Beth Levin's English Verbs Classes and Alternations

Seminar Paper 2002 10 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1 Introduction
1.1 The structure of the book
1.2 The syntactic behaviour of a verb and its meaning

2 Diathesis Alternations
2.1 Transitivity-altering Alternations
2.2 Alternations Not Involving a Change in the Transitivity of the Verb
2.2.1 With/Against Alternation (Levin 1993:67)
2.3 Oblique Subject Alternations
2.4 Obligatory Passive
2.5 Summary: Alternations

3 Verb Classes

4 Conclusion

1 Introduction

1.1 The structure of the book

Levin’s book consists of two major parts:

I) providing a list of diathesis alternations
II) providing a list of verb classes

Part I: shows that in the relevant diathesis alternation is illustrated with respect to this class of verbs, it is accompanied by an annotation indicating that it applies to only some members of the class and that only the relevant verbs are listed

Part II: shows that when the relevant verb class is treated, the properties that do not apply to the whole class are flagged

Levin divides verbs into different classes that are determined by the meaning of the verbs:

We can find 57 different verb classes with a great variety of subcategories like:

1.) Verbs of putting - subcategories: a.) verbs of putting in a Spatial


b.) verbs of putting with a specified


2.) Verbs of removing 3.) v. o. sending and carrying

4.) v. o. Creation and Transformation 5.) Psych-Verbs (Psychological state)

6.) Weather Verbs etc. ...

Every verb class allows certain alternations. So once we know what kind of verb class a verb belongs to we can make a judgement about its alternations.

Levin describes eight different kind of alternations, containing many subclasses like:

1.) Transitivity Alternations

- subcategory: 1.1) Object of Transitive = Subject of Intransitive


- subsubcategories 1.1.2) Causative Alternations Causitave/ Inchoative Alternations Induced Action Alternation Other Insances of Causative Alternations

1.2 The syntactic behaviour of a verb and its meaning

“This work is guided by the assumption that the behaviour of verb, particularly with respect to the expression and interpretation of its arguments, is to a large extent determined by its meaning.” (Levin 1993)

[Levin tries to develop a system which enables the speaker to determine the behaviour of a verb by its meaning]

Levin points out that a native speaker is able to make subtle judgements about the syntactic behaviour of a verb. She hypothesises that it is the meaning of the verb which enables the speaker to make such judgements about a verb’s syntactic behaviour. //In particular, the ability of a verb to exist in certain syntactic frames or constructions (see examples below) is sensitive to certain components of meaning. The book aims to establish the relevant components of meaning, and thereby classify the English verbs into classes of shared behaviour and meaning.

Levin (1993:.. following ... 1987) uses the verb “gally” - a nearly obsolete whaling term little-known to native speakers - to illustrate this relationship between a verb’s meaning and its syntactic behaviour.

(1) a. The sailors gallied the whales.
b. The sailors saw the whales.
c. The sailors frightened the whales.

One native speaker, being unfamiliar with the verb ‘gally’, might assume it means something like ‘see’ (1b), whereas another native speaker, might equally assume it means something like ‘frighten’ (1c). Now consider the following examples:

(2) a. The sailors gallied the whales.
b. ?Whales gally easily.
c. Whales frighten/*see easily.

Example 2b demonstrates the so-called ‘middle construction’ - the subject of the intransitive use of the verb in (2b) corresponds to the object of the transitive use in (2a). To a speaker who believes ‘gally’ means something

like ‘see’, the middle construction is unacceptable - * Whales see easily. On the other hand, the speaker thinking that ‘gally’ means ‘frighten’ will find this construction absolutely acceptable. The acceptability of (2b) can therefore be directly related to a speaker’s assumptions concerning the meaning of ‘gally’.

In general, it can be shown that the middle construction (more generally, a syntactic frame of any kind) is available only to certain semantically defined verb classes. In particular, change-of-state verbs such as frighten, cut, open, spit and crush have middles, whereas other kinds of verbs such as see, consider and believe do not. Therefore knowing the meaning of a verb can be a key to make judgements about its behaviour. As Levin (1993:5) puts it: “Predictions about verb behaviour are feasible because particular syntactic properties are associated with verbs of a certain semantic type. The gally example and others like it suggest that general principles of grammar are at work, allowing the syntactic behaviour of a verb to be predicted from its meaning.”

2 Diathesis Alternations

We consider verbs as argument-taking elements. As seen in the above examples, these arguments can often be expressed in a variety of ways; this depends on the verb. In this section, we are interested in identifying which verbs may participate in diathesis alternations, which Levin (1993:2) characterises as “alternations in the expressions of arguments, sometimes accompanied by a change in meaning,” as well as transitivity alternations - alternations which affect a verb’s transitivity.



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Free University of Berlin – Anglistics
Beth Levin English Verbs Classes Alternations Seminar Verb




Title: Beth Levin's English Verbs Classes and Alternations