Monday, June 23, 2008

putting the light verb phrase to work

I ran across a construction recently that struck me as decidedly odd, in reference to some new medication: "it can cause you side effects." Granted, this wasn't in an advertisement or official medical literature, but it clearly made sense to the person typing it. For me this is a decidedly marked construction, even though we use it all the time in other contexts, e.g., "I gave her the book." I'm not at all versed in modern syntax, but my understanding is that it is the so-called light verb phrase that is at work here. The idea is that IP immediately dominates this vP, the bar-level category of which immediately dominates a regular VP. The verb is then base-generated in the V node, but moves up to the v node, as shown in the following (generated using RSyntaxTree by Yoichiro Hasebe):

Of course, knowing all this still doesn't tell us why the construction is odd. I think the reason is probably because the verb "cause" simply doesn't usually have a valency this high. Often it takes a clausal complement ("I caused him to drop the ball"), and when it doesn't it usually has a single internal argument ("This drug can cause side effects"). When I try to rephrase "cause you side effects" I don't really get anywhere: cause side effects to/in/for you. Any of the prepositions still sound marked to me. So I think this is simply a case where the verb manages to have a higher valency for someone else than it does for me. If my idiolect allowed "cause" to have a third argument, I don't think I'd find the double-object construction odd. But since it doesn't, I do.

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