Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Subject restrictions, particle verbs, and consumption verbs

Many people have noted that certain transitive verbs in English require intentional subjects:

(1) (Folli and Harley 2005, ex 1b)
a. The groom ate the wedding cake.
b.#The sea ate the beach.

(Example numbers from Folli and Harley 2005 come from the prepublication version available at Folli and Harley typically judge the inanimate subjects as "*," but I do not think it is appropriate to view them as ungrammatical. Rather, the sentence imputes intention to the subject, which is not usually appropriate with an inanimate subject. Hence, I prefer to mark them as "#.")

Both Folli and Harley (2005) and Ramchand (2008) claim that the class of verbs that require an intentional subject is the class of consumption verbs. This class is supposed to take an "incremental theme" object, the kind whose quantizedness in the sense of Krifka (1992) makes a difference for telicity:

(2)a. He ate three pieces of wedding cake in/??for an hour. (quantized object: telic)
b. He ate wedding cake for/??in an hour. (non-quantized object: atelic)

However, the class of verbs that require an intentional subject is clearly not the same as the class of consumption verbs. Here is the list of verbs given by Folli and Harley (2005):

(3) (Folli and Harley 2005, ex 24)
a.#The sea ate the beach.
b.#The wind carved the beach.
c.#Erosion nibbled the cliff.
d.#The washing machine chewed the laundry.

(4) (given for Italian by Folli and Harley 2005, ex 25)
a.#The sun drank the lake.
b.#Inflation sucked our savings.

While eat, carve, and drink take incremental theme objects, nibble, chew and suck do not:

(5)a. The child nibbled the cookie for/??in an hour. (quantized object but atelic)
b. The cowboy chewed two pieces of beef jerkey for/??in an hour. (quantized object but atelic)
c. The child sucked a lollipop for/??in an hour. (quantized object but atelic)

Conversely, there are consumption verbs like devour that take incremental themes, but have no subject restriction:

(6)a. I devoured two pies in/??for half an hour. (quantized object: telic)
b. I devoured pies for/??in half an hour. (non-quantized object: atelic)
c. The tsunami devoured the coastal resort.

Moreover, Folli and Harley (2005) claim that adding a particle or other resultative phrase makes the subject restriction disappear:

(7) (Folli and Harley 2005, ex 24)
a. The sea ate away the beach.
b. The wind carved the beach away.
c. Erosion nibbled away the cliff.
d. The washing machine chewed up the laundry.

(8) (given for Italian by Folli and Harley 2005, ex 25)
a. The sun drank up the lake.
b. Inflation sucked up our savings.

Folli and Harley therefore design a constructional theory of verb meaning wherein consumption verbs combine with a light verb, vDO, which requires animate agents. When they combine with a resultative particle, in contrast, they combine not with vDO but with vCAUSE, which requires only a causer, animate or inanimate.

However, it is not true that verb-particle combinations uniformly lack subject restrictions. Consider the consumption particle verb put away. With this verb, the subject restriction actually holds of the particle use, and not the non-particle use:

(9)a. His phone records put the suspect in Manhattan at 12:03 AM. (inanimate subject OK)
b. The groom put away thirteen helpings of wedding cake.
c.#The sea put away the beach. (=/= The sea ate up the beach.)

Other particle verbs also have subject restrictions:

(10)a. The authorities locked me up.
b.#The earthquake locked me up. (situation: I'm touring a jail with self-locking doors when an earthquake hits, causing the door of the cell I'm in to close)

(11)a. The gangster bumped off his rivals.
b.#The tsunami bumped off the sunbathers.

(12)a. The speaker explained away the exceptions.
b.#That theory explains away the exceptions. (OK if understand that theory to mean "advocates of that theory")

Therefore, the constructional theories designed by Folli and Harley (2005) and Ramchand (2008) will not work. They predict that all and only verbs that take incremental theme objects will show subject restrictions, and no verb-particle combination will. Both predictions are false. Moreover, Folli and Harley (2005) note that there are other verbs that require intentional subjects, but they offer no constructional account of these:

(13)a. Sue/#The tornado murdered someone. (Folli and Harley 2005, ex 21f)
b. The warden/#Sickness jailed Andrew. (Folli and Harley 2005, ex 21h)

Since these are not "consumption" verbs, they do not fall under Folli and Harley's theory. The quantizedness of their objects does make a difference for telicity, but in this they do not differ from close synonyms like kill and imprison, which have no subject restrictions:

(14)a. The tornado killed someone.
b. Sickness imprisoned Andrew.

Factually, then, subject restrictions do not line up nicely according to other verb classifications. Verbs that take incremental themes may or may not impose subject restrictions. Verb-particle combinations that encode something like a cause and a result state also may or may not impose subject restrictions. There seems to be no independent classification of verbal phenomena that correlates with subject restrictions.

Rather, it seems to me that a verb taking only an intentional subject is simply part of our lexical knowledge of that particular verb, in combination with world knowledge. Take the difference between kill and murder. Aspectually these two verbs are identical, but the former imposes no restriction on its subject while the latter does. This is clearly because of the lexical meaning of murder: it includes intentionality in its meaning. Turning to consumption verbs, verbs like eat also seem to require intentionality of their subjects; presumably eat means something like "consume with a mouth," which requires that its subject have a mouth that the subject controls. Adding a particle appears to refocus the meaning of the verb on the resulting state of the object, with the effect that the subject restrictions disappear. However, with put away the opposite happens: put by itself only involves changing (or specifying) something's location, with no intentionality involved. But adding away to create a resultative consumption verb adds the implication of desire and volition.

In summary, although there appear to be generalizations regarding which verbs impose restrictions on their subjects, this is not true; if one looks around, one discovers exceptions in every possible way.


Folli, Raffaella, and Heidi Harley (2005), "Flavors of v." In Paula Kempchinsky and Roumyana Slabakova, eds., Aspectual Inquiries, Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 95–120.

Krifka, Manfred (1992), "Thematic Relations as Links between Nominal Reference and Temporal Constitution." In Ivan Sag and Anna Szabolcsi, eds., Lexical Matters, Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, pp. 29–53.

Ramchand, Gillian Catriona (2008), Verb Meaning and the Lexicon: A First-Phase Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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