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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published online by De Gruyter Mouton August 4, 2022

Grammatically relevant aspects of meaning and verbal polysemy

Louise McNally ORCID logo and Alexandra Anna Spalek ORCID logo
From the journal Linguistics


The debate over the relation between grammatically relevant (specifically, what we term event referential) and idiosyncratic aspects of verb meaning has produced a considerable literature. Some authors, such as Levin and Rappaport Hovav, have appealed to figurative uses of verbs as a source of data when the analysis of their literal uses has been controversial, a move that has sometimes been criticized. However, the question of whether figurative uses of verbs preserve the event referential properties of their literal counterparts and are therefore a valid source of data has not, to our knowledge, been systematically explored. We offer two detailed cross-linguistic case studies of Spanish and English verbs to provide an argument that figurative verb uses indeed are a reliable source of evidence for identifying event referential components of meaning: In each case study we find clear evidence for the preservation of these components across uses, indicating that these aspects of meaning both constrain and facilitate figurative uses of verbs.

1 Introduction

In a recent paper, Rappaport Hovav (2017) uses examples like (1b) (her (47)) to argue that drown lexically describes a state of submersion, rather than an event of dying in a particular manner. She specifically claims that the inchoative use of drown in (1a) (her (50b)) is derived from the stative use and that the inference of death is purely pragmatic; relatedly, she takes (1c) (her (21)) to describe at most metaphorical submersion, not a metaphorical process of dying.

John drowned in water.
The lettuce is drowning in oil.
She is drowning in fabric.

This argument belongs to an ongoing debate over the viability of Levin and Rappaport Hovav’s (1991: 147) Manner/Result Complementarity hypothesis, namely, that “there do not seem to be verbs in English that lexicalize both manner/means and result/direction components.”[1] Since at least their 1998 paper “Building Verb Meanings,” Levin and Rappaport Hovav have consistently characterized these components of meaning as “grammatically relevant” (as opposed to “idiosyncratic”). Although, as a reviewer notes, many kinds of meaning are arguably grammatically relevant, Levin and Rappaport Hovav’s discussion is clearly circumscribed to certain event referential aspects of meaning, and our use of the term ‘grammatically relevant’ in what follows is similarly restricted.[2]

In order for (1b) to bear on (1a) or (1c), there must be reason to assume that the aspects of meaning relevant for Manner/Result Complementarity are preserved across these uses. However, we have not been able to find any explicit argument that this assumption is, in fact, justified. Rappaport Hovav and Levin (1998: fn. 5), commenting on the “semantic bleaching” of verbs (which they exemplify with the examples the news broke and the baby fell asleep), simply note without any citation or argument that bleaching only ever involves “the loss or weakening of the idiosyncratic aspect of verb meaning…and…never involves removal of grammatically relevant aspects of verb meaning.” But the correctness of this claim cannot be considered self-evident, among other reasons because there has been disagreement about whether distinctly grammatically relevant aspects of meaning even exist (see, for example, Taylor 1996), and, if they do, how they are connected to the lexical entries for verbs (see, for example, references and comments in Rappaport Hovav [2017]).[3]

Our goal in this paper is to offer an explicit argument that grammatically relevant – specifically, event referential – aspects of verbal meaning are distinctly traceable in figurative polysemy.[4] Our evidence will come from two case studies comparing patterns of polysemy for pairs of verbs in English and Peninsular Spanish that we consider to be reliable translation equivalents, as explained in Section 3. The content associated with the members of these pairs is so similar that they overlap not only in uses that describe physical actions with concrete objects, but also significantly in their figurative uses. Crucially, however, the pairs also strikingly diverge in certain figurative uses. We will make the case that these latter differences reflect grammatically relevant, event referential aspects of meaning, including differences in entailments about participants such as whether they undergo change with a specific result, whether any change is incremental, and if so, how.

(2) and (3) offer one example of the sort of data that we will discuss. We observe that simple transitive cut and cortar ‘cut,’ can both describe not only changes in physical objects but also changes in flow-like activity, for example, traffic. However, cut quite generally describes reduction in these latter uses, rather than stopping (unless the particle off is added), while cortar entails stopping, as shown by the oddness of adding a modifier equivalent to by n%.[5]

They used a ceremonial sword to cut the cake.
Sergio Ruiz cortó la tarta nupcial
Sergio Ruiz cut the cake nuptial
‘Sergio Ruiz cut the wedding cake’
(El País)
it could cut traffic congestion (by as much as 90%).
una concentración que cortó el tráfico de la ciudad (??en un 15%)
a concentration that cut the traffic of the city      in a 15%
‘a demonstration that cut off traffic in the city (??by 15%)’
(El País)

To the extent that constraints on figurative polysemy such as the inability of cortar to express reduction can be attributed to event referential aspects of meaning, it should be possible to use figurative verb senses with confidence as a source of complementary data when disputes arise about those aspects of meaning for a given verb, as Rappaport Hovav did with drown.

In making our argument, we must emphasize that we are not making an argument for or against Manner/Result Complementarity, and we will not enter into this latter debate or the data in (1) in what follows. However, our findings should inform future debate on this hypothesis and have other theoretical implications as well. For example, we consider them challenging for theories that posit a radical separation of so-called “root” meaning (analogous to Levin and Rappaport Hovav’s “idiosyncratic” meaning) and grammatically relevant, event referential components of lexical meaning, as in Borer (2003) or Mateu and Acedo-Matellán (2012); see Section 4 for more on this point. We hope that tracing in some detail the source and role of event referential aspects of meaning in figurative polysemy will also contribute something that Gibbs (2009: 31) considers essential for Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Lakoff and Johnson 1980), and which is arguably useful for all current theories of figurative language: Data that will inform efforts to “better articulate what empirical hypotheses and experimental predictions arise from more linguistic analyses” of such language.

We proceed as follows. In Section 2 we provide some preliminary comments on how we will approach literal/figurative polysemy. We also describe more specifically how we understand the notion of “grammatically relevant, event referential” meaning and how we expect it to behave. In Section 3 we briefly motivate our comparative approach and present the case studies. Finally, Section 4 highlights some of the broader implications of this work.

2 Figurative language use and grammar: some preliminaries

The patterns of figurative language use that we discuss in Section 3 are fairly detailed and specific, and, as noted in the introduction, vary from language to language. As a result, we want to contextualize our approach to the data within a theory of figurative language that can speak to this detail of variation. Conceptual Metaphor Theory, because it focuses on identifying maximally general patterns of metaphorical mapping in human language, is not directly helpful in addressing this richness of detail and variation, although it certainly offers general insights into several of the shared aspects of the figurative language use that we observe (via mappings such as “Processes are movements,” or “Means are paths to destinations,” which fall under the strong version of Lakoff’s (1990) Invariance Hypothesis, on which abstract inferential patterns are claimed to be image-schematic). We therefore turn instead to Bowdle and Gentner’s (2005) “career of metaphor” theory, which offers a strategy for addressing highly specific figurative uses, with the added benefit of suggesting a model for how, over time, such uses lead to the conventionalization of new senses, i.e., figurative polysemy.

According to the career of metaphor theory, metaphor initially involves a comparison-based, analogical mapping from some features in the representation of a source domain (where a source domain might be, for example, the concept associated with an action producing a controlled separation in a physical object, which we might describe using cut), to that of a target domain (for example, the concept of a particular sort of disruption to a flowing movement). Bowdle and Gentner maintain that repeated figurative analogy from a given source to different target domains leads to the formation of a new, more abstract conceptual category shared by the source and targets, and along with this process, the conventionalization of a new, more abstract sense for the metaphorically-used expression.[6] This “career” – from creative figurative extension to the development of a more abstract, conventionalized sense that subsumes the original and extended uses – can be viewed as an account of how metaphorical categories of the sort postulated in categorization-based theories of metaphor (such as Conceptual Metaphor Theory) arise.

The career of metaphor theory can also shed light on why the distinction between ‘literal’ and ‘figurative’ senses can become blurred over time, and sometimes can only be diachronically reconstructed. Fortunately, it is not crucial in what follows for there to be a sharp distinction between these two notions, insofar as we aim to identify aspects of meaning that are consistently traceable across verb senses. Nonetheless, we will continue to employ the terms ‘literal’ and ‘figurative’ for convenience, roughly to describe uses that involve, respectively, physical actions involving concrete participants versus events that involve abstract (e.g., eventive) participants or that intuitively or demonstrably reflect an analogical mapping from an established sense.

