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|Idiom Aspect: Is it Compositional?|
Overview: Idiomatic utterances contribute by virtue of their aspectual class to the temporal structure of discourse – hence it is essential that theories of aspect derivation and discourse structure should encompass them. A recent claim has been made (McGinnis 2002) that the aspectual class of idiomatic expressions can be derived compositionally. We examine this claim carefully here, and show that while it holds true in a number of cases, there are important exceptions. We show that these can be dealt with if we broaden the notion of aspectual composition to include thematic relations as used in (Krifka 1992), and allow for the fact that these thematic relations may differ across the idiomatic and the literal interpretations of a given expression.
Can we determine the aspectual class of an idiomatic expression such as Mary and her friends painted the town red in the way that we would do for a non-idiomatic one (i.e., one that is interpreted literally1)? That is, can we use theories of aspectual composition such as those of Verkuyl (1989), Smith (1991), Moens & Steedman (1988) to determine the aspectual class of an expression given properties of its component verb, subject NP, object NP, prepositional phrases, adverbial phrases and so on? Or must the aspectual class of an idiomatically-interpreted expression be pre-stored in the lexicon?
McGinnis (2002) argues that the aspectual class of an expression on its idiomatic interpretation is the same as that of the expression on its literal interpretation, and gives a number of examples where this is indeed the case. She appears to regard this as equivalent to saying that the aspectual class of the expression on its idiomatic interpretation in compositional. We give a number of counterexamples which show that the aspectual class of a given expression is not always the same on the idiomatic interpretation as it is on the literal one. For example, consider (1a):
(1a) Mary took her pigs to market.
This sentence has an idiomatic interpretation meaning “Mary snored” (see Longman 1979). But, of course, (1a) may also be interpreted literally. On the idiomatic interpretation, the adverbial phrase for two hours can be added, giving:
(1b) Mary took her pigs to market for/*in two hours. (idiomatic interpretation)
The possibility of adding a for-adverbial shows, according to standard tests (Vendler 1967), that Mary took her pigs to market is, on the idiomatic interpretation, an activity. The impossibility of adding an in-adverbial such as in two hours, on the idiomatic interpretation, confirms this. Note, on the other hand, that on the literal interpretation of (1a) it is not possible to add a for-adverbial. We may, however, add ‘in two hours’ giving:
(1b) Mary took her pigs to market in/*for two hours2. (literal interpretation)
In the full paper we will present a range of other examples (mainly obtained from corpus data), where the aspectual class on an idiomatic interpretation does not correspond to that on a literal interpretation. But we note that there are also many cases where the aspectual class is the same on both interpretations. We therefore require (and will give) an explanation that covers all these cases.
Must we say that the counterexamples – where the aspectual class is not the same on the idiomatic as on the literal interpretation – are non-compositional in terms of aspect? And must we therefore store the aspectual class of such idioms in the lexicon?
We will show that compositionality of aspect can be maintained in all cases, including the counterexamples, provided that our notion of compositionality is sufficiently broad. In Krifka’s (1992) account of aspectual composition, he uses thematic relations between entities (objects or individuals) and events. These influence the way that, for example, an object NP contributes to the aspectual class of the overall utterance. We use a slightly modified version of Krifka’s account, to be explained in detail in the full paper. In brief: while the cat is a quantized NP, stroke the cat is cumulative (non-quantized), making John stroked the cat an activity. Wash the cat, on the other hand, is quantized, making John washed the cat an accomplishment. The difference comes from the fact that the thematic relation between a washing event and the object being washed is one of gradual patient, and results in the aspectual properties of the object NP being transferred to the VP. In the case of stroke, there is no gradual patient relation between the stroking event and the object of that event, and the quantized nature of the cat is not transferred to the VP.
We will show that, provided we allow thematic relations to be different in the literal and the idiomatic interpretations, we can maintain compositionality of aspect in all cases. For example, on a literal interpretation of paint the town red, there is a relation of gradual patient between the described event and the direct object, the town. Hence paint the town red, interpreted literally, is quantized, and we can say:
(2a) Mary and her friends painted the town red in six hours. (literal interpretation).
However, on the idiomatic interpretation of paint the town red, there is no gradual patient relation between the event and the object NP. This is clearly linked to the fact that, on the idiomatic reading, no well-defined action with a definite endpoint is actually being performed on the town – indeed, there may be no town – and the expression simply means ‘to have a very enjoyable time, esp. in a lively and noisy manner’ (Longman 1979). Because there is no gradual patient relation between the direct object and the described event, Mary and her friends painted the town red is an activity on the idiomatic interpretation, and we can say:
(2b) Mary and her friends painted the town red for six hours. (idiomatic interpretation).
The point is that both cases involve aspectual composition, on Krifka’s model. The difference is that the thematic relation is different in the two cases. But as long as we take this into account, there is no reason not to regard the idiomatic interpretations as involving aspectual composition. Providing we capture the correct thematic relations, there is therefore no need to store the aspectual class of idiomatic expressions in the lexicon.
Clearly, in some cases the resulting aspectual class will be the same for the literal and idiomatic interpretations. This will be the case if the thematic relations are the same, or it may be mere coincidence (i.e., the aspectual class will turn out to be the same for reasons that are different in each case).
Final question: Although we can now derive aspectual class in all cases, the question remains as to which expressions have the same aspectual class on both a literal and an idiomatic interpretation? Leaving aside the cases where the same result is achieved for different reasons, we will ask which expressions have the same aspectual class “for the same reasons” – i.e. the thematic relations are the same. We suggest that these may coincide with Nunberg, Sag & Wasow’s (1994) ‘idiomatically combining expressions’ and give an outline of further investigations along these lines.
Krifka, M. (1992). Thematic relations as links between nominal reference and temporal constitution. In I. Sag and A. Szabolsci, (eds.), Lexical Matters, CSLI Lecture Notes, University of Stanford, Ca.
Longman Dictionary of Idioms (1979). Longman.
Moens, M. & M. J. Steedman (1988). ‘Temporal ontology and temporal reference’. Computational Linguistics 14(2), 15-28.
McGinnis, M. (2002). On the systematic aspect of idioms. Linguistic Inquiry 33.4, pp 665-672.
Nunberg, G., I. Sag & T. Wasow (1994). Idioms. Language, 70:3, pp 491–538.
Smith, C. (1991). The Parameter of Aspect. Kluwer Academic Press, Dordrecht.
Vendler, Z. (1967). Verbs and times. In Linguistics in Philosophy, pp. 97-121. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Verkuyl, H. J. (1989). ‘Aspectual classes and aspectual composition’, Linguistics and Philosophy 12(1), 39-94.
1 We will not explore the vexed question here of exactly what is meant by a ‘literal’ interpretation.
2 We ignore the ‘resultative’ reading of ‘for two hours’ here.
|“An idiom is an expression peculiar to a language and not explainable by principles of logic or the ordinary meaning of the individual words. Why do we say that|