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Concourse 2

Lexicogrammar: the interface


There is a noticeable tendency in language teaching to treat meaning and structure as if they were self-contained areas of knowledge about language.
It is, however, fairly clear that, for example, the distinction between these two sets of sentences:

  1. I am feeling ill
  2. I feel ill
  3. I am living in Paris
  4. I live in Paris

is not simply one of whether the speaker chooses to use a progressive aspect of the verb.
Sentences 1. and 2. are, for most purposes, synonymous and it makes little difference whether the speaker chooses to use the verb dynamically, as in 1., or statively, as in 2.
However, sentences 3. and 4. are different in meaning as well as structure.  Sentence 3. implies a temporary condition but sentence 4. implies a permanent one.
The essence of the difference lies not in the grammar, which is common to both pairs, but in the meanings of the verbs.
Put another way, the grammar and the meaning of words are not separate systems treatable as discrete units but are interdependent.
That, roughly speaking, was what Halliday meant when he coined the term lexicogrammar to describe the language system.  In his words:

grammar and vocabulary are not different strata; they are the two poles of a single continuum, properly called lexicogrammar
Halliday / Matthiessen (2014: 24)

This guide is a short one, focusing on some obvious but important examples of times in which it is unwise to treat the systems of the language as if they were either grammar or lexis (i.e., structure or meaning carrying items) but to consider both systems together.  Before we do that, it is necessary to take a short diversion into understanding our terms.


Syntax and lexis

If we choose to separate the systems for the sake of argument, we can, of course do so and consider syntax as separate from paradigm.
There are two types of relationship at work here:

Syntagmatic relationship
This describes the relationship which work horizontally between words.  Subjects use Verbs, Verbs sometimes take Objects, Adjectives modify Nouns, Adverbs modify Verbs and so on.  The relationship is to do with syntax (from the Greek meaning to arrange together).
Paradigmatic relationships
Relationships work vertically in the sense that Noun phrases can be replaced by other Noun phrases, Verb phrases by other Verb phrases, Adjectives by other Adjectives, Adverbs by other Adverbs and so on.  The relationship is to do with word and phrase class.  The word paradigmatic derives from paradigm (from the Greek meaning to show side by side).
It works like this:


Each slot in the sentence can be replaced by words and phrases in the same classes to make new sentences (some of which might make sense) virtually ad infinitum.  The boxes give examples of items in a paradigmatic relationship; the red arrows show the syntagmatic relationships.

For many purposes in the classroom, it makes some sense to analyse language this way and separate out considerations of syntax from considerations of lexical relationships and word and phrase class.

However, the purpose of this guide is to explain why syntactical arrangements alone do not explain the systems of a language and lexical relationships alone also cannot do so.
In order to do that, we'll take some examples of where the interface between grammar and meaning provides some insights.


Oh, that's just an exception

There is a temptation, worth avoiding in the classroom, to suggest that anything which appears to break a syntactical rule qualifies as an exception and needs to be learnt separately.  So, for example, we might suggest that a syntactical rule is exemplified by allowing, e.g.:
    She walked to work
but forbidding
    *She walked the way to work
and stating that the rule is that this verb is, in English, intransitive.  So far, so good and so simple.  However, when learners then encounter:
    We walked the dogs
    I walked her to the door
    I walked an hour
    They walked three miles

it is not terribly helpful to tell them that these are merely exceptions to the rule.  What we have, in fact, is an example of something which happens frequently in all languages: meaning has altered what is syntactically possible.
What has happened is that our syntactical rule has been refined to take semantic issues into account and is now:

and the issue is solved by appealing to meaning, not syntax.

Exemplification follows of some of the key areas in English where semantic considerations work with (not against) syntactical issues to refine the rules of usage.


The article system

A particular source of confusion for learners from many language backgrounds is the article system in English which compels speakers to consider a range of factors which they may not have to think about in their own languages including specificity, definiteness and countability before deciding on the correct article to use.  We get from these considerations a rule which states that abstract ideas take a zero article (Ø) because the reference is non-specific, non-definite and uncountable.  Thus it is that we can have:
    I don't approve of prejudice
    She was in danger
and not
    *I don't approve of a prejudice
    *She was in a danger
    *I don't approve of the prejudice
    *She was in the danger
and all works well until we encounter, e.g.:
    The prejudice against women is unacceptable
    A prejudice he still has is to assume all politicians are lying
    There is a danger of it breaking
    The danger is clear
which appear to break the rule and must, therefore, be treated as exceptions and separately learned.
A little thought, however, reveals that the issue is not syntactical, it is semantic.  Many mass nouns describing abstract concepts can:

No rule is being broken in these cases because the meaning of the nouns has altered to allow the general syntactical rules for article use to be followed.

