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6.5  Direct objects

6.5 Direct objects

Composition and sentences

Why would it be easier for a young child unfamiliar with the details of English grammar to understand a sentence like the monkey ate the orange than a sentence like the whale ate the shark?

Now what happens when the Grammies need to refer to events or states with two core participants? Let's start with instances of the do_to schema because the semantic roles are very clear-cut and because children seem to learn about these sentences relatively early.

Say an instance of eating has taken place, the agent (the eater) is Clyde, and the patient (the eaten thing) is a mango. Now one Grammie wants to tell another about what happened. They have a verb for eating — let's call it eat — and nouns for the two participants — let's say Clyde and mango. The speaker could just string the words together: eat!, mango!, Clyde!. Assuming these three words are in the hearer's lexicon, the hearer could figure out that an instance of eating is being described and that the participants in that eating are Clyde and a mango.

But the two participants in an eating play very different roles. One is an agent, the other a patient. Understanding what the speaker is saying involves also figuring out "who did what to whom", that is, which participant fills which semantic role. In our eating example, this would not be difficult. The hearer could use knowledge of what eating is to infer that Clyde is the agent (eater) and that the mango is the patient (eaten thing). Eaters must be animate; eaten things are often inanimate and are almost always members of the general category of food, which includes the more specific category mango.

Solving the problem of "who did what to whom"

But things would not be as simple for an event such as a hugging. In a hugging, both participants are normally animate. So if a Grammie speaker referred to a hugging by stringing the verb and the two nouns together in a random order — hug!, Clyde!, Lois! — the hearer would not know whether Clark hugged Lois or Lois hugged Clark (unless this was somehow clear from the context). What's needed is a convention for how the semantic roles of a two-participant event correspond to the NPs in a sentence describing the event.

But this issue should be familiar from the last chapter. It's just what we expect from compositionality: language-specific grammatical conventions specify how the meaning of a phrase is derived from the meanings of the words or phrases that make up the phrase. The problem we face with sentences describing two-participant events is exactly the same sort of problem that must be solved for English noun + noun phrases of the type we learned about in this section. Given the unfamiliar phrase bag box, for example, a hearer has to be able to figure out whether this refers to a box that has something to do with bags or to a bag that has something to do with boxes. An English-speaking Hearer knows what to do because of a grammatical convention of English: it is the second noun in these phrases that is the head, that is, the noun that specifies the category for the phrase's meaning. (More precisely, the meaning of the phrase is a subcategory of the meaning of the second noun.)

Note that the solution for noun + noun phrases involves the notion of syntactic roles, particular positions within the phrase that play particular roles in the meaning of the phrase. The syntactic roles for noun + noun phrases (and adjective + noun phrases) are modifier and head.

For sentences the problem is the same. A compositional solution to the problem is one that says that the meaning of a sentence is some combination (specified in a grammatical convention) of the meanings of the verb and the other constituents of the sentence. Since the meaning of a sentence, at least as laid out in the theory of semantic schemas earlier in this chapter, involves semantic roles, we need a convention that relates particular sentence syntactic roles to particular semantic roles. We already have one sentence syntactic role for the NP in a one-participant sentence, the subject. We saw that this role is marked by its position or its form or both its position and its form in different languages. Most, if not all, modern languages use this same role within sentences that refer to multiple participants.

Transitive sentences are for referring to more than one core participant.

We need one more syntactic role, then, for the other participant in sentences describing do_to events. The syntactic role that does this is the direct object. Like the subject, the direct object is thought to be a universal role, something that all languages have, though the way in which the direct object can be identified differs somewhat from language to language. A sentence with both a subject and a direct object is called a transitive sentence. Transitive sentences contrast with intransitive sentences, which do not have direct objects. The grammatical case for the direct object in most (but not all) languages is called the accusative case (abbreviated acc).

Direct objects in English

Let's start with English. The English sentence that designates a hugging event in which Clyde is the agent (the hugger, that is) and Lois is the patient (the "huggee", that is) is of course the following.

