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THE ASYMMETRY PRINCIPLE:
A FUNCTIONAL INVESTIGATION OF TRANSITIVITY AND TOPIC-COMMENT
STRUCTURING IN ENGLISH
MICHELLE SUZANNE SCHAFER
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
This project is dedicated to Dr. Gerald Eugene Merwin,
who is not alive to see its completion
yet has everything to do with it being done.
There are many people without whom finishing this dissertation would have been difficult, if
not impossible. First, I would like to thank my committee members, each of whom contributed
something unique: Dr. Chauncey Chu, for his support, leadership, faith, and ability to give me
a swift kick when it was time to get going; Dr. Michel Achard, for the inspiration and challenges
he offered; Dr. Galia Hatav, for her faith in my abilities and the opportunity to assist with her
own work which lead to my first real "breakthrough"; Dr. William Sullivan, for his support,
guidance through bureaucracy, and good questions; and Dr. Douglas Dankel, for the
opportunity to think about my ideas in a different context which was instructive and refreshing.
I would also like to thank Cindy Powell and the staff of Anderson 112 for their patience in
answering the same questions year after year; Gordon Tapper and Lucy Pickering, of
Academic Spoken English, for many years of conversation and support; Kathy Kidder and
Anne Wyatt-Brown, two of the finest "bosses" I've ever had, both of whom allowed me plenty
of room for the creative application of linguistics; and to my students over the years, all of
whom have enjoyed (or suffered) my experimentation in classroom application, usually without
being aware that they were the guinea pigs in my latest test run.
Finally, these acknowledgments would not be complete without special thanks to my family,
especially my mother and husband. My mother has always believed in my abilities, supported
my goals, and certainly helped finance the trip from there to here. My husband, who came
along a couple of years into the process, gave me fantastic support and lots of room to think
and do whatever needed to be done. Most importantly, he gave to me extraordinary love and
inspired in me courage that I didn't know I had.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.............. ...................................................... iii
LIS T O F F IG U R E S ............................................................................ vi
A B S T R A C T ........................................................................................ ............. v ii
1 FUNCTIONAL AND DISCOURSE MODELS OF TRANSITIVITY ............. 1
1.1 Introduction................................................... ........................... 1
1.2 M .A .K H alliday..................................................... .................. 3
1.3 Approaches to Transitivity........................................................ 5
1.3.1 Verb-Oriented Theories.................................................. 6
1.3.2 Clause-O oriented Theories............................................... 8
184.108.40.206 Propositional models...................................... 8
220.127.116.11. Hopper and Thompson, 1980........................... 11
18.104.22.168 Cognitive models............................................ 12
1.3.3 Extra-Clause Oriented Theories.................................. 15
1.3.4 Transitivity and Text............................ ................ 19
1.4 Overview of Project................... .. ... ............... 20
2 TOWARDS A WORKING DEFINITION OF TRANSITIVITY................... 23
2.1 Introduction to the Problem.......................................................... 23
2.2 Syntax................ ................... ........... ............ 25
2.2.1 Grammatical Behavior.............................................. 26
2.3 The Semantics of Transitivity...................................................... 27
2.3.1 The Active, Affirmative, Declarative Prototype.............. 29
2.3.2 The Transitive Prototype: One or Many?........................ 30
22.214.171.124 Berman and Slobin revisited--event construal 40
126.96.36.199 Degrees of transitivity.................................... 42
2.3.3 Event Structure and Transitivity............................. ....... 43
2.3.4 "Agent," "Patient," and Other Labels............................ 46
2.3.5 Verbal Modality...................................... .................. .. 50
188.8.131.52 Fast-paced.................................................. 50
184.108.40.206 Completed................................................ 51
220.127.116.11 Perceptually-cognitively salient..................... 52
2.4 Transitivity and Tim e................................................................. 55
2.5 The Asymmetry Principle in Cognition and Communication....... 60
2.6 Concluding Remarks..................................... ..................... 62
3 TOWARDS A MULTI-VARIABLE DISCOURSE MODEL OF TRANSITIVITY
IN ENG LISH ........................................................... ............................. 65
3.1 Opening Remarks........................................ .................. .......... 65
3.1.1 Thematic Coherence............................... ....... ............ 66
3.1.2 Perspective.......... ........ .... ........ ........................... 67
3.1.3 Management of Perspective......................................... 68
3.1.4 The M odel in Brief................................... ................ 69
3.2 D iscourse Topicality.................................................................. 72
3.3 Perspectival Distance....................................................... 79
3.4 The Four Clause Types of Transitivity.................................... 83
3.4.1 Telic Transitives ............................................................ 84
3.4.2 Atelic Transitives......... ........... ............ ................. 88
3.4.3 Intransitives/Durative Transitives................................. 95
3.4.4 Dispersed Transitives................................................... 96
3.5 Deep and Shallow Transitivity................................................... 99
3.6 Quantitative Patterns........................... ...... ............. 103
3.7 Concluding Remarks ..................................... 105
4 TRANSITIVITY IN EXPOSITORY TEXT......................... ......... ....... 107
4.1 O opening Rem arks ............................................. ......... ..... 107
4.2 Towards a Linguistic Definition of Expository Text..................... 108
4.2.1 Narrative versus Expository Text................................ 108
18.104.22.168 Differences....... ..... ................................ 108
22.214.171.124.1 Them e............. .......................... 109
126.96.36.199.2 Linkage................... .................... ... 111
188.8.131.52 Sim ilarities.................................. ........ .. 115
184.108.40.206.1 Argument Line................................... 115
220.127.116.11.2 Illocutionary Force............................. 117
4.3 Topic-Comment Structuring in Expository Text.......................... 119
4.3.1 The Role of Adverbial Expressions: Continuation Spans. 120
4.3.2 The Role of Transitivity in Expository Text: Transition
Spans ........................................................................ 126
18.104.22.168 Transitivity and topic-switching.......................... 126
22.214.171.124 Micro-texts and bridge spans........................... 127
4.3.3 Bridge Spans and Transitivity........................................ 131
4.3.4 Passives in Expository Text......................................... 134
4.4 Concluding Remarks: Topic-Comment Structuring and Asymmetry 137
5 TRANSITIVITY: CREATIVITY AND CONSTRAINT.......................... 139
5.1 Summary of Results ..................................................................... 139
5.2 Final Remarks ........................................ .............................. 143
B IB LIO G R A P H Y .................................................................. ............................ 146
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ............................ ............ .... 153
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1.1 Halliday's Six Categories of Clause Types......................... 4
Figure 2.1 Statement of Transitivity................................ 24
Figure 2.2 Mandler's Image Schemas of Motion.................................. 32
Figure 2.3 Mandler's Image Schema of Caused Motion...................... 32
Figure 2.4 Mandler's Image Schema of Agency.................................. 33
Figure 2.5 Croft's Event Views....................................................... 36
Figure 2.6 Kemmer's Event Schema.................................................. 37
Figure 2.7 The Four Clause Types of Transitivity........................... 63
Figure 3.1 Referential Specificity, Information Value, and Grammatical
R elations.......................... ................. ......... .... 79
Figure 3.2 Quantitative Analysis of Clause Types with Percentages of
O ccurrence........... ... ..................................... ..... 103
Figure 3.3 Raw Count and Percentages Clause Types in Adult
Narrative................................................... .......... 103
Figure 3.4 Time Line and Clause Types--raw score out of total/percentage
in text............................................................... ... 105
Figure 4.1 Topic/Subtopic .................. ..... ............................ 123
Figure 4.2 Topic/Subtopics Specified........................... ... ..... 124
Figure 4.3 Complete Topic/Subtopics of excerpt "Speech Acts".......... 125
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree
THE ASYMMETRY PRINCIPLE:
A FUNCTIONAL INVESTIGATION OF TRANSITIVITY AND TOPIC-COMMENT
STRUCTURING IN ENGLISH
Michelle Suzanne Schafer
Chairman: Dr. Chauncey Chu
Major Department: Linguistics
Current models of transitivity have been based on the examination of isolated sentences
or text taken almost exclusively from the genre of narrative. The result has been the confusion
of transitivity with linguistic features particular to narrative. This confusion has found its way into
both prototype models of transitivity and discourse-functional approaches. To ameliorate this
situation, this project extended the investigation of transitivity into the genre of expository text.
Narrative texts were first examined to determine what might properly be called transitivityy" and
what was actually a linguistic property of narrative. Then, texts were examined to determine the
function of transitivity in narrative. Finally, expository texts were examined to determine if first,
the model proposed to account for the data in the investigation of narrative would extend to
expository text and second, if transitivity functioned differently in expository text. A model of
transitivity is proposed which better accounts for the surface realization of transitivity by limiting
prototype effects to four sentence types found in English: the telic transitive, the atelic transitive,
the dispersed transitive, and the intransitive or durative transitive. Second, a functional model is
proposed which shows that in narrative, transitivity is a continuation device which contributes to
the management of perspective; in expository text, transitivity is a transition device which
creates bridges from one span of text to another. Overall, this study demonstrated that while
transitivity is indeed a grammatical system for the expression of events, its use as such is only
exploited in those discourse types which turn on events. In non-event-driven discourse,
transitivity gives way to alternative forms of grammatical realization. The principle of asymmetry
guiding grammatical cognition motivates this difference. In discourse types skewed towards
linear organization, linear structures such as event-driven transitivity dominate. In discourse
types favoring non-linear organization, non-linear structures which realize situations and states
dominate. This tendency seems well-encoded by the differences between transitivity and topic-
comment structuring in English.
FUNCTIONAL AND DISCOURSE MODELS OF TRANSITIVITY
"Many words are subject to a distinction which is designated by different names and
therefore not perceived as essentially the same wherever found, namely that of a word
complete in itself (or used for the moment as such) and one completed by some addition,
generally of a restrictive nature. Thus we have the complete verb in he sings, he plays, he
begins: and the same verb followed by a complement in he sings a song, he plays the piano,
he begins work. In this case it is usual to call the verb intransitive in one case and transitive
in the other, while the complement is termed its object"
Jesperson, 1924. 88
A fundamental assumption of functional grammarians is that the primary purpose of
language is communication; therefore, the ultimate goal of studying language is the investigation
into this relationship: "The theme unifying the various functional approaches is the belief that
language must be studied in relation to its role in human communication. Language is thus
viewed as a system of human communication..." (Foley and Van Valin, 1984:7).
One question which emerges from this perspective is: what is it that human beings use
language to communicate? The functional response is "If one is concerned with the role of
language in social interaction, then aspects of linguistic structure which serve to signal social as
opposed to purely referential meaning share center stage with purely referential elements..."
(Foley and Van Valin, 1984:9). Lambrecht puts it another way: "...certain formal properties of
sentences cannot be fully understood without looking at the linguistic and extralinguistic contexts
in which sentences have these properties are embedded." (Van Valin, 1993:2). Perhaps the
finest statement for why functional insights are necessary to the study of language comes from
Leonard Talmy, a cognitive scientist. Talmy (1988) states that one of the principal functions of
structure is to provide conceptual coherence. For language this means grammar, which is the
way of "...unifying contentful material within a single conceptual system and rendering it
manipulable--i.e., amenable to transmission, storage, and processing- and that its absence
would render content an intractable agglomeration" (Talmy, 1988:196).
"Unifying contentful material" at the sentence level, though, is insufficient; the result
would be an intractable agglomeration of individual grammatical constructions. In order to
achieve coherence through time (a factor critical to successful communication), the grammatical
structures themselves must be organized. This is one function of discourse structure: the
structural organization of grammatical constructions for the purpose of managing information
flow through text and time. This study, too, will examine a structural system, transitivity, with
respect not only to its referential meaning at the sentence level but to its communicative and
contextual functions through time and text.
Transitivity has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in response to functional inquiry. There
have been at least two major functions proposed for transitivity; first, the sentence-level coding
of events (Langacker, 1990; Rice, 1987; Giv6n, 1993:vol.1) in which transitivity is described in
terms of coding participants and action/event relationships; second, the discourse-level coding of
grounding (Hopper and Thompson, 1980; DuBois, 1987; Giv6n, 1995) in which transitivity codes
foregrounded information and manages information flow in connected texts. Both viewpoints
use much of the same theoretical apparatus (energy flow, attention, framing, agency, etc.)
though neither has been set vis-A-vis the other in a clearly explicated manner. Transitivity
provides fertile ground for such an examination as it appears to extend to both "levels" of
linguistic exploration: the local, particular grammatical instantiation of any referent scene and
the connection of that instantiation with others of its kind. The explicit purpose of this study is
to distill from the various claims made about transitivity what this relationship might be.
Theoretical approaches to transitivity can be roughly classified along three dimensions:
verb-oriented, clause-oriented, and extra-clause oriented. In the first, transitivity is understood
mainly as a property of verbs. In the second, it is a property of logical propositions or events. In
the third, transitivity is a matter of perspective or speaker construal (though in practice, it is often
difficult to separate semantics and pragmatics of the various approaches). Within each
dimension, theorists employ a variety of devices to account for transitivity, and while
grammarians are obliged to give transitivity some mention because of its intimate link to clause
structure, there is considerable variation in the degree of centrality accorded it.
1.2 M.A.K. Halliday
Before discussing each of the approaches above, some mention of M.A.K. Halliday must
be made. Halliday (1967) started the serious discussion of transitivity in a three part work titled
"Notes on Transitivity and Theme in English." While it is not within the scope of this study to
review the whole work, Halliday's basic claims are adhered to in subsequent work (though he is
not always explicitly cited).
For Halliday, transitivity was part of three systems whose point of origin is the matrix
clause, that clause which contains the major predication of the sentence. (The centrality of
predication as the starting point for linguistic discussion is still valid for many linguists:
"Regardless of the type of discourse under consideration, the clauses which constitute the
discourse are constructed around predications consisting of a predicate and its argument" (Foley
and Van Valin, 1984:27).) In particular, the transitivity systems "...are concerned with the type of
process expressed in the clause, with the participants in this process, animate and inanimate,
and with various attributes and circumstances of the process and participants" (38). For
Halliday, transitivity is the system which provides sets of options relating to "cognitive content,
the linguistic representation of extralinguistic experience, whether...of the external world or of
feelings, thoughts, perceptions" (Halliday, 1967b:198). As we will see, transitivity as a cognitive
phenomenon is still a critical, definitive notion.
The basic types of processes Halliday proposes are directed and non-directed action,
meaning activities which are directed or not directed towards producing a specific effect on a
participant. The relationships among participants and processes are thus very important. The
first relationship Halliday describes is that of the grammatical subject of the clause (for English,
every clause must have a subject). The subject has one of two semantic roles, the actor (the
one performing the action) and initiator (one who is energy source of the action). The
grammatical object has one principal role, the goal of the action. Subjects and objects
participate in one of three types of clauses: operative, middle, and receptive. Six relationships
emerge from crossing processes, participants, and clause types.
operative middle receptive
Figure 1.1: Halliday's Six Categories of Clause Types
Halliday locates transitivity within the clause and in doing so retums to features of the
clause as the organizing rubric for his discussion. Thus "subject as actor" or "subject as initiator"
are unnecessary labels as they fall out naturally from directed and non-directed clause types:
"Treatment in terms of clause types enables us to generalize by saying that there are in fact
three distinct types of subject, or subject functions, determined by the transitivity systems; these
could be labeled 'ergative', 'nominative' and 'accusative'" (Halliday, 1967a:46). Halliday
distinguishes clause features, subject type, and participant role as follows.
Clause Feature Subject Type Participant Role
operative ergative actor (not goal) in directed;
initiator (not actor) in non-directed
middle nominative actor/goal in directed;
initiator/actor in non-directed
receptive accusative goal (not actor) in directed;
actor (not initiator) in non-directed
The point so far critical to this study is the emergence of clause types in terms of
transitivity resulting from the interactions between processes and participants. Halliday comes
back to this point again and again throughout all three sections culminating in an argument for
the linguistic uselessness of the binary opposition "transitive" versus "intransitive." In particular,
Halliday points out the difficulty in ascribing verbs this characteristic (a "dictionary analysis")
since so many verbs in English participate in clauses with and without goal participants. That is,
S actor S actor/goal S goal
she washed the she washed the clothes were
s initiator S initiatoractor 5 actor
he marched the the prisoners the psoners were
prisoners marched marched
the presence of a goal participant is often not fully predictable from the meaning of the verb
itself: "The potential distinction, in other words, between verbs which are inherently goal-directed
and verbs which are not, is less useful as a generalization than the actual distinction between
clauses which contain a goal, or rather (an important difference) a feature of goal-directedness,
and those which do nor (Halliday, 1967c:182; emphasis added). This being the case, the
opposition of transitive and intransitive is not useful for linguistic analysis. Instead, we should
employ a full range of transitivity distinctions as associated with the process-participant relations
within the clause.
Halliday's notion that there must be a scale of transitivity distinctions has emerged as
one of the crucial arguments in current functional and discourse grammars. However, in
unlikely contrast, the labels "transitive" and "intransitive" have also remained, confusing the
study of transitivity considerably. One of the principal tasks of this study is to clarify such
confusion, and this point will be taken to task at length in Chapter Two.
The second insight of Halliday's which can be found throughout the literature and which
is also critical to this study is the notion "goal-directedness." Evidence for goal-directedness as
the primary semantic relationship in transitivity is found in both discourse studies (such as
DuBois, 1987) and cognitive studies (Rice, 1987). As such, it enjoys considerable elaboration in
Finally, Halliday's contention that the clause is the proper domain of transitivity has also
emerged as fundamental. This notion is taken up briefly in the following discussion and is
elaborated upon in Chapter Two.
1.3 Approaches to Transitivity
There are three primary theoretical approaches to transitivity: verb-oriented approaches
in which the verb controls argument structure; clause-oriented studies in which transitivity is seen
as a property of events realized at the clause level; and extra-clause oriented studies which offer
pragmatic and discourse explanation of transitivity.
1.3.1 Verb-Oriented Theories of Transitivity
Verb-centered theories of transitivity are the most traditional and well-known. These
construe transitivity as a matter of predicate argument structure identifying particularly the role of
the verb and direct object: a verb is transitive if it requires a direct object or if there is a direct
object present. Early theories didn't discriminate among types of verbs nor classify according to
grammatical alternations; any verb which required some kind of object was transitive. Thus, a
representative definition would be "a transitive verb denotes an action which passes over from
the doer of the action to the object of it" but "an intransitive verb denotes a state or simple action
without any reference to an object" (Curme, 1947: 22-23; emphasis added). Curme included
reflexive verbs with the transitive, stating simply that the receiver and doer happen to be the
same person. Other examples include We make fudge, I remember Tony well, or She has no
brothers and sisters (Long,1961 as cited in Rice,1987). More recent theorists, though, do classify
verbs according to type and recognize that different types correlate with different grammatical
behaviors. Thus, we have action verbs, state verbs, process verbs, psychological verbs,
reflexive verbs, verbs with cognate objects, etc., or the aktionsart classes: state, activity,
achievement, and accomplishment (Vendler,1967; Dowty,1979; Van Valin,1993). Moreover, the
definition of transitivity vis-a-vis these verbs has developed so that only those that passivize are
recognized as "fully" transitive, or in some cases, verbs are categorized as transitive and sub-
categorized as also passivizable.
Nevertheless, the syntactic approach to transitivity is not limited to traditional
grammarians. Indeed, this approach finds representation in both current formal and functional
approaches. Configurational and structural approaches championed by Chomsky (1981) and
most recently by Hale and Keyser (1985) define transitivity as a derivative of the syntactic or
semantic configuration of the sentence. In the Aspects model, a verb is transitive because it
subcategorizes for a noun phrase. A verb which has both transitive and intransitive instantiations
would be marked exceptional. In the Govemment-Binding model, a verb is transitive because it
binds its direct object via government relations. Although Hale and Keyser do allow extra-
propositional elements to influence the clause, the mapping between the components which link
perspectives on an event (Lexical Conceptual Structure) with clausal instantiation (Lexical
Structure) is unclear. And still, in all of these cases, the verb is the element responsible for
transitivity; no appeal is made to other elements in the clause which may contribute. Yet
semantic research as early as 1979 (Dowty) and still continuing (Hinrichs, 1985; Verkuyl, 1993)
cites the importance of the NP in determining the syntactic behavior of the clause. A sentence
with an NP object which is not specifically quantified does not perform the same as one which is:
Judith ate sandwiches/Judith ate the sandwiches --> ?Sandwiches were eaten by Judith/The
sandwiches were eaten by Judith. As the passive sentences show, when the NP is not
quantified, passivizability suffers.
Van Valin (1993) also locates transitivity as a property of the verb, though he defines it
as "semantic transitivity." In Role and Reference Grammar (hereafter, RRG), there are two
types of transitivity recognized, macrorole transitivity and syntactic transitivity. The latter more
or less follows the traditional definition above, whereas the former is specifically related to RRG.
Macroroles are universal semantic structures which create the syntactic and semantic behavior
of participants in discourse. Though most familiar when expressed as "agent" and "patient," Van
Valin terms these roles "actor" and "undergoer" which subsume the more specific roles of agent
and patient. There are at most two macroroles represented in any sentence, and as little as
none. Further, it is the number of macroroles that has the most influence on syntactic behavior
rather than the number of "syntactic" arguments. Consequently, transitivity "is understood in
RRG as semantic transitivity, and is defined in terms of the number of macroroles a verb
takes: 2=transitive, 1=intransitive, and 0= atransitive" (Van Valin, 1993:48; emphasis added).
Thus, from the perspective of this study, regardless of the fact that Van Valin defines transitivity
in terms of universal semantic roles, he still defines it as a property of the verb.