Bowdle and Gentner illustrate their theory using nominal predicates; however, it can be applied to verbs as well. In principle, one could expect any aspect of an eventuality described by a verb to potentially serve as the basis for an analogical mapping that will support a figurative use of that verb. This includes features that may be typical of the type of eventuality the verb describes but which are considered outside of the purview of formal – though not conceptual – semantic theories (for example, the pragmatic attention-calling effect of crying out is carried over to examples such as this cries out for an explanation). However, it also includes properties of event reference more familiar to formal semanticists, such as whether what is described is a state, an activity, or a change of state; whether a caused event involves a volitional action or not; whether any change is scalar or not, etc. These latter properties – which we refer to hereafter collectively as event referential aspects (or components) of meaning – are often, if not always, expressed not by the verb alone, but rather by the verb crucially in conjunction with a given syntax. For example, setting aside cases involving direct pointing at an event in progress, a hearer of a use of cut will not know whether it expresses an agentively caused change of state, as in (2), above, or an inchoative change of state involving no agent, as in (4), except by considering the syntactic configuration in which the verb appears.

The rope cut on the rock below the ledge before Andrew loaded the belay bolt.

In this respect, event referential aspects of meaning are grammatically relevant: The grammar plays a key role in revealing to the hearer the sort of reference associated with any given use of a verb. Of course, grammar does not do this alone: it is the verb, and not the surface syntax, that tells us, for example, that (5a) entails a change of state while (5b) does not.

It grew.
It slept.

This latter fact highlights a second respect in which event referential aspects of meaning can be considered grammatically relevant: languages vary, within limits but nonetheless somewhat arbitrarily, in how their verb systems impose an individuation on the same (real world) event, much in the same way that languages vary in whether the noun used to describe a given entity is countable or not (consider, for example, uncountable furniture in English vs. countable mueble in Spanish). Crucially, this variation typically has consequences for the broader behavior of the verb within the language (for example, the alternations in which it participates, or its compatibility with certain sorts of modifiers).

To give just one example of cross-linguistic variation in event reference, Marín and McNally (2011) argue that while in English, the onsets of psychological states tend to be described using verbal expressions whose event reference corresponds to the transition from one state to another (and which are therefore aspectually dynamic, e.g. get bored), in Spanish the same situations tend to be described using expressions whose event reference is stative, and which capture the implicit transition by conventionally carrying the added requirement of referring to the initial moment of the state in question (e.g. aburrirse). Such subtle differences are not necessarily obvious at first glance, because it may not matter to the hearer for the purposes of recognizing a situation of someone getting bored whether it is categorized as a dynamic transition or as state including its onset. However, cross-linguistic variation in event reference can be detected after careful examination of the behavior of verbs in the context of the entire grammar of a language: Levin and Rappaport Hovav (1995) discussion of English blush and Italian arrossire versus Dutch blozen (drawing on observations in McClure [1990]) offers just one example.

The view of verb meaning sketched here suggests two specific expectations for figurative extension. If the analogical basis for a figurative extension does not involve event referential aspects of meaning, but rather involves some other aspect(s) of meaning, such as the stereotypical intended purpose of an action, for example, there should be no reason to conclude anything about the event reference of the figurative use from the literal source. We hypothesize that some idiomatic expressions – particularly partially- or fully-frozen ones such as to V one’s butt off – constitute relevant examples. Though figurative extensions of this sort lie outside the scope of our discussion, we make some connections to the literature on the behavior of these and other idioms in Section 4. In contrast, if the analogical basis for a figurative extension does involve event referential features of meaning, such as those that fall under theories of lexical aspect or scalar semantics, then we should be able to detect those features in the figurative use. Moreover, to the extent that event referential aspects of meaning condition the syntax in which a verb can appear, we expect these conditions on the syntax to carry over from the literal to the figurative uses. Any such differences should be detectable even when other aspects of the figurative extensions are the same due to similarities in other components of the meanings of the verbs.

While, presented in this way, this expectation may seem obvious, it is not what certain approaches to the verb syntax/semantics interface lead one to expect. For example, consider a theory on which the concepts or frames lexically associated with a verb are treated as distinct from event referential aspects of meaning, as suggested in the early work of Borer (e.g., 2003), in approaches to the verb syntax/semantics interface such as that in Mateu and Acedo-Matellán (2012), or perhaps in certain approaches to Construction Grammar. On such a theory, one could imagine the possibility of a figurative use for a verb that, on the one hand, reflected the conceptual content associated with the literal use, and yet, on the other, ignored event referential aspects of that use, pairing the verb instead with some other plausible syntax and event referential properties independently attested in the language. It is therefore not a trivial expectation that novel figurative uses of a verb should respect the event reference that is conventionally associated with its literal uses, as manifest in interpretive facts and the family of syntactic configurations in which the verb appears.

In the next section we present two case studies that bear out these expectations. Our results, if still incipient insofar as the number of cases we consider is small, offer a clear, theoretically-grounded motivation to consider figurative data, including (1b), (1c), and (3), to be informative for debates over the event referential analysis of their literal counterparts.

3 Variation in event reference and its implications for figurative uses

In order to test the extent to which specifically event referential properties of literal uses of verbs persist in figurative uses, we need to identify pairs (or sets) of verbs for whose literal uses event referential analyses have been independently established and which, in other respects, are as similar semantically as possible. While one might find such pairs within a single language, the natural tendency within any given language to divide linguistic labor among its expressions left us skeptical that good minimal pairs could be found. Examples such as those discussed in Marín and McNally (2011) as well as informal observation on our own part suggested to us that good candidates could be found in translation equivalents in distinct languages.

We began with a small set of candidate pairs of verbs from Spanish and English – languages that have been examined in some detail in the literature on lexical aspect and the verb syntax/semantics interface, especially since Talmy (1985). Our initial goal was to compare a range of pairs of verbs representing different well-studied categories, particularly verbs of different types of change of state and manner of motion or action. The pairs of verbs were chosen after extensive exploration in both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, as well as inspection of corpus data, to make sure that they were strongly and consistently associated with each other, both in established reference materials and in the domains of their observed uses. We additionally consulted the IDS database (Key and Comrie 2015), a typological lexical database designed for comparative studies. The pairs discussed here are counterparts in this database.

Eventually, due to space limitations, we have decided to present two case studies: sweep/barrer and cut/cortar, which are interesting for different reasons. The literal uses of sweep and barrer have received fairly consistent analyses in the literature, with the former classified as an activity verb and the latter as entailing a result.[7] As will become clear in Section 3.1, this is almost certainly due to the fact that sweep and barrer have different origins; however, given the potential of sweep to combine with resultative phrases, the overlap in the basic types of situations the two verbs are used to refer to is unquestionably substantial enough to support the expectation (confirmed in Section 3.1) that they should give rise to similar analogical extensions. Since language users are not necessarily aware of the history of the words they use, we did not see a strong reason to give more weight to the etymology of the words than to their demonstrated uses when choosing this pair. In sum, in the absence of a clear argument to the contrary, we consider sweep and barrer a valid pair for comparison.

In contrast, both cut and cortar have been analyzed as result verbs. However, while the semantics of cut has been the subject of some controversy due to the fact that it appears in a considerable variety of syntactic configurations, cortar has received little attention other than the accounts in Rodríguez Arrizabalaga (2003) and Spalek (2014), on both of which it is associated with aspectual (effectively, event referential) properties identical to those of romper ‘break.’ We show below that the differences between the figurative uses of this latter pair are naturally accounted for on the hypothesis that 1) typical transitive uses of cut entail only minimal scalar change, while cortar entails maximal scalar change; and 2) for independent reasons, a broader range of syntactic configurations is available to cut than to cortar, affording the former greater potential to participate in different kinds of event reference. In both case studies we proceed by first discussing the verb’s event referential properties when used literally and then illustrate in detail how differences in these properties correspond to contrasts in figurative use.

3.1 Activity and resulting change: sweep versus barrer

We begin with sweep and barrer. Rappaport Hovav and Levin (1998: 100) describe sweep as a verb of “surface contact through motion.” Their analysis focuses on the contact entailments rather than the motion ones, and in this and later work they group it with verbs like wipe. They analyze the verb as used in (6) as contributing only ‘manner’ or activity entailments, and not ‘result’ or change entailments, and this analysis, to our knowledge, is not controversial, among other reasons because both intransitively and simple transitively used sweep, such as (6a) and (6b), can be followed by a denial of change of state, such as (6c), without contradiction. Note, additionally, that sweep cannot occur with a locatum direct complement alone: in the absence of a resultative phrase or particle, (6d) can only be given the reading that the sand is the location over which the sweeping is carried out. However, the locatum can be expressed as the direct complement, whose removal is entailed, in the presence of a resultative, as in (6e).

   Patxi swept.
   Patxi swept the floor (with a broom).
   The floor remained exactly as it was.
#Patxi swept the sand.
   Patxi swept the sand away/off the floor/into a pile.

Sweep has an additional, less discussed, use as a verb of planar motion that allows inanimate subjects.[8] This use requires either a location direct complement or path prepositional phrase (contrast (7a)–(7b)); it does not entail any unexpressed agent controlling the movement, and (7b) contrasts with (6b) insofar as the latter does not entail that Patxi moves, although it does entail that something under Patxi’s control does. Note, further, that (7a) neither entails nor even implies that any locatum is present. Nonetheless, this motion use parallels that in (6e) in allowing a locatum direct complement in the company of a resultative phrase or particle (7c).

