more sophisticated perspective on grammar. You'll take a second look at verbs, and learn a system for evaluating and understanding verbs in foreign languages.
This page uses explanations, instructional videos with audio and practice activities to help you learn the basics of morphosyntax. The course is divided into the following sections:
Verbs & nouns revisited
I've called verbs "action words", as if they were simply ways of expressing activities that take place. This misses one of the key features of verbs in many languages, namely, that they are an indispensable part of a sentence. You might even say that they hold the sentence together.
To get a better sense of how verbs work, let's agree to refer back to the example I gave it to him. As we progress, this touchstone will keep our explanations focused and give us something to check against.
I just claimed that a verb holds a sentence together, but I've given you no evidence to favor that notion. Let me illustrate my point with a sort of word game. Notice what happens when we swap out the noun phrases in I gave it to him.
|English||I gave it to him.|
|John gave it to him.|
|John gave the ball to him.|
|John gave the ball to the dog.|
We could try this little exercise over and over. We would certainly come up with nonsense examples like the cat gave Santa to the milk. On the other hand, our sentences will make grammatical sense. The meanings of the words might be silly in context, but their functions remain crystal clear.
Let's try an alternative swap. Instead, let's start switching out the verb.
|English||I gave it to him.|
|*I stood it to him.|
|*I liked it to him.|
|*I went it to him.|
Curious, isn't it? All the verbs I chose to use render this sentence unacceptable. This comparison suggests a fundamental asymmetry between the verb and the other material in a sentence. Namely, the verb seems to be defining the core structure of the sentence. Specifically, which verb you choose seems to dictate which kind of core sentence you can form (I say "core" because we could add "optional" extra material like on Friday or while speaking Spanish as we please). Rather than just an action word, it looks like the main verb may be the key function word in a clause.
Given the results of our word game above, how do we look at nouns? It looks like noun use is in some way dicated by the verbs.
For now, let's say that verbs are not only function words, but that they make decisions about the nouns that will accompany them. Specifically, it looks as if verbs decide how many nouns they expect. Other evidence suggests that verbs decide what type of nouns they allow:
|English||I gave it to him.|
|*I gave she to him.|
|*Me gave it to him.|
It's clear that verbs expect a specific form of a noun/pronoun in a specific "position". But it's just as clear that verbs don't expect specific nouns (remember that we can interchange nouns in the above sentence without disturbing its grammar). We'll call those specific positions that the verb expects to fill slots, and the nouns that fill those slots will be the verb's arguments.
We can make sense of arguments when we look again at conflicting examples like I gave it to him versus *I went it to him, or, vice versa, I went to the store versus *I gave to the store. In both cases, the verbs seem to expect a certain number of core arguments. The verb went can't do anything with it, since it doesn't have a slot for that argument. Similarly, gave can't work with an empty object (you're expecting something like I gave it to the store), since it has a slot for that argument, but it's left unfilled.
In the examples with went and gave, the verbs clearly have certain arguments they expect. Too few or too many, or the wrong kinds of arguments will result in unacceptable sentences. The arguments that must be present in order for the verb's sentence to make grammatical sense are the verb's core arguments.
Let's go one step further and assert that the verb stores this information somehow or somewhere. One way speakers could access this information is if the structure of each verb and its arguments were stored in a mental dictionary. We could choose to represent the verb's structure as verb (argument 1, argument 2, ...). When we look at the verb give in I gave it to him, we see a verb with three core arguments:
|give||(argument 1, argument 2, argument 3)|
What's more, we noticed that the first argument has to take a subject form (like I or she) and the second and third arguments have to take an object form (like me or her). English pronouns show these forms morphologically, but English nouns do not. We'll still differentiate subject and object nouns, since other characteristics (like placement of the subject before the verb and objects after the verb) remain the same for both nouns and pronouns. We can now specify not only how many core arguments verbs like give and gotake, but what kind of core arguments:
|give||(subject, object, to + object)|
|go||(subject, to + object)|
We'll spend much of the rest of this lesson considering two key issues we've addressed above: 1) how many arguments does a verb allow, and in what arrangement? 2) what kind of arguments does verb allow?
