5.2.2 Light verbs
The next class of verbs we will consider is rather small and seemingly insignificant, though we will see that they enable us to understand other VP structures in a more illuminating way. Jesperson (1965) first coined the term light verb to refer to verbs which, though they may have a fuller semantic usage in other contexts, can be used in combination with some other element, typically a noun or verb, where their contribution to the meaning of the whole construction is reduced in some way.
|(25)||a||we had a walk||=||we walked|
|b||they did a dance||=||they danced|
|c||I took a look||=||I looked|
|e||she made a comment||=||she commented|
|f||you should give it a kick||=||you should kick it|
In each of these examples, the italicised verb clearly contributes less of a meaning to the whole sentence than verbs usually do, the main predicative content coming from the deverbal noun in the complement position. However, it is not that these verbs contribute no semantic content to the whole construction as the two sides of the equals sign in (25) are not identical. This is made clear by the following examples:
|(26)||a||I took a bath||=||I bathed (myself)|
|b||I gave him a bath||=||I bathed him|
What light verbs actually contribute to the meaning of an expression is a complex and subtle issue. For example, it seems from (26) that they do have something to do with argument structure as the main difference here is to do with the number of arguments. The other examples in (25) demonstrate that the contribution of the light verb can affect aspect (do a dance verses dance) and duration (take a look verses look) of an event.
It seems that these verbs lie somewhere between thematic verbs with a full descriptive content and functional verbs which play no role in the thematic structure of the sentence. This is why they are called light verbs as they make a contribution to thematic and other aspects of semantic structure, though a ‘lighter’ one than fully thematic main verbs.
|(27)||a||I made the glass shatter||=||I shattered the glass|
|b||they got the door shut||=||they shut the door|
|c||we let the water run||=||we ran the water|
Again in these cases the light verbs do make a contribution to the meaning of the construction and so the sentences on either side of the equation are not identical. Interestingly, there seems to be different degrees to which these verbs contribute a meaning, with make in (27a) contributing very little and let in (27c) far more. Compare:
|(28)||a||I made the door close|
|b||I let the door close|
What is the structure of the VP containing a light verb? Let us concentrate on the cases in (27). In these we have the light verb itself with a subject to its left. To the right we appear to have a VP containing the main verb and its arguments. Suppose we assume that the main VP is a complement of the light verb. This would give us the structure:
The thematic relationships are straightforward. In the lower VP we have a situation fairly similar to the VP in the previous section. The theme argument, the vase, is in the specifier of the VP as we discovered previously. The verb break therefore looks fairly similar to an unaccusative verb (we will investigate the properties of this type of verb more fully in the next section). The specifier of the vP is interpreted as an agent and therefore the light verb is clearly not unaccusative. This is not surprising as unaccusative verbs either have no complement or prepositional ones, and here the light verb has a VP complement. In terms of the UTAH, we might therefore propose that the agent Θ-role is assigned to the specifier of a (light) verb which has a VP complement.
This is identical to what happens with unaccusative verbs (compare (31) with (22)): the theme subject receives no Case in its original VP internal position and hence has to move to the nominative subject position. So how does the theme get Case in (30)? The obvious difference is the presence of the light verb and therefore we might assume that it is this verb that is responsible for assigning accusative Case to the theme:
Consider the event structure expressed by this verbal complex. It is fairly clear that there is one (complex) event described by the light verb and thematic verb complex: there is just one clause here with one subject. The event, however, is made up of two sub-events: she does something and this causes the vase to break:
|(33)||e = e1 → e2||: e1 = ‘she did something’|
|e2 = ‘the vase broke’|
Note that the complex event structure is mirrored by the complex VP structure. There are two sub-events and two parts to the VP, an upper vP and a lower VP. Moreover, the vP corresponds to the first sub-event and the causative connection between the sub-events. The VP corresponds to the sub-event that results from the first. This indicates that there is a connection between event structure and syntactic structure, specifically the more complex the event structure, the more complex the syntactic structure used to represent it.