Even the brief examination above yields two major criticisms of strictly verb-oriented, or
syntactic, approaches to transitivity. First, these approaches assume that transitivity is
structurally derived from the verb, and do not recognize the contribution of the object NP.
Second, because transitivity is a property of the verb, verbs with more than one instantiation
must be marked so in the lexicon, or have more than one representation in the lexicon. If indeed
transitivity is something relevant to the entire clause, then at some point, all clauses must be
included in the lexicon, seriously compromising the validity of maintaining it as a separate
grammatical component (Rice, 1987:34). On the other hand, syntactic approaches to transitivity
offer two valuable and time-honored insights. First, a direct object (of some sort) plays a role in
determining transitivity. Second, syntactic behavior often provide a litmus test for transitivity. A
sentence which passivizes is considered "fully" transitive. Sentences which marginally passivize
are not "fully" transitive, though may be distinguished from intransitive sentences which do not
have a direct object. So critical is this notion that Rice uses passivizability as the primary test of
transitivity. These two points are the contributions made to the study of transitivity by researchers
who employ essentially syntactic, or verb-based, definitions.
1.3.2 Clause-Oriented Theories of Transitivity
Clause-oriented approaches to transitivity are semantic in nature, and may be roughly
divided into formal models which deal primarily with propositions, and cognitive models which
deal with conceptual structures. As stated above, it is sometimes difficult to tease apart
semantic models and discourse models of transitivity particularly since the authors of the former
are often making claims for the latter based on the semantics in question.
126.96.36.199 Propositional models
M6I'COk (1993) discusses transitivity in relation to voice. For him, there are two "levels"
of semantics at work in the clause: first, the "deep" level of semantic structure where
propositional information works; second, the "surface" level of semantic structure where
communicative effects are created. The propositional meaning is the "literal," actual,
communicatively unmotivated representation of the event-- and, as is formally common, is
"logically" read from the perspective of the verb (as a sort of basic-level meaning): V [x,y] (or
whatever representation is used). Each of the NPs is termed an "actant": the subject or actor is
the first actant and the object or undergoer is the second actant. Communicative meaning,
however, is not "literal" or without organizational intent, but is the "level" of meaning
representing the speaker's intent or organization or interpretation of the event (Giv6n's
'discourse-pragmatic" level). It is read, as is also common practice, from the actual or "surface"
order of the lexical units.
M6I'COk defines changes in transitivityy" as affecting communicative meaning but not
propositional meaning since voice is an inflectional category, but transitivation (his term) is NOT
(though sometimes closely resembles it): "Just like voice, the transitivation achieves
[communicative structure] through manipulation of COMMUNICATIVE SALIENCY of the verb's
actants "(M6l'C6k,1993:30; caps in original). Transitivation differs from voice in that voice can
affect any actant, where transitivation only acts upon the second actant under the condition that
its surface realization is as the "direct object". Furthermore, voice operates at the "deep" level
of semantic structure while transitivation only acts at the surface level. Ml6'COk follows Keenan
and Comrie's 1977 hierarchy concluding that "all things being equal, the higher the syntactic rank
of a sentence element, the higher its communicative salience...It is this trait that is exploited by
the transitivation: it allows the speaker to modify, according to his communicative needs, the
syntactic rank of the phrase whose communicative salience interests him" (30-1). Specifically,
then, Mi6'COk defines transitivation with the modification of the second actant (main object)
without affecting propositional content. Detransitivation works the same way, but with a two-
Giv6n (1993) also maintains different semantic levels in order to account for the
communicative effects of different sentences. As with M61'COk, he also calls them "deep" and
"surface" structure, though ostensibly these are syntactic levels. The deep syntactic structure
most closely corresponds to the semantic structure-- or propositional meaning of the sentence.
In simple sentences (main, declarative, affirmative, active), the relationship between
propositional meaning and surface syntactic structure is straightforward, hence semantically
transparent. In most complex clauses, though, the surface structure is at odds with the
propositional meaning, so much so that they are most easily described independently. In this
case, the semantic structure of the sentence is opaque.
Giv6n justifies these two claims pragmatically. The reason why syntactic complexity
results in propositional opacity is that a complex surface structure communicates "discourse-
pragmatic functions...discourse-pragmatics and propositional semantics are here in direct
competition for coding resources" (1993:30). Thus, the overall structure of complex sentences
is a communicative compromise between the distinct goals of communicating propositional
information and discourse-pragmatic information.
Giv6n goes one step further and assigns each of the "parts" of a sentence to particular
semantic functions. The word level encodes lexical meaning. The clause level encodes
propositional information. The discourse level encodes textual coherence. As a result,
transitivity acts across all three levels at once as instantiated at the level of the clause.
Syntactically, verbs and clauses that have a direct object are transitive. Thus, at a word level,
verbs which require direct objects are transitive, or clauses which have an overt direct object are
transitive. Semantically, transitive clauses encode prototypical semantic features, each of which
focuses on the subject of the verb (agentivity), object of the verb affectednesss), or construal of
event itself (perfectivity). Prototypically, the subject should be a deliberately acting agent; the
object should be concrete and visibly affected; the event should be bounded, terminated, fast-
changing, and in real-time. Since there is a good deal of variation possible with these features,
transitivity is potentially scalar in nature. The final dimension of transitivity is the discourse-
pragmatic: "By 'pragmatic' one means here that the very same semantically-defined transitive
event, coded by the very same combination of verb, agent and patient, may be rendered from
more than one perspective. By 'discourse' we mean the discourse context within which the
semantically-transitive clause is embedded" (1993: 46).
For Giv6n, as for Mdl'COk, transitivity acts on the "communicative" or discourse-
pragmatic level of language. The "semantic" level which communicates propositional structure
remains the same, but some rearrangement on the surface results in a change in perspective.
Giv6n goes one step further by adding the notion of prototypical semantic features.
Semantically, it is not the mere presence of subject and object which are sufficient, but a
particular kind of subject and object together with a particular kind of event. The prototypicality
of transitive events has been excellently investigated by Sally Ann Rice in her 1987 dissertation.
Before discussing Rice, though, a brief look at Hopper and Thompson (1980) is in order. It is
with this paper that transitivity as a complex and crucial grammatical structure re-entered
linguistic theory in full force.
188.8.131.52 Hopper and Thompson (1980)
Most studies of transitivity are intended to explain either transitive/intransitive
classifications or active/passive alternations. A scalar approach, introduced in 1980 by Hopper
and Thompson, paved the way for an alternative understanding based on degrees of transitivity
rather than binary distinctions. In their approach, a clause could be high or low in transitivity
depending on the number and type (high/low) of prototypical semantic features it possessed.
They proposed more than just the three features distilled by Giv6n. In short, there are several
features pertinent to actions and objects and one feature critical to subjects. Each has a high
and low value. As the low value is simply the inverse of the high, I will only list the high values.
Of course, the first feature is that the ideal transitive clause should have two participants. The
ideal subject is high in potency. The ideal action is kinetic, telic, punctual, volitional, affirmative,
and real. The ideal object is totally affected and highly individuated. Individuation has
properties as well: proper, human/animate, concrete, singular, countable, and
referential/definite. Hopper and Thompson understand these features to be the component parts
which make up the "traditional" semantic notion of transitivity: "...[the] carrying over or
transferring [of] an action from one participant to another" (1980:253).
Hopper and Thompson also specify that languages vary according to which features (or
clusters of features) are critical to changes in transitivity. Further, they propose a relationship
between transitivity and grounding, claiming that clauses high in transitivity are also
foregrounded events in narrative. Several language specific studies emerged (see Hopper and
Thompson, Syntax and Semantics, 1982) which corroborated their claims. However, two
difficulties with their work have been pointed out. First, transitivity and grounding do not have an
absolute relationship and it may be necessary to refine which aspects of narrative are actually
related to transitivity, supposing that such a relationship indeed exists (Kalmar, 1982). Second,
the semantic features proposed do not necessarily covary consistently or correlate with
transitivity alternations such as passive, nor must they be morphological in nature (Rice, 1987).
There is also language-specific evidence that morphological indicators of transitivity may not
correspond to particular features, but simply indicate overall changes in transitivization (Kibrik,
1993). Nevertheless, Hopper and Thompson opened the door to a more sophisticated notion of
transitivity, and firmly established the relevance of both semantic and pragmatic factors to its
184.108.40.206 Cognitive models
For Rice, transitivity is ultimately "...a linguistic device optionally employed by a speaker
to conceptualize and organize the actions of entities in the world in order to convey a certain
attitude about an overall event to someone else" (1987:5). As with most theorists, she finds
transitivity a semantic matter with discourse-pragmatic functions. However, she firmly places
herself within a cognitive school of linguistics which takes the work on prototype theory by Rosch
quite seriously (see Lakoff, 1987):
In what is increasingly becoming the accepted view, categories are assumed
to be organized around prototypical or canonical instances. Less canonical
instances extend or radiate outwards from this prototypical center. In fact,
categories may have several centers or may be able to sustain several
prototypical instances. Furthermore, the creation of categories is understood
to be a dynamic process and one that grows out of contact and interaction by
a human with individual members of a category. Naturally, in the developing
infant, physical objects will be the first to be encountered, recognized, and
categorized. Over time, however, abstract entities like linguistic forms
and even events will be experienced, assessed, and categorized in
relation to some prototype or prototypes, which might enjoy either
experiential primacy, superior frequency or perceptual salience, a clear
utility, or higher resemblance relative to other members of the category
Rice is an "extreme" cognitivist, insofar as she understands the conceptual categories she
investigates as primarily non-linguistic, though they may be manifested in a linguistic form. My
view is somewhat more moderate. While I agree that conceptual categories do underlie much of
language acquisition (the research into conceptual categories throughout language is quite
convincing; see Vandeloise, 1984; Herskovitz, 1989; Johnson, 1987, etc.) I also hold that at
some point in the acquisition process, critical mass attains and language becomes a system
acting on its own. It is a cognitive system, yes, but also has its own rules, structures, purposes,
functions, and forms which are very much linguistic in nature. Nevertheless, Rice's line of
reasoning has led to significant insights into the nature of transitivity.
The prototypical transitive event, according to Rice, has many of the same
characteristics as mentioned above: the activity is unilateral, thus the entities are in an
asymmetrical relationship; contact between the entities is important; the second entity is affected
by the first; and the entities are distinct from one another, their locale or setting, and from the
speaker/conceptualizer. However, transitivity is as much a function of the describer's
interpretation of the event as it is the content of the event being described. It is this observation
that accounts for metaphoric extension from the realm of the physical as well as variability in
speakers' acceptance of passives. It is the first point which I find particularly significant.
In Rice's cognitive model, transitivity is prototypically a dynamic event in which the
participants are in an asymmetrical relationship and some change to the "object" is due to an
action/effect which traveled along some kind of directional path from the first participant to the
second. Thus, conceptually, several factors are crucial. First, the two participants are in an
asymmetrical relationship; in other words, one participant must have the means to affect the
other or one participant must have the capacity to be affected. Second, the action must be
kinetic and/or forceful. Third, there must be some kind of path construed between the
participants, even if the activity itself takes place instantaneously. Fourth, the receiver of the
action must be affected in some way, though this can cover a wide range of possibilities,
including change of state, change of location, etc. Of course, the change itself may be
construed from experience. In the well-worn example, John hit Bill, the change to Bill is not
made obvious in the sentence but construed from our experience with the world.
In the cognitivist model, reality is constructed, paving the way for important links
between language and cognition. One of these links is metaphoric extension from "bodily
images" (Johnson, 1987) to non-physical domains. Rice brilliantly makes this point for
transitivity in mental domains and communicative or interpersonal domains. That is, for each of
the primary domains in which we act -- physical, mental, social -- there are prototypical transitive
events which make use of the above semantic components (though inequally). Her examples
serve to demonstrate the most typical aspects of each event.
In the physical world, John deliberately kicked the sleeping poodle, represents two
maximally distinct participants in a single event in which one participant is active and powerful
and the other is passive and defenseless. There is forceful contact which travels along a path
designated by the physics and geometry of the body in one direction. The dog is presumably
both awakened and injured, inducing both an internal and external change of state.
In the mental domain, Rice uses the following examples: Eileen heard the gunfire, Steve
despises Christmas, John solved the equation. In each, there is at least one active, animate
participant, but no restrictions on the type of passive participants. Further, each of the active
participants acts on an entity external to itself. The contact is inferred as a function of the active
participant and the event in question. However, the change that takes place is internal to the
active participant rather than the passive participant; the nature of gunfire, Christmas, and
equations does not change. Thus, in mental domains, the path is understood to "circle back" to
the active participant. This is really not as odd a relationship as it first seems if we consider how
we ascribe information to participants. In Eileen heard gunfire/Gunfire was heard by Eileen, the
state of our knowledge about Eileen has changed, just as the state of our knowledge about the
poodle changed in the example above. In mental domains, there is still change and still two
distinct participants, even though the relationships among them differ somewhat.
In the social domain, Rice cites The policeman questioned Bill. Again, there are two
participants, and while both are human and animate, their distinctiveness rises out of authority
relations. The action is presumably goal-directed; the questions travel a "path" from the
policeman to Bill, not the other way around. A number of possible emotional or mental changes
can be inferred for Bill, from fear and nervousness, to sweating, to silence. Rice also makes the
point that contact and directedness are important semantic properties of social events, and her
investigation into verb and preposition combinations resulting in transitive events contains a high
number of social events.
The strengths of the semantic theories of transitivity include a commitment to finding
coherence underlying apparently disparate examples, and a careful attention to details that
systematically distinguish different types of meaning. While I don't necessarily accept the
syntactic distinction of deep and surface levels, theoretically there is a need to distinguish some
kind of propositional meaning from discourse-pragmatic meaning. Nor do I accept prototype
theory outright, though it is convenient to our discussion to use it as a possible model. This
model will be taken up with greater diligence in Chapter Two. Nevertheless, Rice's careful
explication of transitivity in English using both canonical and marginal examples is compelling.
The primary strength of Giv6n and Rice is their commitment to a view of transitivity as a single
dynamic entity with a complex of components versus a pick-and-choose list approach. The
notion that structurally, transitivity has both semantic and discourse-pragmatic components, and
functionally, it serves to manipulate perspectives on a scene, has profoundly influenced my own
understanding and is foundational to this paper.
1.3.3 Extra-Clause Oriented Theories of Transitivity
Extra-clause oriented theories of transitivity focus on the level of discourse. These
theories of transitivity begin with the notion of construal of an event and end with the notion of
information structuring in a text. There are two levels at which an event can be construed. First,
the clause-level, in which the structure of the individual clause encodes the speaker's construal
of a particular event. Second, the discourse-level, where the structure of an individual clause is
construed relative to other events in the text. Rice deals primarily with the first of these in her
dissertation: the particular ways a speaker represents a particular event vis-a-vis the event and
the conceptual structures the speaker has access to. Giv6n makes use of both in his model.
First, there is the propositional structure of the event which does not change. Second, there is
the particular construal of the event relative to the speaker's intentions and contextual
environment. The second notion is also what Hopper and Thompson were discussing when they
claimed that highly transitive clauses encode foregrounded events in narrative. (In fact, this is
not strictly the case. Rather, highly transitive events typically correlate with temporally-grounded
events in a narrative; those actions which drive the story forward through time and require both
an agent and patient of some kind.)
The pragmatic side of transitivity is the least explored, as the relative paucity of
explanation given by Giv6n attests. However, there are some tantalizing possibilities offered in
various accounts of the relationships between discourse and grammar. DuBois (1987) discusses
the statistical correlations between clause-type (transitive/ intransitive with lexically specified
arguments) and information structuring/flow (particularly the introduction of new participants) as
they relate to ergative patterns in grammar. There was an overwhelming tendency in his
transcripts of narrative discourse for any clause, intransitive or transitive, to have only a single
lexical argument fully specified (only 2.8% of transitive clauses had both arguments lexically
specified, representing just five sentences in the data). His conclusion was that ergative
patterning in discourse forms the basis of ergative patterning of grammatical phenomenon.
DuBois works within Dixon's (1972) semantic division of participant roles, intended to
allow cross-theoretical discussion of ergative/absolutive and nominative/accusative languages.
Dixon discriminates three basic semantic roles as they relate to the predicate: "A" designating
the subject/actor of a transitive (two participant) clause; "0" designating the object/goal of a
transitive (two participant) clause; and "S" designating the single participant of an intransitive
(one participant) clause. Thus, in nominative/accusative languages, "A/S" pattern together,
meaning that the actor/subject of a transitive clause and single participant of an intransitive
clause take the same verbal morphology (nominative). It is the object/goal relationship which
takes accusative marking. On the other hand, in ergative/absolutive languages, it is the single
participant of an intransitive clause and object/goal of a transitive which pattern together and
take absolutive morphology, while the actor/subject of a transitive clause takes ergative marking.
DuBois maintains that part of discourse management is a restriction against using more
than one lexical specification per clause. When broken down according to ergative/absolutive
cases, only 6.1% of 619 lexically specified arguments occurred in the "A" position-the vast
majority of cases were "S" and "O". Thus information flow was managed in terms of a constraint
against using lexical transitive subjects. DuBois interprets this pragmatically as meaning only
one new argument can be introduced at a time (this notion is also found in Giv6n, 1990a/b and
Chafe, 1994, though both authors suggested as much in earlier publications). Further, the new
argument is preferably an intransitive subject or transitive object. In terms of the discourse basis
of ergativity, DuBois concludes: "It appears, then, that speakers often select an intransitive verb,
not necessarily for its conceptual or semantic one-placeness, but for its compatibility with
constraints on information flow" (1987:831). DuBois also found evidence for the same type of
patterning in nominative/accusative languages; my own work in Cree suggests that statistically,
clause type and full lexical specification of NPs correlates with function in narrative discourse.
Yet another discourse perspective on transitivity is presented by Berman and Slobin
(1994). They conducted a cross-generational, cross-linguistic study of the acquisition of
narrative competence. Briefly, Berman and Slobin propose that in a skillful narrative, events are
not presented in a simple linear chain of successive occurrences in time and space. Rather,
events are "packaged" into hierarchical constructions. Part of that packaging arises from a
filtering process whereby speakers construe events over four dimensions: topic, locus of control
and effect, event view (Cause, Become, State), and degree of agency (1994:519).
Topic represents the speaker's choice of protagonist, the participant from whose
viewpoint the narrative is constructed or who the listener is intended to have "empathy" for (in
Kuno's sense of the term). Loci of control and effect represents the energy source of the event
which may or may not be the same as the topic. In a passive sentence, for instance, with an
overt "by-phrase," the affected participant is the topic but the energy source for the event is also
The selection of event view is the speaker's means of representing the semantic nature
of the event-as-process. A Cause-View represents one participant causing a change of state in
another. A Become-View represents a change of state without mention of a causative force. A
State-View simply represents a state itself. These three views are strikingly similar to Halliday's
three clause types, particularly as they interact with locus of control and effect.
Degree of Agency is the means by which the speaker represents the overall dynamism
of the event: "...its dynamic and motivational loading, the extent of its consequences, etc."
(Berman and Slobin, 1994:519). Agency can be strengthened or weakened via choice of verb,
choice of adverbs, and use of subordinate clauses. Berman and Slobin propose three levels of
agency: high, mid, and low. Any particular level comes about via the other three aspects of
filtering as well as voice and lexical options. In their treatment, though, the choices made when
"filtering" an event for expression go beyond mere representation of the experiential event (as is
the case with Halliday and Rice) and have encoding consequences beyond the level of the
clause. For example, construing the following participants and event with different combinations
of topic, locus, event view, and agency impacts the content of the next clause.
Participants: dog, cat event: fast movement of one participant from the other
(1) Topic: dog (2) Topic: dog
Locus of control and effect: dog Locus of control and effect: cat
Event View: Cause-View Event View: Become-View
Agency: high Agency: mid
Discourse One: The dog attacked the cat, barking furiously his right to sit on that bit of
sidewalk next to his house. The cat swiped his nose once with her paw, and that was the
end of that day's battle.
Discourse Two: The dog fled, nose scratched and bleeding. He had to reconsider battle
strategy before challenging the feline next door again.
The impact on the second sentence of each is significant. When the dog is both topic
and loci of control and effect, it left the cat as not only the affected participant but also the new
information. The response of the cat is the next "logical" step in the discourse as it is this
participant the listener has least information about and must know in order to make pragmatic
sense of the following information. In Discourse Two, however, the cat is the controlling force
but is not overtly mentioned, leaving the dog as a possible topic for the next predication.
We are thus brought full circle -- from Rice's compelling arguments for the conceptual
basis for transitivity across physical, mental, and social domains, DuBois' evidence for the
effects of discourse management on clause structure and Berman and Slobin's insights into the
interplay from clause to clause -- to the original hypothesis that transitivity is not a unitary
phenomenon but one which straddles the three principle levels of language structure--syntax,
semantics, and discourse--for the purposes of communication. What remains to be done is a
thorough-going investigation into these interactions. While each of the above researchers has
admirably investigated the particular side of the issue he or she is interested in, no one
investigator has attempted an in-depth study of these at once, particularly as they attain beyond
the genre of narrative. That is the purpose of this project: to investigate the various definitions
of transitivity and particularly its use with the aim of determining what might properly be called
transitivityy" and its functions. This work should be viewed with respect to emerging notions
about discourse such as those laid out by Hopper and Thompson (1980), DuBois (1987), Berman
and Slobin (1994) and Chafe (1994) which hold that the grammatical system itself is closely
linked to discourse forces such as focus and topicality, and the structure of clauses is similarly
linked to the needs of information structuring, cognitive processing, and communication. Thus
the play of any clause is not only a matter of semantics and construal, but also constrained by
the needs and forces of discourse and cognition.
