Between May and July 2015 I ran a few different online surveys asking people to rate a lot of English sentences, some quite odd-sounding. This was done with a specific purpose in mind, and it seems only fair to try and explain that purpose and some of what I discovered to people who took part, particularly as I received an impressive number of respondents and several people seemed keen to discuss matters further. May I also take this opportunity to thank everybody who took part, and particularly those people who (without any encouragement from me) shared the surveys with their family, friends and colleagues, allowing me to collect even more useful data.
The point of the surveys was to consider different behaviours of different verbs. Specifically, I was interested in different intransitive verbs. Let me begin by explaining what I mean by that.
Most verbs are either transitive or intransitive. Transitive verbs have two "arguments", nouns or pronouns which play a role in the event or state the verb describes. For example:
Each of these verbs has two arguments, and so is transitive. Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, have only one argument:
|1.||Change of location||come, arrive, leave, fall …|
|2.||Change of state||become, decay, die, happen, grow …|
|3.||Continuation of a pre-existing state||stay, remain, last, survive, persist …|
|4.||Existence of state||be, belong, sit, seem …|
|5.||Uncontrolled process||tremble, skid, cough, rumble …|
|6.||Controlled process (motional)||swim, run, walk …|
|7.||Controlled process (non-motional)||work, play, talk …|
Across the world's languages, there are certain constructions that only occur with a subset of intransitive verbs. For example, in English, most people agree that you can say ✓Lucy outplayed Chris but not ✖Lucy outarrived Chris. The construction that prefixes out- to a start of a verb is allowed with a group of verbs that includes play but not arrive. We call these sorts of divisions between different verbs splits.
The idea behind Sorace's hierarchy given above is that it governs where such splits can and cannot occur. If intransitives are divided into two groups with respect to a certain construction (e.g. prefix out-), then (Sorace suggests) one group will consist of classes toward the top of the hierarchy and one of classes toward the bottom. The exact "cut-off point" may vary. For one construction it might be classes 1 and 2 that allow it, whereas all the other classes don't. Another might be allowed with classes 5–7 and not with classes 1–4. But in any case, it is predicted, only groups of neighbouring classes on the hierarchy behave in the same way. We don't expect to find a construction with classes 1 and 7 but not 2–6.
Sorace also suggests that there may be intermediate classes, towards the middle of the hierarchy, which show mixed behaviour: some verbs, or some speakers, allowing a given construction but not others.
However, Sorace only explores her ideas systematically with regard to a particular construction in some continental Western European languages. My surveys aimed to consider various splits affecting intransitive verbs in English in light of Sorace's predictions.
Here is what the results looked like for prefix out- (outarrive, outplay etc.):
As you can see, there's a fairly good correspondence with the hierarchy, although not a perfect one. The classes towards the right hand side of the graph tend to receive lower scores than those toward the left hand side: forms like ✖outarrive and ✖outdecay (from classes 1 and 2) are less accepted than ones like ✓outswim and ✓outplay (from classes 6 and 7).
Here's another example, the [verb] one's way into construction (sentences like Lucy worked her way into the upper echelons of university administration):
Again, there's quite a good correspondence. But there are complications, too, for example many class 2 verbs allow this construction quite freely, e.g. quite a lot of (though not all) speakers accept ✓?The vine grew its way into the house. This isn't what we expect, and something it's down to me to try and find an explanation for.
Sometimes things go the other way. For example, what we call "prenominal past participles" (a good example of alliteration) are most likely to be accepted in classes 1 and 2:
Prenominal past participles are found in phrases like ✓the frozen ice (which means "the ice which has frozen") and ✓the recently arrived recuits (which means "the recruits who have recently arrived")—although for some reason we can't just say ✖the arrived recruits. We also can't generally use them with verbs from classes 3–7, e.g. ✖the talked man [= "the man who has talked"].
|(6)||Lucy froze||the ice solid.|
Lucy is the subject of this sentence (as most of my sentences!) and the ice is the object. The adjective solid must describe the object, it can't describe the subject (Lucy may or may not actually be solid, but that's beside the point). Consider also Lucy hammered the metal flat, where flat describes final state of the object ("the metal"), not the subject ("Lucy", again), or Lucy burned the toast black, where black describes "the toast".
But what about the following?
|(6)||The ice froze solid.|
Here the ice is the subject, but we've seen that adjectives can only describe objects in this type of sentence. The Unaccusative Hypothesis tries to explain this by suggesting that the ice is actually an object at some "deeper" level, but surfaces as the "subject" for other reasons.
There is also other evidence that some intransitive subjects are really objects. Recall prenominal past participles. When these are used with transitives, they describe the objects of the equivalent sentence. So, we can take a sentence like Hannibal destroyed the city and produce ✓the destroyed city [= "the city which has been destroyed"], but not ✖the destroyed Hannibal [= "Hannibal who has destroyed something"]. But with some intransitive we can create prenominal past participles which describe the equivalent of the subject, like The leaves have fallen => ✓the fallen leaves. This suggests that these subjects, too, are really objects.
Or compare Lucy froze the ice and The ice froze. Exactly the same thing happens to the ice in both cases (it freezes). The fact that it's a object in the one case suggests further that it might also be an object in the second.
Not all intransitive verbs have this kind of "deep" object though. The subject of a verb like play or talk only ever behaves like a subject, and never like an object.
Most of the time, as we saw with some of the examples above, things line up quite well with the hierarchy. This suggests Sorace's prediction—verbs with objects coming closer to one end, those with "true" subjects coming closer to the other—holds up pretty well.
But there are still a few problems. Some verbs don't always behave exactly as predicted. Furthermore, the various diagnostic constructions which I tested in the survey don't tend to identify exactly the same split. This suggests a finer-grained analysis is needed, but that's pretty complex so I won't go into details.
Finally, some constructions don't seem to line up with the hierarchy at all. For example, some people have suggested that sentences of the type There arrived a man, There came a guest etc. are only possible with verbs that have underlying objects. Actually, though, there isn't any correlation with the hierarchy in this direction (and indeed very little correlation with the hierarchy at all):
Respondents to the survey were as likely to accept sentences with verbs from class 7 like ✓?There worked a man as those with verbs from class 1 like ✓?There arrived a man. This is not what the mainstream theory about this type of sentence predicts! My conclusion from this is that the acceptability of there sentences isn't actually sensitive to whether the subject is in any way object-like or not, but rather to some other factor. This is in line with what certain other researchers have suggested might, in fact, be the case.