Argument structure

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The argument structure of a verb is the lexical information about the arguments of a (generally verbal) predicate and their semantic and syntactic properties.

"Thus argument structure is an interface between the semantics and syntax of predicators (which we may take to be verbs in the general case)... Argument structure encodes lexical information about the number of arguments, their syntactic type, and their hierarchical organization necessary for the mapping to syntactic structure." (Bresnan 2001:304)

Argument structure is what makes a lexical head induce argument positions in syntactic structure is called its argument structure.


the head open has an argument structure which induces obligatorily one argument position (Theme), and optionally two more (Agent and Instrument). This argument structure explains what the sentences in (i) have in common. The argument structure of open is usually indicated as in (ii)a or b.

(i)	John opened Bill's door (with his key)
	John's key opened Bill's door
	Bill's door opened
	Bill's door was opened (by John)
(ii)  a:  OPEN	(John	door	key)
	          |	 |       |
		Agent	Theme	Instrument
      b:  OPEN	<Ag, Th, Instr>

Sometimes argument structure is identified with theta-grid, sometimes they are distinguished.


Argument structure is generally seen as intermediate between semantic-role structure and syntactic-function structure. Semantic roles have a lot of information that is not (or hardly) relevant for the syntax, whereas argument structure concentrates on syntactically relevant information. But it is a lexical level of information in that it ignores syntactic-function-changing operations such as passivization. Thus, The dog bit the cat and The cat was bitten by the dog have different surface-syntactic grammatical relations, but the same argument structure.



The term argument structure arose in the early or mid 1980s in American linguistics, to render a concept that had long been known in European linguistics under the name of valence.


Utrecht Lexicon of Linguistics


  • Bresnan, Joan. 2001. Lexical-functional syntax. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Di Sciullo, A. M. and E. Williams 1987. On the Definition of Word, MIT-press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Grimshaw, J. 1990. Argument Structure, MIT-press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Jackendoff, R. 1990. Semantic Structures, Cambridge, MIT-Press.
  • Levin, B. and M. Rappaport 1986. The Formation of Adjectival Passives, Linguistic Inquiry 17, pp. 623-663
  • Scalise, S. 1984. Generative Morphology, Foris, Dordrecht.
  • Spencer, A. 1991. Morphological Theory, Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Williams, E. 1981b. Argument Structure and Morphology, The Linguistic Review 1, pp. 81-114