1.3.4 Transitivity and Text
Because transitivity has implications across the semantic, syntactic, and discourse-
pragmatic levels of language, it has been the subject of several discourse studies, as the section
entitled "Extra-clause oriented" demonstrates. The overwhelming majority of these studies have
taken place within the genre of narrative, both spoken and written. Initially, this seems like a
good strategy. Narrative is an intuitively well-understood discourse type, easily recognized and
produced by speakers, with a few clear linguistic structures associated with it; namely, narrative
is past tense, action oriented, and proceeds from beginning to end chronologically.
Nevertheless, while linguistics has long been cautioned by practitioners such as
Longacre (1977, 1983) to be mindful of the connections between notional type and surface
structure, this has rarely been the case. While linguists do take pains to mention the notional
type they are culling data from, there is left implicit the assumption that the language itself-- the
grammatical or semantic structures in question-- are wholly distinct from the environment within
which they are occurring. Even discourse linguists who devote their time to studying these
connections seem to carry this same hidden belief: while genre has an effect, it is more of a
loose framework around the language within; it has no real impact on structure itself. In other
words, a given grammatical or semantic construction has structure and function which is
defining, and the structure and function hold regardless of the text type in which they are
Of course, not every linguist holds this assumption. DuBois' (1987) study discussed in
the previous section is an excellent counter-example. His work on the discourse basis of
ergativity specifically comes to the conclusion that there are discourse preferences for syntactic
structures. These preferences act independently of the semantics of syntactic structures by
exerting selectional pressures for the purposes of cognitive processing. In other words, there are
"top down" linguistic forces at work which are every bit as powerful as the "bottom up" pattems
we are accustomed to assuming for linguistic structure.
Thus, a careful distinction must be drawn between the structure and function of any
grammatical construction and the notional type in which that structure occurs. Further, attention
must be paid to teasing apart the linguistic features characterizing a discourse type which may
be having an effect on surface structure. This has not been done for transitivity and narrative.
Many of the proposals for the structure and function of transitivity have been made without
sufficient regard to the effects of narrative. This difficulty will be addressed in three ways in this
project. First, a "cumulative" structure/function definition of transitivity will be proposed followed
by a point-by-point investigation of the validity of each of the claims. Second, the linguistic
features of narrative will be investigated and subtracted from the definition of transitivity where
that seems appropriate. Third, the resulting "definition" of transitivity will be taken into both
narrative and expository texts for refinement, and to investigate the functions) of transitivity in
these two contrasting text types.
1.4 Overview of Proiect
A couple of assumptions central to this project should be expressed at this point. Of the
various linguistic meta-approaches to language, I fall in the camp of the interactionistt." This is
my own designation and includes perspectives such as those expressed by DuBois (1985a:363)
that "grammars code best what speakers do most" and by Elizabeth Bates (pc) that language as
a system is characterized by the mapping of a "hyper rich dimensional system" (meaning) onto a
"low dimension communicative apparatus" (grammar) resulting in a dynamic system wherein the
vast, fluid world of meaning must be relayed via a comparatively rigid means of communication.
Talmy (1994) as mentioned earlier says basically the same thing: language serves the needs of
communication but is constrained by the cognitive requirements of comprehensibility.
For these reasons, I reject models of grammar which propose various sorts of endlessly
embedded continue, imposed upon one another, and resulting via this imposition in a coherent
set of constructions with surface realizations of clauses and phrases. This is the "feel" of many
purely cognitive or purely discourse models of grammar. Instead, I side with likes of Bates,
Talmy, Giv6n, and Slobin who envision grammar as the dynamic system which emerges from
the tension of two distinct forces in linguistic communication: the richness of meaning as
expressed through the constraints of cognition.
Thus, my model of transitivity by and large rejects the prototype models of transitivity
currently in favor (Hopper and Thompson, 1980; Rice, 1987; Giv6n, 1995). Instead, I propose a
model of transitivity which has its base in the semantic-cognitive system but is realized
syntactically through four different clause types: telic transitive, atelic transitive, dispersed
transitive, and intransitive (or durative transitive). These clause types are particular to English in
keeping with Slobin's proposition that different languages select different "aspects of the mental
image" to be realized grammatically (1996:72). In Slobin's words (1996:76):
.The expression of experience in linguistic terms constitutes thinking for
speaking a special form of thought that is mobilized for communication.
Whatever effects grammar may or may not have outside the act of speaking,
the sort of mental activity that goes on while formulating utterances is not trivial
or obvious, and deserves our attention We encounter the contents of the mind
in a special way when they are being accessed for use. That is, the activity of
thinking takes on a particular quality when it is employed in the activity of
speaking In the evanescent time frame of constructing utterances in discourse
one fits one's thoughts into available linguistic frames 'Thinking for speaking'
involves picking those characteristics of objects and events that (a) fit some
conceptualization of the event, and (b) are readily encodable in the [native]
This perspective does not contradict Rice's claim that "...a verb/proposition/event is not so much
transitive as it considered transitive by the speaker/conceptualizer"; rather, it constrains this
claim by proposing that transitivity has language-specific surface realizations according to the
needs of communicative coherence. The model of transitivity will be taken up primarily in
Functionally, the two principle claims made for transitivity is that it manages perspective
on participants and events and signals foregrounded information. My own research confirms the
first conclusion and disconfirms the second. Transitivity does indeed manage participants and
events in narrative, but the second claim is more an accident of the interaction of transitivity and
narrative than a quality of transitivity itself. These issues will be introduced in Chapter Two and
developed in Chapter Three.
When transitivity is explored in expository text, our assumptions about the centrality of
function as part of a definition of a structure is challenged. Since expository text does not
employ participants and events as its main notional structures, transitivity plays a different role
than in narrative. In particular, transitivity is employed functionally at textual points of transition,
signaling movement from one major part of the text to another as well as textual material which
is off the main argument line. This subject is the task of Chapter Four.
The final chapter concludes the project by examining the role of transitivity in narrative
and expository texts and hypothesizing how these results either support or challenge traditional
assumptions about the interaction of notional type, surface structures, and grammar as a system.
TOWARDS A WORKING DEFINITION OF TRANSITIVITY
2.1 Introduction to the Problem
This project assumes that grammar is the system which emerges to mediate the rich
world of internal representation with the particular cognitive and production constraints of
communication. The purpose of this chapter is to propose a working--and workable-definition of
transitivity. Presently, there is a wide range of possibilities in the literature which need to be
evaluated, amended, salvaged, or discarded. Major claims frequently made for transitivity which
need particular attention include: first, transitivity is or has a structural prototype; second, there
are degrees of transitivity; third, the passive construction is the only legitimate test for transitivity;
fourth, transitivity is conceptual, not linguistic; fifth, because transitivity has structure, that
structure is universal in nature; sixth, transitivity functions to foreground information in texts. A
more complete compilation of the extensive claims made for transitivity can be found in the
"Statement of Transitivity' on the following page. This statement will provide an organizational
blueprint for the initial discussion.
A second issue must be dealt with as well. Most linguistic research which takes context
into account has been done within the genre of narrative. Transitivity is no exception; it has
been investigated exclusively through written or oral narrative. This has had some unfortunate
consequences for understanding the function of transitivity since narrative itself is a genre
marked by unique configurations of linguistic structure (see Fleischmann, 1990). In order to
understand what is happening with transitivity at a discourse level, the linguistic structure of
narrrative--in particular, tense and aspect--must be separated from whatever it is that transitivity
is doing. Once this has been accomplished, it will be much simpler to investigate the function of
transitivity in both narrative and non-narrative texts. The bulk of this task is taken up in Chapter
Three, but the work is begun in this chapter.
We begin with the "Statement of Transitivity" as the starting point of our investigation
into what properly belongs to transitivity and what properly belongs to narrative. Excerpts will be
used where appropriate to validate points although the bulk of Chapter Two is dedicated to
transitivity at the level of the clause, i.e., the syntactic and semantic claims. The discourse and
functional nature of transitivity will be taken up primarily in Chapter Three and will include more
extensive use of texts.
Figure 2.1: Statement of Transitivity
Structure-Function Definition: Transitivity is a complex phenomenon involving syntactic,
semantic, and pragmatic components which functions to conceptualize and organize events and
participants in the world so that their relationships to one another may be communicated
according to the attitudes and intentions of the speaker in a manner which is cognitively coherent
and manageable, and which is grammatically verified by the availability of the passive form.
The above are understood to be (possibly) prototypical in nature, thus scalar and capable of
metaphoric extension as well.
Syntactic- There is one syntactic component to transitivity and a necessary property
of that component, syntactic manipulation is the principal grammatical
test for the fully transitive statement:
(i) there must be at least two participants structurally bound by the same
clause; the two participants must be distinct entities "in the world"
(ii) the availability of the passive alternation is the strongest grammatical
test for transitivity
Semantic- There are four semantic relationships identified for transitivity:
(i) Asymmetry the participants must be in an asymmetrical relationship
generally due to the unidirectional nature of the action, but
sometimes falling out from the inherent nature of the participants
themselves or their relationship
(ii) Agentivity one of the participants is a deliberately acting agent,
capable of instigating the action or is the source of the action
(iI) Affectedness one of the participants must undergo some kind of
change or experience some kind of effect due to the action; this change
or effect may be understood from world knowledge or inherent to the
the meaning of the action itself
(iv) Perfectivity the action should be bounded, terminated, fast-changing,
and take place in real time
Discourse-Pragmatic- There is one pnncipal discourse component to transitivity:
(i) Constraint of Information there must be a limited number of participants
and forms of expression of those participants
There are four proposed functions of transitivity:
(1) Propositional meaning the semantic components of the transitive clause serve to create the basic,
propositional, non-communicatively influenced meaning of the expression
(2) Perspective transitivity permits the language user to express a given situation,
action, or event from more than one perspective in order to create the desired communicative effect
(3) Management of Information Flow transitivity provides the site over which participant relationships
are arrayed in order to constrain the introduction of new information during communication, in part
maintaining and managing communicative coherence
(4) Grounding high or prototypical transitive clauses correlate with foregrounded information
The claim for syntax is that there must be at least two participants who are distinct in the
world (in other words, are not co-extensive) and bound structurally within the same clause. The
necessity of two participants is a claim made by nearly all linguists regarding transitivity, even
those who propose a scalar model. Hopper and Thompson (1980) do make the strongest
attempt at a scalar model, but to a great extent still regard High transitivity with two participants
as the prototypical and basic level against which less transitive statements should be measured.
If transitivity is to be a useful designation, then the simple binary opposition of transitive/
intransitive where the former is transitivityy" (in which two participants is a necessary but not
sufficient condition) and the latter is not transitivityy" (because it is not transitive) needs
amending. This is not simply a matter of eliminating terminological confusion but of creating
theoretical clarity. There are three options possible: first, keep the term transitivityy" for the
theoretical construct and use other terms for thebinary opposition itself, such as valency (if,
indeed, the binary opposition holds true); second, use some other term for the theoretical
construct, perhaps "argument structure" and.keep the terms transitive and intransitive (same
caveat as above); third, keep the term transitivijy" for the theoretical construct and reform our
understanding of that construct so that it is useful for linguistic analysis. Option three is the
choice of this study.
Initially, I will follow Rice, Hopper and Thompson, Givon, Halliday, and Berman and
Slobin in proposing that transitivity is a scalar phenomenon. However, I will take this to its
logical extreme by avoiding the traditional notion that transitive statements must have two
participants, claiming rather that if there are degrees of transitivity, then the number and nature
of participants is simply one component. In order to substantiate this claim, first the "nature" of
the participants must be made clear (as it turns out, "co-extensive" is more a matter of construal
than strict pragmatic or logical "in the worldness") as well as the "nature" of the activity (to be
discussed further in the semantics section). Second, what is meant by "scalar" or "degrees" must
also be made clear and useful.
2.2.1 Grammatical Behavior
In order for "degree of transitivity" to be more than intuitively convenient, evidence must
be found in the grammatical behavior of languages themselves. For an issue such as transitivity
and the broad claims made for it, the grammatical behavior should be found not only at the level
of the clause, but also at the level of discourse. The first question is what counts as the clause-
level behavior of transitivity?
In English, the attraction of the active-passive alternation is the clarity and economy of
their connection. The passive is so obviously a structure which "re-expresses" an event by
shifting the topic-focus relationships (a discourse phenomenon) while maintaining role
relationships (a semantic phenomenon). The popularity of the passive as a teaching tool and
starting place is the simplicity and elegance of the transformation. Are there other structures
equally instructive? For example, what distinguishes the passive from the middle voice? Simply
speaking, there is a single "fact" with grammatical consequences: in the middle, the force or
effector role is not available syntactically which opens the door for alternative expressions not
allowed by the passive.
(1) Olaf opened the door/The door was opened (by Olaf)
(2) The door opened/ *The door opened by Olaf
(3) ?Olaf opened the door with a creak/?The door was creaked open (*by Olaf)
(4) The door opened with a creak/The door creaked open
(5) Olaf, opened his, door/His, door was opened (*by Olaf,)
(6) His door opened/Olafs door opened
(7) His door creaked open/Olafs door creaked open
In these sentences, the middle construction makes it possible to incorporate manner into
the verb (a productive process in English), whereas the passive partially or completely blocks
this movement. That is, in a passive sentence, although the affected participant is the subject, it
is still not the source or effector of the activity (the original roles are maintained). Manner cannot
be attributed to the verb when the locus of force is either implied or stated in the adjunct. In
other words, the conceptual iconicity in an active "transitive" sentence is violated in the passive
but preserved in the middle. Only when the single overt participant is both the topic of discourse
and the locus of force of the verb can manner be incorporated. In the middle voice, this is the
case: the single participant is the only participant, and is the discourse topic, grammatical
subject, and locus of force. In many languages, the middle is marked by a distinctive case, such
as absolutive, further distinguishing it from "normal" subject-verb-object relationships.
The possessive also has a powerful effect grammatically. Although there appear to be
two distinct entities in the world (certainly Olaf and the door are not one and the same thing),
they are not construed as distinct, as evidenced by the non-availability of the passive. In the
middle voice, though, there is a single effector/affected, and the possessive does not interfere
with the predication options available to it.
Thus, it can be argued that in English, there are both syntactic and discourse
consequences when the relationship between participants and event is differently
construed. Simply shifting topic-focus relationships does not induce a change in participant-
event relationships. Rather, there are grammatical constructions which instantiate changes in
these relationships which in turn have consequences for other levels of grammar. Therefore, it
is theoretically palatable to label participant-event relationships differently, and this "label" is
As the examples above show, it is not merely the number of participants bound by the
predicate, but the nature of that relationship which affects grammar. On the other hand, the
passive alternation is only available to clauses with two distinctly construed participants. Hence
the number of participants is not irrelevant, either. If the statement bolded above is reasonable,
then it's necessary not to limit the discussion of transitivity to only those sentences with two
participants. An alternative must be found which accounts for participant-event relationships,
includes a place for two-participant constructions, but is not limited to them. Immediately, as we
shall see, an appeal has to be made to semantics.
2.3 The Semantics of Transitivity
As the brief discussion of transitivity and syntax shows, "syntax" is not the crux of the
problem. Semantics, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. There is a bewildering array of
semantic explanations of transitivity traversing a number of theoretical approaches. For some
theories, such as Role and Reference Grammar (Van Valin, 1993), transitivity is a straight-
forward matter of semantic macro-roles and not that complicated a matter. For the cognitive
camps, however, transitivity is--or is related to-conceptual structure and is quite complex.
Currently, cognitive models of transitivity are producing considerable results so it is to these
models our investigation turns.
There are, by and large, two principle processes currently competing for attention in
cognitive theory: prototype theory and implicature. Prototype theory (Rosch 1973, 1975, 1977,
1978 and 1981; Lakoff, 1987) proposes that categories are organized around prototypical or
canonical instances. In some cases, the canonical example itself is the prototypical image
against which categorization is made. In other cases, characteristics are abstracted from
canonical members and it is these characteristics which form the prototype. Implicature (Grice,
1975) is a different process altogether. Implicature is not concerned with the organization of
categories but with the processing of information. This is "linguistic cognition" (Giv6n, 1995)
which takes place between overt linguistic information (such as the sentence) and covert
information (such as the knowledge brought to that sentence by speaker and hearer).
Implicature may be defined as "stable linguistic inferencing," a linguistic-cognitive process which
is part of normal linguistic functioning.
Prototype theory has enjoyed quite a bit of attention and many theorists subscribe to
prototype analyses for an enormous range of linguistic behavior. Implicature is less used, yet is
probably the more appropriate choice for much of what passes for discourse-level and pragmatic
processes. A closer look needs to be aimed at some of the uses of prototype theory. For
example, does it really make sense to say there is a prototypical sentence type? A basic model
against which all sentences are created and judged? The arguments for such are based on
cognitive models, such as Lakoffs "idealized cognitive models," and these kinds of highly
abstract grammatical schemas are generally supported by those who study the development of
the human conceptual system (Mandler, 1991). However, there are equally compelling reasons
to believe that at a certain point of complexity--i.e. discourse-- prototype theory is an insufficient
or an inappropriate account for linguistic behavior; it is not that prototype theory is wrong, but
rather that it is applied with too broad a brush stroke.
2.3.1 The Active, Affirmative, Declarative Prototype
Giv6n (1995) proposes quite forcefully that there are three dimensions essential to the
semantics of transitivity corresponding to the "prototypical transitive event" (76):
Agent: The prototypical transitive clause involves a volitional,
controlling, actively-initiating agent who is responsible for the event, thus its
Patient: The prototypical transitive event involves a non-volitional,
inactive non-controlling patient who registers the event's changes-of-state,
thus its most salient effect.
Verbal Modality: The verb of the prototypical transitive clause
codes an event that is perfective (non-durative), sequential (non-perfect) and
realis (non-hypothetical). The prototypical transitive event is thus fast-paced,
completed, real, and perceptually-cognitively salient.
Giv6n explicitly justifies his definition by appealing to methodology: "... one studies the
pragmatics of voice while holding the transitive semantic frame more or less constant...For this
reason, I will exclude from the discussion here a group of de-transitive voice constructions that,
in one way or another, tamper with the semantic core of the transitive event" (76, emphasis
added). There are several problems with the above statements which will first be noted, then
taken up one by one. The discussion below intends to investigate more closely the claims made
for a semantic-transitive core, one which Giv6n gives the most clear and concise expression to
and to which most researchers in this area appear to subscribe.
The first difficulty with this approach is not the methodology itself but the foundation
upon which the method is based: that there is such a thing as a single, unitary transitive
prototype against which ALL clauses not exhibiting the semantic prototype should be assessed.
It is, in essence, a non-enlightening definition, claiming that all sentences which are not
"perfectly" transitive are not so because they do not have the defining components of the
transitive event which make for prototypical transitivity. At issue here is not whether voice
alternations exist, or whether they can be compared, but whether all should be related back to
the same semantic core.
The second difficulty is in the labeling of "agent" and "patient" for most salient cause
and effect. Cognitively, the most salient cause and effect may be quite distant from the
semantics normally associated with "agent" and "patient," namely that of a human agent and a
non-human patient. As we will see, there is interesting evidence showing that "agent" is too
strong a role to be at the core and "patient" has a dine of its own which affects grammatical
behavior. Further, there is also evidence that the non-human patient, at least in English,
participates in a unique structural pattern which should be included in the array of options
The third difficulty is actually comprised of many sub-difficulties relating to the notion of
verbal modality. For the most part, these stem from the association of transitivity and narrative,
even among researchers who simply wish to investigate the clause. That is, there is a close
historical connection between the study of transitivity, the study of voice and modality, and the
study of narrative. The result has been some blurring of the lines separating each. For
example, there is relatively little evidence when sentences are studied in isolation that
perfectivity is a necessary component to semantic transitivity. That is, relatively durative
activities still enjoy many of the de-transitivizations that Giv6n discusses. However, in context,
many such activities are grounds against which more punctual events occur. Second, the notion
of "sequential" is also problematic since frequently the inherent semantics of a given event do
not suggest definition as a time-bounded entity. Rather, sequentiality is inferred as a matter of
temporal juncture between two events, suggesting instead that boundedness by time is an
implicature. Finally, there is an array of data showing that the perceptual saliency of the
transitive event is a function of two participants interacting, a relatively limited occurrence
textually. In fact, the salience of any particular event is figured not by its number of participants
but by the event itself relative to other events in context. This necessarily includes many events
which are not transitive in the sense of having two participants.
2.3.2 The Transitive Prototype: One or Many?
Any discussion of a transitivity prototype necessarily begins with the distinction between
event structure and transitivity. Event structure is a pre-linguistic cognitive structure
representing a conceptual stage of processing whereby portions of the stream of experience are
excerpted or "stamped out" into a particular sub-unit with particular characteristics. Event
structure is eventually expressed via the grammatical unit, the clause. But what characterizes
event structure? What evidence indicates that it is pre-linguistic? And how does it relate to
In part, the notion of event structure arises from the need to account for language
acquisition. That is, at some point in the child's development, the non-linguistic world inside the
head gets "mapped onto" a linguistic world through which it is expressed. Developmental
linguists, such as Slobin (1972, 1982, 1994, 1996, 1997), have begun to address what kinds of
concepts must be represented at the onset of language acquisition with regard to what actually is
expressed in the early stages of speech. Mandler (1991) argues "Language is unlikely to be
mapped directly onto sensorimotor schemas. There is a missing link: a conceptual system that
has already done some of the work required for mapping to take place" (414). Specifically, she
argues that it would be "extraordinarily difficult" for the child to make a leap from the continuous
stream of physical data to the symbolic representational world of language. Some mediating
system intervenes to parse "...the movement involved in picking up one object and placing it into
another to the statement, 'The marble is put into the cup.' Some kind of conceptual summary of
what is happening in this situation is needed; it is this conceptual summary that is mapped,
rather than the sensorimotor schemas themselves" (414).