The alternative to labelling some uses of the article system in English as exceptions to the rules is to invent an unnecessary rule to explain certain uses.  We get, then:
    She bought a new flat.  The flat was on the second floor.
explained by the invention of the known-unknown rule which states that the unknown instance is preceded by the indefinite article and a known reference by the definite article.
However, semantic considerations can be used to make this clear without enjoining learners to acquire a new rule.
When the reference is indefinite but specific, the use of the indefinite article is customary so we can explain:
    A man called while you were out
    A letter has arrived for you
by invoking the meaning intended that I know what sort of thing I am referring to (so references are specific to man and letter) but not exactly which thing is in question (so the references are indefinite).
When the reference is to something both specific and definite, the rule is to use the definite article (because we know both what it is and which it is).  This explains:
    The bathroom is upstairs
because we know we are referring to a specific and definite room.  Of course, if we said:
    A bathroom is upstairs
it would be clear that we are now referring to one bathroom from a possible number of them and that would be specific reference to a bathroom but indefinite reference to which bathroom and no rule is broken.
If we apply that rule to the first example, it is clear that the first reference to flat is specific (we know what it is) but indefinite (we don't know which it is).  The second reference is, because of the meaning, not the grammar, to something which is both specific (we know what it is) and definite (we now know which it is: her new flat) so we follow the usual rule and use the definite article for specific, definite reference.  The issue is, therefore, solved by applying the rules and considering the meaning of what is said rather than by inventing a new rule to explain it.

The guide to the article system in English, linked below, contains more consideration of semantic issues which, when ignored, lead to the invention of new rules and the invocation of exceptionality to explain what is actually a tightly rule-bound, lexicogrammatical system albeit one profoundly affected by meaning.


The passive voice

The system explained above is the traditional way of viewing the systems of a language and in many cases it does make sense to separate them and teach, say, the formation of passive-voice clauses as if it were possible to analyse them without reference to the words and meanings embedded in them.
Therefore, we can, taking a purely syntactical approach suggest that:
    The man drove the car
    The car was driven by the man
describe the same proposition.
It's a short step from there to stating a rule that an active-voice clause with a transitive verb taking a single object can be transformed into a passive-voice equivalent.
Thus, it follows that we can present learners with, for example:

Active Passive
The children broke the plates The plates were broken by the children
The car damaged the fence The fence was damaged by the car
She will do the work The work will be done by her

and so on, quite literally, ad infinitum.
However, if we take that approach, we will soon run into trouble and be forced to explain that although something like:
    Her daughter resembles her
is a well-formed active-voice clause with a discernible subject, a transitive verb and an object as one would expect, so we can, following the rules of syntax make:
    *She is resembled by her daughter
and arrive at a perfectly formed (and just about understandable) clause which is nevertheless disallowed in English.  The reason it is disallowed is not that it is a syntactical or grammatical exception, it is to do with the meaning of the verb itself.

What we have to do is look at the meaning of transitive verbs and the relationships they have to their objects.
Here's what is meant:
Most transitive verbs imply that the subject of the clause is acting on the object and so it is that we can make acceptable passive forms from, for example:
    John kicked the ball → The ball was kicked
    Mary told a joke → The joke was told
    The storm damaged the house → The house was damaged

and thousands more clauses containing transitive verbs in which the object is altered or acted on by the subject.
However, if we consider, for example:
    She has a lot of money
    They possess four houses
    The chair lacks a leg
    The tank contains 45 litres
    The bottle holds a gallon
    This shirt fits me
    The boy took after his father
then it is clear that the subject of the verb is not acting on the object in the same way that the subjects act in the first set of three examples.
What these verbs do is express a relationship between the subject and the object rather than signalling that the object is affected, changed or acted on by the subject and that is the reason that they do not form passive clauses.  We cannot have:
    *A lot of money is had by her
    *Four houses are possessed by them
    *A leg is lacked by the chair

and so on.
So our rule for how to form the passive in English has to be revised to include the meanings of the verbs, not just their syntactical relationships with other elements in the clause.