    The hammock swept (across) the floor.
??The hammock swept.
    The hammock swept the dust ??(away).

Summarizing, evidence in the prior literature indicates that in simple transitive form, sweep describes an activity; in this form, only the location participant can be the direct complement. The participant represented as the subject either moves or controls something that moves in planar fashion over the location. When sweep combines with a resultative particle or prepositional phrase, the combination describes a change of state; relevantly, this combination allows the locatum to appear as the direct complement argument, change in which is entailed.[9]

In contrast, analyses of simple transitive barrer, illustrated in (8), below, quite consistently associate it with change entailments, often simultaneously positing a manner or activity component as well.[10] For example, Auza and Maldonado (2005) classify barrer as an actividad-resultado ‘activity-result’ verb. They define an activity-result as “un evento homogéneo demarcado por un resultado final” (‘a homogeneous event delimited by an end result,’ p. 255). They contrast barrer with verbs like arreglar ‘fix,’ which entail a result but not any specific sort of homogeneous activity leading to the result.

Other authors who classify transitive barrer as entailing change include Mateu (2005), Agenjo Recuero (2019), Conde Noguerol (2013), and París (2015). Agenjo Recuero, in a discussion of the locative alternation in Spanish, places barrer among the verbos alternantes de desplazamiento (‘alternating verbs of displacement’), which she contrasts with verbos alternantes de manera de movimiento (‘alternating verbs of manner of movement’). She characterizes the verb as entailing simultaneous affectation of the location and the locatum, adding that it involves a particular type of contact (Agenjo Recuero 2019: Chapter 6, fn. 14); this latter feature, she hypothesizes, is linked to a more pronounced manner component in its meaning. The simultaneous affectation perhaps explains why barrer, unlike sweep, has a simple transitive use in which the locatum appears as the direct complement (8b), in addition to the location complement variant in (8a).

Patxi barrió el suelo (con una escoba).
Patxi swept the floor with a broom
‘Patxi swept the floor with a broom’
Patxi barrió la arena.
Patxi swept the sand
‘Patxi swept up the sand’

Barrer further differs from sweep in lacking a use equivalent to that in (7). (9a) is distinctly odd, and the few examples that we have found with e.g. escoba ‘broom’ as subject imply some sort of autonomous control (see (9b)).

??La hamaca barrió el suelo.
the hammock swept the floor
Si usted ve en un sueño que una escoba barre
if you see in a dream that a broom sweeps
el suelo por sí mismo…
the floor by itself
‘If you see in a dream that a broom sweeps the floor by itself…’

We return below to this contrast with sweep, which indicates, in line with Agenjo Recuero’s characterization, that barrer lacks a use as a simple verb of manner of movement.

With respect to change of state entailments, barrer shows mixed behavior. The verb has a simple intransitive use (10a) which seems difficult to distinguish from its intransitive English counterpart, and native speakers tell us that sentences like (10b), with the location as direct complement, are not contradictory.

Patxi barrió.
Patxi swept
‘Patxi swept’
Patxi barrió el suelo, pero quedó igual
Patxi swept the floor but stay.3sg.pst same
‘Patxi swept the floor, but it remained in the same condition’

We return to the intransitive (10a) when we discuss the figurative uses. With respect to transitive uses, Agenjo Recuero emphasizes that barrer patterns with change of state verbs like limpiar ‘clean’ and contrasts with activity verbs of contact that are pragmatically associated with removal, such as frotar ‘rub,’ in allowing a de prepositional phrase describing the result.[11]

Juan limpió la bola de cristal de huellas.
Juan cleaned the ball of crystal of fingerprints
‘Juan cleaned the crystal ball of fingerprints’
(Agenjo Recuero 2019: 252)
*Juan frotó la bola de cristal de huellas.
Juan rubbed the ball of crystal of fingerprints
Intended: Juan rubbed the crystal ball of fingerprints
(Agenjo Recuero 2019: 252)
Patxi barrió el suelo de migas.
Patxi swept the floor of crumbs
‘Patxi swept the floor of crumbs’

Thus, we can conclude that, at the very least, barrer has to have a genuine use for reference to entailed changes of state. If change were only implied, but not entailed, we would have no explanation for why (11b) is anomalous, given that frotar often implies change. Moreover, when the locatum is the object, change is entailed, as the oddness of (12) shows.

??Patxi barrió la arena, pero la arena quedó allí.
 Patxi swept the sand but the sand stayed there
 ?? ‘Patxi swept up the sand, but it remained there’

We could conceivably conclude that barrer is genuinely ambiguous between referring to a change of state and referring to a simple activity. However, we would have to stipulate that this ambiguity holds only when the location is the direct complement, which seems arbitrary. Moreover, the absence of a result entailment in (10b) has an alternative explanation that we consider more plausible, inspired in Martin and Schäfer (2017) analysis of so-called ‘zero-change’ readings of causative verbs.

Martin and Schäfer (2017), among others, have observed that certain ostensibly causative verbs, including English teach and a variety of verbs in French, have a reading that does not entail change: (13) (their (2a)) is not a contradiction.

Ivan taught me Russian, but I did not learn anything.

On their analysis, the result state of such verbs appears in the scope of a sublexical necessity modal (see Koenig and Davis [2001] for the notion of sublexical modality), whose modal base is restricted to causally successful worlds. Informally put, in all worlds that are causally successful, teaching entails learning, but the possibility of causally unsuccessful worlds is not excluded, in which teaching takes place but learning does not. We will adapt this idea to account for the asymmetry in result entailment between (10b) and (12), as we spell out below, effectively grouping the behavior of barrer with that of other verbs discussed by Martin and Schäfer.

Summarizing, the literature on barrer strongly supports analyzing its simple transitive use as describing a change of state specifically focused on the locatum or the location, resulting from a homogeneous activity, although the change is arguably sublexically modalized in the case of the location complement. The verb further contrasts with sweep in lacking a use describing a simple movement of the sort illustrated in (7). With this initial description of the two verbs in hand, we quickly present some working referential semantic representations for them, which we will take to our discussion of their figurative uses. These representations are directly inspired in Williams (2015), although he does not analyze these specific verbs.[12]

Williams’ analysis of the syntax/semantics for verbs has two distinguishing characteristics. First, he posits highly underspecified Agent and Patient thematic role types, close in spirit, if not identical, to Dowty’s (1991) Proto-roles, or the Actor and Undergoer macroroles of Role and Reference Grammar (Van Valin 1999). The Agent role type associated with subject position in English, understood in this sense, subsumes role types attributed to subject position that are distinguished in other literature, such as Instrument or Cause.[13] Williams appeals to pragmatic reasoning to capture many of the observations captured by positing explicit role types in other approaches; for example, world knowledge tells us that a human Agent is likely to have self-control properties that participants assigned the Instrument or Cause role on other analyses do not have, weakening the need to make a hard-coded distinction between Agent and Instrument or Cause associated with subject position (see Williams [2015] for detailed argumentation).

Second, Williams follows Pietroski (2000, 2005 in rejecting “Cause” (however defined more precisely) not only as a thematic role type but also as an event predicate in the analysis of certain English transitive expressions of change of state, contra much of the literature on verb syntax/semantics. Rather, such verbs are argued to describe what he calls processes that consist of two subevents: a Means and an End.[14] The subject and object arguments are assigned the thematic role types Agent and Patient, respectively, with respect to this process. The characteristics of these arguments that have led some researchers to posit distinct Cause and Theme role types alongside Agent and Patient (e.g., Folli and Harley [2008] via v do and v cause , or Alexiadou et al. [2015] via Voice agent and Voice cause heads) are claimed to be underspecified and to follow from the specific entailments associated with participating in a process consisting of a Means component and an End component. Williams develops this analysis specifically with resultative constructions in mind; he supports it by observing that there are empirical arguments against positing a distinct causing event, and that the relation between the initial subevent of a process – the Means – and the state that constitutes its End is not always intuitively describable as causing. We refer the reader to his work for additional discussion.

Against this background, our treatment of transitive sweep works as follows. Like Levin and Rappaport Hovav (1991), we assign it a simple (activity) event reference, as shown in (14).

λ y λ x λ e [ S w e e p ( e ) A g e n t ( e , x ) P a t i e n t ( e , y ) ]

The detailed lexical entailments of sweep must further ensure that the Agent (or something controlled by the Agent) enters into planar contact with the Patient. This will exclude the anomalous reading of sweep the sand, as the contact with the locatum in a sweeping event is not necessarily oriented in a planar fashion – for example, when one sweeps away a (standing) bottle, the sweeping instrument is not necessarily oriented in a planar fashion with respect to the locatum.

Since Williams does not distinguish between animate agents and inanimate causes, the entry in (14) can also be extended to account for the sentences in (7a) and (7c). Intransitive sweep can be analyzed by simply existentially binding off the Patient argument.