Mandler notes that the abstract schemas proposed by cognitive linguists such as Lakoff,
Langacker, and Talmy represent the same kind of material that psychologists investigating the
foundations of the human conceptual system also propose. First, she cites evidence that infants
are able to parse the world into coherent bounded objects as early as 3 months old, if not sooner
(415) and that they are able to encode the causal relationships into which objects enter as early
as 4-6 months (416). She is careful to state that while the extent to which these accomplish-
ments are perceptual versus conceptual is unclear, it is clear that the information is available to
be operated on.
Mandler shows that the kinds of concepts which seem to be formed in infancy are well-
represented by image-schema notions. Together with evidence from Slobin inter alia it is also
clear that many of these notions apply directly to event schemas and their linguistic expression.
First, infants are able to distinguish objects that engage in "biological motion" from those that do
not. They are also able to distinguish caused and non-caused motion. Mandler cites the work of
Bertenthal, Proffitt, Kramer and Spetner (1987) and Leslie (1984), respectively for each of these
points. Thus there is a sensorimotor capability of distinguishing motion which is self-caused from
motion which is other-caused. She further argues that while the image-schema of PATH is
indeed simple and basic, paths do not happen without starting points; hence one kind of image
schema emerges for the notion 'self-caused motion" designating the simple idea that an
Endpoint does so from a point of origin outwards along a path. A second image-schema for
animate motion characterizes the trajectory itself--when an Endpoint moves, it does so in a
particular manner. The two schemas simply distinguish an Endpoint-oriented image of motion
from a trajectory-oriented image of motion.
SELF-CAUSED MOTION ANIMATE MOTION
Figure 2.2: Mandler's Image Schemas of Motion
Finally, she (420) also notes that infants are "inordinately attracted by all moving objects,
and of course, many of those are inanimate... Inanimate objects are those that begin motion only
through the interaction of other objects; specifically, they are caused to move" [emphasis added].
Thus a third image-schema emerges outlining caused motion:
Figure 2.3: Mandler's Schema of Caused Motion
Mandler (420) introduces one more leap which brings us a step closer to what happens
at the level of linguistic representation. She combines the schemas of animate motion and
caused motion to produce a schema which she says accounts for the notion agency:
Figure 2.4: Mandler's Image Schema of Agency
This schema combines all the above aspects together. An animate Endpoint causes itself to
move and in doing so, moves an second Endpoint. The result is a complex image-schema
sensitive to both Endpoints of an event as well as the trajectory.
While Mandler admits that we do not know when such a conceptualization arises in
infancy, she cites Leslie (1982,1984) which shows that infants between 4 and 7 months old show
surprise responses when animate objects move inanimate objects without contact between the
two while also showing no surprise when inanimate objects do so. In other words, by 7 months
there appears to be evidence for some basic notion of agency as it relates to animate-inanimate
Linguistically, there is evidence that as children acquire language, they are sensitive to
the above distinctions. Developmentally, the various parts of motion are among the first to be
expressed linguistically. Slobin (1982) cites an example with the ergative language, Kaluli. In
Kaluli, there is an ergative noun suffix which attaches only to agents of actions, that is actions
where an agent acts upon another human or non-human and causes a change of state or
location. The ergative suffix is attached to sentences such as Mother is cooking but not to
sentences such as Mother is sleeping. Two remarkable facts occur developmentally. First, as
early as 26 months old, the child consistently marks the ergative suffix in two word utterances,
particularly with highly dynamic verbs such as give, take, grab, and hit. Second, the ergative
suffix is never over-extended to the subjects of sentences such as Mother is sleeping.
On the other side of the grammatical fence, additional evidence is found in accusative
languages. In Russian, for example, the accusative suffix attaches to any object in an
affirmative sentence regardless of the type of action involved. Thus, "book" in I read the book, I
saw the book, I threw the book all receive the same accusative inflection. If the inflection simply
relates to the grammatical notion "object of activity", then it should be applied equally across all
instances as it is being acquired. However, Slobin cites a study by Gvozdev (1949) which shows
this is not the case. Children did not acquire the inflection equally, but applied it first to a
particular subset of events, namely those involved in direct, physical action on things: give,
carry, put, throw.
Slobin concludes that the Russian underextension makes the same point as the lack of
Kaluli overextension: the child seems to be encoding aspects of a "prototypical event of object
It seems that the child does not begin with categories, such as 'actor,' or 'agent',
looking for the linguistic expressions of such notions in his or her native language.
What the child may begin with is much more limited and childlike ways of
conceiving basic events and situations, at first matching grammatical expression to
primary or basic event schemata [such as 'causal agent']...It is such prototypical
events, rather than case categories, that seen to provide the initial conceptual
framework for grammatical marking.
Thus there is linguistic evidence for the conceptual underpinnings of event structure and
its subsequent linguistic expression. What I would like to point out, leading to the following point
on the possible nature of these conceptual image-schemas, is that developmentally, both in
terms of the infant studies and early language acquisition studies, it is not necessarily the whole
of the event which is attended to, but one part of it. That is, the infants studies cited by Mandler
and the acquisition studies analyzed by Slobin show sensitivity to the starting and endpoints of
an event, as well as the path itself, not just to the event as a whole. Mandler even suggests that
her schema of caused motion (the "prototypical transitive event" Slobin defines) is slightly more
complex and therefore a slightly later conceptual creation. Developmentally, concepts of object
permanence precede concepts of motion which precede concepts of agency. Thus it makes
sense that humans have very early schemas for objects, then for objects in motion (both self-
and other-caused as Mandler suggests), then for objects which cause motion in other objects.
For the notion of a unitary transitive prototype, it is critical to understand that the image
schema proposed for the "prototypical transitive event", including a probably human agent with a
probably non-human patient causing a change of state or location, is a slightly later acquisition
COMBINING the earlier schemas of independent, animate motion/ change of state and non-
independent, non-animate motion/change of state. This conforms remarkably well to the three
"levels" of transitivity most commonly proposed: high transitive (two participants engaged in a
unilateral activity with a clearly causal agent and clearly affected patient); "mid"-transitive (one
participant engaged in a change of state or location without external cause); and "low" transitive
(one participant engaged in a durative state involving little to no change-these latter two are
often referred to as "intransitive"). The evidence above suggests the more appropriate
explanation would include three prototypes (or three typical instantiations of a single event
complex), rather than just one. This is precisely what Croft (1994), Kemmer (1994), and Bakker
(1994) variously propose.
Croft (1994:92) presents seven characteristics typifying a "simple event," two of which
are of particular interest here:
(f) simple event structure consists of the three-segment causal chain:
(g) simple event structure is endpoint-oriented: possible verbs consist of
the last segment (stative), the second and last segments inchoativee),
or the whole three segments (causative).
Basically, he is claiming that verbs have an underlying Idealized Cognitive Model (hereafter ICM,
following Lakoff, 1987) which represents a "self-contained event...isolated from the causal
network and individualized for various purposes...Subjects and objects represent the starting
point and end point respectively" (92). However, these ICMs do not create verb classes or event
classes, rather they correspond to the unmarked event view associated with the verb: causative,
inchoative, and stative. Thus in an interesting twist on the problem of transitivity, Croft argues
for an underlying event conceptualization (see figure below) which can have all or any part of it
"contained" for the purposes of representing an event. Further, the events denoted by verbs are
typically associated with one part (or all) of the idealized event; these are the event views. The
astericks and parentheses mark the point at which the "typical association" ends.
Causative. The rock broke the window
rock window (window) (window)
cause become state
Inchoative* The window broke
window (window) (window)
Stative: The window is broken
Figure 2.5: Croft's Event Views
Croft then argues that verbal markedness patterns found in various languages (English, French,
Japanese, Korean) represent the most "natural" or "typical" event view associated with the verb
This construal is based on human experience of the event, and is not surprising. In
general, unmarked statives are found with verbs denoting events that in human
experience most commonly are inherent properties, not implying any intemal
cause.... Unmarked causatives are found in verbs denoting events that frequently
or almost always occur in human experience with an external cause.... Unmarked
intransitives...are found in verbs denoting events that are commonly not permanent
(i.e. they can change) and most frequently occur-or are construed to occur-
without an external cause.
Basic and derived forms can be found with each of the basic event views:
Causative->lnchoative->Stative on Causative Event View
(1) Olaf opened the door.
(2) The door opened.
(3) The door is open.
Inchoative->Stative on Inchoative Event View
(4) Sven fishes.
(5) Sven's a good fisherman.
Stative->Caused Stative on Stative Event View
(6) pure sugar
(7) purified sugar
Croft then ties together various linguistic perspectives on events by showing that causative-
inchoative-stative, transitive-intransitive-adjective, and active-middle-passive are semantically
different manifestations of the basic tripartite ICM of events as figured above (102):
Verb Form Event Views
Derived causative inchoative stative(resultative)
Simple transitive intransitive adjective(stative)
Basic Voice active middle passive/resultative
Hence, in the end, Croft is arguing for a model with three "basic" forms, each of them
representing a portion of the ICM of events, but each of them also forming a natural "locus"
against which events construed as corresponding to that center are assessed thus producing
marked and unmarked forms for EACH of the event views.
Kemmer (1994) adds to the discussion the notion "relative elaboration of events" which
is not unlike Croft's event views, though she introduces the specific aspects of events which are
manipulated to produce different event perspectives. She explains the "relative elaboration of
events" as "the degree to which different schematic aspects of a situation are separated out and
viewed distinct by the speaker. The speaker in effect can choose to tum up' or turn down' the
resolution with which a particular event is viewed in order to highlight its internal structure to a
greater or lesser extent" (211).
Two important "schematic aspects" are the distinguishability of participants and
distinguishability of sub-components of the event itself. Kemmer also uses the by-now-familiar
event schema to represent what she simply terms a "2 participant Event Schema":
2 PARTICIPANT EVENT SCHEMA
Figure 2.6: Kemmer's Event Schema
She uses the terms "Initiator" and "Endpoint" to capture both the schematic placement and
semantic characterization of the participants themselves. She is specifically claiming that the
distinguishability of participants is one semantic parameter along which the dine from "transitive"
to "intransitive" differ (209):
TWO-PARTICIPANT REFLEXIVE MIDDLE ONE-PARTICIPANT
Kemmer observes that two-participant events encode maximal distinguishability of
participants, reflexives encode an event where essentially the Initiator and Endpoint are the
same participant (though linguistically marked with "two" participants through reflexive pronouns,
clitics, etc.), middles encode a similar situation but without the linguistic marking of two
participants, and one-participant events code a single participant who may be either Initiator or
Endpoint. Striking in her analysis is the notion that the semantic characteristics of the
participants and the number of participants are two separate issues; events may be construed as
having two participants with fully distinguished semantic characters, as having one participant
with either semantic character, or some blend within (the particular combinations limited, of
course, by individual languages). This separation allows a much neater and satisfying
explanation for constructions like the English get-passive which combines the semantic
characters Initiator/Endpoint with a construction traditionally associated with a topicalized
Endpoint, thereby preserving the pragmatic impact of the passive voice with the semantic import
of a reflexive and explaining the constraint against any mention of an extemal cause. It also
provides an explanation for why intransitive constructions are generally of two basic types:
intransitive activity (a single participant activity with an Initiator) versus an intransitive stative (a
single participant activity with an Endpoint).
Bakker (1994) is also interested in explaining the linguistic behavior of middles,
particularly in Ancient Greek. His anaylsis, though, offers some provocative insights into the
relationship between events and the semantic parameters informing them. He locates the crux
of transitivity in Ancient Greek in the subject/agent-related parameters given by Hopper and
Thompson (1980): Volitionality, Agency, andi adding Causation. Volitionality, Agency, and
Causation are separated basically by telicity, where Volitionality is simply free will of the subject,
Agency is goal-directed volitional action (to self or other participant), and Causation is other-
participant goal-directed volitional action producing an effect. Transitivity, according to Bakker,
is on a bi-direction dine in relation to these elements (25):
VOLIUIONALITY > AGENCY > CAUSATION
LOW ( TRANSITIVITY HIGH
Thus, a causative event with two participants is high in transitivity while a volitional event with a
single participant is low in transitivity. When the parameter of affectedness is added, it can be
found in either end of the subject/agent spectrum: the subject/agent can be affected or can do
the affecting. In the former case, the middle arises (either as a "natural" situation type as in
growing up or as a construed property expressed by the middle form).
Again, what is noteworthy about Bakker with regards to this discussion is the separation
of transitivity" into natural types according to the semantic characteristics of the participants and
inherent semantics of events themselves. Thus a picture emerges of "prototypical" transitivity
which is not adequately captured by proposing a single two-participant event with a complex of
features, but calls for a range of at least three "prototypes" each crossed by the dine of
participant characterization from responsible Initiator/Effector/Causal Endpoint to non-
responsible Affected/Non-Causal Endpoint. Recalling Mandler's basic motion schemata and
Slobin's early language patterns provides additional support for the notion that event structure is
best represented by the three "stages" of a causative event: first, a single participant capable of
volitional activity (animate, biologically caused motion and early acquisition of ergative
morphology); second, a single participant undergoing some change (inanimate, non-biologically
caused motion and early acquisition of accusative morphology); third, two participants interacting
where one causes a change of state or location in the other (animate, biologically caused motion
acting to effect inanimate, non-biologically caused motion and the relatively early acquisition of
SVO word order patterns versus the relatively later acquisition of fully passive forms, "OV-ed by
These basic event structures form the conceptual basis which the linguistic system of
transitivity expresses. Specifically, transitivity expresses the event view (Croft) or event
perspective (Slobin, Berman and Slobin) of cognitive/conceptual event structures (this will be
discussed in greater detail below). There appear to be three basic event views expressed by the
transitivity system, as the discussion above proposes. There is, though, the puzzling absence of
a fourth, the purely stative. That is, one would guess that the first, and most basic perception of
an infant is "existence." Since children first learn the names of objects, there is even some
developmental support for this notion. Croft suggests as much with his "stative" event view
which is often grammaticized by adjectives. However, it seems to me that pure states such as
identification and ascription-while predications--are not really events at all. Cross-linguistically,
there is better evidence via the number of languages which create states through adjectival
constructions that pure states should be considered a conceptual model of its own, separate from
the event structures relating to transitivity. I will assume as much for this project.
220.127.116.11 Berman and Slobin revisited--event construal
As discussed briefly in Chapter One, Berman and Slobin identify four dimensions of
event construal (selection of topic, loci of control, event view, and degree of agency).
Specifically, they make the claim that these dimensions are part of the preverbal message:
"Before one can say anything, one must decide what one wants to say. As Levelt has put it:
'The construction of a preverbal message is a first step in the generation of speech' (1989, p.
107). We propose that, in constructing a preverbal message, the speaker must make decisions
on at least four dimensions of event construal..." (517). Once the dimensions are decided
upon, various grammatical options are entailed, of which transitivity is one system. Transitivity,
then, is part of the grammatical system but not the underlying cognitive system; that is, I accept
for this project that Berman and Slobin's preverbal dimensions are (part of) the general cognitive
orientations available, probably throughout the cognitive system, but linguistically, transitivity is
one grammatical system through which these dimensions are realized. This represents a
departure from Rice (1987) who seems to claim that transitivity is the "underlying system" which
is realized verbally: "...transitivity [can be] viewed as a continuous phenomenon and as a
phenomenon (or as a family of phenomena ranging across different cognitive domains) that can
be explained in an essentially non-linguistic way" (7). My claim is that Event construal and its
dimensions are the underlying, preverbal system, and transitivity is one of the linguistic systems
instantiating them. Other options, as discussed by Berman and Slobin, include, for instance, the
lexical system which provides means for expressing degree of agency, as with adverbs such as
"unintentionally" and "deliberately" which modify the interpretation of the event through non-
Specifically, it is my claim that transitivity realizes the selection of Event view. Event
view refers to the "cognitive perspectives on events, rather than to verbs" (Berman and Slobin,
519). Berman and Slobin identify three choices for event view: Cause, Become, and State. In
Cause view, the event is represented with an actor who causes a change of state in the
undergoer (Berman and Slobin make use of Van Valin's macrorole terms, actor and undergoer,
as mentioned in Chapter One). In the Become view, a change of state takes place without
mention of external force. For the State view, reference is made only to the continuing state of
the participant. While Berman and Slobin draw the obvious connections between Cause-
Become-State to the verbal systems proposed by Vendler, Dowty, and Van Valin, I would
hazard these three Events views are realized at the level of the clause as the three prototypes of
transitivity rather than lexically as verbal categories. In summary, if the overall function of
grammar is to mediate internal, mental representation with communicative needs and intents,
then transitivity specifically mediates the internal (preverbal) representation of Event view and
the communicative intent of perspective (discussed in detail in Chapter Three). Transitivity as a
system is limited to the expression of Event view only-- the whole of event construal and its
communication employs a vaster amount of linguistic (and probably non-linguistic) material.
18.104.22.168 Degrees of transitivity
Given the argument above, the question of whether there are "degrees" of transitivity
becomes an even more interesting issue. Traditionally, there have been two alternatives
proposed to this problem. The first is a continuum from "High" to "Low" (Hopper and Thompson,
1980; Rice, 1984); the second offers specific levels of high, mid, and low (Halliday, 1967). While
to some extent both claim the same thing, Halliday's specific levels seem to find greater validity
grammatically. That is, grammar in general does not tend to operate along smooth dines
between endpoints, but to manifest particular forms according to particular points between two
endpoints. The lexicon compensates for grammar's relative intransigence by offering the
possibility for the kind of subtle and continuous changes implied by the notion "continuum."
This interpretation fits well with the notion of three basic event schematas which are
realized through various transitivity options. It is something of a misnomer to claim "high," "mid,"
and "low" levels of transitivity when each of the clause structures typically associated with these
labels is actually a prototype in and of itself. Rather, there are degrees of transitivity within each
of the basic types, probably with their own, separate semantics. For example, "really high"
transitivity may be distinguished from merely high transitivity through the agency/patient
implicatures discussed below. "Very low" transitivity can be distinguished from simple "low"
transitivity by the distinction of durative action versus state. It is the "middle" transitives that are
the most interesting, encompassing as they do varied combinations of participant semantics and
clausal expression. In the end, rather than conceptualizing three degrees of transitivity, we
instead should conceptualize three event structures realized via transitivity, each with its own
possible dines and opportunities for grammatical expression.
This argument is essentially what Croft, Kemmer, and Bakker are claiming: there are a
variety of basic event types possible--Mandler provides independent evidence in her
speculations on the physical origins of event structure: "self-caused" animate, biologically
inherent motion and "other-caused" non-animate, non-biologically inherent motion. I would add
to that a third category, also readily available to the child: non-caused motion which are changes
of state and/or location without external cause but also without integral "control" such as
sleeping, breathing, living, etc. These three also correspond well to ALL of the sides of an event:
before, during, and after which are all grammaticized: -->A/ A---->B/ B--->.
For example, what makes for a sentence which passivizes well need not be something
prototypical, but a particular collocation of semantic factors in the event structure. In particular,
one in which minimally, affectedness can be deduced (either by change of location or change of
state) and (ideally) where the trajectory of the event and the endpoint of the event are one and
the same. Interestingly enough, in English, following Slobin (1994), Talmy (1991), and Hopper
(1991), this is NOT necessarily the norm. In English, very often predication is spread out over
several members of the clause, most often over a combination of the verb (incorporating
manner) and a prepositional element (indicating path). Statistically, this is a quite common
phenomenon, so much so that it seems rather absurd to claim that the active, declarative, with
human subject and non-human affected patient is THE prototypical eventive sentence in English.
Rather, it is the sentence on the far end of the affectedness and trajectory scale-highest in
eventive dynamism, perhaps. Thus, what is most typical is a combination of endpoints and
trajectory: either an endpoint which is capable of self-trajectory (mid-transitive, "become" or
"act," single-argument clause); an endpoint not capable of self-trajectory (a low transitive, "state",
single-argument clause); and two endpoints sharing a trajectory (a high transitive, "cause", two-
argument clause OR a mid-high transitive with two endpoints sharing a trajectory spead out over
a clause + phrase combination). Within each "prototype," there are a range of better members.
2.3.3. Event Structure and Transitivity
It is the contention of this project that Event Structure is the cognitive system and
transitivity the linguistic system. In fact, given Mandler's hypotheses about the possible origin's
for the expression of events, it seems likely that transitivity is to some extent "inferred" by the
child as a later, or second, step in this acquisition process. According to Mandler, the child first
distinguishes biological movement from non-biological movement, and "recognizes" or "infers"
the second is caused motion (see also Bruner, 1989). Another way of viewing the matter is that
the infant begins to recognize which endpoint of motion or change is responsible for the activity
and which is not. This is the possible beginning of perspective. The notion that affectedness is
also interpretable as "the party not responsible for the change" is linguistically verifiable by
grammatical behavior of components which are construed as both affected and responsible in
some manner, ie. the get-passive in English, reflexive constructions, and middle constructions.
Thus, in the structure of events, several components are basic which find themselves coded by a
variety of linguistic expressions (none of which should rightfully be called more basic or
prototypical than the other):
(1)-- The Trajectory Component
This component is part of two based in the notion of caused, other-caused, or non-
caused motion begun in the perception of biologically and non-biologically rooted motion
(Mandler, 1991). It is where the notion "unilateral activity" in transitivity originates.
(2)-- The EndPoint/s Component
This is the second part of the two bases in the various notions of caused motion.