1) Identify the verb and its arguments in the following sentences:
2) Which of the arguments above are core arguments? Which ones are optional?
3) Give the entry for each verb and its arguments in question 1 following the structure introduced above: verb (arguments).
Valency & transitivity
I mentioned that we'd spend much of the rest of this lesson discussing the number of arguments verbs allow as well as the type of arguments. At this point, we turn to the number of arguments. In fact, valency (sometimes called valence) references the number of core arguments that are part of a verb's morphosyntactic structure.
To get a handle on valency, consider a few sample verbs.
|give||(1, 2, 3)|
Put simply, to use give, we need a giver, a given and a givee (given-to). To use go, we need a lifter and a lifted. To use fall, we just need a faller. So far, the logic behind this is easy and almost common sense.
Then we run into a weather verb like rain. The verb rain doesn't fit neatly into this scheme. On the one hand, it takes a mandatory subject it. So, it looks like it has one core argument. On the other hand, it can't be switched out for another noun or pronoun. What's more, it doesn't seem to refer to anything specific. It's more like a placeholder. In fact, we call that it a dummy pronoun or expletive. We may argue that rain has no real arguments, but that English forces a dummy pronoun upon it because English speakers can't handle sentences without subjects. So, rain and similar verbs have a place in this scheme after all:
Now we can begin to identify different types of verbs based on the number of core arguments. Verbs that require three arguments are trivalent, those that require two are divalent, one - monovalent. And none? We call verbs like rain avalent.
Transitivity is a more traditional way of looking at the verb's core arguments. It takes a different perspective: what kind of object arguments does the verb require? Subjects and objects play a direct part in the verb's action. Oblique elements are secondary. Some of those oblique elements are optional, but indirect objects required by verbs are core arguments, despite their indirect performance. In English, direct objects most often immediately follow the verb (assuming said verb takes a direct object), while indirect objects may be expressed with a prepositional phrase.
|give||(subject, direct object, indirect object)|
|lift||(subject, direct object, (no indirect object))|
|defer||(subject, (no direct object), indirect object)|
|fall||(subject, (no direct object), (no indirect object))|
Transitive verbs take a direct object, while intransitive verbs do not accept one. Two of our verbs above are transitive: give and lift. Three are intransitive: defer (in the sense of defer to (someone)), fall and rain.
Transitive verbs take a direct object, while intransitive verbs do not accept one. Two of our verbs above are transitive: give and lift. Three are intransitive: defer (to), fall and rain.
In order to avoid potential confusion, narrower terms have been added. Ditransitive verbs expect both a direct object and an indirect object. So, we can classify give as ditransitive. Notice that we still cannot recognize a difference between verbs that take only an indirect object and verbs that want neither a direct nor indirect object - from the perspective of transitivity, both are simply intransitive.
Defective verbs typically fail to represent all possible subjects. Recall that rain can only take the dummy pronoun it as its single core argument. From the perspective of transitivity, rain is still an intransitive verb or, we may say, rain-type verbs are even less transitive than sleep-type verbs.
1) Give the transitivity values of the verbs you worked with in the last practice exercise.
2) Give the valency values of the verbs you worked with in the last practice exercise.
Thematic roles & case
At first, it looks as if case will do the job of marking the types of arguments that a verb allows. After all, if the verb give has slots for a subject, direct object and indirect object, it follows that we can only use nominative case pronouns in subject slots and accusative case pronouns in direct object slots. When we follow that rule, we produce well-formed sentences, and when we stray from it, we produce poorly formed sentences:
|English||I gave it to him.|
|We gave it to him.|
|I gave them to him.|
|*Us gave it to him.|
|*I gave they to him.|
We're about ready to close the case and consider this proof positive that verbs dictate not only the number of core arguments but the case and position of each argument.
|Middle English||Me thinks he hath courage.|
|Spanish||Yo se lo di.|
|'I gave it to him.'|
|Me gusta mucho.|
|'To-me likes a lot.'|
|Icelandic||Ég gaf hann.|
|'I gave it to him.'|
|Mig vantar hús.|
|'Me needs (a) house.'|
Like Modern English, the languages above use different pronoun cases. However, the case of a single argument changes depending on the verb. The argument in position 1, which we've been calling the "subject", isn't always in the nominative case (the "subject" case).
