Noneventer nominals: A probe into argument structure

Beth Levin, Malka Rappaport

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


This paper introduces a distinction between-er nominals which inherit the argument structure of the base verb and those which do not. We call the first type ' x2018;event-er nominals' and the second ‘nonevent-er nominals' due to a systematic difference in interpretation, which we describe. We then use a systematic study of the possible referents of nonevent-er nominals related to various types of verbs to probe principles governing the organization of argument structure. Although a nonevent-er nominal may bear one of a wide range of semantic relations to the base verb, it most systematically refers to the argument that qualifies as the external argument of this verb. Thus the rule deriving the nominals refers not to particular semantic-role labels but rather to argument-structure configurations, consistent with the theory outlined in Rappaport and Levin (1988), Rappaport et al. (forthcoming).

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1067-1084
Number of pages18
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1988

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank Susan Rothstein and Jane Simpson for helpful discussion of the material presented here. This work was conducted as part of the Lexicon Project of the MIT Center for Cognitive Science. Support for the project was provided by a grant from the System Development Foundation. Correspondence address: Dr. Beth Levin, Department of Linguistics, Northwestern University, Evanston, 111. 60208, USA. In this article we focus on -er nominals derived from verbs, ignoring those that are derived from adjectives (foreigner, commoner, Northerner, stranger) and nouns (islander, New Yorker, Londoner), although we believe that a complete analysis of -er nominals should account for the derivation and interpretation of these as well. See Rappaport and Levin (i.p.) for discussion. A distinction must be made between nominals which do not inherit the internal arguments of the base verb and those which are based on the indefinite-object use of a verb, as is the case with nominals which refer to one who habituallyengages in some activity, such as writer, reader. We assume that these are derived from the indefinite-object use of these verbs: She writes books/She writes, He reads books/He reads. Notice that verbs that do not have an indefinite-object use also do not have related -er nominals that occur without complements. *She puts/*putter. Nonevent nominals can express arguments within compounds as in coffee-grinder or windshield wiper or through the use of a.for phrase as in á wiper for windshields. If our interpretation of the facts is correct, then the left member of a synthetic compound is not related to the head by the process of argument-structure satisfaction, contra Lieber (1983) and Sproat (1985). See Rappaport and Levin (i.p.) for further discussion. We believe there is a parallel between -er nominals and derived nominals. Our suggestion about the interpretation of -er nominals is reminiscent of the observation discussed recently in the work of Grimshaw (1986, 1988), Safir (1987), and Zubizarreta (1987) that derived nominals must receive an event interpretation when they take internal arguments. Thus the derived nominal destruction can have a nonevent interpretation but destruction of the city cannot. See Rappaport and Levin (i.p.) for further similarities between the two kinds of event nominals and for discussion of the implications of these observations for the theory of argument structure. See Rappaport and Levin (i.p.) for a discussion of why instrumental -er nominals do not show argument-structure inheritance.


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