Basically, the motion is seen in its relationship to where it begins and where it ends (hereafter
distinguished as Starting point and Ending point, respectively). This is ultimately where the
conceptual notions of causation, intention, and responsibility originate since these are the
various semantic/pragmatic perspectives ascribable to the endpoints involved. Thus,
linguistically, this is also where such notions as "agent" and "patient" evolve from.
(1) + (2) = (3)-- The EndPoint and Trajectory Complex
These two together act as the basis of Event Structure (Croft, Langacker, Lakoff,
Kemmer, Rice, Mandler, Talmy). However, contrary to the claims of Rice and Giv6n, the
particular combination of two endpoints plus a unilateral trajectory is not more basic than any of
the other combinations. Thus, I am following Croft and Kemmer who propose that there are a
range of possible prototypes which in turn are coded by a variety of linguistic expressions each
with a probable most "typical" or "canonical" form. Berman and Slobin (1994), Slobin (1994),
Talmy (1991), and Hopper (1991) among others imply as much with their particular
interpretations. Slobin (inter alia) recognizes three basic event types to Event Construal: Cause,
Become, and State. Talmy shows that typologically, different languages convey endpoint +
trajectory complexes in typical ways with different linguistic parsings of the whole. Hopper shows
that English often chooses to array two enpoints + trajectory complexes over several elements in
the sentence, rather than in just the traditional "transitive" construction. Luchjenbroers (1996)
shows how the complex constructions Hopper investigates have real and verifiable discourse
effects in terms of information packaging. Bruner (1986) summarizes the various infant studies
suggesting that we are sensitive to the roles of causation and intention at very young ages.
Giv6n and Lang (1994), without really intending to, give additional support in their diachronic
treatment of the get-passive in English by demonstrating how this unique construction developed
as a means of expressing both affectedness and responsibility simultaneously. Hargreaves
(1996) also demonstrates inflectional categories which are directly sensitive to the knowability of
intention in the morphology of control verbs in Newari.
The event complex (here really a simpler version compared to others), then, is a basic
cognitive, conceptual structure which gets coded through a variety of linguistic devices, including
participant semantics and transitivity. Transitivity, though, is not the cognitively basic structure;
it is one linguistic/grammatical system expressing a certain part of the event complex, that part
being the particular array of endpoint and trajectory relationships. At the level of syntax, this
results in clause structures as stamped out by circumscribing endpoint + trajectory relationships
marked by language-specific renderings of the "responsibility" of the endpoints (as in accusative
versus absolutive languages). At the level of semantics, this results in the various sentence
types and alternations allowed and disallowed as expressions of energy flow and participant
relationships (influenced, I would contend, by pragmatics in the guise of cultural and "real world"
knowledge). At the level of discourse, this means participants and "event" relationships PLUS
perspective-- a discourse-semantic interaction, construed variously in languages according to
what the transitivity system allows together with language-specific constraints on coherence.
Since transitivityy" as a term is fast-losing its significance due to overextension, we
confine it to the grammatical level of expressing EndPoint-Trajectory relationships (hereafter P/T
relationships). Each language encodes these relationships differently, and in a manner I believe
is well-described by Talmy's "verb-framed" and "satellite-framed" typological distinction (1985).
Slobin (1996) confirms as much in his comparison of texts in English and Spanish, showing that
while event structure conceptually encompasses the whole of P/T relationships, there are regular
patterns instantiated in various languages. In English, very often P/T relationships are not coded
within a single clause but in clause-phrase combinations (see Hopper and Luchjenbroers cited
above), as in Cora swung his blade and cut down the opposing swordswoman. Spanish,
however, tends to code both the "manner" of the activity and its trajectory in a single verb. This
difference results in both different lexicalizations of verbs and also different pattern of discourse.
For English, transitivity actually has FOUR forms in which it is expressed, each
instantiating particular P/T relationships and clause structure. These are the four clause-types of
transitivity in English (please see Figure at chapter's end for a schematic representation and
Intransitive(Durative transitive)- Endpoint but little Trajectory, bound by the same clause
Atelic Transitive- single Endpoint plus Trajectory in either direction, bound by the same clause
Telic Transitive- two Endpoints plus Trajectory, bound by the same clause
Dispersed Transitive- two Endpoints plus Trajectory specified across a clause and a phrase
These forms are descriptive in nature, although they have theoretical and typological bases.
They will also be used as working terms throughout the project. Ultimately, I believe the above
terms are more accurate than the concept of degrees since, as shown above, there are not
degrees of transitivity from a single prototype, but (at least) three different "prototypes" each with
its own "degrees." Languages are more properly investigated for how they express
Point/Trajectory complexes than for their "degrees" of transitivity. At the level of text, participant
semantics, lexical semantics, and pragmatics also come into play to create the entire implicature
normally labeled transitivityy." Throughout this project, I will use the terms Starting point, Ending
point, Trajectory, and P/T complex when referring to the purely schematic aspects of transitivity.
2.3.4 "Agent," "Patient" and Other Labels
Having dealt with the extension of prototype to transitivity and discarded the notion of a
single prototype in favor of at least three prototypes expressed via four clause types, we now
move to a different level of meaning--participant semantics. Recall that Giv6n, Hopper and
Thompson, and Rice among others accept the roles "agent" and "patient" as core relationships
within transitivity. An alternative approach exemplified by Croft and Kemmer is to separate the
semantic labels attached to participants from their schematic roles. Taken together, there is
convincing evidence that event participants code at least two different sets of parameters (at the
level of the clause): first, the purely schematic, abstract position in event structure, either as
starting point or ending point; second, a semantic character expressing the relationship of
participant to event, generally as the initiating, responsible party or the affected party undergoing
a change of state. The most common labels for the semantic roles has been "agent" and
Rice (1987) argues that in order for there to be a transfer of effect from one participant to
another, one participant must possess the means to affect the second in an activity which is
forceful and flows in only one direction. The means possessed by the first participant may be
inherent to the activity, the first participant, or the relationship between participants and may be
understood from real world knowledge as well as linguistic knowledge. Hopper and Thompson
make similar claims, stating there must be two participants for High transitivity, and that one
participant is an Agent high in potency and volition. The other participant, which is highly
individuated, contrasts by being totally affected by the kinetic action.
Van Valin and Wilkins (1996) argue against "agent" as a prototype. They base their
conclusion on the work of Holisky (1987), who demonstrated that agency is actually an
implicature at the "...intersection of the semantics of the clause (the semantics of both the actor
NP and the predicate) and general principle of conversation (cf. Grice, 1975)" (309). Holisky
designates a pragmatic principle in the process, designated by her as Pragmatic Principle :
You may interpret effectors and effector-themes which are human as agents (in the absence of
evidence to the contrary). Where Holisky based her assertions on evidence in Tsova-Tush, Van
Valin and Wilkins offer straightforward examples from English.
(8) Larry killed the deer.
(9) Larry intentionally killed the deer.
(10) Larry accidently killed the deer.
(11) The explosion killed the deer.
In (8), there is no explicit mark for whether the actor is an agent or not (though by Holisky's
principle  above, we interpret it to be so), while (9) confirms this as a potential interpretation.
On the other hand, (10) provides "information to the contrary," disconfirming the agentive nature
of "Larry" and leaving him merely as a causal participant. Sentence (11) shows that the actor
need not be animate at all, and therefore no appeal is made to Holisky's pragmatic principle.
It is not the case that NO verbs have an inherent agent. Obviously, murder does. But
inherent agency is relatively rare. Van Valin and Wilkins argue:
This has important implications for the notion 'agent prototype' and the idea that
relations like force and instrument are just 'less good' members of the category of
which agent is the central member. The features in question do not in fact define
a prototype, but rather constitute the relevant information on the basis of which
the agent implicature is made Moreover, force and instrument are not variants on
agent at all but rather are variants of the effector role which underlies agent as
well. All three roles are doers which differ in certain crucial ways along the
dimensions of the lexical properties of the NP and their position in the causal
sequence defined by the verb. (320) [emphasis added]
While the entirety of their proof is too extensive to go into here, basically, the NP
properties they are referring to are "animate/non-animate" and "instigator/non-instigator."
Animacy distinguishes effectors capable of feeling, self-expression, and self-movement from
those incapable of the same. Instigation refers to whether the effector is "self-energetic", that is,
has an inherent energy source, as with natural forces. In combination, the three primary starting
point/effector roles emerge: the agent who is animate, instigator and preferably human (though
animacy can also be ascribed to culture-specific entities); the force which is non-animate but
instigator; the instrument which is non-animate, non-instigator, but still the effector.
There are two striking consequences of the above analysis. First, a more constrained
and thoughtful approach is taken to the ubiquitous notion of prototype. Second, a viable
alternative linguistic process--implicature--is offered to balance the picture. As we shall see in
the subsequent chapters, implicature is an important factor to processing at the level of
Just as "agent" is not necessarily a prototypical participant, "patient" is equally dubious.
As Bakker demonstrates, the "prototypical" patient actually reduces transitivity in Ancient Greek
by lowering the volitionality, hence the overall measure of transitivity for the event (1994, 43).
This should not be surprising since something similar happens in English when the whole of
event structure is spread out over the verb phrase plus a prepositional phrase: Cora swung his
blade and cut down the opposing swordswoman. While the first predication, Cora swung his
blade is "transitive" in the sense of having a syntactic direct object, the entire event in question
has two parts: the initiating event (swinging the blade) and the ending result (cutting down the
opponent). Recall that Kemmer's elaboration of events allows various levels of focus on the
event so that a whole structure such as might be expressed in a basic transitive clause, i.e. Cora
killed the opposing swordswoman, can be expressed via attention to any of its parts.
Nevertheless, "the blade" in question, while a prototypical patient (it is affected by change of
location, non-human) is really but an instrument in the overall event; it is not the instigating
force, and is not the locus of effect.
Just as "agent" is an implicature from a more basic role, Effector, "patient" is likewise an
implicature based on lexical, semantic, and pragmatic factors. The appeal of agency and
patienthood as necessary qualities derives from their antonymical quality; they are not merely
distinct, they are maximally distinct. Yet they are not essential to high transitivity. Instead, they
mark the far endpoints, the points at which transitivity as a system is easiest to see. Indeed, the
semantic characterization at work here seems to be "asymmetry." In "really high" transitivity,
there are indeed both highly agentitive subjects and highly affected participants, e.g. John kicked
the sleeping poodle/Brutus smashed the antique vase. On the other hand, for merely "high"
transitivity, (as defined by the possibility of passive and/or middle alterations), only one of the
participants need be capable of effecting or of being affected: Olafjumped the fence; Bertha
danced Swan Lake beautifully; The moon orbits the earth; Sven broke the glass; Gertrude drove
the car; The wind blew the leaves gently.
Participant asymmetry, "skewing" as it is termed here, has actual structural effects. That
which is not skewed towards the affected participant (or which is not neutral with regards to either
end) has limitations. Thus, the difference between Brutus shattered the glass and Brutus
smashed the glass is that the first is skewed towards the Affected and the second towards the
Effector. As a result, the middle construction is available to the first, but not to the second: The
glass shattered/* The glass smashed. There are discourse consequences as well. Whichever
participant end is skewed towards is also more likely to continue as topic in subsequent
discourse. It should be remembered, though, that P/T complexes alone do not have this quality.
The P/T complex is schematic, conceptual, but lacks the semantic richness of participant
For this study, the term "patient" will be avoided, and instead the term "Affected" will be
used for the participant which is the locus of effect. In the same vein, "Effector" will be the term
used for the semantic character of the participant which initiates or causes the activity in an
event. For participants, then, "Starting point" and "Ending point" will be used when the reference
is to event structure, while "Effector" and "Affected" will be used when the reference is to
2.3.5 Verbal Modality--Teasing Apart Semantics and Pragmatics
There are still a few issues which need to be settled. Recall that Giv6n claims that the
prototypical verb in a transitive clause is "fast-paced, completed, real, and perceptually-
cognitively salient." We shall take each of these one by one and see what a closer examination
yields for transitivity.
The notion "fast-paced" is characterized as transfer of effect from source to goal which is
so fast as to be instantaneous. Yet even for telic transitive clauses, there seems to be little
support for this: Sven kicked the dog/The dog was kicked by Sven; Sven cooked the dinner/The
dinner was cooked by Sven;/Sven studied the questions/The questions were studied by Sven;
Sven studied chemistry/?Chemistry was studied by Sven. In the examples above, there is a
clear decrease in the instantaneous nature of the event, yet all but one passivize; only in the
case where the goal is not quantified does passivization suffer. The instantaneous quality of the
action seems to have less to do with transitivity than is supposed. All the sentences above are
telic transitive clauses despite the range from "fast-changing" to "slow changing" to durative
event. The lack of importance of instantaneous effect is not surprising given the components of
transitivity proposed thus far; it is not how quick the verb is but the particular set of asymmetries
instantiated in the clause.
A completed event is linguistically defined as one which is bounded. Boundedness,
according to Giv6n, is a verbal quality meaning "non-lingering" (p. 46, vol. II). "Non-lingereing"
as a terms seems to imply time; in fact, it is more accurately understood as "completion of the
event." Yet another way of looking at it may be that when the activity is over, all of the goal is
affected, not just part of it. Verkuyl (1990) argues persuasively for the contribution of the object
to the "inner aspect" of the predicate. When the object is of a "specified quantity," the phrase
yields a bounded event because the quantity of the object is exhausted by the activity. However,
it is not necessarily the case that the goal is not affected in non-bounded situations, but that the
effect is not complete.
Completedness is easiest to reckon within telic transitives. In these clauses, the end of
the activity is signaled by overt mention--the affected object itself. In essense, the event finishes
itself by completing the change of state or location of the Affected participant.
(12) Olaf ate the fish.
(13) Olaf cooked the fish.
(14) Olaf put the fish in the refrigerator.
Thus it is easy to see how telic transitives include a strong element of completion. Nevertheless,
atelic transitives also have a sense of completion except that it is generally inherent to the verb
(16) Gertrude sneezed.
(17) Brutus grinned wickedly.
(18) Brunhilda chortled in joy.
Each of these is a "completed" activity--the activity does not linger (for example, although we
don't normally conceptualize a grin as punctual, to make it non-punctual additional information
must be added to the sentence: Brutus kept grinning wickedly). Thus it is clear that the activity
is not bound by a change-of-state of a second participant but by the inherent semantics of the
verb itself as it refers to the one engaged in the activity.
Obviously, it is the intransitive clause which has the least sense of completion.
However, as these sentences show, it is not completion which is the semantic factor, but the
durativity of the events themselves.
(19) Bertha grew up in Minnesota.
(20) Sven knew all the answers.
(21) Elvira lived in New York for ten years.
One other factor influences our sense of verbal completedness: tense. Any activity in
the past tense carries with it a sense of "doneness." Thus, if (12) were re-written Olaf eats the
fish/fish, our sense of boundedness is completely changed. The question is--has the transitivity
of the event changed as well? According to the explanation above, transitivity has not changed.
There is still a P/T complex with an Starting Point, an Ending Point, and a Trajectory joining
them. There is still and Effector and Affected. What has changed is not the transitivity of the
clause, but the speaker-hearer relationship to the event. The pragmatics are different, not the
semantics. Completedness is more properly understood as a pragmatic implication related to
tense than as a semantic element of transitivity.
22.214.171.124 Perceptuallv-cognitively salient
Many authors have argued that dynamism--the degree of "activity inherent to the verb"-
is an important aspect of transitivity. Intuitively this seems to be the case, and this is no doubt
where the attribute "fast-changing" originated. Yet there is no quantifiable or explanatory
definition by which dynamism can be assessed. I would like to offer one in terms of transitivity
as hypothesized thus far. This discussion springs from the observation of many linguists, but
primarily those from functional and cognitive schools, and may serve as an explanatory device
At first glance, it appears simple enough to appeal to the Affectedness relationship in
measuring dynamism. Intuitively, break and shatter are in a degree relationship in which the
goal of shatter is more affected than the goal of break. This observation holds true for other
verbs as well: drink-gulp-quaff, nibble-eat-gorge; throw-hurl, etc. On the other hand, there are
lexical sets which change the effectiveness of the source instead: kill-murder; clean-scrub-scour,
hit-punch. There are still other alternations, skewed so far in the direction of source or goal that
different lexical forms are used: kill-die; sit-set; teach-learn; buy-sell; etc.
Notably, the difference in these pairs of terms is not just the number of arguments the
verb can take but the semantic roles of the arguments themselves. That is, for many actions,
there are both lexical and grammatical options for selecting which perspective on a situation is
opted for in discourse. In the sentences below, (25) and (26) demonstrate that English allows
both the pragmatically understood force and instrument to be the "source" of the action.
Example (27) shows that both of the above can passivize. In (28)-(35) various grammatical
forms topicalize the affected participant whereas (28), (29), (30) and (35) show that lexical
choice also contributes to the clausal combinations permitted by the grammar of English.
(22) John broke the window.
(23) The rock broke the window.
(24) The window was broken by John/the rock.
(25) The window broke/*by John.
(26) The window broke easily/with difficulty/*difficultly.
(27) *The windows break easily/Windows break easily.
(28) The windows break easily, but the wooden frames do not.
(29) Windows broke easily; wood was but little harder.
(30) (John threw the rock) The window broke/shattered.
(31) John broke/destroyed/crushed the window with a rock.
(32) *The window destroyed/crushed.
Both the Effector and Affected roles get lexicalized in English, and certain constructions such as
the middle are also Affected-oriented.
Weirzbicka (1988) offers an intriguing analysis of causation and lexicalization. English,
she proposes, is filled with many level of causative, instantiated in lexical causatives as well as
periphrastic causal constructions. The list of lexical causatives (252-3) which "pays attention to
different strategies of human causation" rather neatly dichotomizes between Effector-oriented
and Affected-oriented lexical items: order, command, demand, require, suggest, advocate,
instruct, persuade, decree, ordain, authorize, commission; beg, implore, beseech, entreat, plead,
intercede, apply, appeal, enjoin. There were a few items difficult to classify either way, which
seem to form the "basic" category against which the others are organized: ask, request, tell.
This list further substantiates the idea that given an event, the whole of the event is conceptually
available but certain highly relevant, highly predictable relationships are the ones that actually
become lexicalized items.
Is there anything in our discussion so far which might explain or provide an
organizational umbrella for the behavior described above? I believe the cognitive relationship of
asymmetry, as discussed by Rice but made linguistically relevant by Slobin, may be the answer.
Slobin (1973) makes strong arguments for the cognitive impact of asymmetry as a basic
organizing principle in human beings. Infants very quickly show a preference for asymmetrical
relationships such as handedness. Other infant studies show surprise responses can be
provoked when certain basic asymmetrical relationships are violated. Further, one of the
hallmarks of linguistic sophistication in terms of narrative is the degree to which speakers can
differently construe cause-effect relationships among events (Berman and Slobin, 1994). Less
mature narrators tend to string events together using a simple conjunctive "and." As speakers
mature, they form hierarchical relationships in the narrative, beginning with simpler causal chains
(and then he did x because...), gradually incorporating the sophisticated tense/aspect and lexical
"complexes" we associate with adult narration.
Loosely speaking, this language development is understood by these authors as a
manifestation of our cognitive predisposition towards asymmetry. Lexically, asymmetry
manifests itself in the sort of relationships discussed by Bybee, Langacker, and Weirzbecka.
Lexical choice has an effect on transitivity insofar as any verb is "skewed" towards one end of
the Effector-Affected continuum. Those verbs which include both the source and goal
semantically, generally speaking, participate in telic transitive clauses. Those skewed strongly to
either Effector or Affected result in atelic transitives. Thus "perceptual-cognitive salience" of a
verb may be partially defined as the degree to which the lexical item is skewed towards the
affected participant in an action. Halliday (1985) suggests as much himself when he claims the
transitivity alternations in English are less a matter of inherent meaning than whether the event
was viewed from the perspective of the source or the goal.
There is not to my knowledge any kind of list composed according to these parameters
(skewed towards source, goal, or neither; but see Levin, 1993), and it is outside the scope of this
study to do so. Nevertheless, I will appeal to this notion with the hopes that someone may find it
useful for further work.
2.4 Transitivity and Time
The following excerpts will provide examples for the semantic character of transitivity as it is
delimited by discourse. Actually, most of this discussion is directly germaine to Chapter Three
and will be explored in greater detail at that point.
Uttering a curse in his well-practiced falsetto, Cora swung his blade and cut down
the opposing swordswoman. His contoured breastplate emphasized features
which were not truly present.
From "Lady of Steel", R. Zelazny
There was still a company of archers that held their ground among the burning
houses. Their captain was Bard, whose friends had accused him of prophesying
flood and poisoned fish, though they know his worth and courage. He was a
descendant in the line of Girion, Lord of Dale, whose wife and child had escaped
down the Running River from the ruin long ago. Now he used a great yew bow,
loosing arrows at the dragon until all of them but one were spent. The flames were
near him. His companions were leaving him. He bent his bow for the last time.
From The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Each of the above excerpts is the initial paragraph of the episodes in question. The first is the
first paragraph of a (very) short story. The second is the beginning to a particular episode in The
Hobbit, marked by a change of scene and the eventual closure to this string of events. Of
particular interest here are the last two sentences of each (which in the Zelazny text includes the
whole of the paragraph).
The two sentences, His contoured breastplate emphasized features which were not truly
present and His companions were leaving him, both have many of the elements required of
"high" transitivity. There are two participants, a grammatical subject and object, and a path of
movement (the first perceptual, the second physical). Both sentences passivize, and textually,
could passivize with little or no distortion to the story-line (again, this is a discourse constraint on
the perspective-providing function of transitivity and will be explained in greater depth in the
Uttering a curse in his well-practiced falsetto, Cora swung his blade and cut down
the opposing swordswoman. Features were emphasized on his contoured
breastplate which were not truly present.