Now let's completely break our assumption that argument positions are equivalent to noun cases. Some languages are absolutely systematic in the way they employ different cases for the same argument position, depending on the verb.
|Basque||Ni etorri naiz.|
|'Me have come.'|
|Nik ura dut.|
|'I have water.'|
|Nik luburua ikusi dut.|
|'I have seen the book.'|
|Ni erori naiz.|
|'Me have fallen.'|
We'd still like to say that these verbs have subjects and objects, but we can't say that the subject is equivalent to one specific case (like the nominative) and the object to another (like the accusative). Sometimes the same subject in the same position (argument 1) will look like nik, other times we find ni.
Let's take a different approach. We'll pursue the path we started down earlier. We noticed that, when we use the verb give, we also need to include a giver, a given and a givee. Let's call those roles. In fact, since they're something like thematic performances or parts that nouns play, we call them thematic roles. We could say that "giver", "givee" and "given" are names for the thematic roles of the arguments of give.
But there's something about roles that strikes us as more universal. The giver of give, the maker of make and the singer of sing all share something - they are all agents. So, let's call this role the "agent". Similarly, most nouns we've been calling direct objects seem to be passively involved (actions are done to them - they are given, made or sund). Let's call that role the "patient".
You'll come up with a further observation when you look at intransitive, monovalent verbs like walk, sleep or fall. The argument we've been calling the subject of those verbs doesn't seem to instigate the action the way an agent would. There's another role shared by walkers, sleepers, fallers and subjects of intransitive verbs. Let's call that role the "experiencer".
Look again at the Basque examples above. When the subject is an agent, the noun takes one form. When the subject is an experiencer, it takes another form.
So, what is the "role" of case, if it isn't to define the role a noun plays in a sentence?
As you saw above, different cases might be used for nouns playing different roles. On the other hand, different cases might be used for nouns playing the same role.
|Icelandic||Mig vantar hús.|
|'Me needs (a) house.'|
|?Mér vantar hús.|
|'To-me needs (a) house.'|
In the first Icelandic sentence, speakers fill the "experiencer" role with a pronoun in the accusative case. The second sentence (considered less well-formed) uses a pronoun in the dative case in that same argument position. Since Icelandic speakers can't just throw a nominative noun in that position and say *ég vantar hús, it's safe to assume that there's still some connection between case and role, right?
Think of it this way. Nouns and pronouns need some sort of case to be used. Otherwise, the uncased noun is left to the side, unusable. We've already seen that verbs dictate the number and roles of their arguments. Each of those roles has an eligibility requirement - say, that a noun must be in a nominative case. Nouns trained with these qualifications are eligible to fill that role.
So, in English, we might find that all "patients" are accusative pronouns & nouns, but not all accusative pronouns & nouns are patients of verbs - they're just qualified to be used that way. Roles are filled with a noun that has case. If a noun has no case, it cannot fill a role. Once it has case, it is eligible for certain roles but ineligible for others. This explanation may justify why cases remain distinct from roles, but specific cases are associated with specific roles.
As an aside, notice that we've stripped the terms "subject" and "object" of their previous values. They no longer refer to full-blown noun cases. Also, they're not related to the inherent thematic roles that are part of the verb's argument structure. We're left with two terms "subject" and "object" that refer to some syntactic categories, perhaps not built into verb but part of sentence structure. Hence, we can say that, in English, subjects (syntax) are associated with agent or experiencer roles (morphosyntax) that are filled by nominative case nouns or pronouns (morphology).
Return to the same verbs you worked with in the previous activity, and answer the following questions:
1) Identify the case of every noun/pronoun (you may use the words "subject", "direct object" and "indirect object" if you prefer).
