Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bizarre noun swap

A reminder to hed writers that nouns don't always function interchangeably. In this case, the"restraint" isn't a thing that belongs to the victim. It's the name of the offense that the cop admitted. And there's plenty of room for either "Trooper admits felonious restraint" or "Trooper fined for felonious restraint."

No doubt one of the linguistics visitors can explain it more technically, but meanwhile -- grr.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

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9:41 AM, February 20, 2011  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

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5:49 PM, February 20, 2011  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I'll give it a (another) shot. Actually, this one almost works. But only almost.

Nouns that come from verbs take arguments similar to their verbs. For example, as "defeat" the verb takes a direct object (the theta role is 'theme') (and it's obligatory; there is no intransitive usage "they defeated" just doesn't work), "defeat" the noun also requires a 'theme', expressed in the genitive ('s or of).

What that means is that "someone's defeat" is semantically equal to 'defeat of someone", rather than 'by someone' which is how the theta role of 'agent' is expressed with nouns. Compare "Germany's defeat" and "the defeat of Germany" with "the defeat of Germany by the Allies", "Germany's defeat by the Allies", "the Allies' defeat of Germany" and "the Allies' defeat" - all of which work except the last, because we assign the theta role of 'theme' when there's only one specified.

Why "woman's restraint" isn't like "Allies' defeat" is that the verbs underlying those nouns are somewhat different. Yes, "restrain" also takes a direct object, but there's a very common usage in which that direct object is reflexive ("restrain yourself") and the noun "restraint" is - most of the time - used in that sense. The physical "restraint" (mostly plural) for a 'thing that restrains' is also more common than the one meaning 'act of restraining'

The noun "restraint" generally follows the most common usage of the verb "restrain", meaning the default theta role (the one we assign to the argument if there is only one expressed) is not theme, as with "defeat", but rather agent. (Lots of nouns are like this, e.g. "purchase" which is why "the dog's purchase" sounds so weird, conjuring up cartoons of web-savvy canines). What that means is that "woman's restraint" is semantically equal to "restraint by the woman", not "of the woman", and any reading of the latter will need to have the agent specifically named (in a 'by' phrase), just as any attempt to make the Allies the agent in "Allies' defeat" requires a specific naming of the theme in an 'of' phrase.

Because the underlying verb does have a straight transitive use, you can force "the woman's restraint" in a way you can't "the Allies' defeat", but it is forced, and it does require you to reread the sentence. It's bad writing.

These constructions are all licensed by the lexical verb, not the syntactic structure - meaning, "nouns don't always function interchangeably". Nor do verbs. Your thesaurus is a dangerous tool; it doesn't give you enough information. Substitute one element and you may have to tinker with all the surrounding arguments.

5:52 PM, February 20, 2011  

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