From "Lady of Steel", R. Zelazny
There was still a company of archers that held their ground among the buying
houses. Their captain was Bard, whose friends had accused him of prophesying
flood and poisoned fish, though they know his worth and courage. He was a
descendant in the line of Girion, Lord of Dale, whose wife and child had escaped
down the Running River from the ruin long ago. Now he used a great yew bow,
loosing arrows at the dragon until all of them but one were spent. The flames were
near him. He was being left by his companions. He bent his bow for the last
From The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Nevertheless, it is intuitively obvious that these sentences, while subscribing to the
structural dictates most frequently associated with transitivity, don't "feel" particularly transitive.
Given the propositions above--namely, that there is more than one Event Structure prototype
and that the semantic character of Starting points and Ending points in Event Structure are
derived by implicature rather prototype--we can see these sentences conform to a structural
prototype while differing in participant and verbal semantics, much as Kemmer suggests for the
distinction between reflexives and middles.
For the sentence, His contoured breastplate emphasized features which were not truly
present, two dimensions of participant semantics are played with: the Effector/Affected
dimension and predicate causality. First, his contoured breastplate is in the subject slot, hence
the Effector role, but according to Van Valin and Wilkin's features, has neither animacy or
instigator qualities. The NP is not capable of self-motion nor is it self-energetic. Thus, it is more
of an instrument than either an agent or force. But it is an instrument of what? We will return to
this question shortly.
The object, features, is also not an easily identified endpoint because it is poorly
distinguished from the initiator in the event. In fact, ultimately, the features and the breastplate
are one and the same item, separated from one another by an act of description. Finally, the
predication itself is hardly "eventive" in the sense that it points back to itself; the verb
"emphasize" means to make more perceptually salient some part of an existing state.
Despite the above, these not-very-distinct participants and this not-very-dynamic event
are cast together in a clause structure prototypically associated with just the opposite. This
results in an "act of description" or an "event of description." In narrative theory (Fleischmann,
1990; Labov, 1972), descriptive events are labeled "evaluative" in terms of story function and
often provide the ground against which a "complicating action" (an event which moves the time-
line of the narrative forward) is figured. Descriptive events are also used to draw the reader's
attention to some salient fact which provides essential plot-line information. This is precisely the
function of this sentence. His contoured breastplate is the instrument used to ground the
information that the state being predicated is somehow false. It presages an account for the
gender mis-match between the name, Cora, and the male pronoun references. For this story (in
the appendix), this information is the key knowledge against which the plot unfolds.
The linguistic signalling of this information comes in the particular combination of
features. I would like to reiterate that this effect is not accomplished by prototype violation-there
is no violation of the structural prototype as the passivization attests. Rather, there is a
systematic combination of features along various parameters "signalling" to the reader that an
inference must be made in order to complete the meaning (for an excellent discussion of the
difference between inferencing as a process and linguistic cognition as a process, please see
Giv6n, 1995, chapter 8). For discourse, implicatures are created which are then 'tested" against
subsequent information. The various parameters involved include, at least:
Event Structure-prototypical dimension of clause meaning based on
early-acquired conceptual schemas of motion
Participant Semantics- derived by implicature according to lexical
semantics, pragmatics from underspecified semantic roles
Discourse Coherence--implicature-driven processing involving clausal
semantics, pragmatics, topic chains, etc.
As we shall see in Chapters Three and Four, the latter two play a crucial role in licensing the
appropriate use of alternative realizations of transitivity, such as the passive and middle.
In the second example sentence, His companions were leaving him, a different set of
features are played with, almost exclusively confined to the level of discourse. A momentary
diversion needs to be made at this point to the linguistic structure of narrative. The features
mentioned above have to do with the nature of narrative as a past-time, event-driven construct
(Longacre, 1983; Fleischmann, 1990; Schiffrin, 1981; Hatav, 1996). Specifically, they have to
do with the contention that preterite as a tense has no inherent sequential meaning. This has
been a somewhat controversial point since the perfective nature of the simple past is "...ideally
suited to reporting experience that has been cognitively packaged into synthetic units amenable
to representation as points along a time line" (Fleischmann, 24). Nevertheless, as Comrie has
argued, a weak point of linguistic analysis has been the failure to differentiate context-
independent, inherent meaning from context-dependent, derived meaning (Fleischmann citing
Comrie, 1985). Fleischmann summarizes the argument thusly (24-25):
Several investigators...have therefore argued that the basic function of this PAST is
to mark the foreground of discourse, while the background is marked by its IPFV
counterparts...[yet] neither the figural quality of the PRET nor its sequential quality
is an intrinsic part of its meaning; rather, these properties emerge from the
interaction of its basic meaning (PAST time + PFV aspect) with a specific
discourse context--narrative. In other words, the foregrounding ability of the PRET
and the backgrounding ability of the IMP are contextual implicatures derivable
from the synthetic and analytic visions of their respective aspects. [emphasis
Early investigations into the function of transitivity (most notably, the well-cited Hopper
and Thompson, 1980, and Hopper and Thompson, ed., 1982) made precisely the claim that the
purpose of "high" transitive constructions in discourse was to foreground information; most
particularly, to place a clause and the events it was depicting on the time-line. Yet, our example
sentence easily and clearly passivizes; another feature of "high" transitivity. Given the
discussion above, it is simple enough to distinguish the inherent meaning of transitivity (which is
to provide the three event perspectives introduced above) and its discourse function (which is, I
will contend in the following chapter, to provide the grammatical base for the manipulation of
perspective according to the constraints of discourse coherence) from the textual function of
tense-aspect configurations. In other words, transitivity in and of itself has little or nothing to do
with grounding or figuring of time-line information. This is the primary task of tense-aspect in
discourse. Thus our example sentence is "high" in transitivity insofar as it depicts an event with
distinct Starting and Ending points, a unilateral trajectory, and a change in the circumstances of
the affected participant. However, it is not on the time-line because it is cast in the imperfective,
providing the ground for the subsequent action.
On the other end of the spectrum are so-called intransitive events which are indeed on
the time-line. These are events featuring either of the single-participant event structures: a
participant causing a change of state with no clause-bound mention of the endpoint or a
participant undergoing a change of state with no clause-bound mention of an extemal cause.
One brief excerpt from "Lady of Steel" will suffice to demonstrate.
Simultaneous then, attacks came from the right and the left. Beginning his battle-
song, he parried to the left, cut to the right, parried left again, cut through that warrior,
parried right, and thrust. Both attackers fell.
In this paragraph (the second full paragraph of the story), it is obvious that each of the chained
clauses represents a new point on the time-line. The implicature is made by the use of the
simple past in perfective form, the use of prepositional phrases specifying change of direction
("dynamic location"), and our knowledge that sword fights are fought by independent series of
strokes through time (versus a bomb, which kills en masse with a single discharge). Additionally,
the zero marking of the subject/topic clinches the reader's knowledge that the same participant is
being talked about. The use of the comma to separate events instead of a period is a signal
given by the writer that these events, while sequential, nevertheless happen in very short time
intervals. It is a kind of "close focus" camera effect, a metaphor used by a number of linguists
(Kemmer, Hopper, Talmy, etc.) and one which will be developed rather extensively in Chapter
Finally, not only do we find single-participant clauses on the time-line, but single
participant clauses from both perspectives on the event: Starting and Ending points. First, we
have as Initiator, Cora, who is the subject/topic of the entire chained sequence of events.
Second, we have as Ending points the attackers who are finally defeated in the final clause. It is
important to note here that pragmatically, that is, by inference, the reader understands perfectly
well that what is happening here is a highly transitive series of events: Cora is attacked--> Cora
fights back--> the attackers are killed. What the writer has done is gone inside the events, so to
speak, and presented them from a close-focus perspective, the view of the participants.
Grammatically, this is expressed via individual, single participant clauses. Thus even while
there is a kind of "macro-Event Structure" implied, the expression of that structure is not
constrained to just one view. It is, however, constrained to the view of the participants.
Nevertheless, there is a cognitive basis for the confusion of time-lines, plot-lines, and
transitivity. The two-participant transitive sentence (in English) captures two aspects of events,
force dynamics and passage of time, and construes them in a parallel fashion to how they are
understood. That is, in a sentence such as Bill kicked the sleeping poodle both the "line" of force
and the "line" of time as the event happens are iconic with the grammatical construal and order
of participants: from Bill to the dog both in terms of trajectory and time. It's a rather natural leap
to claim that the iconcity operates on the discourse level as well, especially since that is
sometimes the case. Part of the challenge of this study is to take this notion of transitivity into
realms other than narrative and determine its validity and usefulness in contexts where
information flow is separate from time flow.
2.5 The Asymmetry Principle in Cognition and Communication
Thus far in the discussion on semantics, the goal has been to reduce the proliferation of
components by searching for commonalities that may unite them on a more abstract level. The
particular relationship singled out has been "asymmetry." The discussion was not meant to
discredit or detract from the semantic work done so far; indeed, Rice's excellent semantic/
cognitive explanation of transitivity has been formative in my own work. Rather, the question is
not whether there are cognitive or semantic aspects to transitivity--certainly, there are-but what
it means that it is these aspects which are grammatically specified. Why should there be
conceptual endpoints in event structure? Why should skewing towards one end of the
Effector/Affected relationship be significant? A preliminary answer lies in the statement above:
asymmetry. Grammatically, where grammar is understood to be the system mediating intemal
representation and communication by providing "...a set of options for schematizing experience
for the purposes of verbal expression" (Slobin, 1996:75), asymmetry provides one means by
which this goal is accomplished. Specifically, asymmetry organizes grammar by presenting sets
of salience relationships that can be systematically attended to through time. That is, one way of
organizing information through time so that it is both processable and communicates what the
speaker intends is through marking salience so that the hearer knows which information is to be
attended to most closely. Regarding transitivity, salience applies to event semantics, participant
semantics, and participant-event relationships as instantiated in the clause.
The "Asymmetry Principle" is simply a label for a set of relationships the linguistic
community has long noted: heads and tails, verb and satellite, topic and comment, source and
goal, binary branching nodes, etc. The only "leap" being made is to say that this is not merely
coincidence, but in fact the cognitive principle along which grammar is largely organized. Note
the claim is being made for grammar only. If, as Talmy (1994) claims, grammar is the cognitive
system mediating what's in the brain and what is communicated, then asymmetry is the (or one
of the) cognitive principles) doing the organizing. One way of doing this is by systematically
creating salience relationships so that at any one time, both speaker and hearer are aware of and
can manage attention to the various elements in the discourse. In the case of human beings, the
central elements appear to be the participants--this is our locus of concern. And our way of
creating and maintaining order is through sets of asymmetrical relationships which manifest
salience relationships so that we know where our attention is to be directed.
If asymmetry as an explanatory grammatical principle is to be taken seriously-as a
reasonable explanation for the patterns evident in transitivity--then it must also be asked why the
set of distinctions clustering in transitivity should do so? Why this particular group of features? I
would propose that the set of features distinguishing transitivity as a system do so because they
are event-oriented--transitivity is a grammatical structuring of events, a kind of event gestalt.
The characterizing element of an event is its linearity, both of motion and of time in an iconic
relationship. Transitivity realizes the most perceptually salient parts of event structure- the
endpoints and the trajectory connecting them. But as Talmy (1994) has pointed out, languages
homologize not only time, but space as well. If transitivity is the grammatical structuring of
events, of "linear" information, then it may be reasonably asked if language does not also
grammaticize "non-linear" information? Does language have a grammatical structure for
information arranged not through time, but in space? Asked in another way, is information ever
conveyed in structures that are not event-driven? As will become apparent, this is not an empty
line of inquiry, but essential to understanding the functional and discourse nature of transitivity.
The role of the assymetry principle will be taken up again in Chapters Three and Four as it
relates to the discourse structuring of narrative and expository texts.
2.6 Concluding Remarks
Transitivity, as we now see, is a well-constrained system expressing certain aspects of
event structure-Starting points, Endpoints, and Trajectories. It is most properly viewed as one
component in the ecology of the clause, specifically that component concerned with the
semantics and pragmatics of Point-Trajectory relationships. At the level of discourse, though,
the effects to which transitivity is put are largely constrained by coherence-and not simply
coherence as a cognitive mechanism, but coherence as it is arrayed by different genres in
different contexts. In fact, at the "level" of discourse, much of what is crucially important for the
formation of clauses is not that critical anymore, and becomes a new and larger "chunk" which is
put to use for even more abstract informational purposes. Like a symphony, if the clause is the
individual player--and the sentence the entire brass or woodwind section- then discourse is
ultimately the conductor.
Figure 2.7: The Four Clause Types of Transitivity
Legend: non-bold graphics--optional elements (probably language specific)
T-- "Little Turtle's Big Adventure"--David Lee Harrison
C-- "Lady of Steel"--Roger Zelazny
H--The Defeat of Smaug, excerpt from The Hobbit--J.R.R. Tolkien
P/T Complex: two Points, directed Trajectory
Syntax: bound in same clause
Semantics: two participants, Effector/Affected
Discourse: Basic Perspectival Distance
One morning, a rumble like thunder woke the
little turtle. (T)
Finally, warm rain melted the snow. (T)
Then one day, a boy saw the turtle. (T)
Now he used a great yew bow. (H)
His last throes splintered it to sparks and
...she bathed the wound. (C)
He heard her gasp. (C)
1) Full on the town he fell. (H)
Both attackers fell. (C)
His arms ached by the time he had dealt with
the second. (C)
He started, but it was only an old thrush. (H)
...Smaug shot spouting into the air, turned over...(H).
His battle song broke as he... (C)
2) Birds scolded./Autumn came. /Snow fell. (T)
Everyday, the little turtle walked. (T).
The great bow twanged. (H)
An axe flashed.. (C)
P/T Complex: one Point, directed Trajectory
Syntax: bound in same clause
Semantics: one participant, Effector OR Affected
Discourse: Constrained Perspectival Distance
P/T Complex: one Point, undirected Trajectory
Syntax: bound in one clause
Semantics: one participant, Affected
Discourse: Unconstrained Perspectival Distance
He lay there, clutching his thigh... (C)
..and all seemed anxious to claim the glory...(C)
But the wound extended higher. (C)
Marvelling, he found he could understand its
tongue, for he was of the race of Dale. (H)
He could watch mice scamper. (T)
But the little turtle kept on looking. (T)
He tried living in the forest. (T)
And he picked him up and carried down a
shady path. (T)
Suddenly, she had drawn aside his loincloth
to continue her ministrations. (C)
After a time, Edwina helped him to his feet.
2. Perspiration broke out on his brow...(C)
..and his final assailant's head rolled away
after her departing sisters (C)
SThe black arrow sped straight from the string,
straight for the hollow...(H)
0- 00Early one morning, the little turtle started out.
Unafraid, it perched by his ear... (H)
Men with steam shovels and bulldozers were
DISPERSED TRANSITIVES working in the clover fields. (T)
P/T Complex: 1--two Points, directed Trajectory+path
2--one Point, directed Trajectory+path
Syntax: specified across clause plus phrase
2--Effector OR Affected
Discourse: Constrained Perspectival Distance
TOWARDS A MULTI-VARIABLE DISCOURSE MODEL OF TRANSITIVITY IN ENGLISH
3.1 Opening Remarks
Transitivity has long been labeled a complex phenomenon. Indeed, Chapter Two
demonstrated as much at the clause level. The transitivity system is sensitive to the
conceptualization of events, the dynamics of participant semantics, and the communicative
intent of the speaker.
The discourse functioning of transitivity is no less complex, though this complexity arises
more from the interaction of several elements than through the quality of transitivity alone. That
is, just as identifying the semantic responsibilities of the transitivity system entailed teasing out
that which properly belongs to transitivityy" and that which is part of a different system (tense, for
instance), the discourse functioning of transitivity requires the same discriminating eye. DuBois
makes a similar claim: sometimes choosing an "intransitive" was a matter of meaning,
sometimes a matter of discourse (1987:831-832). The same can be said of the transitivity
system in general. Care must therefore be taken not to become too absolute in the assigning of
a "function" to any particular transitive clause. Sometimes a telic transitive is just a telic
transitive. It is only in combination with other discourse elements that transitivity makes its
contribution to the clause as a whole, and by extension, to the discourse needs of speakers and
Nevertheless, there is a discourse function specific to transitivity: the management of
perspective for the purposes of thematic coherence. Several aspects of this statement
must be considered. First, what is "perspective" and what relationships does it have to other
levels of grammar? Second, what about perspective is being "managed" and to what effect?
Finally, what specific role does perspective management play for the purposes of thematic
coherence? To begin this discussion, we must start with "thematic coherence" since, at the
level of discourse, this is the ultimate purpose transitivity serves.
3.1.1 Thematic Coherence
Coherence is intuitively understood as the degree of relevance the concepts and
relationships in a text have with regard to one another which permits plausible inference to be
made about underlying meaning (Crystal, 1987:119). Hence, the content of any given clause
should support what has gone before, add to it, and help predict what is to come next. A good
deal of the research in discourse on topicality, for example, investigates the structural cues by
which predictability and continuity are created.
Giv6n gives a somewhat different structural definition of coherence (1995:327): "The
paragraph (or clause-chain) boundary in discourse [is]...where all types of discontinuity cluster-
discontinuities of reference, spatiality, temporality, aspectuality, modality, perspective, etc.
Taken together, they are the visible, measurable manifestations of a single epiphenomenon--
According to Giv6n's definition, thematic coherence is understood by language users at
the beginning or endpoint of a sequence of utterances. His claim is quite specific-- we process
coherence at the level of discourse through discontinuity as opposed to cohesion. Cohesion is
the clause-to-clause link which tells the hearer that this stretch of discourse still belongs together.
When cohesion breaks--is made discontinuous--the hearer understands that a new thematic
block is beginning. This is a highly testable claim and one which the transitivity system by and
The function proposed for transitivity is that it manages perspective for the purpose of
thematic coherence, and by inference, for the purposes of cohesion. It seems, as will be shown
throughout the chapter, that transitivity at the level of discourse provides a site for the
management of perspective and, as a clause-level system, contributes to both cohesion and
coherence. This cohesion is not created through linking the transitivity of one clause to another,
nor by linking even one transitive clause type to another. The transitivity of any given clause
doesn't "predict" the transitivity of the following clause so much as it predicts the perspective
from which the following clause may be viewed. Transitivity as a semantic system is about the
whole of cognitive events; transitivity at the level of discourse is about the endpoints of events.
Thus my conception of how transitivity works in discourse is similar to what DuBois claims for
Preferred Argument Structure: it is not a discourse structure, per se, but a discourse preference
for syntactic structure (1987:823).
The notion that transitivity encodes perspective, or something like it, is not new. Rice
(1987) states as much in a variety of ways--"At heart, transitivity is a linguistic device optionally
employed by a speaker to conceptualize and organize the actions of entities in the world in order
to convey a certain attitude about an overall event to someone else" (p.5), transitivityy is...a
function of a speaker's evaluation of an event" (p.36), and "...transitivity is as much a function of
the content of the event being described as it is of the describer's interpretation of that event"
(p.38). Hopper and Thompson (1980) make a similar claim when they associate transitivity and
foregrounding, particularly as their claim relates to "telic predicates"--those that are bounded by
tense and participants into a single, "whole" event.
Berman and Slobin (1984) provide the most detailed model of clause-level discourse
negotiation in narrative with their four dimensions of event construal. Briefly, event construal
includes the selection of topic, selection of loci of control and effect, selection of event view, and
selection of degree of agency. Selection of topic is essentially the selection of who or what the
clause will be about. Selection of loci of control and effect is the selection of who or what is
actor and undergoer. Berman and Slobin point out, much as Kemmer does, that the topic need
not be the actor; these two choices are distinct. The topic can be either actor or undergoer (in
my terms, Effector or Affected). Selection of event view is the choice of the event-participant
relationship (Cause, Become, State). And selection of agency is how much "motivation loading"
the entire scene is given. To some extent, selection of agency corresponds to my discussion of
asymmetry as it pertains to slanting towards the Effector or Affected participant. These four
dimensions act together in the construction of a clause and have a subsequent effect on what
can follow in discourse. If there is a fault in Berman and Slobin's approach, it is their total
reliance on semantic parameters with little to no explanation for the structural elements which
link clauses. My approach attempts to fill in this gap.
I claimed in Chapter Two that transitivity is the system underlying "event view," which
Berman and Slobin designate with three views Cause, Become, and State. Here, I am proposing
to operationalize what is meant by the attitude, interpretation, or selectional affect of transitivity.
Simply put, the particular transitive clause type chosen frees up or constrains the participant
perspective available in the subsequent clause. In other words, perspective here is not a
loosely defined or intuitive notion but is actually constrained to participant points of view. As we
shall see, each of the four clause types of transitivity in English has certain freeing or
constraining effects as it interacts with other discourse dimensions (similar to, but not the same
as, Berman and Slobin's). But these effects are limited to predictions about participants.
3.1.3 Management of Perspective
According to above discussion, what is being "managed" is the availability of perspective
through participants. Availability in this case encompasses both anaphoric and cataphoric
signals. Anaphorically, for a participant to be recognized as thematically continuous, it must
already be established in discourse and marked accordingly. Cataphorically, for a participant to
be expected to continue, it must be cast in a grammatical form that hearers know mark thematic
importance. In either case, the form some participant takes opens up, closes down, or maintains
the hearer's interpretation that this participant is thematically important.