Relative pronoun clauses

Relative pronoun clauses might, at first sight, be the subject of syntactical issues alone because considerations of whether or not that can be used, whether or not the pronoun may be omitted and whether or not the clause can be reduced by ellipting the pronoun and the verb seem to be solely syntactical issues to do with case and tense forms.
They are, however, also subject to issues to do with the language user's intentions and the meanings which are expressed in a number of ways:

  1. English distinguishes between defining and non-defining (or restrictive and non-restrictive or identifying or non-identifying, as you prefer) relative clauses and the type of clause has a syntactical effect on how they may be constructed (with or without the ellipsis of the pronoun or allowing the use of that etc.).
    However, the choice of clause type is not defined grammatically, it is determined by the meaning that the language signals.
    We cannot allow:
        *The United States President who is here at the moment will speak later
    because we cannot define that which is unique so, in English (but not in other languages for the most part), we have to select a non-defining structure and mark it by punctuation or tone group prosody allowing only:
        The United States President, || who is here at the moment, || will speak later.
    In other words, the nature of the subject of the clauses determines the type of clause we are allowed and that is a meaning issue.  Any uniquely identifiable subject is disallowed in a defining relative clause and that will include people (identified by name or position), places (identified by name, such as France, Germany, Asia, Mars etc.) and so on.
    Therefore, we cannot allow, for example:
        *Germany which is the richest country in Europe || is much admired
        *Number 10 Downing Street which is in the centre of London || is well known
    and can only have:
        Germany, || which is the richest country in Europe, || is much admired
        Number 10 Downing Street, || which is in the centre of London || is well known
    The effect of this is to allow a certain ambiguity (another meaning rather than syntactical issue) to creep in so we may encounter, for example:
        The president of the company that is very successful
    which could refer to a successful company or a successful president and has to be disambiguated by selecting the appropriate pronoun rather than that and having either:
        The president of the company which is very successful
        The president of the company who is very successful
    and that is how the meaning the speaker wishes to signal determines the syntax.
  2. The choice of pronoun in English is heavily dependent on both the type of noun referent and the case of that noun.  That is to say, issues of both meaning and syntactical role are in play.
    We find, obviously, that who and whom are used to refer to people and the latter is accusative only.  There are, however, some more subtle relationships to do with the meaning of the referent that are seen:
    1. The pronoun which may be applied to people but only if the person in question is unknown to the speaker so we can allow:
          The police officer which arrested her made his report
      but we do not allow
          *My local police officer which arrested her made his report
      and the difference is purely to do with the relationship between the speaker and the subject of the clauses.
    2. Similarly, the pronouns which and who(m) may both be applied to collectives of people so we can allow both:
          That's the committee which decided
          That's the committee who decided
      and the choice will often depend on how well the people in the group are known to the speaker.
      However, immediately, there is a knock-on syntactical effect because, in BrE at least, the verb and pronoun concord will be altered so we get:
          That's the committee which decided the issue and it presents its report later
          That's the committee who decided and they present their report later
      and that is an example of meaning altering syntax rather than syntax being determined by grammatical relationships alone.
    3. An allied issue is that the pronoun who can be used to refer to some higher animals but only to ones with which we are acquainted so we can state:
          My dog, who hardly barks at all, is a much loved family pet
      but we cannot state:
          *A dog, who barked all night, lives somewhere close, I think
      and we are forced to select which or that as the pronoun.
  3. We can reduce a relative clause from, for example:
        He lives in the house which was built by his brother
        He lives in the house built by his brother
    without recourse to worrying about the meaning because this is a syntactical issue subject to discernible structural rules which can be set out in a paragraph or two (as is done in the guide to the area, linked below).
    There are, however, two issues to do with meaning which come into play to determine whether a reduced clause is permissible (or to be recommended):
    1. Time and tense:
      We cannot reduce a sentence such as
          He lives in the house which has been built by his brother
          He lives in the house built by his brother
      because we lose the perfect aspect of the verb and send a different signal.
      We can also not reduce:
          He is going to live in the house which will have been built by his brother
          He is going to live in the house built by his brother
      because the sense of the proposition is not maintained and the second sentences implies that the house is already completed but the first makes it clear that it is not.
    2. The nature of the subject:
      If the subject of both clauses is the same, i.e., they are co-referential, then only a non-defining clause can be used so while we can allow:
          The woman who is a gardening expert will be here later to help
      in which we define the woman, as one among many, we cannot reduce that to:
          *The women a gardening expert will be here later to help
      because we know that the woman and a gardening expert are the same entity and we cannot define the same thing twice.  We have, therefore, to make the clause non-defining and only allow:
          The woman, a gardening expert, will be here later to help
      Issues of co-reference are to do with meaning, not syntax.