λ x λ e y [ S w e e p ( e ) A g e n t ( e , x ) P a t i e n t ( e , y ) ]

This will not immediately account for why (7b) is infelicitous in contrast to (6a), as there is no reason in principle it should be incompatible with this translation. We tentatively suggest (15) is conventionally restricted to describing the stereotypical sort of sweeping associated with intended cleaning: Fillmore (1986) observed similar sorts of idiosyncratic restrictions on possible senses in other cases of missing complements (e.g., give is restricted to describing charitable contribution when one or both of its complements are missing).

(15) is an appropriate candidate to serve as a Means in a description of a complex process like resultative sweep away; the resultative predicate contributes the description of the End subevent.[15] Williams composes Means and End in resultatives with the composition rule Komp shown in (16a). This is a conjunction rule that guarantees that the Means described by a predicate whose logical translation is mnemonically represented by M in (16a) brings about the change that results in the End described by a predicate whose logical translation is mnemonically represented by R, via the introduction of the relation K, whose entailments are spelled out in (16b) (see Williams [2015: 315], where he comments that “K relates a process e 1 to its end e 3, and also to an event e 2 by means of which it is achieved”; Means and End are semantic primitives encoding specific relations between processes and their parts).

K o m p ( λ x λ e [ M ( e ) A g e n t ( e , x ) ] , λ y λ e [ R ( e ) P a t i e n t ( e , y ) ] ) λ y λ x λ e 1 e 2 e 3 [ M ( e 2 ) R ( e 3 ) K ( e 1 , e 2 , e 3 ) A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) ]
K ( e 1 , e 2 , e 3 ) M e a n s ( e 1 , e 2 ) E n d ( e 1 , e 3 )

Williams’ account of resultatives further assumes two postulates designed to guarantee that the Agent of the process is the Agent of the Means (17a), and the Patient of the process is the Patient of the End (17b).

M e a n s ( e 1 , e 2 ) A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) A g e n t ( e 2 , x )
E n d ( e 1 , e 2 ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , x ) P a t i e n t ( e 2 , x )

(18) provides the representation for sweep away, where T(α) gives the logical representation of α. Other resultative structures involving sweep (e.g. sweep off, sweep out, sweep clean) can be composed in an analogous fashion.

K o m p ( T ( s w e e p ) , T ( a w a y ) ) λ y λ x λ e 1 e 2 e 3 [ z [ S w e e p ( e 2 )
P a t i e n t ( e 2 , z ) ] A w a y ( e 3 ) K ( e 1 , e 2 , e 3 ) A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) ]

We now turn to barrer. We treat transitive barrer as encoding lexically the same event reference produced by Komp in (18). This representation is the basis for both the locatum- and location-object variants; however, these will have to be minimally differentiated, as the patient of the process is not identical in the two cases. Our proposal appears in (19). We represent the End state using the binary predicate Barrido, a subtype of state of removal entailing thoroughness and resembling an effect of friction, which we specify with Locatum and Location participants.[16] Crucially, distinct variants of Barrido can be predicated of the location and the locatum, respectively. In addition, the End in the location-object variant is sublexically modalized under ρ , where ρ represents a stereotypical modal base.[17]

λ y λ x λ e 1 e 2 e 3 [ [ M e a n s ( e 1 , e 2 ) E n d ( e 1 , e 3 ) z [ B a r r i d o ( e 3 )
L o c a t u m ( e 3 , y ) L o c a t i o n ( e 3 , z ) ] A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) ]
λ y λ x λ e 1 e 2 [ M e a n s ( e 1 , e 2 ) ρ e 3 , z [ E n d ( e 1 , e 3 ) B a r r i d o ( e 3 ) L o c a t u m ( e 3 , z ) L o c a t i o n ( e 3 , y ) ] A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) ]

Despite the intuition in the literature cited above that barrer describes a homogeneous activity ending in the result state, we do not propose to specify the details of the Means because we are not convinced that there is any specific Means involved. It is possible to barrer not only with a broom, but also with objects such as one’s hand, a mop, a pool cleaner, or a small brush.[18]

En el caso de los suelos, bastará con barrer con
in the case of the floors suffice.3sg.fut with sweep with
un cepillo o una mopa.
a brush or a mop
‘In the case of floors, it’s enough to clean with a brush or a mop’
las partículas en suspensión se junten y decanten al fondo
the particles in suspension se join and precipitate to.the bottom
de la piscina, donde posteriormente las podremos barrer con
of the pool where after them can.1pl.fut sweep with
un limpiafondos.
a pool.cleaner
‘the suspended particles come together and precipitate to the bottom of the pool, where we can then eliminate them with a pool cleaner’
las etiquetas de cartón […] están cubiertas de un moho negro. Se
the labels of cardboard […] are covered of a mold black se
puede barrer con una simple brocha porque las salas se
can.3 sg.prs sweep with a simple brush because the rooms se
han ido secando y con ellas todo lo que contenían.
have been drying and with them all that that contained
‘the cardboard labels […] are covered with a black mold. It can be removed with a simple brush because the rooms have dried out over time and with them everything inside’

We propose instead to derive implications about the Means from the specification of the End state as a subtype of removal. Further details concerning the incremental nature of the changes involved could be specified, but as these will not be crucial in this section, we will not do so.

Summarizing, the resultative construction affords English speakers the possibility of using sweep to express the same sort of process that barrer can express on its own. However, the fact that the process is constructed syntactically in English has the consequence that complex process predicates involving sweep can be both more specific than their counterparts with barrer, due to the fact that different resultative predicates add different End entailments, as well flexible in different ways, since sweep by itself does not entail (intended) removal but rather only a (Means of) movement that is compatible with a variety of Ends.[19]

With this basic analysis in hand, we now turn to the figurative uses. We first observe that there are striking parallels in the figurative domains in which the two verbs are used. These parallels point to important similarities in the conceptual information associated with the verbs, which form the basis for analogical extensions in use. However, we expect that, if these extensions also involve event referential aspects of meaning, any differences in event reference between the two verbs should be traceable in the figurative uses. This is indeed what we find.

Consider first the contrast between Spanish and English in the use of these verbs to describe removal in a general way. Since the locatum is what is removed in the literal use (compare (8b)), such examples are possible, as expected, with simple transitive barrer. In contrast, in the case of sweep, a resultative is required in order to entail removal, as also happens with the literal use (recall (6d)):

la coalición rojiverde, formada por los antiguos rebeldes del
the coalition red-green, formed by the former rebels of.the
68, que barrió la era Kohl.
68, that swept the era Kohl
‘the red-green coalition, consisting of the former rebels of 68, which swept ??(away) the Kohl era’
Vendréis a trabajar con vuestros hermanos para preparar
come.2pl.fut to work with your brothers for prepare
esa revolución que barrerá todo vestigio de esclavitud.
that revolution that sweep.3sg.fut all vestige of slavery
‘You’ll come to work with your brothers to prepare that revolution that will sweep ??(away) all vestiges of slavery’
Tools that enable communication do not sweep ??(away) distrust, hatred and prejudice.
What we really need is a constitutional amendment to sweep ??(away) what the Supreme Court has done.

Note that, although the sweep examples in (21) all involve the resultative away, other resultatives appear in sentences that entail removal, such as in (22).

He came into power in 2004 and swept out a lot of old timers.
He swept off his hat.

While some of the events described by sentences like these could perhaps also be described using barrer (e.g., (22a)), others, such as (22b), cannot. Barrer is excluded from uses like (22b) because of the differences in the way reference to the removal event is constructed in the two languages. We have argued that barrer encodes change resulting from surface contact, while sweep merely encodes activity in the form of planar motion (recall (7a)), with any removal entailment resulting from combining the verb with a result state predicate. The fact that barrer does not express simple movement over a location (without contact) and that it lexically specifies that its result state should resemble the effect of removal by frictional contact conflicts with the features of the event described by (22b). Barrer is therefore unsuitable for reference to such events.[20]

Interestingly, we have also found cases where the reverse holds, namely that barrer can describe removal events that sweep cannot, again due to predictable differences in the event reference of the two verbs. Specifically, if the sort of planar motion required by sweep is pragmatically excluded, while the sort of result produced via frictional contact implied by barrer is not, removal is naturally expressed by barrer only. (23) offers an example.

Me puse la mano en el bolsillo y barrí
1sg.dat put.1sg.pst the hand in the pocket and sweep.1sg.pst
algunas monedas.
some coins
‘I put my hand in my pocket and ??swept/took out some coins.’

Sweep is a poor choice to describe the action in (23) because pockets in most cases do not afford room for planar motion; alternative verbs such as scoop better describe the pragmatically most likely movement. A related example is found in the absence of counterparts with swept (away/off/etc.) for certain uses of the participle barrido, such as un tornillo barrido ‘a stripped/??swept (off) screw’ – one from which the grooves on the head or the threads have been removed.

