July 01, 2006

Another bite at "eats like a meal"

Well, our staff syntacticians are still off at the beach, but in response to my post on the English (pseudo-) middle voice ("Diagnosing soup label syntax", 6/29/2006), John Lawler sent in some additional perspective. In a postscript to his note, John warned me against trusting the Wikipedia:

I notice that you quote from Wikipedia approvingly pretty often. While there's a lot on Wikipedia that's useful, and group editing can often clarify texts, I think it might be wise to warn people occasionally that there's a lot of nonsense about English grammar there, too, presented with the same authoritative tone as the true facts. I always warn my students that it's not to be trusted as a source for facts about the English language.

I'm afraid that you can say the same thing about many other sources, including more than a few refereed journal articles and scholarly books from respected publishers. Even web logs are sometimes wrong! But when we get something wrong or leave something out, people like John are quick to remind us.

In this case, John reminds us that "the 'Middle Alternation' is the first one mentioned in ... Beth Levin's indispensable "English Verb Classes and Alternations" (U. of Chicago Press 1993)", and quotes her examples:

(1)a  The butcher cuts the meat.
    b  The meat cuts easily.

 (2)a  The janitor broke the crystal. 
    b  Crystal breaks at the slightest touch.
 (3)a  Kelly adores French fabrics.
    b *French fabrics adore easily.

 (4)a  Joan knows the answer.
    b *The answer knows easily.

 (5)a  Bill pounded the metal.
    b *This metal won't pound.

 (6)a  Bill pounded the metal flat.
    b  This metal won't pound flat.

John observes that Beth considers the possible relationship between this "middle construction" and the "causative/inchoative" alternation involved in examples like "The chemist melted the sample" vs. "The sample melted", which John observes "is much larger and more productive and more variable". (I remember learning about the causative/inchoative patterns from George Lakoff in an undergraduate syntax course, back in paleolithic times when we inscribed syntactic rules on mastodon shoulder bones...).

Quoting from "English Verb Classes":

The intransitive variant of this alternation, the middle construction, is characterized by a lack of specific time reference and by an understood but unexpressed agent. More often than not, the middle construction includes an adverbial or modal element. These properties distinguish the middle alternation from the causative/inchoative alternation. In particular, the intransitive variant of the causative/inchoative alternation, the inchoative construction, need not have an understood agent, may have specific time reference, and does not have to include adverbial or modal elements.

However, there has been some debate in the literature about whether there really is a middle alternation that is distinct from the causative/inchoative alternation or whether there is only a single alternation. Verbs that display the causative/inchoative alternation are found in the middle construction, but there are a number of verbs found in the middle construction that do not display the causative/inchoative alternation. The middle alternation is described as being restricted to verbs with affected objects. This constraint is used to explain the data above involving 'pound': the object of this verb is not affected by the action of the verb, so that the verb is found in the middle construction only in the presence of a resultative phrase, which contributes a state that results from the action of pounding.

John adds:

Middle sentences are more likely than not to be generic, which fits in with the adverbial/modal element Beth mentions.

The presenting slogan ('The soup that eats like a meal') is weird because it violates the restriction to affected objects: eating something destroys it, which is not technically 'affecting' it within the meaning of the act. That's why it sounds strange, I think.

And, as for 'She takes a good picture', that's long been one of my best examples of exotic middle constructions, but the effect is simple enough is you consider 'take a picture (of)' as a compound transitive verb equivalent to 'photograph', with the 'of' appearing only on overt objects, like 'at' or 'to' with 'look at' or 'listen to'.

The Campbell's Soup slogan is more "striking" than "weird", it seems to me. To paraphrase Geoff Pullum's remark on Talk of the Nation the other day, I've seen weird, and this isn't it. But it's true, at least, that many verbs involved in such valency alternations (like melt or cut) are likely to have both patterns listed in their dictionary entries, whereas I haven't found a dictionary that bothers to give the "eats like a meal" pattern in its entry for eat.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 1, 2006 04:46 PM