All of these issues (and more are considered in the full guide to the area) are to do with the meaning we wish to achieve and are not, fundamentally, syntactical issues at all.



Part of the definition of an adjunct is that it is extra information, often concerning the verb phrase, which is not essential to the clause and can be safely omitted without damaging the syntax and acceptability of the clause.
We get, therefore:
    She left in the morning
    That day, she left
    He walked over the hill and down the lane to my house to see me

and in all of those we have adverbial adjuncts adding information to the verb phrase which can be omitted (albeit, of course, with a loss of information) so we can equally have:
    She left
    He walked

and, because the verbs are intransitive, a two-word clause is well formed.
The same effect will work with transitive verbs although the object must be retained unless they are ambivalent (like, e.g., eat):
    She painted the house yesterday in the sunshine
    They opened the box very carefully and slowly to see what it contained
    Last week he timetabled the meeting later than usual to allow people to arrive

and they can all be well-formed without the adjuncts as:
    She painted the house
    They opened the box
    He timetabled the meeting

although, again, information is lost.

However, if we try this trick with some other verbs which have a different sort of meaning, we encounter a problem.  To see what it is, try removing the prepositional phrases from:
    He put the box in the corner
    He placed the lamp in the corner
    He rested the rock on the edge of the wall

    We ventured further into the cave
    She stayed in a hotel by the river

and then we get the unacceptable:
    *He put the box
    *He placed the lamp
    *He rested the rock
    *We ventured
    *She stayed
(unless the meaning is remain rather than reside)
and there is, now, a need to consider meaning as well as syntax to get to the root of the issue.

Again, as we saw with the formation of passive clauses it is the relationship which the verb signals that matters.
If, as in these examples, the verb expresses a sense of positioning something (either oneself or another entity), then the place adjunct is compulsory, not optional.
Verbs that do this include keep, lay, place, plonk, position, put, rest, set, site, situate, stick, stuff.
and they are described as PP complement verbs.
The issue is, of course, semantic, not syntactical and to get the structure right, we have to know that the prepositional phrases are not adjuncts at all and that is a matter determined by the meanings of the verbs.

PP complement verbs are, therefore, not exceptions to the rules, they are part of the rules.


Tense and aspect

A good example of the relationship between meaning and structure concerns the use in English of the perfect aspect of the verb combined with a progressive form as in, for example:

  1. She has been working really hard recently and needs a break
  2. They had been waiting for the train for hours and were frozen stiff

and in both cases, we can see that the effect of the aspects is twofold:

Despite the fact that many languages do not do this kind of thing at all, the sense of the aspects in English is learnable and teachable.
However, again, when we use different verbs which carry different sorts of meaning, it becomes clear that there's a problem with simple explanations.  Consider:

  1. Someone has been stealing vegetables from my garden
  2. She had been switching the heating off and on and the house got colder

Although the structures (i.e., the syntax) of sentences 1. and a. and 2. and b. are parallel, it is clear that the meaning is not.

The issue here is to do with what are called punctual or momentary and durative verb senses.
Some verbs, such as live, work, stay, study, read and a host more can be perceived as taking up a time frame of some measurable length.  For this reason, we allow:
    She has been living here for years
    She has been working on the problem this week
    I have been staying at The Ritz
    They had been studying French at university
    I had been reading Goethe lately

Other verbs cannot be used in the same sense and so the aspect which the syntax of the verb phrase signals is very different:
    He has been hitting it with a hammer
    They have been arriving late most mornings
    The light had been flashing
    She has been tapping at the laptop keys
    I had been upsetting my neighbours by parking there
and in all these cases, the sense is not of a progressive action, it is of a repeated or iterative action.
Certain verbs, referred to as telic (i.e., starting and finishing almost simultaneously) in sense, cannot successfully be used with progressive aspects at all because they produce rare or odd forms such as:
    *They were popping the champagne cork
    *"That's my little success," he was quipping

and so on.