  1. Clark hugged Lois.

We know from the position of the NP Clark in this sentence that it is the subject. The other NP in the sentence, Lois, is the direct object. The normal position for the direct object in an English sentence is directly after the verb. (In the next section, we'll see one situation where the direct object is separated from the verb by another constituent.) Thus, like the subject, the direct object in English is usually identifiable by its position. Unlike the subject, the English direct object doesn't have a set of special forms for the personal pronouns; forms such a me and him are also used in other contexts. That is, English doesn't really have accusative pronouns. However, forms such as me and him are clearly not the subject. So consider the next sentence, which could describe the same event as sentence 1 does.

  1. He hugged her.

In this sentence we know that the agent is the man not only because of the position of he before the verb but because the form of the pronoun is he and not him. By the same token, her is clearly the direct object, and not the subject, because of its position, but also because it is in the non-subject, objective form her.

English word order is relatively rigid.

To summarize, English has two syntactic roles that Speakers use to refer to the core participants of a two-participant event. These roles, subject and direct object, are identifiable mainly on the basis of their position with respect to the verb. In sentences describing do_to events, that is, events with a clear-cut agent and patient, the subject refers to the agent and the direct object refers to the patient.

The relationship between the syntactic roles of a sentence and the semantic roles of the event or state that the sentence describes is an example of a mapping. The notion of mapping is a concept from mathematics that is very important in cognitive science. For a mapping there are two sets of elements, and each of the elements in one set corresponds to (or "maps onto") an element in the other. In our case each of the syntactic roles in the transitive sentence maps onto a semantic role in the situation. The figure below illustrates this. Because we are concerned now with the relationships between form (syntax) and meaning (semantics), there are now two large boxes. The green arrows denote these relationships. The one connecting the two large boxes denotes the fact that the sentence describes the event. The ones connecting the syntactic roles in the sentence with the semantic roles in the event denote the correspondences in the syntax-semantics mapping. The "<" symbols between the syntactic roles represent their usual order.

English do to

Direct objects in Japanese and Spanish

Now let's look at subjects and direct objects in Japanese, which are a bit more complicated. One possible Japanese translation of sentence 1 above would be the following sentence.

3. Clark wa Lois o dakishimeta
Clark topic Lois acc hugged
'Clark hugged Lois.'
Languages with flexible word order may have case markers to help Hearers idenfity the syntactic roles of constituents.

Notice first that the order of the sentence constituents is different in Japanese. The prototypical position for the verb in a Japanese sentence is at the end, so both the subject and the direct object precede it. The subject usually precedes the direct object, though this order is not so rigid. Second, notice that the Japanese sentence has two words that don't correspond to anything in the English sentence, wa and o. These words, sometimes called particles, specify the role of the NP they follow in the sentence. The particle o specifies that the previous NP is in the accusative case, that is, that it is the direct object of the sentence (though the detailed function of o is somewhat more complicated than this). A word like this is called a case marker. The particle wa has a different sort of function; it specifies that the NP it follows is the "topic" of the sentence, roughly what the sentence is "about". Notice that in this case wa follows the subject of the sentence. It turns out that Japanese also has a nominative case marker, ga, but when the subject is the "topic", the nominative case marker is replaced by the topic marker wa.

The figure below illustrates the syntax-semantics mapping for do_to sentences in Japanese. The dashed line separates the subject and direct object from the verb, which they normally precede. The "<" symbol between the subject and direct object is fuzzy because this ordering is only a tendency in Japanese.

Japanese transitive

A Japanese direct object can also be a "topic", though this is less common. In that case the accusative case marker o is replaced by the topic marker wa. Here is what our hugging example would like with the direct object as topic; notice that the normal place for the topic is the first position in the sentence.

4. Lois wa Clark ga dakishimeta
Lois topic Clark nom hugged
'Clark hugged Lois.'

You can think of the difference between sentences 3 and 4 as corresponding roughly to the following (somewhat awkward) English translations: 'as for Clark, he hugged Lois' (3) and 'as for Lois, Clark hugged her' (4).

What is important about all this for our purposes is that Japanese has special words, case markers, to indicate which NP is the subject and which the direct object. That is, even when the order of the subject and direct object deviates from the default order (subject first), a hearer can figure out which NP is which.

What is also important about Japanese is how it is like English. For the do_to schema the syntax-semantics mapping is the same: the subject maps onto the agent, and the direct object maps onto the patient.

