Verb Valency - The dependents of the verb

Tesniére in comparison to Eisenberg

Seminar Paper, 2008

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Overview of the Notion of Valency

3. The Concept of Valency According to Tesnière
3.1 “Subordonnés”

4. The Concept of Valency According to Eisenberg
4.1 „Ergänzungen“

5. Comparison

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Although the idea of valency is not new in the field of linguistics, it seems to have received relatively little attention up to now. Lucien Tesnière, who became known as the developer of the so called “dependency grammar”, was one of the first linguists who described the capacity of a verb to bind a certain number of “actants[1] (cf. Tesnière 1980, 385-386). In his posthumously published book “Eléments de syntaxe structurale”[2] (1959) he called this phenomenon “valency”. Later on, other linguists adopted his notion, modified and adapted it.

One of these linguists is Peter Eisenberg, a German philologist, who wrote some recent works on grammar in which the role of verb valency is often in the center of attention. Because a period of thirty years had passed since Tesnière’s first attempt to define the phenomenon of valency in linguistics, Eisenberg’s approach is a lot more detailed and includes different criteria for he had the opportunity to contribute his knowledge of other theories which were created after Tesnière’s book had been published.

This term paper will draw a comparison of two works written by the authors mentioned above with special regard to the words which are dependent on verbs. Since the verb is often in the center of attention when the notion of valency is concerned, the group of the other words which are “governed” by the verb does not seem to be examined in the same way. Furthermore there does not even seem to be a standard term for such words (perhaps except for “arguments” (cf. Meyer 2005, 30), but even the notion of arguments is used in diverse ways), so that I will use the word “dependents” to refer to every possible linguistic element which can be bound by a verb.

The main aim of this paper will not only be to provide a small overview of dependents in valency theories, but also to illustrate the pros and cons of each of these theories in a comparison at the end.

To introduce the reader into the topic, a small overview of the notion of valency will be given at the beginning of the term paper. Later on, the most important aspects concerning dependents of both theories will be presented separately. After having compared the two works, pointed out the main discrepancies and having stated their benefits respectively their deficiencies, a final conclusion will be given.

It may seem difficult to compare two theories which actually apply to different languages (while Tesnière discusses verb valency in different languages, Eisenberg deals just with valency in German), but that is why both approaches will be applied to English within this paper.

2. Overview of the Notion of Valency

The word “valency” is originally derived from the Latin verb “val­­ēre”, which means being strong or influential. Later, the term “valence” became common in natural sciences and means for example in chemistry

the capacity of an element or radical to combine with another, as measured by the number of hydrogen atoms which one radical or one atom of the element will combine with or replace (Webster 1971, 2017).

The French linguist Lucien Tesnière was the first who “borrowed” this term and used it in the field of linguistics to describe “[t]he characteristic of a verb to require a certain number of actants” (Fink 1977, 8).

As many linguists outlined in their recent works, the phenomenon of valency applies not only to verbs, but also to nouns and adjectives. However, this term paper will focus on verbs and their “syntactic features” (Foskett 1977, 175) (their capacity to combine with other elements), because in the majority of cases they are in the center of the linguist’s attention and an important starting point to further studies.

The word-class “verb” appears in probably all human languages, although it can differ in a lot of different ways, for example concerning its grammatical categories. Nevertheless, there are also “sufficient cross-language characteristics” (Allerton 1982, 1). To be precise, the verb can almost universally be seen as the core of a sentence, for it determines the basis structure of a sentence (cf. Allterton 1982, 1). Most linguists agree on this declaration when they analyze sentence structure. In contrast, their concepts of the dependents of the verb are not consistent. Even the criteria by which the group of dependents is classified are often not related.

3. The Concept of Valency According to Tesnière

Lucien Tesnière, who “introduced the concept of valence to modern linguistics […]” (Fink 1977, 7), started his valency theory by referring to the structure of sentences. He pointed out that words which are part of a sentence are no longer isolated like in a dictionary, but in a certain relation (connexion) to their adjacent words. This relation links a “higher” (régissant) with a subordinate (subordonné) element of the sentence. The subordinate element is dependent on the régissant, whereas the régissant governs the subordonné. In the example sentence

(1) John talks.

“John” is dependent on “talks”.

Tesnière also declares that a word can be a régissant and a subordonné at the same time like in:

(2) My friend talks.

Here, the subject is dependent on the verb like in the above example. But “friend” is also the régissant of the personal pronoun “my”. Hence, one can assume that every régissant can govern several other words. The whole unit, consisting of one régissant and the variable number of its subordonnés is called nexus (noeud). The verb (if one is present) is always the center of the verbal nexus and consequently can be called the régissant of the whole sentence.