To be clear, this is not a distinction between stative and dynamic uses of the verbs (that comes next), it is dependent on the meaning of the verbs alone.
Punctual verbs, for your reference, include at least: arrive, bang, begin, break, bump, burst, chop, crash, detonate, dip, dive, drop, explode, flash, glow, hit, jolt, kick, light, meet, name, open, pop, quip, rap, shatter, shoot, slam, smash, spit, spurt, steal, stop, tap, thump, upset, volunteer, wake.
With those verbs, a progressive form signals a repeated short action, not a durative one.  In some cases, moreover, an action cannot be repeated at all (they are telic in the real sense) and the progressive form is, therefore, not even allowed so for example:
    *I had been waking my sister
    *They have been naming their child
    *When I dropped it, the glass was shattering
    *The bomb was detonating

are all malformed, not because they are syntactically flawed but because they are semantically flawed.

Again, the meanings of the verbs do not lead to exceptions to the aspect rules of English, they are part of the rules.


Stative and dynamic use

It is often averred that some verbs are always used statively and others in a dynamic sense so we get lists such as:

  1. Verbs of possession or relations between things
    be, appear, consist, contain, cost, have, depend, fit, include, involve, matter, mean, measure, owe, own, possess, seem, weigh
  2. Verbs of sensations
    feel, hear, look, see, smell, sound, taste, touch
  3. Verbs referring to emotional states
    adore, appreciate, care, desire, dislike, hate, hope, like, love, mind, need, prefer, value, want, wish
  4. Verbs referring to mental processes and states
    agree, astonish, believe, concern, deny, disagree, doubt, expect, flabbergast, forget, imagine, impress, know, please, promise, realise, recognise, remember, satisfy, suppose, surprise, think, understand

There is no denying that many of these verbs do occur much more frequently in simple tense forms than in progressive ones.  On the other hand, a few, such as measure, are actually more frequently used dynamically.  Of the others, most are used both statively and dynamically with, often, a shift in meaning and syntax is not independent of meaning.
Almost all these so-called stative verbs can be used dynamically and it all depends on what the user of the language means and we can take examples from the same four categories to show this:

  1. She is appearing in the play
    They are having trouble with their son
  2. She is not feeling well
    The engine's sounding a bit rough
  3. She was hoping for better weather
    They are wishing her happy birthday later
  4. She is denying all charges
    I was forgetting all about the need to book a table

It is, in other words, rare to discover a verb in the lists above which cannot be used dynamically and all of them take progressive forms in non-finite clauses so we routinely allow:
    Containing only four grams, the bottle is tiny
    Depending how he feels, he'll be here later, I expect
    Seeing everyone's already here, let's start
    Tasting the soup again, the chef pronounced it ready
    Caring little for long walks, I stayed at home
    Needing some supplies, we went to the supermarket
    Realising the danger, they backed away from the edge
    Understanding his difficulty, we didn't press the matter

It is probably clear by now that simply labelling verbs as stative or dynamic is an inadequate and potentially harmful approach to take because it ignores meaning.



two old friends  

When asked for a rule of thumb to explain what adjectives do in English it is simple to say something like they describe or modify a following or preceding noun or noun phrase and that works well until we encounter times when they don't (really).
By some estimates, around 40,000 words in English qualify as adjectives and the majority of them are unproblematic for learners.
If you are reading this somewhat esoteric guide, you will probably be aware that we can say:
    The woman was young
    She was a young woman
and there is little to tell between those two propositions so most adjectives can be used predicatively or attributively (as they are respectively in these examples).
If we leave it at that, we have a reasonably good rule for the syntax of adjective use which will hold up well for thousands of adjectives.
However, the in-service guide to adjectives on this site is a long one and that betrays the fact that all is not so simple.


Inherent vs. non-inherent uses

While it is possible to say, for example:
    My friend is old
which will mean that he or she is somewhat advanced in years, when we use the adjective attributively as in:
    She's an old friend
we are confronted by the fact that the adjective now describes the friendship rather than the friend.  The fact that the word friendship does not appear in the clause at all is somewhat confusing if we are taking a purely grammatical approach and focusing on word order and syntax.
We have, therefore, to take a semantic tool to the mechanism and see why this is happening.  To do that, we have to consider what is an alienable or inalienable characteristics of the noun we are considering.  That is to say, are the characteristics we wish to describe related to the noun or part of the noun itself?
For example, if we say:
    That woman is small
we are referring to an inalienable, inherent quality of the woman and we can also phrase that as:
    She is a small woman
so both types of syntax are available to us.
Another way of saying this is that the characteristic of smallness is inherent in the noun and in neither case is the woman's size subject to her or anyone else's will.

