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Seminar: Revisiting information management in intransitive subjects, Stefan Schnell, 11 Nov

Australian National University, Shape

Date: 29 September 2016

Seminar: Revisiting information management in intransitive subjects

Speaker: Stefan Schnell, University of Melbourne

When: Friday 11 November 2016, 3.30-5.00pm

Where: Engma Room (5019), HC Coombs Building, ANU


In his seminal work on Preferred Argument Structure (PAS), Du Bois (1987, 2003a,b) develops the hypothesis that ergative alignment in grammar arises from considerations of processing referent introduction in discourse, a task regarded as cognitively specifically demanding (cf. Chafe 1976, 1987). In this talk, I reassess the more specific hypothesis that subjects of intransitive verbs (like English come, appear, etc) specialise in referent introduction, so as to ease discourse processing under the conditions of “high information pressure” (Du Bois 1987:835), that is where particularly many referents are mentioned in a discourse.

My comparison of four language corpora (Sakapultek, English, Teop, Vera’a) does not support the PAS hypothesis: I find no significant correlation between the frequency of intransitive introductions and information pressure. I also do not find support for the PAS claim that intransitives serve to avoid referent introduction directly in the A role. I further argue that most intransitive introductions are better accounted for in terms of discourse content rather than considerations of information management. This also seems the better explanation for frequent intransitive introductions in Pear Film re-tellings. According to these findings, referent introduction does not seem to pose particular processing challenges, and thus does not have a significant impact on sentence production in discourse. This casts further doubts on a discourse basis of ergativity in terms of referent introduction.

This study complements more recent critical assessments of Preferred Argument Structure theory that have thus far not taken into account the specific conditions of information pressure on discourse ergativity, in particular Haspelmath (2006), Kumagai (2006), Everett (2009), Haig & Schnell (to appear), and Brickell & Schnell (to appear).


Brickell, Tim & Stefan Schnell. To appear. Do grammatical relations reflect information status? Linguistic Typology. 2017.

Chafe, Wallace. 1976. Givenness, contrastiveness, definiteness, subjects, topics, and point of view. In Subjects and topics edited by Charles N. Li, 25-56. New York: Academic Press.

Chafe, Wallace. 1987. Cognitive constraints on information flow. In: Coherence and grounding in discourse edited by Russel S. Tomlin, 21-51. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Du Bois, John W. 1987. The discourse basis of ergativity. Language 63.4, 805-855.

Du Bois, John W. 2003a. Argument structure: grammar in use. In: Du Bois et al (eds.), 1-60.

Du Bois, John W. 2003b. Discourse and grammar. in: The new psychology of language. Vol II edited by Michael Tomasello, 47-87. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Du Bois, John W., Lorraine E. Kumpf, and William J. Ashby (eds.) 2003. Preferred Argument Structure: Grammar as Architecture for Function. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Everett, Caleb. 2009. A reconsideration of the motivations for preferred argument structure. Studies in Language 33(1):1–24.

Haig, Geoff & Stefan Schnell. To appear. The discourse basis of ergativity revisited. Language. 2016.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2006. Review of: [Preferred Argument Structure: Grammar as architecture for function. Ed. by John W. Du Bois, Lorraine E. Kumpf, and William J. Ashby. (Studies in discourse and grammar 14.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2003.] Language 82.4, 908-912.

Kumagai, Yoshiharu. 2006. Information management in intransitive subjects: some implications for the Preferred Argument Structure theory. Journal of Pragmatics 38, 670-694.

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