The contrasts in the event referential characteristics of sweep and barrer can also explain a nuance of difference in figurative uses of the two verbs in the domain of the passage/effect of meteorological forces. As we have shown (recall (6), (7), and (14)), sweep simply entails movement over a location, while barrer carries a sublexically modalized entailment of change of state in the location (recall (19b)) – in other words, while exceptions are possible, the process described by barrer should produces a change in all stereotypical circumstances. Now consider the following contrast, where the direct complement corresponds to the location in both languages:

A concert stage collapsed Saturday night as a powerful storm packing severe winds swept the fairgrounds.
The fire erupted Monday about 45 miles southeast of Los Angeles as warm, dry Santa Ana winds swept the region.
La tormenta del año pasado barrió un área de aguas abiertas
the storm of.the year past swept an area of waters open
‘Last year’s storm swept through an area of open water’
Instantes después se desplomó sobre nosotros un furioso mar de
instants after se collapsed over us a furious sea of
espuma que, pasando por sobre el puente, barrió la cubierta
foam which, passing over the bridge, swept the covering
de proa a popa.
from bow to stern
‘Moments later a furious sea of foam descended on us which, passing over the bridge, swept the deck from bow to stern’

Despite the shared figurative extension of both verbs to describe similar meteorological phenomena in (24), on our account the details of the event reference in these examples are nonetheless fundamentally different: only movement is entailed in English, while removal is entailed in Spanish. We therefore predict that it should be possible to find sweep in descriptions of meteorological phenomena where no implication of change in the location is even suggested – for example, when the force behind the movement is weak. In contrast, barrer should be odd in contexts where the meteorological force is not pragmatically compatible with potentially producing a removal-like change in the location. This prediction is borne out by contrasts such as the following: (25a) cannot be translated using barrer (25b):

a gentle breeze swept my face.
??una ligera brisa barrió la cara de la chica.
 a light breeze swept the face of the girl

Another domain of figurative use for sweep and barrer where some examples look strikingly similar, but where event referential differences also emerge, involves the description of victory (often in sports, elections, or awards):

estaba dispuesta a barrer los oros.
be.3sg.ipfv prepared to sweep the golds
‘she was prepared to pick up (i.e. win) all the gold medals’
(El País)
When [The Silence of the Lambs] swept the Oscars, the only other movies to win all five major awards were the screwball rom-com It Happened One Night and mental-ward drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Note, crucially, the contrasts in (27) and (28).

[El Madrid] barrió al Maccabi en el Palacio (79–53) y se
the Madrid swept to.the Maccabi in the Palace (79–53) and se
adelanta 1–0 en la serie.
advance 1–0 in the series
‘[Madrid] beat Maccabi in the Palace (79–53) and takes a 1-0 lead in the series’
??Madrid swept Maccabi 79–53…
To sweep a series at this time of year […] feels pretty good.
Indiana, un estado en el que Trump barrió a Clinton por 20
Indiana, a state in the that Trump swept to Clinton by 20
‘Indiana, a state in which Trump defeated Clinton by 20 points’
??Trump swept Clinton by 20 points.
Bernie Sanders sweeps the weekend’s primaries by huge margins in Alaska, Washington, and Hawaii.

The difference between the acceptability of the (a) examples in (27) and (28) versus the counterpart (b) examples follows given that the defeated opponent in the Spanish examples can be assigned the locatum role, analogous to the direct complement in (8b), and thus corresponds to that which is figuratively removed. This role is not available to this participant with sweep, which does not allow locatum direct complements in simple transitive uses. In the (c) examples (as in (26)), the direct complement must be mapped to the location role, which must be a two-dimensional surface, as with its literal counterpart in (6b). The distribution of a plurality of individual contests (sometimes represented metonymically by the opponent) can be conceived of as determining this surface. The victories themselves then correspond to the understood locatum that is ‘picked up.’ This option is available to barrer as well (as is plausibly the case in (26a)), but, as noted, it is not required.

The trace of contrasting event referential features is further visible in an additional contrast in (29): While barrer can be used intransitively to describe victory, sweep cannot, and indeed, we found no examples of active intransitive sweep with this use in COCA.

Los socialistas barrieron en dos provincias.
the socialists swept in two provinces
‘The Socialists won overwhelmingly in two provinces’
(El País)
??The Socialists swept.

We hypothesize that the literal intransitive use on which these examples are based involve suppressing the expression of the direct complement, but that they do not diverge from the transitive uses in the general type of their event reference. If this is correct, intransitive sweep only describes a Means with no entailed change – without a resultative phrase it lacks result (End) entailments; in contrast, barrer always carries End entailments, if sublexically modalized. (29a) therefore can describe a change while (29b) does not.

We close this section with a final set of event referential contrasts in figurative uses, this time in the domain of looking or searching:

Now that you know the Hubble classification scheme […], you can sweep the skies for galaxies and scrutinize them.
Intenté pillar la cometa […] pero no tuve éxito
try.1sg.pst catch the comet but not have.1sg.pst success
a pesar de barrer el horizonte oeste una y otra vez.
despite sweep the horizon west one and another time
‘I tried to catch the comet […] but I wasn’t successful despite sweeping the western horizon for it over and over again’

These uses of sweep and barrer always involve the searched location, rather than any searched-for entity, as the direct complement. The obvious analogy involves mapping the searched area to the location and any searched-for object to the locatum. Recall from the literal use that with a location direct complement, neither verb ultimately requires a change in the searched location (cf. (6c) for English and (10b) for Spanish), if not for the same reason. In this respect, the verbs resemble search and its Spanish counterpart buscar in allowing for, but not entailing, finding something.

However, we also expect a difference between the two verbs. The event reference we propose for barrer always involves a locatum (cf. (19)), even if it is not explicitly mentioned. If the figurative use preserves event referential features, we expect there to always be a counterpart of the locatum in the use of barrer to describe searching – namely, a searched-for object – even if any change in it (e.g., being found) is sublexically modalized. In contrast, the event reference of simple transitive sweep does not involve a locatum, even if one might be pragmatically inferred (cf. (14)). It should thus be possible for visual sweeping to lack any object of search, while in the case of barrer, an object of search should be required, even if it turns out not to be present. This prediction seems to be correct. In English we find examples such as (31), which suggests that the Agent is not looking for anything in particular.

His red, unfocused eyes swept the bar and settled on me.

Spanish speakers we have consulted tell us that it is odd to describe such events using barrer. On the contrary, examples with this verb consistently imply an intended object of search. The examples in (32) are representative.

barrí el lugar con la mirada, buscando a nuestros
sweep.1sg.pst the place with the look, searching to our
‘I swept the place with my eyes in search of our enemies’
cuando escaneamos o hacemos scan de un fragmento, los
when scan.1pl.prs or make.1pl.prs scan of a fragment the
ojos barren el texto de modo sistemático, escrutando
eyes sweep.3pl.prs the text of mode sistematic scrutinizing
cualquier detalle que responda al propósito.
any detail that respond.3sg.subj to the purpose
‘When we scan or make a scan of a fragment, our eyes sweep the text systematically, scrutinizing for any detail that could serve our purpose.’

Summarizing, this case study of sweep and barrer shows very clearly how two verbs associated with extremely similar conceptual content, as manifest in the similarities in their literal and figurative uses, can nonetheless diverge in ways that can be directly traced to a difference in grammatically relevant, event referential aspects of meaning.

3.2 Incremental change: cut versus cortar

We now turn to cut and cortar. We begin with the latter, as its analysis is less controversial. Spalek (2014), in line with Rodríguez Arrizabalaga (2003), argues that cortar describes a simple change of state without any specification of the activity or manner (or Means, as we call it here) in which it is produced. Though often an agent is pragmatically required (contrast (33a)–(33b)), examples like (33c) show that one is not essential.[21]

Sergio Ruiz cortó la tarta nupcial.
Sergio Ruiz cut the cake nuptial
‘Sergio Ruiz cut the wedding cake’
(El País)
??La tarta nupcial se cortó.
the cake nupcial se cut
nunca el aire es más aire que cuando insufla la piel luminosa
never the air is more aire than when inflates the skin luminous
de un cometa. !‘Qué importa si se cortó el hilo!
of a kite what matters if se cut the string
‘never is the air more itself than when it inflates the luminous skin of a kite. What does it matter if the string snaps?’

Simple transitive cortar entails complete transection. Neither of the following examples would therefore be true if only an incision was made in the tree, ears or tail.[22]

cortó un árbol […] y en su lugar plantó un pino.
cut.3sg.pst a tree […] and in its place plant.3sg.pst a pine
‘he cut down a tree […] and in its place planted a pine’
indultó un toro y cortó cinco orejas y un rabo.
pardon.3sg.pst a bull and cut five ears and a tail
‘he pardoned a bull and cut off five ears and a tail’

The transection entailment can be defeated only by an explicit modifier such as parcialmente, as in (35); note that in English, the modifier is not only unnecessary, but would even be odd.

