This paper was presented at the Texas Linguistics Society's conference "Perspectives on Argument Structure" on March 6, 1999. The paper will soon be published in the Texas Linguistic Forum.

A conceptual semantic analysis of thematic structure in predicate nominals

Elaine J. Francis

In standard logic, predicate nominals (e.g., Max is a cat) are treated like other predicates. However, as Moro (1997) points out, predicate nominals are thematically unlike verbal predicates. Since many nouns either assign no thematic roles at all, or assign roles only to arguments within their own NP, it is unclear how the subject NP of a predicate nominal gets a thematic role. Moro argues that in such cases the subject NP receives no thematic role, thus violating the theta-criterion. Furthermore, he argues that sometimes deverbal nouns in predicate NPs can assign thematic roles to their main-clause subjects. This analysis results in some puzzling grammaticality restrictions which Moro describes but does not explain.

In this paper, I analyze predicate nominals as involving constructions which impose a classifying or identifying relationship between the main-clause subject and the predicate NP. Thus, the main-clause subject receives a thematic role from the construction, but not from the predicative noun. Besides maintaining the theta-criterion, this constructional analysis accounts semantically for the problematic grammaticality patterns which Moro describes. This analysis also explains the subtle semantic differences between deverbal nouns in predicate nominals and their verbal paraphrases. More generally, I present here a case in which the inadequacies of nouns for the function of main-clause predication are compensated for by the meaningful constructions in which they occur. Thus, I posit constructional compensation as one means by which conflicts between lexical items and their syntactic and semantic contexts are resolved.

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