Category Archives: Intransitive Verbs

Semantic vs. Syntactic Arguments

In a previous post, playing the role of a would-be ordinary-language philosopher working in Tagalog (which language, to the the total consternation and perplexity of the Spanish grammarians during the 1600s, lacks the verb ‘to be’), I tried to provoke the suspicion that there is no single relation IS that could be pictured as follows:

IS (0)
THING PROPERTY
NUMBER( NAME(‘3’) ) PROPERTY( NAME(‘Prime’) )
CAR( NAME(‘Car With Serial Number 1235813’) ) PROPERTY( NAME(‘Red’) )
FLOWER( NAME (‘Rose With Barcode 3185321’) ) PROPERTY( NAME(‘Beautiful’) )
MINERAL_ITEM( NAME(‘Grain Of Salt Mentioned By Hegel’) ) PROPERTY( NAME(‘Cubical’) )
MINERAL_ITEM( NAME(‘Grain Of Salt Mentioned By Hegel’) ) PROPERTY( NAME(‘White’) )

Contra John Duns Scotus, for example, there is no single relation ‘contracts’ holding between a universal existing as always-already contracted into a particular. (To back up for a moment, the property denoted by NAME(‘three-sided’)is the universal denoted by NAME(‘three-sidedness’)existing as already contracted into a particular triangle.) Nor is there any other single relation which we can identify with the verb ‘is’. Or … letting my Tagalog ordinary-language suspicions run wild for the moment … so I will suppose.

There is no semantic relation (we are supposing) between the particular thing and the particular property.  But there is a syntactic relation between two names, pictured as follows;

IS (0)
THING PROPERTY
NAME(‘3’) NAME(‘Prime’)
NAME(‘Car With Serial Number 1235813’) NAME(‘Red’)
NAME(‘Rose With Barcode 3185321’) NAME(‘Beautiful’)
NAME(‘Grain Of Salt Mentioned By Hegel’) NAME(‘Cubical’)
NAME(‘Grain Of Salt Mentioned By Hegel’) NAME(‘White’)

Voila:  here is the distinction between semantic vs. syntactical arguments to a verb aka predicate that puzzled me in an earlier post.  NAME(‘3’) and NAME(‘Prime’) are syntactic predicates to the verb/predicate ‘is’.  NUMBER( NAME(‘3’) ) and PROPERTY( NAME(‘Prime’) ) are the semantic predicates to the verb ‘is’ — or would be if there were such a verb ‘is’ that took semantic arguments.

In the spirit of ‘let’s see how long I can get away with this’, let me propose the following chain of events for verbs such as eats that do take semantic arguments.  Consider a relation like the one pictured here:

EATS (0)
NAME_OF_PERSON_EATING NAME_OF_FOOD_ITEM_BEING_EATEN
NAME(‘Joe’) NAME(‘This egg’)
NAME(‘Khadija’) NAME(‘This souffle’)
NAME(‘Juan’) NAME(‘This fajita’)
NAME(‘Kha’) NAME(‘This bowl of Pho’)
NAME(‘Cliff’) NAME(‘This plate of Thai food with a 5-star Thai-spicy rating’)

When used in ordinary discourse, rather than mentioned as sentences with whatever syntactic properties, these tuples with their syntactic arguments get transformed into the following tuples with their semantic arguments:

EATS (0)
PERSON_EATING FOOD_ITEM_BEING_EATEN
PERSON( NAME(‘Joe’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This egg’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Khadija’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This souffle’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Juan’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This fajita’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Kha’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This bowl of Pho’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Cliff’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This plate of Thai food with a 5-star Thai-spicy rating’) )

If we think of the intransitive and transitive verbs ‘eats’ as really being the same verb on the semantic level (though it is not clear to me that they are the same), ‘Joe eats’ would be ‘Joe eats something’.  We can derive the corresponding tuple from  the EATS relation first by projecting on the attribute PERSON_EATING:

EATS(1)
PERSON_EATING FOOD_ITEM_EATEN
PERSON( NAME(‘Joe’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This egg’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Khadija’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This souffle’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Juan’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This fajita’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Kha’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This bowl of Pho’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Cliff’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This plate of Thai food with a 5-star Thai-spicy rating’) )

Then by doing a RESTRICT on Joe:

EATS(2)
PERSON_EATING FOOD_ITEM_EATEN
PERSON( NAME(‘Joe’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This egg’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Khadija’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This souffle’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Juan’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This fajita’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Kha’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This bowl of Pho’) )
PERSON( NAME(‘Cliff’) ) FOOD_ITEM( NAME(‘This plate of Thai food with a 5-star Thai-spicy rating’) )

The existence of verbs that are sometimes transitive, sometimes intransitive  is what motivated Santorini’s distinction between semantic and syntactic arguments to a verb.

Although I have labored over making this distinction for an embarrassing amount of time, it becomes quite easy to make once one has the notion of a SELECTOR available as a conceptual tool.

I’d like to mention as a final note that possibly we should think of the arguments of eats as always already nested inside the selectors PERSON and FOOD_ITEM; in other words, the names are always transparent, so to speak, letting us see through them the persons and food items, the semantic arguments, named.  It is only under special circumstances — say when the transparent denoting function of the sentence breaks down … maybe one has been staring at the sentence for too long — that the selectors PERSON and FOOD_ITEM get stripped away and we see the names, the syntactic arguments, doing the denoting.  (The sentences always seem to be breaking down this way for C.J. Date in his article “SOME OPERATORS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS” in his LOGIC AND DATABASES:  THE ROOTS OF RELATIONAL THEORY.  I get the funny feeling that for him a sentence or expression functions normally at first, but when he stares at it too long it suddenly loses its transparency and becomes an opaque relation between names.  See pages 42 and 45, and see if you get the same impression.)  This final note has been brought to you by the balefully compromised spirit of Martin Heidegger, which was nagging me as I wrote the above.