El piloto […] cortó parcialmente la mano del viandante […] El
the driver […] cut partially the hand of.the pedestrian […] the
corte […] alcanzó el nervio y el hueso de su mano izquierda.
cut […] reached the nerve and the bone of his hand left
‘The driver cut the pedestrian’s hand […] The cut […] reached the nerve and bone of his left hand’
Es tan simple como cortar parcialmente la masa con
be.3sg.prs so simple as cut partially the dough with
unas tijeras y desplazar alternativamente el trozo de masa a
some scissors and displace alternatively the piece of dough to
un lado y al otro.
one side and to.the other
‘It’s as simple as cutting the dough with a scissors and bending the pieces of dough to alternating sides’

These examples indicate that if there is incremental progress in the cutting event described by cortar, it is measured as a function of the proportion of the patient that is transected.

The analysis of cut has a longer and more controversial history. Early studies claimed that the basic syntactic structure for cut is transitive (e.g., (36a), Guerssel et al. 1985; Haspelmath 1993). Guerssel et al. (1985) and Levin (1993), among others, supported this claim based on apparent agent-oriented entailments that are incompatible with the inchoative variant (see (36b)).

They used a ceremonial sword to cut the cake.
??The cake cut.
 (Levin and Rappaport Hovav 2013: (10))

In contrast, Bohnemeyer (2007), Rappaport Hovav and Levin (2010), and Levin and Rappaport Hovav (2013) have argued, based on examples like (37), that cut, like cortar, entails a change of state without necessarily specifying the means by which it is produced.

Suddenly, the rope cut and he fell down the well.
(Levin and Rappaport Hovav 2013: (12d))

Nonetheless, as the contrasts between the Spanish examples and the English renderings in (34)–(35) indicate, cut, unlike cortar, does not entail full transection, although it is compatible with it (as implied in (36a)), and it is the default interpretation when the cut object is extremely thin or narrow, as with hair, rope, or ribbon.

More important differences between cortar and cut emerge at the syntactic level, due to the fact that English has a highly productive resultative construction, including what we will refer to as unselected object resultatives, whereas Spanish has a very limited resultative construction, with no unselected object variant (see, e.g., Mateu [2012] for recent discussion; see also Napoli [1992] on Italian, which is very similar to Spanish). Descriptively speaking, both languages allow resultatives to further specify the result state of the cut object, as in (38)–(39).

Prep your carrots by cutting them in halves.
Cortó el arrollado de pollo en finas rodajas.
cut.3sg.pst the roll of chicken in fine slices
‘(S)he cut the stuffed chicken roll in thin slices’

However, only English also has resultatives such as those in (40a)–(40b) (cp. (40c)), where the result phrase describes a state of directionally-oriented detachment from an entity to which the cut participant is originally connected.[23]

You can always cut off the parts with ‘freezer burn’.
Cut out the child’s adenoids and the trouble will cease.
??cortar las adenoides fuera.
cut.inf the adenoids out
Intended reading: (40b)

Martínez Vazquez (2015) argues that resultative constructions conveying directional movement are possible in Spanish only when either the verb or the result phrase entails or strongly implies directed motion. She notes that Spanish lacks inherently directional prepositions like off or out: fuera is purely locative. Since we have no evidence of implied directional movement with cortar, a resultative interpretation of (40c) is anomalous. Recall from (34b) that simple transitive cortar describes this sort of cutting without need for the particle: Transection entails detachment, and any directionality is presumably pragmatically inferred.[24]

In unselected object resultatives, as in (41), the direct complement participant does not suffer the cut at all – in this sense, it is “unselected.” Rather, some contextually understood entity is cut, with the result that the direct complement participant ends up in the state described by the resultative phrase. Cortar cannot be used in this way (see (42)).[25]

She and two others are accused of taking the dog […] after cutting it loose from a tree.
one can cut a path into a hollow area in the middle of a [bamboo] grove, creating a peaceful sanctuary.
I cut a hole in the loaf and put the money in.
??cortaron el perro suelto/libre/del arbol.
 cut.3pl.pst the dog loose/free/of.the tree
??cortar un agujero en el pan.
 cut.inf a hole in the bread

Our analysis of simple transitive cortar and cut builds on Williams’ (2015: 227) analysis of melt, reproduced in (43) with non-crucial details changed. (43) differs from the analyses of sweep and barrer in introducing no Means subevent entailment: e 1 is the larger event that has an End as a subpart; the postulate in (17b) guarantees that the Patient of e 1 is also the Patient of the End.

λ y λ x λ e 1 [ A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) e 2 [ E n d ( e 1 , e 2 ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) M e l t e d ( e 2 ) ] ]

The absence of a Means subevent entailment will be connected to the conclusion of earlier authors that cut and cortar are simple change of state verbs. Recall that on Williams’ analysis the Agent role encompasses both nonvolitional and volitional contributors to change; controlled activity will thus be compatible with this sort of event reference when pragmatically appropriate.

The characterization of the result state will be crucial to capturing the similarities and differences between the two verbs. The data we have seen so far, especially in the contrasts in (34), (35), and (40), suggest that incrementality plays a key role. We therefore specify that the relation between the events e 1 denoted by cut and cortar and the End e 2 is incremental, as defined in (44), from Rothstein (2004: 107–108), with minor edits.[26]

I N C R ( e 1 , e 2 , C ( e 2 ) ) (“e 1 is incrementally related to e 2 with respect to the incremental chain C ( e 2 ) ”) iff there is a contextually available one-one function μ from C ( e 2 ) onto the set of parts of e 1 such that for every e C ( e 2 ) , τ ( e ) = τ ( μ ( e ) ) , where τ ( e ) is the run time of e.
An incremental chain C ( e ) is a set of parts of e such that:
1. the smallest event in C ( e ) is the initial bound of e;
2. for every e 1, e 2 in C ( e ) , e 1 e 2 or e 2 e 1 ;
3. e C ( e )

We incorporate the incremental relation into the translations of the verbs in (45). We differentiate cut and cortar via a scalar difference in their result states: While both entail separation at a predictable locus as a result, which we represent using the English-mnemonic constant Separated, the amount of entailed separation will be minimal in the case of cut, and maximal in the case of cortar, as indicated by the subscripts min and max, respectively.

cut: λ y λ x λ e 1 [ A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) e 2 [ E n d ( e 1 , e 2 ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) S e p a r a t e d m i n ( e 2 ) I N C R ( e 1 , e 2 , C ( e 2 ) ) ] ]
cortar: λ y λ x λ e 1 [ A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) e 2 [ E n d ( e 1 , e 2 ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) S e p a r a t e d m a x ( e 2 ) I N C R ( e 1 , e 2 , C ( e 2 ) ) ] ]

Note that the minimal separation entailment for cut is compatible with higher degrees of separation, including complete transection. Similarly, the amount of partial completion of events described by cortar will be measured by the amount of incremental change in the state of separation.

To compose resultative phrases that modify the result state, we propose a second Komp(osition) rule, Komp End , related to that in (16a), which can apply to a verb that already entails an End, allowing the resultative phrase to further specify that End, as in (46a).[27] By way of illustration, the representation for cut out is shown in (46b).

K o m p E n d ( λ y λ x λ e 1 [ A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) e 2 [ E n d ( e 1 , e 2 ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) R 1 ( e 2 ) ] ] , λ z λ e [ R 2 ( e ) P a t i e n t ( e , z ) ] )
λ y λ x λ e 1 [ A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) e 2 [ E n d ( e 1 , e 2 ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) R 1 ( e 2 ) R 2 ( e 2 ) ] ]
K o m p E n d ( T ( c u t ) , T ( o u t ) ) λ y λ x λ e 1 [ A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) e 2 [ E n d ( e 1 , e 2 ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) S e p a r a t e d m i n ( e 2 ) I N C R ( e 1 , e 2 , C ( e 2 ) ) O u t ( e 2 ) ] ]

This rule yields a description of a change with a complex End state that involves, in this case, the Patient being both separated and out of wherever it was located prior to the onset of the process. The resultative entailment will guarantee that the separation must effectively be maximal.

For unselected object resultatives, we assume that cut can also appear in the representation illustrated in (47) for cut loose, via the Komp rule we used for resultatives with sweep. That is, the cutting constitutes the Means by which an End is achieved. Note that just as with sweep away, the Patient of the Means is distinct from the Patient of the process as a whole; the latter is entailed by (17b) to be the Patient of the result state Loose.

K o m p ( T ( c u t ) , T ( l o o s e ) ) λ y λ x λ e 1 e 2 e 3 [ z [ A g e n t ( e 2 , x ) e 4 [ E n d ( e 2 , e 4 ) P a t i e n t ( e 2 , z ) S e p a r a t e d m i n ( e 4 ) I N C R ( e 2 , e 4 , C ( e 4 ) ) ] ] L o o s e ( e 3 ) K ( e 1 , e 2 , e 3 ) A g e n t ( e 1 , x ) P a t i e n t ( e 1 , y ) ]

It is simply a fact about Spanish that the operation in (47), unlike (17b), is unavailable to cortar. Whatever the ultimate explanation for this fact, which has been widely debated in the literature growing out of Talmy (1985), the important point for this discussion is that the interaction of the lexicon and syntax affects the range of event reference that verbs can participate in, and a proper characterization of this range should shed light on patterns of variation in event-reference-related figurative uses of those verbs.

