Author Topic: Sentence ungrammaticality  (Read 1605 times)

Offline Elena

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Sentence ungrammaticality
« on: February 20, 2019, 03:45:12 AM »
Hi, can anyone tell me why the sentence "john was died" is ungrammatical?

Offline panini

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Re: Sentence ungrammaticality
« Reply #1 on: February 20, 2019, 09:56:05 AM »
It's because there is no rule of English grammar that will generate that sentence. It might be easiest to start with the rules that introduce "be" plus something else. You could have an NP, but "died" is not an NP. You can have a progressive particle, but "died" isn't one. You can have an adjective, but "died" isn't one ("dyed" is). You could have a passive participle, but that is only possible for a transitive verb (so you can have "John was arrested/eaten"). "Died" is only a past tense verb, and that would mean that tense is instantiated twice in the same clause (you have tense only once). So there is no rule of English that generates this, and by definition the string is ungrammatical.

I should point out that many people get confused about the difference between acceptability and grammaticality. Grammaticality is an abstract analytic judgment that requires you to explicitly know the rule of English grammar, by which I mean the actual rules of English grammar and not things they teach you in school. Usually, linguists conjecture that a certain sentence is ungrammatical because they have a reasonable theory of the rules of English and can do the computation. The underpinning of that theory is the intuitive reaction that a given sentence is unacceptable. Sentences can be unacceptable for many reasons, not all of which are about grammar. In this case, though, I'd say it is clearly about grammar.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Sentence ungrammaticality
« Reply #2 on: February 22, 2019, 12:23:06 AM »
Quote
You could have a passive participle, but that is only possible for a transitive verb (so you can have "John was arrested/eaten"). "Died" is only a past tense verb, and that would mean that tense is instantiated twice in the same clause (you have tense only once).
This is a past participle (or past tense), as in "John died" (past tense) or "John has died" (past participle). But the first part of your explanation is correct there: the participle must be from a transitive verb.

Passives promote a non-subject to subject, and remove the subject as an argument of the verb (it may appear as an extra bit of information then, introduced with "by").

So the verb "die" does not have enough arguments (just one: no object like "John died his life"), meaning that there is nothing to promote to subject.

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Now, you might wonder, what about not having a subject all? Well, that's generally not allowed, and at least in English you would need to fill in something like "It was died". Even in a language like Spanish where overt subjects are not required, there is still generally an understood subject (as indicated by subject agreement still found on the verb!), so that also wouldn't make sense: there must be a conceptual subject, even if it is not pronounced.

Interestingly enough, there actually are some languages that do allow passivization of intransitive verbs. In German, the verb "werden" (lit. 'become') works like English "be" in passives. And you can literally say "It was danced": Es wurde getantzt. -- meaning something like "There was some dancing going on; people danced." I'm not sure whether "Es wurde gestorben" would make sense to a German speaker ('there was dying going on'?), but it may be a grammatical possibility. But again, English does not allow for this.
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Offline mallu

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Re: Sentence ungrammaticality
« Reply #3 on: March 17, 2019, 02:16:06 PM »
He was dead is ok, isnt it?

Offline Daniel

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Re: Sentence ungrammaticality
« Reply #4 on: March 18, 2019, 08:24:04 AM »
It sounds odd because it seems to presuppose he's... not dead... now? But as a stative description as something like "I wanted to meet with him, but he was dead", I guess works.
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