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Eckhard Bick


5. The function of verbal constituents

It is the verbal constituent that integrates a clause's arguments, i.e. subject (S), objects (O) and predicative complements (C). Verbs are syntax, they project syntactic structure by the power of their valency. Typically, the verbal constituent predicates something of the clause internal subject (a, d), an anaphoric or unexpressed subject (b), - or "the real world" (c, e). This predication can reside in the verb itself (intransitive verbs like "trabalhar" or "dormir"), cf. (a, e), in a predicative complement (with copula verbs like "ser" or "estar"), cf. (d), or in the relation between verb and object (transitive verbs), cf. (b, f).

    1. O hipopótamo dormia.
    2. Planejava de viajar para Portugal.
    3. Deixa!
    4. Carmem era feliz.
    5. Chovia.
    6. Bateu no cachorro.
Thus, notwithstanding the fact that objects and predicatives are part of the predication, and that even adjuncts can predicate something of the subject, the verbal constituent is unique in being able to "predicate more than itself". We will emphasize this syntactic instrumentality by using the function term predicator (P) , as advocated in the English VISL system.

Predicators needn't consist of single verbs but can be complex verb phrases (vp). Complex predicators in Portuguese consist of verb chains headed by one or more auxiliaries (AUX) and "tailed" by a non-finite main verb (MV), possibly linked by auxiliary subordinators (SUBaux). Consider the following examples where AUX and MV have been introduced on the same level as the clause's argument and adjunct constituents, yielding - at least on the clause level - a "flat" notation akin to the word based Constraint Grammar function tags.

In (a) and (b) the notion of complex predicators and verb phrases (P:vp) can be easily introduced by adding a new node to the trees (b'). In (c) however, one of the objects (Odat) appears in the middle of the verb chain, - without itself belonging to the vp. Therefore, if there is to be a predicator constituent as an intermediate node, it will be disjunct (c') .

One of the possible functions of Portuguese prepositions is to subordinate constituents in a verb chain (or to link them, if the verb chain is viewed as functionally flat), a function we will call SUBaux (auxiliary subordinator) :

Given the fact that grammarians can't easily agree on a closed list of Portuguese auxiliaries, the hierarchical analysis of verb chains resulting from the notion of SUBaux, is an advantage since it yields the same structure (tree-branching) for prepositional objects of main verbs (Opiv) on the one hand (a), and auxiliary complements (AUX<) on the other hand (b). Thus only the labels have to be exchanged according to one's auxiliary theory, - not the constituent tree analysis as such. Due to this structural similarity with (a), (b) seems easier to defend than the complex predicator analysis (c), where all verbal material is lumped into one constituent, annihilating (a)'s tree-branching left of the preposition (de):

The same kind of constituent conflict arises for verb-chains without a preposition subordinator. Here, the conflict is between direct object (Oacc) - of a main verb - and auxiliary complement (AUX<) - of an auxiliary. The two labels can "co-exist" structurally in (a') and (b'), as long as there is a node in the tree to attach them to. The complex predicator analysis, however, while elegant if you have agreed on what an auxiliary is, completely disallows any object reading for comprar um novo carro in (c').

Finally there is one (and only one) type of verb chain with a conjunction as auxiliary subordinator:

or, with a complex predicator analysis:

Few grammarians would question the "auxiliarity" of ter que, but those who do, would argue for an (a'') analysis with the auxiliary complement (AUX<) of (b'') tagged as direct object (Oacc), and temos as main verb (MV), on the grounds that ter simply maintains its monotransitive valency, whether the object is a noun (Temos dinheiro) or a clause (Temos que admitir ...).

symbol category examples
P predicator
Hipopótamo come folhas.
Hipopótamo tem que dormir muito.
MV main verb
verbo principal
Bebe muita cerveja.
Todo dia mandava (1) o filho comprar (2) leite.
Hipopótamo tem que dormir muito.
AUX auxiliary
verbo auxiliar
A interface foi feita por uma equipe da Winsoft.
Estou lendo um romance português.
Hipopótamo tem que dormir muito.
AUX< auxiliary complement
complemento auxiliar
Hipopótamo tem que dormir muito.


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