With this background, we now consider the figurative uses. As with sweep and barrer, there are important similarities between the figurative uses of cut and cortar. Both verbs entail only predictable separation, without any entailment of Means. As there are relatively few restrictions on the nature of entities that can be separated, figurative controlled separation is found with a wide range of entities, including eventualities, information, and amounts. The nature of these entities, in turn, affords little in the way of figurative interpretations beyond interruption, elimination, or reduction. Nonetheless, we also observe consistent differences between the interpretations found with cut and cortar which are fully expected given the difference in the degree of change they respectively entail.

One figurative use that illustrates the contrast between minimal versus maximal separation in the complement involves events involving the reduction or stopping of the (possibly metaphorical) flow, supply or movement of homogeneous substances, such as water, electricity, air, traffic, money, or words, as in (48). In these examples, the flow is transected, and since the verbs differ in entailed degree of transection (recall (45)), we find differences in the degree of change in the flow. Specifically, cortar entails stopping (i.e., complete transection of the flow), while cut entails only reduction (i.e., partial transection of the flow), unless accompanied by off.

Low traffic neighbourhoods are a simple and effective way to cut traffic flow through an area’s streets.
Retiran un árbol que cortó el tráfico en el Camiño da Renda.
remove a tree that cut the traffic in the Camiño da Renda
‘[The police] remove a tree that cut off traffic on Camiño da Renda’
wrapping the hair elastic around her fingers…cutting (off) her circulation.
Estos materiales pueden […] cortar la circulación de las
those materials can […] cut the circulation of the
extremidades originando la muerte de los tejidos.
extremities originating the death of the tissues
‘Those materials can […] cut off circulation in the extremities, causing the death of the tissues’

That said, as with literal cutting, this use of cut often implies complete stopping when the figurative distance to be transected is very small, as in (49a), which is most saliently understood as equivalent to cut off) and analogous to the examples in (49b).

the power company cut the electricity at the poles.
Cortaron la electricidad, telefonía e Internet.
cut.3pl.pst the electricity telephone and internet
‘They cut off the electricity, telephone and internet service’

A related figurative domain where the difference in entailed degree of change becomes evident involves complements that denote eventualities; with these, the progress or continuity of the eventuality can be assimilated to flow.[28] As expected, given the examples in (48), cut typically describes reduction of activity unless accompanied by a particle like off, while cortar describes interruption or cessation, as seen in the contrasts in (50) and (51).[29]

Carrizo Oil and Gas is cutting activity and deferring some completions.
Francia corta la entrega de etarras.
France cuts the delivery of ETA members
‘France cuts ??(off) the extradition of ETA members’
(El País)
cut ??(off) [=stop] the conversation/negotiations/activity.
cortar la conversación/las negociaciones/la actividad
cut the conversation/the negotiations/the activity

Other differences in figurative uses of these verbs are attributable to the event referential potential of cut as specifically facilitated by syntactic resources unavailable to cortar. We illustrate with two examples. The first involves uses of cut to describe reduction in physical volume, which has been extended to reduction in amount more generally. (52) illustrates with information-related objects, such as works of art or literature. Cut clearly can describe reduction in amount and, in some cases, is compatible with describing elimination, as in (52a) (which is ambiguous). In contrast, cortar describes only elimination.

we’re over budget. We have to cut the scene.
cortaron la escena compartida con Chris Evans.
cut.3pl.pst the scene shared with Chris Evans
‘they cut the scene with Chris Evans’

For the elimination entailment to be unambiguous with cut, out or similar is required:

At least one broadcast version of this movie cut out the scene where Spicoli and his friends open the door to their van and tons of smoke comes out.

The use of cut to describe a general reduction in amount is illustrated in (54).

it could cut traffic congestion by as much as 90%.
(COCA) (=(3a))
cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters
cutting taxes massively for both the middle class and for companies
We could cut the price by about $500 per ticket.

Cortar, at least in Peninsular Spanish, lacks this use. We have already seen that cortar rejects amount modifiers equivalent to by n% ((55), repeated from (3b)), and in the CdE, no examples of deficit(s), precio(s), or impuesto(s) appeared in a collocation search with a four-word window to the right of the verb.[30]

una concentración que cortó el tráfico de la ciudad (??en un 15%)
a concentration that cut the traffic of the city in a 15%
‘a demonstration that cut off traffic in the city (??by 15%)’
(El País)

The elimination entailment with cortar is a small pragmatic step from the complete separation of the piece in question, analogous to example (34b). Perhaps less obvious is how cut comes to describe reduction in volume or amount in these examples, since partial transection or separation of the objects in question does not obviously lead to this result.

The Oxford English Dictionary relates this use of cut to the resultative forms to cut short and to cut down (presumably in the sense of making lower in height) – the use arguably illustrated in (52a). It seems that the association of this sense with simple transitive cut came later, and the extension specifically to amounts not directly related to removal of physical parts dates from the second half of the 19th century. Thus, the reduction sense of cut has arisen due to the availability of a resultative construction that specifically describes the result of cutting as making something smaller, a construction not available in Spanish. The hypothesis that the problem with (55) involves the expression of event reference, rather than a deep conceptual difference between cut and cortar, is supported by the fact that reduction is habitually expressed in Spanish with the morphologically related verbs recortar ‘cut back, cut out’ or acortar ‘shorten.’

su coste nos recortaba gran parte del presupuesto.
its costs 1pl.dat cut.back.3sg.ipfv big part of.the budget
‘its cost was taking away a big part of the budget’
(El País)
El Rey ha decidido recortar en un 7,1% sus ingresos brutos.
the king has decided cut.back in a 7.1% his income gross
‘The King has decided to cut his gross salary by 7.1%’
El Málaga acortó distancias en el minuto 55 con un tanto [de]
The Malaga cut.short distances in the minute 55 with a point of
‘Malaga cut [the opponent’s] lead in minute 55 with a score [by] Stadsgaard’

The second example of a difference in figurative use due to differences in event reference afforded by syntax involves the unselected object construction, shown above in (41). The specific figurative interpretations are analogically related to the literal uses: For example, those with loose describe freeing from control or restraint, as in (57).

by cutting the banks loose […] one could expect them to fully return to the markets.

In other cases, the unselected object is the same as on the literal use and the figurative interpretation arises via the result phrase; in such cases (e.g. with hole, niche, or similar), the sentence entails making a metaphorical version of the unselected object referent.

serpents that had long ago cut a niche for themselves in the island’s deranged ecology

Since such resultatives do not exist in Spanish, as illustrated in (42), it is unsurprising that we get nothing like these examples with cortar.

??cortar la banca suelta
 cut. inf the bank loose
??cortar(se) un hueco en el entorno
 cut. inf(se) a hole in the surroundings

Cut and cortar are extremely frequent verbs, and we have had space to consider only some of the domains of figurative extension. Nonetheless, the data discussed clearly illustrate how the event referential properties of the verbs – whether in simple or more complex syntactic structures – are traceable in these figurative uses.

This concludes our pair of case studies of illustrating how event referential aspects of meaning intervene in the licensing of figurative uses. The patterns of similarity and difference support the claim that figurative uses of verbs are an informative source of data to consider when there is doubt about event referential aspects of verb (and verb phrase) meaning.

4 Implications

We now comment briefly on the implications of this work for more general questions concerning verb meaning and grammar.

We begin by returning to idiomatic expressions. We noted in Section 2 that, as we understand the career of metaphor theory, figurative extensions can selectively target specific components of meaning. Thus, our claims concerning the traceability of event reference across literal and figurative uses apply only in cases where the source of figurative analogy includes event referential aspects of meaning. If a figurative extension does not involve event reference, we have no reason to expect the event reference in the source to be respected in the same way. This, we suggest, is what happens in partially- or fully-frozen idioms.

Idiomatic uses of verbs are an example of figurative language par excellence. However, in contrast to what we have seen in Section 3 (and despite what has been claimed by e.g., McGinnes [2002]), verb-based idioms do not always respect the event reference of the source use. For example, (60), despite involving the resultative particle off, describes an atelic event, as incompatibility with the in X time modifier shows; the idiom to V one’s butt off is paraphrasable as ‘to V very hard’ (see e.g., Espinal and Mateu [2010], Jackendoff [1997], and references cited there).