There are two widely recognized means by which availability is managed. First is the
nominal form the participant takes. Whether something is fully specified or pronominalized,
definite or indefinite, specific or generic gives critical information to the hearer as to the thematic
importance of the participant. The second strategy is clause structure. Participants in main
clauses tend to be more thematic than those in subordinate clauses. Subjects tend to be more
thematic than objects. For the management of perspective via transitivity, both of these
strategies work together with the four clause types to form stable implicatures by which the
hearer may infer which participants and/or events are likely to continue. As we shall see below,
intransitives provide the least discourse constraint, atelic and dispersed provide the greatest
constraint, and telic transitives provide a middle ground by establishing a limited yet robust
choice of viable participants.
3.1.4 The Model in Brief
When discussing thematic coherence above, Giv6n offered several structural means by
which thematic coherence is established: aspectuality, spatiality, temporality, referentiality,
perspective, and so on. He also goes on to warn discourse researchers to keep in mind that the
visible elements encountered are but heuristic measures through which the unseen, theoretical-
cognitive entity--thematic coherence--is known. It is in this spirit the following model is offered.
The particular play of transitivity in English is not itself a universal; at this point, I cannot even
claim typological ramifications. Rather, transitivity as a system instantiated through the four
clause types has a function which serves the needs of thematic coherence. Specifically,
transitivity provides a grammatical-semantic site over which the construal of perspective may
take place. In English, it is the primary clause-level system through which participants are
introduced, maintained, or removed from narrative discourse.
Nonetheless, given the nature of transitivity as a semantic system, it is hardly mysterious
that it should fulfill the duty of perspective manager at the level of discourse. After all, it is the
transitivity system which takes care of the number of participants and their event-driven
relationships. Nor does transitivity, as we shall soon see, act alone. At least three other
discourse elements conspire with transitivity for the purposes of thematic coherence. They are
treated as part of a "multi-variable model of transitivity in discourse" because, in use, it is rather
difficult to separate them from one another.
The four discourse elements to be considered are:
(1) the relative discourse topicality of the participants of a given clause;
(2) perspectival distance;
(3) the four clause types of transitivity;
(4) the "depth" of transitivity given discourse context.
The first element, discourse topicality, assesses how hearers know the topical status of a
given participants. Two factors must be taken into account here, referential specificity and
information value. The first is my term for the degree of referentiality accorded a participant.
Traditionally, we understand this as a continuum from full lexicalization to zero anaphor,
indefinite to definite. For discourse, the degree of referentiality specified for a participant relative
to surrounding participants is a crucial indicator of thematic importance. In a telic transitive, for
instance, the referential specificity of each participant vis-a-vis the other tells the hearer which
participant will likely continue as topic, hence whose perspective is available for comment.
Information value is a more global term, encompassing but not limited to referential
specificity. It was introduced by Chu (1996:5) to explain topic chaining, overt and zero anaphor,
and word order in Chinese. Basically, Chu distinguishes topichood as operating across two
information structure tiers, the source tier and the management tier. The source tier "is
concerned with where a piece of information comes from" and functions to signal relative
giveness and newness to discourse. The information management tier "..is concerned with how
a linguistic form in used in terms of informative value". The management tier incorporates a
scale from High value to Low value. As will be shown, it is the effects of discourse topicality on
the management tier which works with transitivity to manage perspective.
The second discourse element, perspectival distance, is the "ground" against which
transitivity is "figured." That is, since Hopper and Thompson's influential 1980 paper, much has
been said in support of their notion that High transitivity (my telic transitives) communicate
foregrounded information. Most often "foregrounded information" has been interpreted to mean
information on the narrative time-line--information which advances the story forward. A few
researchers, notably Kalmar (1982) have argued otherwise, claiming that where high transitivity
may correlate with time line information, it cannot be said that this is the only foregrounded
information in the text. Some other explanation must be sought.
My answer to this question is "perspectival distance." This is a notion introduced by
Talmy (1993,1996) but used intuitively by many discourse linguists with the reference to the
"camera" effects of clause structure. Perspectival distance refers to the distance from a scene or
event created by a particular linguistic construct. A more distant perspective is created via more
inclusive and indefinite nouns with more stative verbs. A closer distance is created with more
specific nouns and more active verbs. In narrative, the closest distance is direct speech where
participants are most immediately engaged with one another.
As will be shown, perspectival distance provides a better measure of the narrative
structure to which transitivity relates. Each of the clause types suggests a range of perspectival
distance. Cognitively, this range constrains what can happen next by creating boundaries
around the scene thereby limiting the number of potential subsequent actions. At the furthest
point, instantiated by intransitives, perspectival distance is constrained fairly little; it serves more
a framing function, suggesting the general direction participants might go given the schematic
knowledge aroused by the scene. Telic transitives are at a "basic" distance, one encompassing
both participants and the event joining them, but excluding surrounding participants. Atelic and
dispersed correspond with a fairly close perspectival distance, where only one participant "fills
the screen" and time segments are shorter. Thus, it is distance from the event and the discourse
implications therein that transitivity realizes, rather than points on the time-line itself.
The third element of the model, the four clause types, takes into account the previous
two. This section gives a fuller explanation of the four clause types and the kind of perspective-
taking they entail. This section takes both a qualitative and quantitative approach in an attempt
to get a feel for the discourse patterning of the four clause types in English narrative.
The fourth element investigates what transitivity and its alternations mean at the level of
discourse. I am proposing here that discourse puts considerable constraints on the kind of
perspective shifting allowed. Thus, where a telic transitive clause out of context may be fully
capable of passivizing, in context, there are allowed and disallowed instances. When alterations
are permitted, I call this "deep transitivity": perspective-shifting which is allowed from the level of
discourse down through both semantics and syntax. "Shallow transitivity" is when shifting is not
allowed and this has a variety of underlying causes. One final note: in this chapter, examples
which are my own are presented in the same font as the main text. Other authors are presented
in an alternative font-type.
3.2 Discourse Topicality
The question of topicality is widely discussed in the linguistics literature. And while an
intuitive or notional definition is still theoretically unsatisfying, it is not entirely erroneous given
the nature of topicality itself. Like "thematic coherence," topicality is largely an invisible entity, a
"felt" understanding which evolves as the speaker and hearer negotiate text. Certainly, topicality
has its visible, measurable markers (pronouns, zero anaphora, topic-chains, etc.) but these are
the overt, linguistic clues to the unseen cognitive entity. Most importantly, topicality functions as
an anchor within text; only within an understood frame of reference can coherent communication
take place. At the discourse level, topics establish boundaries by eliminating other possible
topics and together with general knowledge arouse sets of expectations on the hearer's part onto
which information is pegged. (For an excellent discussion of approaches to topicality, see
Intuitively speaking, topicality is the quality of being "about" something, wherein the
speaker has established a discourse within which some particular participant, event, or scene is
understood by the hearer to be referred to and/or is expected to continue. Topicality is
established through repeat reference to wholes and to parts of participants, events, or scenes.
Discourse topics are most often established through reference to parts. The hearer has an
expectation of what is going on--a schema or script--and the hearer's understanding of the
speaker's actual discourse topic is created through the negotiation of expectation based on the
schematic knowledge and speaker's actual linguistic cues. Thus, essentially, it is a matter of
inference. In this case, not merely inference, but stable linguistic inference-an expected and
normal part of linguistic competence--hence a matter of implicature.
Topicality has three measurable levels, the clause-level, paragraph or inter-clausal level,
and the discourse level, yet these three levels are not often distinguished in the literature. Most
often, "topic" is defined at the clause-level with the somewhat unenlightening phrase "what the
sentence is about," including descriptors such as the initial element in the sentence, the
proposition about which the speaker is providing more information, or the given elements of the
utterance (Chu, 1983;Gundel, 1988). More satisfying definitions were offered by Chu (1983),
Prince (1981), Chafe (1994), etc. who defined topic in terms of its cognitive status in the
discourse: "Semantically, a topic is definite in the sense that it has to be a particular entity or
event that has already occupied the mind of the speaker and hearer" (Chu, 1983:132). Prince
and Chafe developed models of "activation states" to account for the variety of definite noun
phrases that occur in discourse, including those that the original conceptions of topic could not
account for: I saw a new house today, but I didn't like the kitchen. It was too small/I saw a new
house today, but I didn like the neighborhood. It was too crowded/I wanted to see houses
today, but the realtor wasn't feeling well We have to schedule for next week. In each of these
sentences, the conjunct clause contains a noun phrase which is new to the discourse, occurs in
the site of new information, but is definite and the topic of the next sentence. Prince explains
this through types of inference wherein any nominal excites a field of related terms which are
allowed into the discourse without explicit previous mention. The nominal are all inferrable
from various kinds of pragmatic knowledge. More recently, Prince has proposed discourse-
based degrees of givenness from the perspective of hearer-discourse interaction (1992,
summarized in Chu, 1996):
old old already evoked
old new has not been evoked; speaker believes it's
old to hearer
new new has not been evoked; speaker believes it's
new to hearer
new old has been evoked; speaker believes hearer
is not aware of it
Prince's proposals together have the advantage of covering at least two sources of discourse
information, semantic/pragmatic and discourse-negotiated.
Other distinctions created in discussions of topic include such categories as discourse
topic versus sentence topic. Where Ochs, Keenan, and Scheifflin explicitly identify their topic as
a discourse topic, Lambrecht (1994) claims his discussion is of a sentence topic and is to
explicitly contrast the "focus" of the sentence, which is the new information. But what linguistic
features actually distinguish a "discourse topic" from a sentential topic? Givbn claims the
distinction is quantitative in nature "...the main behavioral manifestation of important topics in
discourse is continuity, as expressed by frequency of occurrence (1984:138). For example,
pronominalization is a direct indication of activation status in discourse; whatever is
pronominalized must be known to both speaker and hearer already. However, this does not
much help in determining topicality in discourses where there are multiple participants. Nor does
it provide a means to distinguish a discourse topic from a sentential topic since that which is
sententially frequent is also important to the discourse.
Chu (1996:5) provides a better explanation of the distinction by proposing instead two
information tiers with different discourse functions, the source tier and the management tier.
"The source tier is concerned with where a piece of information comes from while the
management tier is conceded with how a linguistic form is used in terms of informative value".
For Chu, then, the previous definitions of topic in terms of cognitive activation status are
explanations of the source tier--where the information comes from. Giv6n and Lambrecht's
propositions discuss topic from the perspective of management, what happens to information
once introduced into the discourse.
Another difficulty with Lambrecht's contrast of topic and focus is the conflict arising when a
topical noun receives focal stress as in "Who left the dishes on the coffee table? Your father, of
course"? It would be absurd to claim that "your father" is not a known element. At the same
time, the phrase is clearly the focus element, the "new" information insofar as it is the answer to
the question. Chu (1996:5) also provides an answer to this dilemma by proposing that topic be
understood not simply in terms of given and new information, but functionally as high or low
information value: "A better way to interpret it is whether and to what extent a linguistic form
serves to add information to what has already existed in the repertoire of the hearer/reader".
Chu further proposes that high informative value and low informative value (hereafter, HI-value
and LO-value, respectively) represent a dine of values, not a binary opposition:
LO-value<------------------------------- -----------------------.--. HI-value
subj w/ < subj. w/ < assert. pred. < assert. pred.
given info new info w/ given info w/new info
The discrimination of a source tier and management tier significantly impacts our
understanding of topichood. Much of the work that has been done on sentence-level topics has
dealt with the source tier; and much of the work on that tier has been aimed towards
understanding how various discourse markers such as definiteness are used with "new"
nominal. Chu brings to the table another aspect of discourse structure, the information value of
any given nominal. This concept focuses not on where information comes from, but how it is
used, "managed," in discourse. Further, "information value" allows us to operationalize the
impact of any given nominal by defining "new" information or "focus" as any information which
adds to or amends the state of knowledge of the hearer. Thus, what is "new" in terms of its
source does not have to be high in information value, nor is what is given necessarily low in
It quickly becomes evident that "source" and "management" work together. In English, it
has been traditionally claimed that given/new distinctions are associated with the subject and
object positions, respectively. When a nominal occurs in the subject position, it is considered to
be the sentential topic, and by definition known to speaker and hearer. By contrast, the nominal
in the object position is the "focus" because it is part of the asserted information. These
correlations hold in default cases; that is, if they are not otherwise challenged. Complications do
arise when texts are investigated.
(I) Uttering a curse in his well-practiced falsetto. Cora swung his blade
and cut down the opposing swordswoman.
"Lady of Steel." Roger Zelazny
(2) She came into my shop with a gash in her thigh and blood seeping
out a wound in her stomach.
"Bra Melting." Janni Lee Simner
(3) "But you don t tax jockstraps!" Mirabel Stonefist glared.
"And the Ladies of the Club," Elizabeth Moon
Each of the texts above not only introduces a new participant, but is the first line of the story. In
fact, it is not unusual to begin a short story in English with the introduction of a new participant
rather than a scene-setting. In these cases, the first appearance of a nominal in the text is also
its first use. Just as givenness alone does not determine information value (information value is
determined by use), neither does the grammatical role determine information value.
In these three excerpts, the new participant is in the subject slot, the site of "given"
information. As stated above, it is also the site of topical information. In other words, one way of
introducing a topical participant into the discourse is to place them in the subject slot, thereby
indicating to the reader the relative importance of the participant. It's as though the participant is
simultaneously being flagged as "new" and "given" at the same time; in fact what is happening is
the participant is being flagged as "new" and topical" at the same time. In terms of source, the
participant is brand-new; in terms of management, the participant is high in information value.
At the same time, not all participants making their first appearance in the object position
of the asserted predicate are HI-value; in fact, many are not. In the Zelazny text, the second
"participant" occurs in the site most frequently associated with High information value: Cora
swung his blade and cut down the opposing swordswoman. According to Chu's management
continuum, this is typically the position of HI-value participants. However, according to Prince's
"source" categories, this participant is contextually inferable. We rather expect as readers that
anyone uttering curses in a well-practiced voice while swinging blades is most likely cutting down
an opponent (as opposed to cutting down trees, for example). That it is a swordswoman is
interesting, but does not hold our attention; though marked with the definite article, the
swordswoman is not mentioned by name, is not specified for the reader. If instead the sentence
read Cora swung his blade and cut down the opposing swordswoman, Hilda we would be
disturbed as readers when the following sentence began with "His contoured breastplate"
referring back to Cora (rather than to Hilda).
We need to explain why participants new to the discourse and subsequently topical may
be used in the subject position when first introduced. And likewise, why participants in the object
slot, such as the opposing swordswoman, are not topical. It's obviously inadequate to label
subject and object positions as merely slots for old and new information respectively. Rather,
there is a collocation of functions for each position which serve to designate information value.
These include referentiality, action schemata, and perspectival distance. (Perspectival distance
will be taken up in greater detail in the following section. Suffice to say here that you should find
low occurrences of "close focus" constructions with new participants unless placed within highly
recognized activities, such as the conversation in (3).)
Giv6n (1995:379) states much the same thing: "The grammatical subject, the clause's
primary topic, code the event participant that is most continuous--both anaphorically and
cataphorically" (emphasis added). Subjects tend to have greater continuity, greater topicality,
head action chains, and have lower information value. Objects tend to have less referential
distance and less topicality but are receivers of action and also tend to have higher information
value. English has worked out a system where participants are referentially coded apart from
grammatical position so that the semantics of an event can play itself out unhampered. I call
this system "referential specificity." Essentially, given two participants, whichever one has a
stronger degree of referentiality is regarded as topical. Degrees of referentiality are assessed on
two scales, the definiteness hierarchy from zero anaphor to generic and the animacy hierarchy.
DEFINITENESS: zero --> I/you --> proper noun --> definite --> indefinite --> generic
ANIMACY: human --> self-instigating animate --> non-self-instigating animate --> inanimate
(4) A headache the size of her healthcare plan--no, better make that the
national deficit--was turning Hillary Rodham Clinton's skull into the
local percussion section.
"Exchange Program." Susan Schwartz
(5) It was shortly after Mrs. Batchett left the planetarium that she saw
the fairy, the elf. and the gnome.
"On the Road of Silver," Mark Bourne
In (4), the two scales work together. A headache, although the Effector, is clearly not the
thematically important participant, for two reasons. First, it is lower in referential specificity
(hereafter, RS) than the second participant-a proper name is higher on the definiteness scale
than an indefinite. Second, it is inanimate and non-human whereas the object is human. Also,
'Hillary Rodham Clinton' is a well-known figure and is occurring in the site typically associated
with High information value. Contrast this sentence with (1), from "Cora." In this opener, the
subject of the sentence is the Effector--the most unmarked of action chains--and is named by a
proper name. The object, while also human and strongly Affected is not named, but referred to
via a definite descriptive noun phrase. Because the Affected participant has a lower RS than the
Effector, the tendency for the object to become the subsequent clausal topic is overruled. Note
that the author could have chosen a combination of atelic transitive and a subordinate clause,
thereby eliminating the coding competition for topic (generally speaking, subordination is a
stronger discourse factor in backgrounding): Uttering a curse in his well-practiced falsetto, Cora
swing his blade forcefully, cutting down the opposing swordswoman. In this sentence, there is no
competition for clause-level topic and no need for RS as a deciding discourse factor.
Example (5) combines an interesting mix of definiteness and clause structure to cue the
reader in on who the topical participants are. Obviously, Mrs. Batchett is the prime candidate for
immediate sentential topic because she is both in the subject position and of higher RS than the
other participants mentioned. On the other hand, the It in the opening phrase It was shortly after
Mrs. Batchett left sets up the reader to expect the situation the pronoun obliquely refers to. As a
result, although the reader knows that Mrs. Batchett is immediately the most important character,
the definite form of the other participants together with the oblique reference at the very
beginning of the story alludes to the later importance of the fairy, the gnome, and the elf. In fact,
these three do play significant roles later in the narrative.
Sentence topics, which can be either events or participants, are also established through
repeat reference to their wholes or parts. Further, it is at the level of the sentence that referential
specificity plays a part in the setting up of hearer's expectations about what is coming next.
Basically, given two participants, whichever has the highest referential specificity is expected to
continue. If both are of equal value, the participant in the object slot is more likely to be topic in
the next sentence because the object is the site of higher information value. However, if both
participants are already established in discourse, then it could be either participant or the event
which gets topicalized for the next sentence.
Finally, the various discourse effects of subject and object, given and new, referential
specificity, and high and low information value all act together to form the "discontinuities" Giv6n
refers to as marking thematic boundaries. When the above factors combine to counter reader
expectations, this is also a signal that a juncture has occurred. The chart below summarizes
these effects. Subject and object are crossed by given/new and higher or lower RS. These
result in information values which then signal various states of thematic continuity and
GIVEN/ HIGHER RSI HI-VALUEI
NEW LOWER RS LO-VALUE
HI-Value -- "discontinuity" discourse juncture
SUBJECT NEW HIGHER RS
GIVEN LOWER RS LO-Value "continuity" thematically established
OBJECT NEW HIGHER RS HI-Value "discontinuity" new clausal topic
GIVEN LOWER RS LO-Value "continuity" est. topic continues
Figure 3.1: Referential Specificity, Information Value, and Grammatical Relations
If the subject is new and has a higher RS than the object, then it also has higher information
value and is likely occurring at a discourse juncture (a new paragraph, for instance).
3.3 Perspectival Distance
We've already seen that the narrative time-line is structurally a matter of implicature
rather than a linguistic entity in its own right. We also have shown that events on the time-line
do not have to be telic transitives, but may be atelic and dispersed transitives as well. Yet, there
is certainly evidence indicating that there are textual interactions between transitivity and
narrative. If neither time-line or plot-line are sufficient guides, what else could account for the
regularities observed so far?
Talmy (1994) offers a possibility with his notion of perspectival distance. In essence,
Talmy shows that regularities in certain transformations are most easily explained as a matter of
implied/perceived distance from the event. The further "away" from an event a linguistic
description is cast, the less detail of the event is implied in the description. The "closer" the
linguistic depiction is, the more detail is implied. For example, the following sentences can be
understood not simply as aspectual distinctions, but as a matter of distance from the event.
(6) There was a cat and dog running down the sidewalk.
(7) The cat ran after/chased the dog.
(8) The dog fled.
In (6), the perspectival distance is far away, what I term a "panoramic view." Essentially,
an event is construed as a state; the distance is so far away that the action itself is seen as an
entire picture, a framed Point-Trajectory complex, rather than as movement from one endpoint
to another. From the point of view of discourse, just about anything can follow this kind of
sentence as long as it stays within the very loose constraints imposed by the overall action-in
this scene, that of a neighborhood.
(9) There was a dog and cat running down the sidewalk, children swinging
in backyard playgrounds, and a light playful breeze nipping at the leaves
and swishing little girls' ponytails this way and that.
(10) There was a dog and cat running down the sidewalk. I opened the door
slowly, peeking out again to make sure the coast was clear.
(11) There was a dog and cat running down the sidewalk. Without warning,
a bomb ripped the morning's peace to shreds. No more dog. No more cat.
No more sidewalk.
The perspectival distance in (7) is what I term "basic." Similar to Lakoffs notion of basic
level terms, this is the sort of sentence most often given when someone asks for an example
sentence. There are two endpoints and a trajectory given, but instead of being framed from a
distance, they are framed at the level just enclosing the activity and participants. Often,
additional information is excluded at the level of the clause; if there is additional information
about direction and such, it has a much more "adjunct" interpretation. This is also the level at
which discourse constraints begin to assert themselves. This example includes an Effector and
Affected with equal referential specificity engaged in a purposeful, unilateral activity. It is NOT
the case that just anything may follow this statement. Rather, as will be discussed in the next
section, we expect that the Effector, Affected, or Predication will follow. This is considerably
more constraint than the panoramic view entailed.
(12) The cat chased the dog. The dog scrambled down the sidewalk, yelping
(13) The cat chased the dog down the sidewalk. It meowled fiercely as it
closed in on the hapless Rottweiler.
