The Transitivity Hypothesis - Investigation on the importance of transitivity in grammar and discourse

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3



I. Introduction

II. Main Part
1. The study
1.1. Measuring Transitivity
1.1.1. Participants
1.1.2. Kinesis
1.1.3. Aspect
1.1.4. Punctuality
1.1.5. Volitionality
1.1.6. Affirmation
1.1.7. Mode
1.1.8. Agency
1.1.9. Affectedness of O
1.1.10. Individuation of O
1.2. Overview
1.3. T in practice
1.4. The Transitivity Hypothesis
2. Universality
2.1. The function of the object
2.1.1. O-marking by prepositions and affixes
2.1.2. V-O-correlation
2.1.3. Word order
2.2. Case as T -marker in the subject
2.3. T -markers in the verb
3. Function of T in discourse
3.1. T and text summarizing
3.2. Experiment

III. Conclusion

IV. References

V. Appendix

List of abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

They are used within the text because of stylistic reasons.

I. Introduction

As a learner of languages in general and of English in particular, sooner or later one comes across transitive and intransitive verbs. For most of the learners this only means that there are these verbs, which take a direct object (transitive) and those, which do not (intransitive).

(1) Susan left.
(2) He is writing something.

When comparing example (1) and (2), the average student of EFL[1] would claim the second one to be transitive, while the first one would be described as intransitive. For learners at school this explanation might be sufficient, but as a linguist the notion of Transitivity goes far beyond the simple declaration of verbs to be object-taking or not.

In this paper special interest will focus on the notion of Transitivity. The observations are based on a study made by Paul J. Hopper and Sandra A. Thompson[2] published in 1980, which focuses on the importance of Transitivity in grammar and discourse[3].

The first part of the paper presented here will explain the notion of Transitivity according to the results of the study by Hopper/Thompson. The second part will draw attention to the universality of Transitivity.

The question arises in how far Transitivity is essential to language. Why does the speaker of a language use Transitivity within a speech and how does he do so? Therefore, the main focus of the third part will lie on the pragmatic function of Transitivity, which means the importance of it as a discourse determiner. Especially the role of Transitivity in Foregrounding in discourse will be looked at.

The writer of this paper tries to find own examples, if possible, but when it comes to universality and the corpus investigation, only examples of the original study can guarantee the verification of the theory.

II. Main Part

1. The study

In the first place it is essential to define Transitivity in its entire complexity in order to comprehend the study about the Transitivity Hypothesis.

Transitivität hat wie viele andere Begriffe der traditionellen Grammatik eine doppelte, syntaktische Bedeutung. Syntaktisch bedeutet Transitivität das Vorhandensein eines direkten Objekts im Satz.“[4]

The other and less well-known aspect of the Transitivity study made by Hopper/Thompson is that they looked at T from a different angle. They did not only concentrate on the direct object , but they also considered the items of the whole phrase.

„Semantisch bezeichnet Transitivität einen bestimmten Prozesstyp, bei dem zwischen mindestens zwei Beteiligten ein effektiver, intentionaler Übergang von Aktivität’ stattfindet.“[5]

According to Hopper/Thompson

Transitivity is traditionally understood as a global property of an entire clause, such that an activity is ‘carried-over’ or ‘transferred’ from an agent to a patient. Transitivity in the traditional view thus necessarily involves at least two participants (…), and an action which is EFFECTIVE in some way.”[6]

Within the scope of a universal grammar starting point the two linguists introduced several T factors. When these factors work together the notion of T becomes graduated. Next to the selection of a direct object the semantic roles and features of the verb, the mode of the verb, and affirmation vs. negation are of importance when speaking of the T of a phrase or clause. “These components are all concerned with the effectiveness with which an action takes place.”[7] In the course of their study Hopper/Thompson give evidence for their proposed parameters both in English and in other languages of the world and their grammars and thus show the universality of T. The second part of the study is occupied with T in discourses, again in English as well as in other languages.

1.1. Measuring Transitivity

In order to rank the effectiveness of a clause Hopper/Thompson chose the following parameters, which either refer to the verb (V), to the direct object or patient (O/P) or to the subject or agent (A) of the clause.

1.1.1. Participants (A)

A clause must have at least two participants for an action to be transferred.

(1) John is kissing Sarah.
(2) Mary is reading.

According to the theory, (1) is more effective and therefore more transitive than (2).

1.1.2. Kinesis (B)

Kinesis refers to the action of the verb. Transferable actions are in contrast with non-transferable states.

(1) John likes his big sister.
(2) John tickled his baby brother.

In (2) some kind of movement or action is visible. So, (2) is more effective than (1) because the verbum sentiendi like describes a state and not an action.

