Grafmiller Constructs Meaning

Come to the Greenberg room today at 3:30! As part of the Semantics and Pragmatics Workshop’s “The Construction of Meaning” series, our very own Jason Grafmiller will be giving a talk, “Modeling verb meaning with corpus data: A usage-based investigation of argument realization in English psych-verbs”

Quantitative analysis of the semantic properties of argument realization in English Object-Experiencer (ObjExp) verbs (e.g. amuse, amaze, frighten, fascinate) reveals a strong correlation between active/passive uses of different verbs and the degree of potency, or causal force, of the verb’s stimulus argument. Verbs frequently associated with highly potent stimuli occur more often in the active, while those more commonly associated with abstract stimuli occur more often in the passive. Furthermore, differences in potency reflect variation along other dimensions of transitivity, most notably eventivity-stativity (Hopper & Thompson 1980).

Approximately 8000 ObjExp sentences from the Corpus of Contemporary American English were manually coded for numerous syntactic and semantic features. Correspondence Analysis (CA) of the semantic properties associated with stimulus arguments aligns verbs along a dimension of potency that parallels the distribution of passive use across verbs, which vary considerably in their frequency of passivization: 18% (surprised) to 79% (fascinated). This effect is verified via a Logistic Regression analysis of verb passivization. CA also reveals that the suddenness of the emotion described influences active-passive alternations in Obj-Exp verbs, and is further related with the distribution of idiosyncratic prepositions across verbs (surprised at, frightened of ). Preposition choice is highly sensitive to the duration of the emotional state, such that verbs denoting sudden emotions occur with stimulus arguments in subject position or introduced by event-marking prepositions (by, at), while verbs describing emotions with gradual onset passivize more often, and involve stimulus arguments headed by idiosyncratic prepositions (of, with, about). Preposition choice is additionally influenced by the causal force of the stimulus: abstract stimuli favor the less eventive prepositions of, with, about, suggesting that such situations are conceptualized not as externally caused changes in the experiencer’s emotional state, but as an individual experiencing an emotional disposition toward a target (Pesetsky 1995). This fine-grained semantic analysis illuminates how the flexible nature of ObjExp verbs’ semantic representations—as both causative processes and attitudinal states (Croft 1993)—gives rise to variation in the syntactic realization of their stimulus arguments.