Tesnière divided the group of subordonnés into two new units: arguments (actants) and additions[3] (circonstants).

3.1 “S ubordonnés”

Tesnière defines arguments as creatures or things which take part (perhaps even in a passive way) in the situation of the sentence and are in principle always nouns or equivalents of nouns. Taking the sentence

(3) John gives Jane a letter.

as an example, “Jane” and “letter” are in the same way actants as “John”, although they do not act in an active way.

Tesnière divides the group of actants into further classifications. Because a verb can have up to three dependents, there are three kinds of them according to their position in the sentence. But first, the verbs with zero arguments shall be mentioned.

Verbs without any actants are called avalent verbs. These verbs do not have any valency, because there is no initiator of the situation as in

(4) It rains.

and any other so-called weather verbs. These verbs are impersonal and although the “it” seems to be a subject, there is no creature or thing which is meant by this word. That is why grammarians tend to call the “it” in this kind of usage a “Scheinsubjekt” (Tesnière 1980, 162).

Then there are the three kinds of arguments. Tesnière defines the first actant as the subject of a sentence, the second actant as the direct object and the third actant as the indirect object (naming follows the traditional terminology). Of course, there can only be a third actant in a sentence, when there are three arguments. Hence, almost every sentence (except for sentences with impersonal verbs or no verb at all) does have a first actant and only sentences with two or three arguments can have a second actant.

In addition, another differentiation is made concerning the second type of arguments, because in this case, one has to consider not only the active variant of a sentence, but also the passive voice.

The example sentence (3) can easily be turned into a sentence with passive voice:

(3b) Jane is given a letter by John.

Now, “Jane” is the first actant, the “letter” the second and “John” the third one. Tesnière underlines the difference between the two sentences (3) and (3b) by pointing at the semantic side: in (3), the second actant is the one who is the “receiver” of an activity, whereas in (3b) the second actant is the one who performs the activity.

Tesnière argues that the first type of argument, which he defined as always being a subject, is on the structural level the same as the second type of argument. He does not mean that a subject and an object are consistently the same, but he distinguishes the semantic level and the structural level so that he comes to the conclusion that both subject and object are only kind of an “appendix” of the verb according to the structural level.

To make it a little bit clearer, the example (3) will be consulted again.

(3) John gives Jane a letter.

It was already illustrated that there are one verb and three actants in this sentence. The first actant, “John” is the subject, the second one (“Jane”) is the indirect object and thus “a letter” is the direct object. At this point it should again be stressed that the subject has no special status for Tesnière. For example, his “stemmas (diagrams of the connexion between words in a sentence) show the subject always on the same line as the objects, which is no longer the case in most recent grammars.

The other group of dependents Tesnière invents is the group of the circonstants. According to Tesnière they are always adverbs or equivalents of adverbs and describe circumstances of place, manner and time. The following sentence for instance contains an adverb of time (“still”) and an adverb of manner (“very much”):

(5) John still likes Jane very much.

In contrast to the number of actants, the number of circonstants is not limited. It is only a self-evident factor that two additions of the same type can only occur in a sentence if they are not mutually exclusive. Thus, the following sentence

(6) *John sometimes always likes Jane.

is not correct, because the two adverbs are conflicting.

Tesnière also describes the position of the circonstants in a sentence, but since he mostly refers to French in this chapter, the position of additions will be left out.

To be able to differentiate clearly between actants and circonstants, Tesnière invents two criteria; a formal one which will not be dealt with in this paper and a semantic one. Tesnière asserts that some adverbs may include a noun so that this noun has to be marked as an adverb by the use of a preposition. Thus, the sentence

(7) John writes with a pen.

Includes, according to Tesnière, a verb, an argument (“John”) and an adverb (“with a pen”). To sum up: according to Tesnière, prepositional phrases are not allowed as instances of actants (cf. Fink 1977, 9-10).


[1] This term will be outlined in chapter 3.1

[2] Tesnière, Lucien. 1959. Eléments de syntaxe structurale. Paris: Klincksieck.

[3] To translate circonstants into English, I will use “additions” and not “complements” in this term paper to avoid confusion. The meaning of “complement” in the context of Tesnière’s research has nothing to do with the meaning of “complement” in the sense of a syntactic function like in Quirk et al. 121994. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman, p. 728f.

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Verb Valency - The dependents of the verb
Tesniére in comparison to Eisenberg
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik )
Syntactic Questions
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ISBN (Book)
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Verb, Valency, Syntactic, Questions, Syntactics, Eisenberg, Tesniere, Valenz
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Ilona Sontag (Author), 2008, Verb Valency - The dependents of the verb, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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