2) Identify the thematic role of every noun & pronoun. Use the three roles we named above.
3) One of the verbs is associated with a thematic role we haven't described. Which argument of which verb is that? What name might suit that "missing" role?
When I brought up the Basque examples, I mentioned that some languages consistently treat subjects differently depending on the verb's transitivity. Specifically, subjects of transitive verbs don't look like subjects of intransitive verbs.
I used that as preliminary proof for the notion that verbs actually assign roles to their arguments, but not necessarily the case of the nouns that will fill those roles. In other words, roles are somehow universal - we expect that every language has "agent" and "experiencer" (subject-type) roles and "patient" (object-type) roles. In contrast, we expect that individual languages will fill those roles with nouns of different cases. The cases a particular language uses to fill those thematic roles reveal that language's morphosyntactic alignment.
If that starts to sound too abstract or technical, let me illustrate with some examples. First, let's abbreviate the agent as A, the patient as O, and the experiencer as S (just to be difficult). Take the time to reread my definition of thematic roles above to make sure you're clear on the distinction between 1) case & role and 2) the different roles A, O & S (again, S is the experiencer role associated with an intransitive verb).
I'd like to return to the Iberian Peninsula (where Basque is spoken), and compare examples from Basque and Catalan (a language closely related to Occitan/Provençal and, more distantly, to French and Spanish). Let's pick one intransitive verb and one transitive verb from Basque, and the same intransitive verb and transitive verb from Catalan.
|Basque||erori (1 = S)|
|ikusi (1 = A, 2 = O)|
|caure (1 = S)|
|veure (1 = A, 2 = O)|
Not only do the Catalan and Basque verbs have the same meaning, they also share the same number and type of arguments. With respect to argument number and assigned thematic roles, the transitive see and intransitive fall are grammatically identical so far. Now, let's start to fill those roles with real nouns. First, the transitive verb see:
|Jonek Peio ikusi du.|
|'John has seen Peter.'|
|Peiok Jone ikusi du.|
|'Peter has seen John.'|
|En Joan ha vist el Pere.|
|'John has seen Peter.'|
|En Pere ha vist el Joan.|
|'Peter has seen John.'|
Nothing remarkable here. Understandably, both languages expect the noun filling the agent A and the noun filling the patient P to have different cases. Basque uses suffixes, Catalan uses particles to differentiate those cases. At this point, we're tempted to revert to our old notion of "subject case" vs. "object case". That is, until we consider the intransitive verb fall:
|Jone erori da.|
|'John has fallen.'|
|En Joan ha caigut.|
|'John has fallen.'|
Notice that Catalan does what we've come to expect - it fills the experiencer role of fall and the agent role of see with a noun in the same case. Only the patient role is treated differently in Catalan. Basque, on the other hand, fills the experiencer role of fall and the patient role of see with a noun in the same case. Only the agent role is treated differently in Basque.
We say that the two languages differ in alignment. Basque aligns the experiencer and patient roles, and separates the agent role. Catalan aligns the experiencer and agent roles, and separates the patient role. If we looked at more examples from both languages, we'd find that they conform to this pattern.
|Basque||S = O, A|
|(treats nouns filling experiencer roles like nouns filling patient roles; treats agent roles differently)|
|Catalan||S = A, O|
|(treats nouns filling experiencer roles like nouns filling agent roles; treats patient roles differently)|
Languages that work like Basque are said to have "ergative-absolutive alignment". Languages that work like Catalan have "nominative-accusative alignment".
1) Create three sentences in English with the pronoun she. In the first sentence, make her the subject of the transitive verb see. In the second, make her the object of the same verb see. In the third sentence, make her the subject of the intransitive verb fall.
2) Does English have ergative-absolutive alignment or nominative-accusative alignment? Use the pronoun in the examples you just created along with the explanations you read above to justify your answer.
3) Stop and recall the section in Intro to the Grammar of Sentences that introduced you to rules and rule formulation. Try to write a productive rule that adequately expresses how Basque treats a noun when it's the subject of a transitive verb, the object of a transitive verb and the subject of an intransitive verb.