1.1.3. Aspect (C)

An action can be telic or perfective, which means wholly completed, or it can be atelic or imperfective, which means only partially completed.[8]

A perfective action is always more effective than an imperfective action. In (1) below the action is marked as perfective by the particle up, while in (2) the imperfective aspect is marked by the progressive form of the verb.

(1) He drank up the beer.
(2) He is drinking the beer.

1.1.4. Punctuality (D)

Punctual actions have no transitional phase between start and endpoint. Therefore, they have a greater effect on their patients than non-punctual actions. The duration of the action decides over the effectiveness of the clause. In simple words: The longer an action, the less effective is the clause.

(1) The car hit the tree.
(2) The car fell down the cliff.

The action in (1) happens within a very short moment, while the action in (2) takes longer.[9]

1.1.5. Volitionality (E)

If an action happens volitionally it is far more effective than an action which simply happens, to be precise, which is non-volitional.

(1) Sam ate an apple.
(2) Sam lost his Apple[10].

The action of losing something normally happens unintentionally, while the process of eating happens on purpose or else is marked differently[11].

1.1.6. Affirmation (F)

T is greater in affirmative actions than in negative actions.

(1) I will take an exam next week.
(2) I won’t take an exam next week.

The negative action in (2) does not have a result in the end, therefore (1) with the meaning of actually taking an exam is more effective and thus more transitive.

1.1.7. Mode (G)

An action which is realis, which means that it is occurring in the real world, is more effective than an action which is irrealis, which means occurring in a non-real world.

(1) I am a student.
(2) If I were you, I would hurry up.

The if-clause in (2) marks the irrealis aspect of the action, which makes it less transitive than (1), which has a verb in the indicative and thus marks the real world.

1.1.8. Agency (H)

Agency refers to the agent or subject of a clause. A can be more or less potential. An A high in potency is referential and highly individuated[12], while an A low in potency on the contrary is non-referential and non-individuated.

(1) John makes me sick.
(2) They make me sick.

A in (2) cannot be defined properly, so that it makes the clause less transitive than (1) which has a proper and highly individuated A.

1.1.9. Affectedness of O (I)

The importance of the O is reflected in its affectedness. An O can be wholly or partially affected.

(1) The child ate up the pancake.
(2) The child ate some of the pancake.

The affectedness of O often goes together with a telic or atelic aspect of V. In (1) O is wholly affected, because after the perfective action there is no pancake left over. In (2) there is still some leftover of the pancake after the imperfective action.

1.1.10. Individuation of O (J)

Individuation refers to the distinctiveness of the O from the A and of the O from its own background. Consequently, a highly individuated O is a proper name, or at least human, animate, concrete and in the singular. It can be counted and it is referential and definite(1). A non-individuated O, on the other hand, is common, inanimate, abstract and in plural. One cannot count it and it is non-referential(2).[13]

(1) He hugged Grace.
(2) Grace saw them.


[1] EFL: English as a Foreign Language.

[2] In the following text: “Hopper/Thompson“.

Hopper is an expert in several areas of linguistics, including Indo-European languages and linguistic change over time. His research centres on the relationship between grammar and rhetoric. (comp.: Sandra A. Thompson is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

[3] Hopper, P. J. & Thompson, S. A.: “Transitivity in grammar and discourse”; in: Language (Volume 56; No. 2, Jun. 1980; p.251-299).



[6] Hopper, P. J. & Thompson, S. A.: “Transitivity in grammar and discourse”; p. 251

[7] Ibid.; p. 251.

[8] Hopper/Thompson differentiate between telic/perfective and atelic/imperfective in more detail, but in order to introduce the notion of aspect, in the beginning they use the terminologies interchangeably.

The terminology perfective/imperfective is broader. (comp. Hopper, P. J. & Thompson, S. A.: “Transitivity in grammar and discourse”; p. 270-271).

[9] In these examples the result of both actions is a broken car. Thus, one cannot judge the effect from the result, but only from the duration the action needs.

[10] Apple: brand name by Macintosh.

[11] E.g. Sam is forced to eat an apple.

[12] The notion of referentiality and individuation will be explained in more detail in 1.1.10.

[13] The same features count for the individuation of A (1.1.8.).

Excerpt out of 24 pages


The Transitivity Hypothesis - Investigation on the importance of transitivity in grammar and discourse
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Department of English Language and Linguistics)
Seminar: English Functional Syntax
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ISBN (Book)
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Transitivity, Hypothesis, Investigation, Seminar, English, Functional, Syntax
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Conny Schibisch (Author), 2006, The Transitivity Hypothesis - Investigation on the importance of transitivity in grammar and discourse, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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