In This Article Argument Structure

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Antecedents and Analogues
  • Early Development
  • Syntacticized Approaches
  • Components of Argument Structure
  • Semantic Underpinnings
  • Manifestation across Lexical Categories

Linguistics Argument Structure
Beth Levin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0099


The term “argument structure” is used to refer to the lexical representation of argument-taking lexical items—typically verbs, but also nouns (especially nominalizations), adjectives, and even prepositions—that specifies sufficient information about these items’ arguments to allow their syntactic realization to be determined. An argument structure typically indicates the number of arguments a lexical item takes (e.g., the core participants in the eventuality a verb denotes), their syntactic expression, and their semantic relation to this lexical item. The notion of argument structure, which was first adopted by researchers working in the government-binding framework around 1980, is a descendant of the subcategorization frame of 1960s transformational grammar, which acknowledges that a lexical item’s argument-taking properties may be driven in part by its meaning. Although its purpose might seem straightforward, there is no single conception of argument structure. The understanding of the notion as a theoretical construct varies with a researcher’s theoretical predispositions, especially with respect to how semantics and syntax interface with each other. Such variation in usage is reflected in controversies over the nature of argument structure. Furthermore, certain approaches, particularly lexicalist approaches, assume morphosyntactic processes that affect a predicate’s argument-taking potential operate over argument structure, while other approaches take such processes to operate on syntactic configurations, and still others propose that both the syntax and the lexicon can be domains for such processes. Finally, certain researchers now suggest that the empirical domain subsumed under the label “argument structure” derives from other facets of the syntactic context that lexical items are found in, and some of them even question whether lexical items have an argument structure. Despite these controversies, “argument structure” is now adopted as a pretheoretical cover term to refer to those linguistic phenomena that involve the realization of a lexical item’s arguments, including morphosyntactic phenomena that affect the morphosyntactic realization of arguments. This use has become widespread and is not limited to researchers sharing the theoretical orientation of those who first introduced the term. This article emphasizes research on the notion of argument structure as a theoretical construct referring to a lexical representation that captures a lexical item’s argument-taking potential; thus, much of the work cited here is from the 1980s and early 1990s. The article also includes discussion of some major morphosyntactic phenomena discussed under the label “argument structure.”

Acknowledgments: for discussion of the material in this article or comments on earlier versions, the author is grateful to John Beavers, Eve Clark, Itamar Francez, Roey Gafter, Andrew Koontz-Garboden, Jason Grafmiller, Scott Grimm, Francesca Masini, Maria Polinsky, Malka Rappaport Hovav, Ivan Sag, Peter Sells, Shiao Wei Tham, and two anonymous reviewers.

General Overviews

The notion of argument structure is important enough to have merited chapters in handbooks, encyclopedias, and comparable works, as well as a textbook. Comrie 1993 includes a useful introduction to the notion of argument itself. Andrews 1988 presents an overview of changes in the conception of the lexical entries of verbs from the 1960s through the 1980s, covering a range of theoretical approaches; Ramchand 2014 also takes a historical perspective, covering developments within generative grammar through the minimalist program. Moving forward in time, Alsina 2006 focuses on lexicalist approaches to argument structure, as does Butt 2006. Harley 2010 introduces the treatment of argument structure phenomena in the minimalist program. Sadler and Spencer 1998 provides an introduction to argument structure as it interacts with certain morphosyntactic processes, a topic also treated in Alsina 2006. Williams 2015 provides a comprehensive introduction to argument structure from a compositional semantic perspective.

  • Alsina, Alex. 2006. Argument structure. In Encyclopedia of language and linguistics. 2d ed. Edited by Keith Brown, 461–468. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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    A brief introduction to argument structure emphasizing lexicalist approaches, particularly lexical functional grammar; also discusses morphosyntactic operations that affect a verb’s argument structure.

  • Andrews, Avery D. 1988. Lexical structure. In Linguistics: The Cambridge survey. Vol. 1, Linguistic theory: Foundations. Edited by Frederick J. Newmeyer, 60–88. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Surveys the changing conceptions of the lexical entries of verbs, beginning with transformational grammar and moving to the government-binding framework, generalized phrase structure grammar, generative semantics, lexical functional grammar, and relational grammar, as well as Montague grammar and categorial grammar.

  • Butt, Miriam. 2006. Theories of case. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139164696E-mail Citation »

    This textbook, whose goal is to review the notion of case in all its forms, includes a chapter on linking theories—another term for theories of the syntactic realization of arguments. This chapter includes concise introductions to two theories discussed in this article: lexical decomposition grammar and lexical functional grammar.

  • Comrie, Bernard. 1993. Argument structure. In Syntax: An international handbook of contemporary research. Vol. 1. Edited by Joachim Jacobs, Arnim von Stechow, Wolfgang Sternefeld, and Theo Vennemann, 903–914. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

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    Provides valuable discussion of the linguistic notion of argument, comparing it with the corresponding mathematical notion. Reviews the distinction between arguments (constituents in a sentence selected by its verb) and adjuncts (constituents that are not so selected), and the challenges arising in determining a given constituent’s status.

  • Harley, Heidi. 2010. A minimalist approach to argument structure. In The Oxford handbook of linguistic minimalism. Edited by Cedric Boeckx, 427–448. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Presents the approach to argument structure phenomena found in the minimalist program, which dispenses with argument structures for verbs and operations on argument structure in favor of elaborated syntactic structures where recurring argument types are found in the specifier positions of specific functional heads.

  • Ramchand, Gillian. 2014. Argument structure and argument structure alternations. In The Cambridge handbook of generative syntax. Edited by Marcel den Dikken, 265–321. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This handbook chapter reviews major argument structure phenomena in the context of the evolving understanding of syntactic theory within Chomskyan generative grammar. It pays particular attention to the nature of the lexicon and the architecture of argument structure representations.

  • Sadler, Louisa, and Andrew Spencer. 1998. Morphology and argument structure. In The handbook of morphology. Edited by Andrew Spencer and Arnold M. Zwicky, 206–236. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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    This contribution to a morphology handbook reviews the notion of argument structure and its interaction with a range of morphological processes, distinguishing morpholexical operations that affect a verb’s semantics and, thus, its argument structure from morphosyntactic operations that simply operate on a verb’s argument structure.

  • Williams, Alexander. 2015. Arguments in syntax and semantics. Key Topics in Syntax. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139042864E-mail Citation »

    This textbook builds a unified, compositional semantic picture of argument structure. Simultaneously, it introduces fundamental argument structure concepts and phenomena and reviews major approaches to key issues in the literature. It includes discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and case studies of the passive and resultative constructions.

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