In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Valency Theory

  • Introduction
  • Introductions and Common Research
  • Noun, Adjective, and Other Types of Valency
  • Impact of Valency Theory and Contrastive Linguistics
  • Valency in Grammars
  • Valency Lexicography

Linguistics Valency Theory
Dagobert Höllein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0260


Valency theory is a grammatical theory that focuses on the verb or the predicate as its center. Modern valency theory was founded in 1959 by Lucien Tesnière and is based on the idea that verbs structure sentences by binding specific elements (complements, actants) in the same way as atoms do. Other, freely addable elements are not determined by the verb; these are called supplements, adjuncts, or circonstants. The basic items of valency theory are valency carriers, complements, and supplements. Take for example sentence (1), “He gave the book to Sandra in the library.” While the NPs He and the book and the PP to Sandra in sentence (1) are valency governed complements, the PP in the library is not governed. It is a supplement. Tesnière compares sentences to a stage play, with actors and requisites. The verb is considered the central valency carrier and the complements depend on the valency carrier. In contrast to other projective theories of grammar, such as generative grammar, the binary division of the sentence into subject and predicate is abolished: the prime element of a sentence is the verb, the subject is governed by the verb, and so are the other objects. In valency theory the number of complements that depend on the verb constitute its valency. There are monovalent (run), bivalent (build), and trivalent verbs (give). The verb run requires a subject to form a minimal sentence and to communicate a scenario, build requires a subject and direct object for this purpose, give a subject, direct, and indirect object. However, it is not necessary that every complement be realized. For instance, sentence (2): “He sold the car (to his neighbor).” A trivalent verb such as to sell can easily be realized with only two complements, as shown in example (2). Complements such as the directive complement in (2) (called facultative complements) and supplements differ by the fact that complements are determined in their form (syntactic valency) and their meaning (semantic valency) by the valency carrier, while supplements, such as temporal or local adjuncts, are not. The ability of a valency carrier to determine formal aspects, such as case marking of its complement(s), is subsumed under syntactic valency and the ability to determine semantic aspects, such as its thematic role, is called semantic valency/specificity.

Introductions and Common Research

While Herbst and Faulhaber 2008 is the current introduction to syntactic analysis that is based on valency theory, and Ágel 2013 is the most recent introductory online article, Welke 1988 provides the first introduction to valency theory. An additional introductory overview paired with a lead-in to main tasks of today’s valency theory is provided in Ágel and Fischer 2015. Apart from this introductory work, a considerable amount of work has been done in general with regards to the importance of valency theory. Tesnière 1959—along with its preliminary study Tesnière 1953—is still the most comprehensive monograph on valency theory. It captures central questions of valency theory and remains important for valency theory, especially for Uni-Dimensional Valency Theory. Ágel 2000 (cited under Multidimensional Valency Theory) focuses on general theoretical questions of valency theory. It summarizes major questions that valency struggled with since Tesnière and raises new ones, such as the question as to how to model valency changes. It can be read as an attempt to change valency theory from a static valency theory into a dynamic one. Ágel, et al. 2003–2006 compiles research data by leading valency scholars and provides a comprehensive overview concerning various approaches to valency theory, major questions, and the discipline’s history and its achievements. Most recently, Neveu and Roig 2022 is a volume that reassesses Tesnière’s standard work and discusses its significance and potential for contemporary linguistics.

  • Ágel, Vilmos. 2013. Valenztheorie. In WSK Online: Wörterbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft. Edited by Christa Dürscheid and Stefan J. Schierholz. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter.

    A comprehensive overview of valency theory from its beginnings to present-day discussions. Apart from introductory passages this article offers deep theoretical insights.

  • Ágel, Vilmos, Ludwig M. Eichinger, Hans-Werner Eroms, Peter Hellwig, Hans Jürgen Heringer, and Henning Lobin, eds. 2003–2006. Dependency and valency: An international handbook of contemporary research. Vols. 1 and 2. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    This extensive, multilingual standard work in valency theory addresses all aspects of valency theory. The collected papers range from introductory overviews to detailed analyses. It consists of two volumes which comprise 121 papers in English and German.

  • Ágel, Vilmos, and Klaus Fischer. 2015. Dependency grammar and valency theory. In The Oxford handbook of linguistic analysis. Edited by Bernd Heine and Heiko Narrog, 225–257. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides an overview of the theoretical assumptions, important problems, possibilities, and the research history of valency theory. Based on a German paper for the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of valency theory: Vilmos Ágel and Klaus Fischer, “50 Jahre Valenztheorie und Dependenzgrammatik.” Zeitschrift für germanistische Linguistik 38 [2010]): 249–290.

  • Herbst, Thomas, and Susen Faulhaber. 2008. Introduction to syntactic analysis: A valency approach. Tübingen, Germany: Narr.

    This introduction is valency theory based. The authors use a traditional system to distinguish between complements and supplements and do not use or cite multidimensional valency theory. Their contribution lies in introducing the term valency constructions (p. 139), which is innovative and indicates a modern understanding of valency theory by combining it with construction grammar.

  • Neveu, Franck, and Audrey Roig, eds. 2022. L’œuvre de Lucien Tesnière: Lectures contemporaines. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    Aims to highlight the topicality of Tesnière and the Éléments de syntaxe structurale by means of a reassessment. Each of the twenty-five chapters of the Éléments is evaluated and discussed in an anthology essay. Chapters are divided into the sections “Relecture des Éléments de syntaxe structurale,” “Lucien Tesnière et le structuralisme,” “Concepts tesniériens au service d’études syntaxiques, sémantiques et morphologiques,” and “Lucien Tesnière et l’enseignement de la grammaire.”

  • Tesnière, Lucien. 1953. Esquisse d’une syntaxe structurale. Paris: Klincksieck.

    A preliminary study of Tesnière 1959 that already includes important theoretical building blocks of Tesnière’s theory such as “translation” (la translation), which is similar to Chomskyan transformation avant la lettre. Furthermore, Tesnière also presents the key element of valency theory: The separation in complements (actants) and supplements (circonstants).

  • Tesnière, Lucien. 1959. Éléments de syntaxe structurale. Paris: Klincksieck.

    The publication that founded valency theory. It was published posthumously in 1959, five years after Tesnière’s death in 1954. Tesnière introduces and establishes valency theory and embeds it in a dependency framework. Republished as Éléments de syntaxe structurale (Paris: Klincksieck, 1965); reprinted in 1976; translated into German by Ulrich Engel: Grundzüge der strukturalen Syntax (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1980); and translated into English by Timothy Osborne and Sylvain Kahane: Elements of Structural Syntax (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015).

  • Welke, Klaus. 1988. Einführung in die Valenz- und Kasustheorie. Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut.

    Even before multidimensional valency theory was published, Welke developed a uni-dimensional model in a multi-level model of the valency environment. His system is based on complements being determined by the prototypical valence of verbs (Grundvalenz) and the concept of “significative semantics,” which is presented for the first time by Welke.

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