Let's look at one more language before we consider other types of states and events. Spanish is similar to English in the default order of the constituents — subject, verb, direct object — but as already mentioned, there is much more freedom in Spanish to deviate from the default. Spanish is also like Japanese in having an accusative case marker, though this is normally limited to direct objects referring to humans. Here is one Spanish translation of sentence 1.

5. Clark abrazó a Lois
Clark hugged acc Lois
'Clark hugged Lois.'

The accusative case marker a appears before the NP Lois, marking it as the direct object of this Spanish sentence. The figure below illustrates the syntax-semantics mapping for Spanish do_to sentences. The accusative case marker is in a fuzzy box because it is only used in certain situations.

Spanish transitive

But depending on what is being emphasized and what is being treated as surprising information by the speaker, the constituents can be put in other, less common, orders. Here is a possibility that corresponds closely in meaning to the Japanese sentence 4.

6. A Lois la abrazó Clark
acc Lois her hugged Clark
'Clark hugged Lois.'

Even with the normal positions of subject and direct object switched, the sentence is still interpretable because of the accusative case marker preceding Lois. To make it even clearer, Spanish speakers usually insert a redundant object pronoun when the order is the reverse of the usual one; in this case the pronoun is la 'her'.

Change of state and causing of change of state

Say you learn about a new cooking technique along with the English verb for it, drib, and you hear the verb illustrated in sentences like the following.

  • Josh dribbed the artichokes
  • I'm going to drib these beans.

Now you hear the word used in a different sort of sentence.

  • The cauliflower is dribbing.

How do you interpret this last sentence in terms of what you've already learned about the verb and the cooking technique?

For the relationship between states and changes of state, we saw that a language can simplify the task for the learner by making a generalization that recognizes what states and changes of state share. Being crazy and becoming crazy are similar in one way, and the learner only has to learn one new word for each new state and change of state. English makes a similar sort of generalization concerning changes of state and acts of an agent (that is, instances of do_to) that result in the changes of state. Consider the following two sentences concerned with a breaking event.

  1. The vase broke.
  2. Jimmy broke the vase.

The first sentence is intransitive; it mentions only the patient. The second sentence is transitive; it mentions both the patient and the agent. Notice that the patient appears in different syntactic roles in the intransitive and transitive sentences: the subject of the first sentence, the direct object of the second. This is an example of a generalization that English could, but does not make (though other languages do). That is, English fails to treat the patient in the same way in the two kinds of sentences. On the other hand, English does use the same verb for the two cases, in effect recognizing that the same kind of event is involved.

Syntax-semantics mappings are stored in the lexicon with verbs.

So what does a speaker of English need to remember about the verb break in the lexicon? One possibility is that there are two separate verbs, one for intransitive sentences like sentence 7 and one for transitive sentences like 8. But this would miss the obvious generalization that is made in English; if these are two completely different verbs, it is very surprising that they are pronounced and written exactly the same. The other possibility is a single verb with a single meaning (whatever it is that breaking involves) and two different patterns for how the syntactic and semantic roles map onto one another.

Here is one way of writing the two syntax-semantics mappings for break. Each of the smaller boxes represents a different mapping, and only one of these appears in a given sentence with break as the verb. The upper box shows the mapping used in sentence 7; the lower box shows the mapping used in sentence 8.

subject patient
subject agent
direct object patient

But the English generalization goes beyond this. There is a whole set of verbs with this same property: boil, freeze, cook, fry, bake, steam, soften, thicken, shatter, split, rip, tear. For all of these verbs the same two sets of mappings illustrated in the figure above apply. So English speakers probably learn a general rule that allows them to produce and understand both transitive and intransitive sentences with verbs similar to these even if they have never heard the sentences before, as in the box at the beginning of this subsection.

This English example illustrates a more general point. While we've seen only similarities between languages so far in terms of the syntax-semantics mappings, these are conventions that do differ from one language to another. There will be a number of examples of these differences in the next section. But even within languages, particular verbs may have unpredictable mappings associated with them. For this reason, it is usually assumed that knowledge about how syntax and semantics map onto each other belongs in the lexicon, where it is associated with individual verbs or with clusters of similar verbs (such as break and boil). We'll look at some more syntax-semantics mappings for verbs in English and other languages in the next section.

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