Event Date: Wednesday, 14 September, 2022
Location: 12:00-13:00, Sala Riunioni, Pal. Venera (II piano)
Speaker: Prof. Florent Perek (University of Birmingham)
Title: Direct object definiteness and verb meaning: A corpus-based investigation
Abstract: Research on English and other languages typically makes two basic assumptions about the grammar of verbs and nouns. First, verbs are taken to determine the morphosyntactic category of the constituents they occur with (e.g. Tesnière 1959). Verb meanings in particular have been found to play a major role in argument realization (Levin 1993, Levin & Rappaport Hovav 2005). Second, (in)definiteness marking is seen as a discourse-pragmatic feature which (in English) is overtly and
obligatorily coded by determiners, in particular the articles the and a/an, and signals to the hearer
whether a referential NP should be familiar to them and/or has been talked about before (e.g. Hawkins 1978, Lyons 1999). Argument realization and definiteness marking are typically seen as separate and unrelated grammatical phenomena. This talk takes a new look at these two areas of grammar and uses corpus data to investigate the relation between verbs and the definiteness of one of their arguments, specifically the direct object. On the basis of a large corpus of 3.4 million direct object NPs extracted from the British National Corpus (XML Edition) by means of a dependency parser (Chen & Manning 2014), we find the relative frequency of definite vs. indefinite direct objects to vary widely according to the verb. This variation can be related to the meaning of the verb, as verbs with a similar meaning tend to occur to a similar extent with (in)definite direct objects, and the preference of verbs for (in)definite objects can often be explained by some of their semantic properties. Our data show that along with intertextual discourse reasons, the semantics of a particular verb seems to have an influence on the so-called ‘definiteness profile’ of the arguments it licenses. This suggests that argument realization and definiteness marking might not be as separate as it is usually assumed. From a usage-based point of view (e.g. Goldberg 2006, Perek 2015), we hypothesize that verbs project not only information about the morphosyntactic encoding of their arguments, but also expectations about their discourse status.
Florent Perek is a cognitive linguist, a quantitative corpus linguist, and a construction grammarian. His main research interests lie in the study of grammar from a cognitive and corpus linguistic perspective. He focuses in particular on how syntactic constructions are mentally represented, how they are learned, and how they change over time. He holds a PhD in English Linguistics from the University of Freiburg, Germany, under a co-tutelle (French joint PhD program) with the University of Lille, France. He has occupied postdoc positions in Basel, Switzerland, and Princeton, USA. He is now an Associate Professor (=Senior Lecturer) at the Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, UK.