However, when it comes to alienable qualities, the case is altered so if we say:
    She is a small businesswoman
using the adjective predicatively, we find that the reference now is to the type of business the woman runs rather than the woman herself.
Even attributively with:
    The small businesswoman at the back asked a question
we are constrained to understand that it is the business to which the adjective refers, although attributive use can produce some ambiguity.

The rule, such as it is, is semantic not syntactical and, briefly states:

Any adjective which cannot apply to a relationship will automatically be understood as referring to an inherent property of the noun

That means, for example
    My friend is tall
can only be applied to the person because tall cannot be used (because of its meaning) to modify a relationship.
Other adjectives which have to be considered semantically rather than syntactically include: close, long-standing, nodding, good, intimate, distant, old, bitter, devoted, great and more.
So, for example:
    They are bitter enemies
will be seen to apply to the enmity not the people
    She's a distant cousin
will be seen to apply to the kinship not the person
    She's a long-standing member of staff
will be seen to apply to the employment, not to the person
and so on.

Another semantic issue concerns the adjectives new, old, young and elderly which can be variably applied depending on the intended meaning and no syntactical rule is available to help us out so:
    She's a new colleague
will be taken to refer to the relationship not the person, but
    She's a young colleague
will be taken to refer to the person not the relationship, and
    He's an old friend
can only refer to the relationship, but:
    He's an elderly friend
can only refer to the person.

This is not, lest we get carried away into the stratosphere of a lexical approach, a question of collocation.  It is an issue with meaning.


Dynamic vs. stative use

While we can have, as we saw above, both:
    She's a young girl
    The girl is young
further semantic issues arise from the meaning of the adjectives we use and the message we want to send.

If we wish to imply that the characteristic is under the control of the person (or thing) in question then we are forced to employ the predicative word ordering.  We get, therefore:
    The police officer was patient
and that strongly implies that she may have become impatient at any moment.
However, if we say:
    The patient police officer talked to the men
the implication is that the officer was always patient and not just at that time.

This phenomenon also affects imperative uses of adjectives, so, while we can accept:
    Don't be angry
because we understand that being angry or not is a factor which the hearer can control, we cannot accept:
    *Don't be English
because one's nationality is a state not a factor under the personal control.

The same phenomenon also affects whether a verb may be used progressively or statively so there is clearly a distinction between, e.g.:
    John was being interesting
    John is an interesting man

The rule is that stative adjective use can be both predicative and attributive but dynamic adjective use demands only the predicative form.

And this is, of course, a semantic rule which determines a syntactical event.


Proleptic use

The general rule is, as you know, that adverbs modify verb phrases and adjectives noun phrases so we get:
    Work slowly
    The work was slow / It was slow work
This is, naturally, a purely syntactical rule to do with examining the structure of the sentence or clause and determining what word class is being modified and then selecting the correct word class to fill the slot in the clause.  There is no difficulty filling slots such as:
    Mary was driving __________
    Mary is a __________ driver.

However, here are some examples in which the rule appears to break down:
    Hammer it flat
    Make it wet
    Play it loud
    Pull it straight
    Roll it smooth
    Pull it tight
and in all these cases we have a simple imperative clause with a transitive verb and a pronoun object.  The syntactical rule should allow only an adverb to fill the slot but the sentences are all well formed.
The solution lies in meaning, as usual.  The adjectives here are not being applied to the verbs (because that is disallowed by the rules of English syntax) but to the objects of the verbs which, in this case, are pronouns but could be nouns so we can have:
    Hammer the iron flat
    Make the paper wet
    Play the music loud
    Pull the cloth straight
    Roll the pastry smooth
    Pull the rope tight

Meaning, not syntax, rules.



It is a fairly simple matter to divide verbs in English into those that:

  1. Intransitive verbs:
    which never take an object such as: go, come, arrive, cough, happen and a few hundred more and form clauses such as:
        She arrived at the hotel
    but not
        *She arrived the hotel
  2. Ambivalent verbs:
    which may take an object or not such as: break, close, drive, finish, eat, smoke and hundreds more and form clauses such as:
        We ate late
        We ate lunch
  3. Transitive verbs:
    which are those that must take an object such as: believe, consider, lose, receive, take and hundreds more and form clauses such as:
        I lost my wallet
    but not
        *I lost
  4. Ditransitive verbs:
    which are those that can take both a direct and an indirect object such as: ask, give, hand, tell, offer, pay, promise and a few hundred more (probably) which form clauses such as:
        They gave the money
        They gave me the money
        They gave the money to me
    but not
        *They gave

and the rules we apply to the verbs are all syntactical to do with where we place the objects (if they are permitted) and what order they come in.