Final observations & FAQ
Why the focus on verb morphosyntax? I'm interested in parts of speech and how to form words. Or: I'm curious about the arrangement of words into phrases, clauses & sentences.
This is a brief introduction to the intersection between word form and sentence structure with a focus on verbs. I attempted to justify this focus in the introduction at the top of this page. If you're interested in the form of words, you should try my online course called the grammar of words. If you're looking for lessons that teach you the basics of sentence structure (how to put words together), I have authored another course that introduces the grammar of sentences.
This course was tough on me! I couldn't follow some of the terms, and got a little lost along the way.
This course builds on some of my previous lessons. My recommendation is that you school yourself on the basics of word grammar and sentence structure before you put yourself through these lessons. See my answer to the previous question for links.
You didn't talk very much about some topics relevant to syntax, such as generative linguistics or typology. How can I learn about those?
This course presents a more in-depth look at verbs and a more refined way to treat them. I plan to cover more advanced topics in upcoming lessons.
Do you have any other courses?
Absolutely! Nativlang.com contains a range of free lessons covering specific languages, linguistics and language learning. Follow the links in the top right box on this page, or go to the homepage (nativlang.com) to see all lessons available.
Answers to the practice exercises
Practice Exercise (Verbs & nouns revisited)
1) see (1 = he, 2 = everything); say (1 = Joe, 2 = that, 3 = to me); speak (1 = you, 2 = multiple languages, 3 = every day); walk (1 = I, 2 = down the stairs, 3 = with my broken leg)
2) All look like core arguments except argument 3 of speak and arguments 2 & 3 of walk (arg 3 of speak and args 2 & 3 of walk are optional - they may be removed without impacting the grammar of the sentence).
3) see (1, 2, 3); say (1, 2, 3); speak (1, 2); walk (1)
Practice Exercise (Valency & transitivity)
1) see = transitive; say = ditransitive; speak = transitive; walk = intransitive
2) see = divalent; say = trivalent; speak = divalent; walk = monovalent
Practice Exercise (Roles & cases)
1) he = nominative/subject, everything = accusative/object; Joe = nom/subject, that = acc/object, to me = dative/indirect object; you = nom/subject, multiple languages = acc/object; I = nom/subject
2) he = agent, everything = patient; Joe = agent, that = patient, to me = ?; you = agent, multiple languages = patient; I = experiencer
3) The indirect object "to me" of "Joe said that to me" doesn't fit into any of the roles we've discussed so far. Roles often associated with indirect objects are the "target" when the action is directed at the noun ("to me" in "he says it to me") or "benefactor" when the action is for the sake of the noun ("to me" in "he gives it to me").
Practice Exercise (Alignment)
1) a) She sees the dog.
b) The dog sees her.
c) She fell yesterday.
2) She is used as the subject of intransitive and transitive sentences. Her is used for the object of transitive sentences. Like Catalan, English expects nouns filling the A and S roles one way (nominative she), and O separately (accusative her). This is characteristic of a nominative-accusative language.
3) Answers will vary, but take this as an example:
|Basque ergative-absolutive case rule|
Look at the verb's transitivity value.
If the verb is transitive, select a subject noun that is in the ergative case ("subject" case) and an object noun that is in the absolutive case ("object" case).
If the verb is intransitive, select a subject noun that is in the absolutive case ("object" case).
Using the concept of roles, we can build a rule that doesn't have to look at the verb's transitivity. This one might be more straightforward:
|Basque ergative-absolutive case rule|
Look at the thematic role being assigned.
If the role being assigned is agent, select a noun that is in the ergative case ("subject" case).
If the role being assigned is patient or experiencer, select a noun that is in the absolutive case ("object" case).
Further resources & about the author
Refer to the menus on the right side of this page for some recommended resources, including websites, books & other learning materials.
The author of this course has written a number of books on linguistics and language learning, including Native Grammar: How Languages Work.