John laughed his butt off all day long/??in ten minutes.
(Espinal and Mateu 2010: (19a))

Interestingly, however, precisely in this sort of case, the relevant parts of the syntax of the idiomatic expression are frozen: (60) cannot be passivized, nor can the direct object be topicalized or otherwise displaced. Gehrke and McNally (2019) note that there seems to be a correlation between the source of the analogy for the idiomatic use and the grammatical flexibility of the idiom: When the analogy has its origins in event referential (including participant role-related) properties of the source description, grammatical flexibility is preserved in the idiomatic use. In contrast, when the analogy underlying the idiom has no relation to any grammatically relevant aspect of meaning, grammatical flexibility seems to be correspondingly reduced, and the part of the construction associated with the idiomatic meaning functions for practical purposes as an undecomposable lexical item. In the case of (60), the idiom presumably originates in an analogy involving the intensity required of an action in order for a body part fall off; however, intense action in general in no way crucially depends on there being a participant corresponding to a body part, nor, therefore, on it experiencing any result. Recognizing a status for grammatically relevant, event referential meaning as distinct from the rest of verb meaning thus can lead to predictions not only for the sorts of figurative uses discussed in Section 3 but also for when we should expect fully or partially frozen idioms. These predictions should be investigated in detail in future research.

Partially- or fully-frozen idioms offer an example of how a verb’s surrounding morphosyntax may fail to preserve its typical event reference under certain sorts of figurative uses. We should also note that language offers ample examples in which a verb is used in novel morphosyntax with the goal of associating a type of action, change or state that the verb already describes with a new event reference. To give just one example, the verb disappear originally described a spontaneous change of state but eventually was extended to describe a caused version of that change of state. However, what we have not found is for a verb to undergo an arbitrary change in morphosyntax and event reference at the same time as its use is extended from an existing source domain to a novel domain. For example, even though English has transitive verbs with an event reference ostensibly identical to that of barrer (consider, for example, vacuum the dust), a figurative use of sweep involving an analogical extension to a new domain does not seem to be possible by freely associating the verb with an event reference that it was not already associated with. It is all the more striking that this might be the case given that English does afford alternative syntactic structures independently available to the verb on its literal use (e.g. the resultative sweep away) to express the same meanings as are expressed by the simple transitive form in Spanish, and that could in principle be expressed by combining sweep with the argument structure associated with vacuum the dust. Whether this empirical observation has any counterexamples, and if so, how they have arisen, should be further tested.

This latter observation has implications for the ongoing debate in syntactic theory over how the “root” content associated with verbs should be related to the non-root (also variously referred to as “templatic,” “argument structural,” or “event structural”) content that is manifest in morphosyntax, assuming that these are distinguished (and distinguishable). As recently discussed in Rappaport Hovav (2017), analyses that posit these two kinds of components to verb meaning disagree as to whether they are fully independent of each other, as maintained by e.g., Mateu and Acedo-Matellán (2012), or whether each verb carries some specification constraining its distribution in argument structures (e.g., Alexiadou et al. 2015) or event structures (Rappaport Hovav and Levin 1998). Although our goal has not been to directly address this question, our data are difficult to explain on accounts that treats these two aspects of a verb as fully independent. On such accounts, it is not obvious why the morphosyntactically encoded event referential aspects of meaning associated with the literal use of a verb would have to be preserved when the relevant sort of novel, figurative uses are created.

In addition, our examination of the interaction of grammatically relevant event referential content with content that is not specifically linked to grammar strongly suggests that the former is less malleable than the latter. Whether this asymmetry is due to a fundamental difference in the nature of the meaning contributions of grammar versus a grammar-free root, as suggested by e.g., Borer (2003, 2013 and Carston (2019); or whether grammatically relevant content is simply less specific than the rest of verb content, as suggested by e.g., Goldberg (2010) and Beavers and Koontz-Garboden (2020), and thus perhaps affords fewer possibilities for analogical meaning extension, is another question for future research.

Finally, our study took as its rhetorical starting point a reflection on the sort of argumentation used by Levin and Rappaport Hovav to defend the Manner/Result Complementarity hypothesis. While, as we noted in the introduction, we cannot enter into the debate over this hypothesis here, we can make a few observations. First, our analysis of sweep and barrer shows clear differences in the respective preservation of Means versus End entailments from literal to figurative uses. Sweep consistently places constraints on the manner of figurative movement,[31] while any entailments regarding the result vary according to other lexical material, notably resultative phrases. Barrer, in contrast, consistently entails a result across uses, even if it is sometimes sublexically modalized, while virtually nothing is entailed concerning the Means subevent, other than that there is one and that it be of the sort that could produce the result. Even though we associated barrer lexically with complex event reference, which could be seen as contravening Manner/Result Complementarity, we did not place any specific restrictions on the Means subevent. We take this to be compatible with Rappaport Hovav and Levin’s (1998) claim that idiosyncratic material can fill in only one slot in their templatic representations for verbs (e.g., as a modifier of an abstract ACT predicate or as a complement to an abstract BECOME predicate; see their paper for details). In other words, our analysis highlights the fact that there are potentially different ways to concretize Manner/Result Complementarity. It can be viewed as a hypothesis concerning the complexity of the event referents described by a verb, or it can be viewed as a hypothesis about constraints on the lexically-specified association of idiosyncratic descriptive content with those event referents or their parts (which might be complex). Our reading of the recent literature is that Manner/Result Complementarity has been interpreted implicitly or explicitly in both ways. Future debate concerning the hypothesis should be careful to control for the two ways of understanding it.

Second, the case study in Section 3.2 showed that cut and cortar consistently entail a result in both literal and figurative uses, while no Means or manner component was posited for either verb, even for cut as used in the unselected object resultative in English. This is interesting for two reasons. First, we were able to analyze the unselected object use of cut without positing a second, “manner” sense for the verb (cp. the suggestion in Levin and Rappaport Hovav [2013: fn. 7]). This analysis was possible because nothing under the assumptions made by Williams (2015) prevents a change of state involving one Patient from constituting the Means component of a process by which another change of state is produced in another Patient. That is, Means is not identical to “manner.” We consider this a benefit of Williams’ approach to resultatives, and we conjecture that it might be fruitfully applied to certain other unselected object and related constructions. Second, our analysis has highlighted the potential for figurative uses to help distinguish manner and result entailments from pragmatic manner and result inferences, the latter of which may come and go depending on the specific eventualities described by the verb.

5 Conclusions

In spite of all that has been written on the semantics of verbs in the formal linguistics literature, literal/figurative polysemy has received comparatively little attention. We have shown how deeply diving into the figurative uses of counterpart verbs in different languages can uncover regularities in grammatically relevant aspects of event reference across literal and figurative uses and yields new and, in some cases, quite nuanced, insights into verb meaning. In addition, by showing how event referential characteristics are preserved across figurative polysemy, our study has also opened the door to a more principled way of accounting for figurative data that are not currently explained by theories that focus exclusively on highly general conceptual metaphors or similar notions.

Our study reveals that a grammatically relevant component of meaning – specifically, event reference – both constrains and facilitates figurative uses of verbs, and that cross-linguistic comparison can shed light on the articulation between grammar and conceptual content. We hope that the results not only contribute to informing theories of the syntax/semantics interface but also encourage further approximation between approaches to meaning that focus on reference and those that are cognitively- or conceptually-oriented.

Corresponding author: Alexandra Anna Spalek, Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway, E-mail:


We thank audiences at U. Nijmegen, U. Utrecht, U. Oslo, Humboldt U.-Berlin, U. Düsseldorf, U. Tübingen, U. Tromsø, U. Manchester, U. País Vasco/EHU, Stanford U., Nanjing U., U. Pompeu Fabra, U. Autònoma de Barcelona, the 2018 European Society of Philosophy and Psychology Conference at U. Rijeka, and the 2019 Creative Power of Metaphor Conference at U. Oxford. We are also grateful to Josep Ausensi, John Beavers, Gemma Boleda, Robyn Carston, Elena Castroviejo, M. Teresa Espinal, Antonio Fábregas, Hana Filip, Berit Gehrke, Fabienne Martin, Jaume Mateu, Florian Schäfer, Giorgos Spathas, Agustín Vicente, Alexander Williams, and anonymous reviewers for comments and discussion; to Artemis Alexiadou and the RUESHeL group at Humboldt-U. Berlin for hosting the first author while much of this material was developed; and most especially to Josep M. Fontana, Beth Levin, and Malka Rappaport Hovav for constant encouragement, ideas, and feedback on many drafts.

  1. Research funding: This work was supported by grant FFI2016-76045-P (AEI/MINEICO/FEDER, UE), a Salvador de Madariaga mobility grant from the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports, an ICREA Academia award to the first author, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.


Sources of examples from internet searches:


(9b): https://enciclopediadesueñ







(32a): Sergio López Juncos, La otra cara de la moneda, Editorial Altera, 2015

(32b): Daniel Cassany, Laboratorio lector: Para entender la lectura, Editorial

     Anagrama, 2019

 Footnote 22, (ii):











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Received: 2020-08-04
Accepted: 2021-11-15
Published Online: 2022-08-04

© 2022 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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