However, a glance at the following examples will show that there are also lexical, semantic rules in action here, too.

  1. He considered the issue
    He considered her a fool
  2. The chair broke
    She broke the chair
  3. He read a book
    He read them a story
  4. She called at seven
    She called her father
  5. She built me a house
    She built a house for me
    She brought me a shirt
    She brought a shirt to me

Here are some notes:

  1. The first of these examples concerns the meaning of the verb consider.  If it means think about, then it is monotransitive and conforms to the usual rules.  However, if it means deem or regard, the two objects become co-referential and the verb takes an object complement.
    The syntax is altered to take account of the meaning.
  2. Here we have a case of the appropriacy of the subject.  If the subject is animate (or at least active) and acts upon the object, the verb is transitive and must take an object.
    If, on the other hand, the subject is inanimate, the verb is intransitive and cannot take an object while retaining the same meaning.
    In the second case, the verb means damage seriously and in the first, it means become unusable.
    In the second sense, too, we have what is called an ergative form.  The ostensible, semantic object of the verb is, in fact, the chair but the ergative use raises it to the syntactical subject.
  3. With this pair the focus falls on the meaning of read.  When it means speak aloud, the verb can be ditransitive or monotransitive but when it takes its usual meaning, the verb is stubbornly monotransitive.  The syntax, again, has to be altered to take account of meaning.
  4. The verb call means either visit (in which case it is intransitive) but when it means telephone it is transitive or intransitive.  Moreover, when it is used transitively, it can only mean telephone.
  5. This is a clear case of a ditransitive use of the verbs but, unfortunately, the dative shift with build only works with the preposition for and not with the usual one, to.  So we allow:
        She built a house for me
    but not
        *She built a house to me
    The verb bring is more forgiving and allows both formulations.
    The reason lies in the meaning, as usual.  When the indirect object is the beneficiary, the usual choice falls on for but when the indirect object is the recipient, the choice usually falls on to.
    The verb bring can imply either a recipient or a beneficiary and that is why both pronouns are allowable with the dative shift so we can have:
        She brought a shirt to me
    with the indirect object as the recipient
        She brought a shirt for me
    with the indirect object as the beneficiary
    Hence, too, we have, for example:
        She sent me the letter
        She sent the letter to me

    because the indirect object is the recipient but we can also allow:
        She cooked me a meal
        She cooked a meal for me

    because the indirect object is the beneficiary.
    That's rather subtle but a question of meaning not syntax.

Other verbs depend heavily on meaning for syntactical accuracy.
For example, speak and talk can be intransitive (when they mean say aloud or exchange information and ideas) but say and tell are never intransitive.  The verb tell, when it means inform is transitive and can be ditransitive but does not allow the dative shift at all because the meaning does not concern the indirect object, it concerns the information so:
    He told me the train was delayed
is not convertible to
    *He told the train was delayed to me
However, when it concerns the act of communicating rather than informing, the dative shift is allowed
    She told a lie to her boss
So, because the sense of the verb has shifted, so the syntax shifts to follow.
The other notable feature is when the direct object of tell is a nominalised clause, an indirect object is required because the meaning of the verb is inform and that verb is, by nature, transitive.
We allow:
    She told me when the meeting started
but not:
    *She told when the meeting started
and the syntax is under the control of the lexis.

All the issues covered above appear in the guides to the relevant areas but here they are brought together.  For more, try:
passive voice clauses for more consideration of the constraints on passive voice structures
relative pronoun clauses for some consideration of both meaning and syntax with these forms
place adjuncts for a little more on PP complement verbs
tense and aspect for lots more on the uses of aspects in English
stative vs. dynamic uses for more on verb types in this regard
adjectives for the in-service guide to the area
the article system for the in-service guide to the area
verb types and clause structures for a good deal more on clause structures and verb meanings

Halliday, MAK, 2014, Halliday's Introduction to Functional Grammar, 4th Edition, revised by Matthiessen, C, Routledge: Abingdon, Oxon