And now, in the spirit of Plato’s SYMPOSIUM, I would like to picture something a little less dry than the pictures of Relations shown above.  Today it is Kellan Lutz who is serving as my stepping stone, first, to the Relational Algebra, then, finally, to the form of Beauty itself:

Kellan_Lutz

(Rapturous sigh.  How can one live in this world when there is so much beauty in it?)

Update 12/16/2012:  Corrected some errors in the names of some of the Relations; tried to improve the flow of the writing.

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Semantic Vs. Syntactic Arguments, Their Real Or Alleged Distinction

When John runs, he is, whatever else he is doing, transferring energy to the ground beneath him.  But when we say ‘John runs’, it never seems to matter to us what is happening to the ground.  We are just interested in John’s running.  So ‘runs’ in ‘John runs’ is a one-place relation.  John is the sole “central participant” in the situation comprising his running, at least when … (see below).  RUNS(John).

When Joe eats, or Satish reads, sometimes all that matters to us is that Joe is eating, or that Satish is reading.  In that case, the corresponding relations are the one-place relations given by EATS(Joe) and READS(Satish).  But sometimes it does matter to us what Joe is eating, or what Satish is reading.   In that case, different relations come into play, namely, the two-place relations given by EATS(Joe, salmon fillet with barcode 1123581321) (why I impishly specify the barcode may or may not become clear in later posts; it is something dba-related), READS(Satish, Die Phaenomenologie Des Geistes).  What Joe is eating matters to us at the moment because he is discussing his plan to lose weight; what Satish is reading matters because we know that, given what he is reading, the wiring in his brain is in danger of becoming a tangled mess.  Likewise, sometimes it matters to use where John is running to.  John is running to a place where the tiger chasing him cannot easily turn him into a meal.  RUNS(John, place where the tiger cannot reach him, identified by GPS coordinates 95°23’29″W, 29°48’27″N).

So EATS is not a single verb, because it sometimes names a one-place relation, and sometimes a two-place relations.  Ditto READS and RUNS.

In Chapter 3, Some basic linguistic relations chapter, of their The syntax of natural language:  An online introduction using the Trees program Beatrice Santorini and Anthony Kroch distinguish between semantic arguments and syntactic arguments in an attempt to explain why these verbs sometimes take just one argument, sometimes two.   Semantic arguments are the “central participants in a situation.”  This is at least intuitively clear to me.

Syntactic arguments are…well, I am really  not clear what a syntactic argument is supposed to be.  “Syntactic arguments, on the other hand, are constituents that appear in particular syntactic positions (see Chapter 4 for further discussion)”, say Santorini and Kroch.  Doubtlessly what a syntactic argument is as distinct from a semantic argument will be completely clear to me, in fact, as obvious as dust, when I have digested Chapter 4, and everything I am saying now will become clearly beside the point.  But at the moment, I do not know what a syntactic argument is.

So for now, I will explain the ‘sometimes takes one argument, sometimes takes two arguments’ character of RUNS, EATS, and READS by claiming that EATS, for example, sometimes names a two-place relation and sometimes a one-place relation, depending upon the context.  EATS, RUNS, READS are ambiguous.

I am throwing this explanation up into the air, with the intention of seeing how long or how short a time it takes for it to get shot down by someone with a better grasp of linguistics.  Again, I am writing to learn.

Santorini and Kroch seem to think that, for example, EATS is a relation existing purely objectively, independently of contexts determined by what matters to us.  If I try to specify as completely as I can what eating comprises, I will include the fact there is an eater as well as food that goes into the eater’s alimentary system.  “eat denotes a relation between eaters and food.”  On the other hand, my attempt at a complete specification of what running comprises would include the fact that there is a runner as well as energy that the runner is transmitting to the ground.  Should I then say ‘runs denotes a relation between a runner and the ground’?  No, because what counts as a ‘central participant in a situation’ depends upon what matters to us, not on an exhaustive description of the situation by some perspectiveless, omniscient being for whom all aspects are equally important.  No mattering, no centrality.  No mattering, no relations named by verbs.  Different aspects of a situation that matter at a given time, different relations named by the same word, e.g., EATS, RUNS, READS.

That EATS, for example, may name different relations depending on the number of arguments it takes may get obscured a bit by the fact the flow of conversation can easily turn, at any moment, towards the topic of what Joe is eating.   That something is getting eaten is always very close to the surface when we say “Joe eats”, especially given that the flow of conversation can at any moment very easily turn towards the topic of what Joe is eating. It can easily become something that matters to us, requiring a different relation.   On the other hand, the flow of conversation never seems in danger of turning towards the energy that the ground is receiving when John runs.  So we never seem to need RUNS to name, in addition to RUNS(actor) and RUNS(actor, goal), the additional relation RUNS(actor, object getting transformed by receiving energy, goal).  Contrast this to THROWS, where what gets transformed by the reception of the throwing energy does usually matter to us.  THROWS( Travis, ball with barcode 1235, Tinh).  Travis throws the ball to Tinh.