(14) The cat chased the dog down the sidewalk. But it was a humid day
with a baking sun, and the chase ended as quickly as it began.
(15) ? The cat chased the dog. The earth tilted slightly on its axis and
a car backfired in Detroit.
The final perspectival distance I call "close-focus." Essentially, it is as though the
linguistic camera were directly on top of the scene with only a single participant filling the lens.
Time sequence here is very short, a matter of moment-to-moment experience. Discourse
constraints are strong, limited to participants only. Further, only participants set up by discourse
frames or directly entailed by the predicates chosen are allowed. Narratively, close-focus is
often experienced as fast-paced, action-filled, tense, and dramatic sequences of central
importance to the plot. Also, note that with (7), the verb "fled" implies something from which the
dog is fleeing and potentially, something to which the dog flees.
(16) The dog fled. It ran faster and faster until it escaped the cat.
(17) The dog fled. The cat leaped. The dog snarled in fury as
the feline landed on its back. Raising a pad of extended claws,
the cat went to scratch, but too slowly! With a snap, the dog chomped
the proffered paw. And that is how the neighborhood tabby became
known as Tripod Tom.
(18) ? The dog fled. The sun rose. Sally baked chocolate chip cookies for breakfast.
It is obvious at this point that there is a connection between perspectival distance and
transitivity. Panoramic views correlate with intransitives, basic views with telic transitives, and
close-focus with atelic and dispersed transitives. While I am not ready to claim that transitivity is
the encoding of events vis-A-vis linguistic space (as does Langacker, for instance), it is clear that
at the level of discourse, narrative structure can easily be visualized as a matter of distance from
events. The narrative introduction, particularly in longer works, usually begins at a panoramic
distance describing the general scene. Thematic participants and events are introduced through
actions while the narrative proceeds to climactic moments. These are often construed as close-
focus scenes, with all the reader's attention taken up with actions and events portrayed moment-
by-moment. The denouement goes back through the basic level to the panoramic as the scene
or story winds down to a point of resolution. In a novel, this pattern repeats itself again and
again. It is violated to great effect in multi-participant stories where each chapter focuses on a
single thematic character and the middle chapters of the book end in cliffhangers until all the
participants can be brought together in a final resolution.
There is a fourth level of narrative distance I call "immediate." This is the domain of
direct and indirect speech. These two, particularly the former, are the most cognitively involving
aspects of narrative, even though presented in past tense morphology (s/he "said.") Direct
speech has a sense of being close to the present moment, as though the reader where sitting
very near the participants. This may be why in spoken narrative, direct speech so often happens
in the historical present. There is considerable debate about whether direct speech should be
considered a transitive event (see Longacre, 1983). While it is possible to passivize speech
statements (using "was said by him/her" instead of "s/he said"), it is rarely used in practice.
Further, there is better evidence cross-linguistically that direct and indirect speech forms are
formulaic and thus distinct from grammar. I agree that direct and indirect speech are "different"
on several linguistic accounts and probably should not be considered as telic ditransitive events
(passivization implies the rather odd notion that speech is a physical object given to another
participant). As a speech act, direct and indirect speech match up with atelic transitives which
feature a single participant at an extremely close distance. Suffice to say at this point that direct
and indirect speech present a problem this project does not solve. They will not be considered in
the data as events coded by the transitivity system, but as speech acts with cultural expectations
that go along with them. These expectations may interact with transitivity or they may not.
At this level of discourse, it must be remembered that patterns are correlations. In other
words, telic transitives do not mean "basic level perspectival distance." They mean an event
encoded to include both points and the trajectory in a single linguistic unit. The appropriate way
to view this matter is from the perspective of the largest structural unit, the narrative itself.
Narrative structure has a format and induces a set of reader expectations. The author has at his
or her disposal all of the lexical and grammatical options of the language they are writing in.
Certain of these options better fulfill the structural requirements of narrative at its various points.
But as long as the narrative expectations are fulfilled, there is relatively little constraint as to
which option the author chooses. This is, more or less, a linguistic definition of style. It also
helps account for why statistical analyses are useful at the level of discourse. Given a particular
point in a narrative, there is approximately a 70-80% chance of finding structure X. There is a
20-30% likelihood of finding structure Y or Z since both fulfill the structural need in question. It is
simply a matter of conventional expectation and style that determine X, Y, or Z.
Nevertheless, at some point it becomes a "chicken-and-egg question" to ask whether
some given grammatical structure "has" some given discourse function or whether discourse
"makes use" of the semantic/pragmatic potentialities inherent to any grammatical construction.
The whole question is most likely wrong. It is not a matter of what comes first, but a matter of
linguistic ecology. Grammar and discourse have a relationship and to suppose either is more
fundamental is erroneous.
In conclusion, if we separate perspectival distance from time line, and associate
transitivity with the former, we get a more accurate picture of what transitivity accomplishes in
narrative. The time-line is essentially a structural artifact of narrative, created through
implicature by the tense-aspect configurations of successive predications. Perspectival distance
is the linguistic boundaries imposed on a scene at any point in narrative. Transitivity is one
linguistic system available to the speaker for this purpose. The specifics of how transitivity works
to fulfill this function will be taken up in the following section.
3.4 The Four Clause Types of Transitivity
It was claimed in Chapter Two that Endpoint-Trajectory (hereafter P/T) relationships are
expressed by four basic grammatical types in English--intransitive, atelic transitive, telic
transitive, and dispersed transitive (with the caveat that intransitives may be more property
understood as durative, unbounded actions, and states should be considered a
semantic/conceptual case in their own right). This chapter proposes that the discourse function
of P/T relationships is the control of communicative intent through manipulation of perspective.
Simply put, perspective is the participant-event relationship as it operates at the level of
discourse. In terms of grammar, perspective is understood to be the grammatically available
points of view from which a scene/event may be construed. For English, there are three basic
points of view: the Initiating Point, the Ending Point, and the Trajectory itself. Semantically,
these correspond to the Effector, Affected, and Predication, respectively. In terms of clause
structure, the three points of view get played out in the four clause types of transitivity.
For discourse, perspective-taking opens up or closes down participant availability. That
is, given context and transitivity, regular predictions can be made about who or what is coming
next in a text. Each of the clause types of transitivity interact with discourse topicality and
perspectival distance to form the part of the implicatures we recognize as thematic coherence.
3.4.1 Telic Transitives
At the level of discourse, the particular P/T configuration lets the reader know who is
available for perspective shifts or changes. The choice of a configuration either opens up or
limits what can come next. In the broadest sense, given a telic transitive, there are three basic
perspectives that can be appealed to: Effector, Affected, and Predication. In the following
example, the subsequent sentence can topicalize the Effector, Affected, or even the action itself.
Further, for the last option, the sentence can be skewed towards the Effector or Affected
participant or simply comment on the action itself.
(19) John kicked Bill. He punched Bill/him. (Effector)
(20) John kicked Bill. Bill yelped in pain. (Affected)
(21) John kicked Bill. It was a really hard kick. (Predication)
The kick really hurt. (Affected)
The kick was really hard. (Effector)
Even these simple sentences show some interesting things regarding reader
expectation. With sentence (19), where both Effector and Affected have equal referential
specificity (hereafter, RS), it is somewhat awkward to continue the Effector role as topic without
additional maneuverings. Note the sentence reads better if temporal adverbs are added in.
(22) First, John kicked Bill. Next, he punched him.
As stated in the discussion of discourse topicality, if both Effector and Affected are of equal
referential value, the Affected role generally wins the role of topic because of the association of
new information with the object slot. Thus in (19), despite the fact that according to sheer
transitivity both participants and the action are available for topicalization, the likelihood is tipped
away from the Effector role. If the Effector is to continue as topic, then the balance must be re-
shifted somehow. This can be partially done through pronominalization, though with an activity
of such violent energy, pronominalization alone doesn't quite work; the two sentences still don't
"flow." Coherence is better accomplished here through temporal adverbs which make salient the
linear aspect of the activity. In other words, once the reader knows that John "first" did
something, the reader expects to know what John did next. Adverbs impose an overt temporal/
spatial structure on a text, creating strong expectations about what will follow.
The second example, with the Affected taking the topic role, is the most straightforward
and unmarked of the options. Effector and Affected have equal RS and the Affected participant
is the site of highest information value. This role is allowed just about any kind of response,
though; new information is not confined to nominal.
(22) John kicked Bill. Bill yelped in pain.
(23) John kicked Bill. Bill yelped in pain, then kicked him back.
(24) John kicked Bill. Yelping in pain, Bill kicked him back.
(25) John kicked Bill. Bill slugged him.
(26) John kicked Bill. Bill started to cry.
(27) John kicked Bill. Bill stared at him in astonishment.
Obviously, we are confined to our expectations of the scene, the action schemata, a factor
essential to coherence.
(28) ?John kicked Bill. Bill painted flowers.
As a testament to our desire for coherence, many readers of this sentence unconsciously assert
some sort of modifier to make coherence kick in:
(29) John kicked Bill. Bill continued painting flowers.
The addition of "continued" makes the proposition refer back to a previous state which had been
interrupted by John's kick. Even though we don't know what this state is exactly, we are satisfied
that the sentence "makes sense."
The final option that a telic transitive allows is some comment on the Predication itself.
In this case, the term "Predication" includes the whole of what the scene implies. Thus, given
any particular activity, subparts of the activity are available as well as the whole of the activity
John kicked Bill. Part of Activity/Skewing
(30) The kick was really hard. whole/ Effector
(31) It really hurt. whole/ Affected
(32) It was a really hard kick. whole/ Predication
(33) His foot made hard contact with Bill's shin. subpart/ Effector
(34) His boot swung in a long arc toward Bill's leg. subpart/ Effector
(35) His pants nearly ripped with the effort, subpart/ Effector
The sentences (33) -(35) show two things. First, what is available in terms of Predication is
limited by the action itself and what the reader knows must be the case in the scene. But within
that context, anything is fair game from some comment on the activity to the clothes the Effector
is presumably wearing. Second, when referring to a subpart of the activity, it is very difficult to
skew towards the Affected participant without first topicalizing that participant, or at least re-
mentioning it. The energy of the activity flows from Effector to Affected and thus the subparts of
the activity follow the same path. This is not true for the whole of the activity because by
definition the trajectory in a telic transitive has both an Initiating Point and an Ending Point,
hence both points are available semantically.
Narrative examples of the above points are as follows. In the first one, we see an
example of a telic transitive followed by another telic with the Predication as the thematic
participant of the sentence. The second excerpt shows the case of a telic followed by a clause in
which the object has become the subsequent topic
Uttering a battle-cry in his well-practiced falsetto, Cora swung his
blade and 0 cut down the opposing swordswoman. His contoured
breastplate emphasized features which were not truly present.
"Cora," Roger Zelazny
Polyta stepped over to Colleen and 0 rubbed the dog's head for
comfort. Colleen whined softly in response and 0 rubbed her cheek
against the woman s thigh.
Manannan s Isle, L.S. O'Brien
Excerpt three is a good example of telic transitives working with information value to produce a
text in which the anthropomorphized machines are cast as the villains. The third excerpt also
shows the range of exceptions to which text is prone.
One morning a rumble like thunder woke the little turtle. Men with
steam shovels and bulldozers were working in the clover fields. The
machines pushed over trees. They dug up clover. They tore down hills
and 0 filled up holes. The machines made so much noise that the turtle
couldn't hear the birds or the frogs.
"Little Turtle's Big Adventure," David Lee Harrison
Here, the first sentence sports an indefinite subject acting as Effector on the established
protagonist. The object, the little turtle, has low information value compared to the subject,
which is indefinite, Effector, and occupying the site of thematic continuity. This combination
fairly begs explanation and overwhelms RS as a deciding factor in participant topicality.
It is also interesting to note how similar in effect the semantics and pragmatics of this
construction is to inverse marking in proximate-obviative languages. For example, in Cree, an
Algonquian language, a third-person narrative must consistently mark proximate and obviative
participants. Briefly, the proximate participant is the one whom the reader is intended to keep
track of--it is the changes to the proximate participant which are of greatest concern. All other
participant are morphologically tagged as obviative. Literarily, the obviative encompasses roles
as diverse as "companion," "antagonist," and "narrative prop."
Pragmatically, there is also pressure put on the text to conflate "agent" and "proximate
participant." When this is not possible because the proximate participant is being acted upon,
special morphology is used to signal this: inverse markers. The inverse form is statistically rare
and marks those sentences in which the pragmatics of the proximate-obviative distinction
conflicts with the semantics of the event being communicated. Inevitably, these are points of
high drama during which the proximate participant faces some great challenges to be resolved
throughout the rest of the story.
English marks this kind of conflict as well, though not morphologically. Instead, various
semantic and syntactic structures are used to "re-arrange" the reader's perception of who the
"proximate" and "obviative" characters are. Semantically, this contrast is created through the
amounts and kinds of information given about a participant. The more the reader's knows about
the character's motivations, intention, history, and reactions to a given event, the more likely that
character is playing a "proximate" role. This is the literary protagonist; morphologically marked
in Cree and notionally tagged in English. The antagonist or narrative props are those
participants who act in an English narrative, but whose motivations, intentions, and history are
less known. All in all, the "bad guy" is the least known character in an English narrative.
In the "Turtle" text, these relationships are being established in the first sentence. This is
the second paragraph of the story and provides the motivating event for the conflict the
protagonist must resolve. Grammatically, this sentence features a force working upon the
protagonist. Now, it would have equally felicitous to have written the sentence One morning the
little turtle was awakened by a rumble like thunder. There is no grammatical discontinuity
whatsoever and the event of "waking up" is sufficiently familiar to children to ameliorate the
effects of using a passive. But the pragmatic force of the sentence would be lost; the sentence
as written succeeds in being dramatic and focal precisely because it flouts conventional
expectations of participant relationships. Like the inverse construction in Cree, and indefinite
Effector in English provides information on both the semantic and pragmatic levels of
3.4.2 Atelic Transitives
Atelic transitives provide the most profound perspective shifts in that they present only
one side of the story, so to speak. Functionally, atelic transitives are important for two reasons:
(1) the introduction of new participants, especially in verbal narratives; (2) close-focus scenes
when the action is presented in very small time periods.
In verbal narratives, DuBois (1987) demonstrates that one-place predicates occur for at
least two reasons, the introduction of new protagonists and semantic necessity. He offers
quantitative evidence from several studies to show that when speakers bring into a text a new
protagonist--a participant who will continue thematically and from whose perspective some part
of the tale is told--they do so overwhelmingly in one-place predicates. Other uses of one-place
predicates are dictated by semantic necessity, he claims. Speakers use them because they
have the right meaning.
In written narrative, the patterns are somewhat different. First, new participants may be
introduced into the text in any number of ways, though the most common are through telic
transitives (where the second participant is of lower RS) and atelic transitives. The atelic
transitive, though, embraces two possibilities. First, the classic scene-setting introduction which
begins with a description of a place and narrows down to a statement about the central
participant. This sort of introduction is the norm in novels and longer short stories, but is also
found in truly "short" short stories as well. The second use is not exactly atelic--the use of
opening conversation. In this case, as stated previously, it is difficult to know whether direct
speech is telic, atelic, or neither. It is most definitely a case of one-sided perspective which is
a feature of atelic transitives. Direct speech also strongly implies a second participant, someone
who is being addressed. What we find with stories that have conversation as their opening lines
is the same use of RS that we find in telic transitives. If one of the two conversationalists has a
higher RS, that participant is interpreted as the topical participant (in narrative terms, the
protagonist; but this is a limiting term since sometimes stories are about more than one person,
and when this is the case, the story is "about" them both, or even about an unseen discourse
topic). If they have equal RS, more of the story must take place to settle the difference. In
some cases, the reader comes to find that both of the participants are topical, and some third
character or some other event intervenes which confirms their equal role.
It is important to note at this point that I am not claiming that transitivity itself has
anything to do with the setting of a protagonist through direct speech. Rather, the fact that
conversation in narrative follows similar patterns as transitivity demonstrates that it is the
discourse functioning of perspective that is the driving force. In both cases, conversation and
clause structure, aspects of topicality are put to use in order to achieve thematic coherence.
"But you don't tax jockstraps!" Mirabel glared.
"No," said the king. "They're a necessity."
"For you. maybe. How do you expect me to fight without my bronze
"Men can fight without them," the king said. "It's far more
economical to hire men, anyway. Do you have any idea of what the
extra armor for the women in my army costs? I commissioned a military
cost-containment study, and my advisors said women's uniforms were
always running over budget." The king smirked at the queen, on her
throne a few feet away, and she smirked back. "'I've always said the
costs to society are too high if women leave their family and
"We'll see about this." Mirabel said. She would like to have seen
about it then and there, but the king's personal guards--all male this
morning, she noticed--looked too alert.
"And the Ladies of the Club," Elizabeth Moon
The above text is the opening paragraphs of the story. Two things establish Mirabel's
place as topical participant. First, she has highest RS; her proper name is used while both the
king and queen, participants of greater social power than Mirabel's, are named only through
definite reference. Second, Mirabel is grammatically topicalized in the final paragraph through
repeated pronominal reference. The king, on the other hand, though he is the second
conversationalist, never gets pronominalized and is consistently marked as a non-topical
participant because of this.
The next examples are taken from the opening lines of Star Trek: New Frontier, a series
of four novellas. All four books are related to one another not only by use of characters and
setting, but through close chronology. The four smaller books are in essence one long story.
Book One. House of Cards
Falkar regarded the remains of his troops and, as the blazing Xenex sun
beat down upon them. 0 decided to wax philosophical about the situation.
"It is not uncommon to desire killing a teenager," he said. "However, it is
not often that one feels the need to send soldiers to do the job."
Book Two, Into the Void
Elizabeth Paula Shelby, gaped at Admiral Edward Jellicoj. Hej could
not have gotten a more stunned reaction out of heri if he'd suddenly
ripped off hisj own face and revealed himself to be a Gorn wearing an
exceptionally clever disguise.
Book Three. The Two-Front War
"1 want to blow those bastards out of space." 0
The Excahbur had just been rocked by the opening salvo from the
black-and-silver ship that hung 100.000 kilometers to starboard.
Book Four. End Game
The refugees from the Cambon bleated in fear as they were herded into
a large auditorium. Pacing the front of the room was the woman whom
they knew to be Laheeraj...apparently, a high muck-a-muck in the
hierarchy of the world of Nelkar. Shej looked at them angrily, her fury
seeming to radiate from her in such a manner that is measurable by
The first excerpt begins with a telic transitive, though a fairly "shallow" one. It wouldn't
be grammatically impossible for this sentence to passivize, however it would be highly unlikely,
given the overall context. It is the opening sentence, the subject of the sentence is the Effector,
and the object is of lower RS. The reader expects that Falkar is the topical participant and this is
The second excerpt begins with, according to Rice (1987), a prepositional telic transitive.
Again, the sentence could grammatically passivize (though there is greater disagreement among
native speakers with prepositional telics). Further, should the sentence passivize, the following
sentence could still be used and would still make sense. This is an example of "deep"
transitivity. Nevertheless, the author has chosen to go with a straightforward telic with equal
participant RS, skewing reader expectations towards the object. And this is precisely what
happens. The following sentence features Jellico as sentential topic, albeit it in a somewhat
unusual example of dispersed transitivity-the path aspect is construed across the "mental"
domain which encompasses both intellectual and emotional states. Two features of thematic
coherence are preserved. First, the greater thematic continuity of topic is retained; even though
Shelby is not the subject of the second sentence, the statement is still about her reactions, not
his. Second, intra-clausal cohesion is maintained by following the pattern expected of telic
transitives with equal RS. Jellico does become the subject of the following sentence. In fact, the
author has made very effective use of the competing motivations of the subject and object roles
The third excerpt appears misleading until it is remembered that this is a series of books
in close chronological succession. Book Two ends on a cliff-hanger; Book Three begins
precisely where Two leaves off. Book Three begins with direct speech from Captain MacKenzie,
who is the central participant of the series; the four books are about him. Thus there is no
reference to him as speaker. Rather, the reader picks up the story just after the ship has been
hit. The passive used in the second sentence places MacKenzie's ship, the Excalibur, as topical
participant, the receiver of the action and also the object of the reader's sympathies. The
narrative continues from there. It is also clear here that scenes need not begin with any
particular kind of transitive clause. Functionally, the scene must begin and narrative exploits a
number of possible ploys to do so.
The fourth excerpt is an example of the atelic introduction. Although the reader knows
all the participants involved, Book Four begins at a new place (unlike Book Three). The
refugees are established as the topical participant with an atelic clause joined to a subordinate in
which they are the subject of a passive. Recall that with a telic transitive, any of the three
possible topicalizations are available: Effector, Affected, Predication. The same holds for the
passive which is simply a telic transitive with a topicalization switch. Thus, aspects of the scene
which are available include who is doing the herding of the refugees. That is what comes next.
The refugees are herded into an auditorium, information which is offered in the same clause.
Thus it is unlikely that the environment the scene is taking place in will be topicalized. The next
participant who is introduced is Laheera, whom the reader knows is the "bad guy" behind the
current troubles. She is still presented from the refugees' point of view; they as yet do not
understand that she is the antagonist. Hence she is consistently spoken of in either the passive
(sustaining the implication that she is the subject of someone else's actions/attention) or with
telic transitives, thereby keeping the refugees as part of the scene.
We have seen in the above texts that the task of introducing participants and managing
perspective takes place in narrative via a number of devices. Among those devises are the telic
and atelic transitive. Atelic transitives also serve a second function. DuBois states that one-
place predicates are also used when they are semantically appropriate. Even so, atelics serve a
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