Grafmiller dissertation oral on Tuesday

Jason Grafmiller will be giving the oral presentation of his dissertation, “The Semantics of Syntactic Choice: An Analysis of English Emotion Verbs”, on Tuesday, June 18th, from 9:15-10:30 in the Greenberg Room (460-126). Jason will give a 30-45 minute presentation, followed by a question period.

Jason’s oral exam committee is Beth Levin (chair), Joan Bresnan, Meghan Sumner, and Tom Wasow; Mark Crimmins (Philosophy) will serve as the University oral exam chair.

Psychological verbs (psych-verbs) such as admire, amaze, fear, and frighten, have long been known to exhibit marked syntactic behavior in many languages. This behavior has inspired numerous analyses which assume that there is a unified explanation for the observed patterns. In this dissertation, I argue, as some others have, that the explanation is semantic in nature, and can be traced back to the ways in which humans conceptualize mental events and processes. I focus on the more problematic class of psych-verbs, the so-called Object-Experiencer (Obj-Exp) verbs (e.g. amaze, depress, frighten, fascinate). It is commonly argued that the special behavior of Obj-Exp verbs obtains only in their stative and/or nonagentive readings. Authors disagree about the relevance of agentivity, but almost all argue for some grammatically relevant distinction between stative and non-stative Obj-Exp verbs.

Through qualitative and quantitative analyses of the semantic properties of Obj-Exp verbs and their arguments, I explore a controversial topic in previous research: the interaction of stativity and passivization among different subclasses of Obj-Exp verbs in English. Analysis of corpus data shows that eventive and stative passives are available to all Obj-Exp verbs. The choice between active and passive uses is particularly sensitive to the causal role of the stimulus and the nature of the emotion denoted by the verb; together these determine the linguistic construal of the situation as either a causative process or an attitudinal state.

Additionally, I examine the variable (un-)acceptability of English Obj-Exp verbs in agentive contexts, and offer experimental and corpus data showing that a given verb’s acceptability in an agentive context directly correlates with the tendency for its emotion to be associated with a controllable antecedent. These facts argue against analyzing differences in agency among psych-verbs at the level of lexical semantic structure, and instead suggest treating agency as an inference arising from the total integration of semantic, syntactic, and contextual information in the clause.

Overall, the findings of these linguistic studies align well with recent theories developed in the psychological literature on emotion