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Choosing an event description: What a PropBank study reveals about the contrast between light verb constructions and counterpart synthetic verbs

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 April 2020

U.S. Army Research Laboratory
U.S. Army Research Laboratory


Light verb constructions (LVCs) in English and Romance languages are somewhat unique crosslinguistically because LVCs in these languages tend to have semantically similar synthetic verb counterparts (Zarco 1999): e.g. make an appearance and appear. This runs contrary to assumptions in linguistic theories that two competing forms are rarely maintained in a language unless they serve distinct purposes (e.g. Grice 1975). Why do English LVCs exist alongside counterpart synthetic verbs, especially given that synthetic verbs are arguably the more efficient form (Zipf 1949)? It has been proposed that LVCs serve an aspectual function (Prince 1972, Live 1973, Wierzbicka 1982, Tanabe 1999, Butt & Geuder 2001), as there are telic LVC counterparts (e.g. have a thought) of atelic verbs (e.g. think).  This proposal has been difficult to evaluate without a large-scale resource providing a markup of both LVCs and counterpart verbs. Addressing this gap in resources, the present research describes the development of guidelines for LVC annotation in the English PropBank (Bonial & Palmer 2015). The focus of this article is the subsequent analysis of these annotations, aimed at uncovering corpus evidence of what contexts call for the use of an LVC over a synthetic verb. The corpus study shows that the general function of LVCs is not an aspectual one and provides distributional evidence that the ease and variety with which LVCs can be modified is the general motivating factor for the use of an LVC.

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© U.S. Army Research Lab 2020. This is a work of the U.S. Government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States

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Thank you to Frank Brisard, Astrid De Wit and Laura Michaelis for organizing the ‘Beyond Time: Unifying Temporal and Non-Temporal Uses of Aspectual Constructions’ workshop which brought together experts to discuss research relating to aspect, including the present research, and was the impetus for this special issue of the Journal of Linguistics. Many thanks to Martha Palmer, Laura Michaelis, Bhuvana Narasimhan, Albert Kim and Suzanne Stevenson for input on this research as part of Bonial’s (2014) doctoral thesis. Thank you to Judith Klavans for her help in editing, as well as the three JL referees of this article.


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