Understanding Predication

by Piotr Stalmaszczyk (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 292 Pages


This book investigates the linguistic status of predication, especially within the generative paradigm. The topics discussed include minimalist accounts of predication, types of predication, copular constructions, topic and focus, theticity and transitivity. The contributions analyze constructions from a wide variety of languages, including English, Polish, Irish, Welsh, Norwegian, German, Arabic, Ostyak, Mongolian, Japanese and Chinese. This book contributes to contemporary debates on understanding predication in linguistics and in the philosophy of language.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Contributors
  • Understanding Predication (Piotr Stalmaszczyk)
  • On the Linguistic Status of Predication (John Collins)
  • Predicative Predicament: Predication and the Syntax–Semantics Relationship in the Minimalist Program (Jarosław Jakielaszek)
  • Predication in Syntax: Toward a Semantic Explanation of the Subject Requirement (Tor A. Åfarli)
  • Small Clause and Copular Predication (Julie Balazs / John Bowers)
  • Theticity and Transitivity (David Basilico)
  • Polish Specificational Clauses Are Inverse Predicational Clauses (Anna Bondaruk)
  • A Derivational Framework for Focus as Predication (Przemysław Tajsner)
  • Derived Predication and Topic Case in Classical Arabic (Peter Hallman / Fareed Al-Zamil Al-Suleem)
  • Grammatical Expression of Tense and its Interpretation in Secondary Predication (Ryosuke Shibagaki)
  • Index
  • Series index

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Tor A. Åfarli

NTNU Trondheim, Norway


Fareed Al-Zamil Al Suleem

Qassim University, Saudi Arabia


Julie Balazs

Speech-Language Pathology, Mason General Hospital, Shelton, Washington, USA


David A. Basilico

University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA


Anna Bondaruk

John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland


John S. Bowers

Cornell University, USA


John Collins

University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK


Peter Hallman

University of Vienna, Austria


Jarosław Jakielaszek

University of Warsaw, Poland

jljakiel@uw.edu.pl ← 7 | 8 →

Ryosuke Shibagaki

Nanzan University, Japan


Piotr Stalmaszczyk

University of Łódź, Poland


Przemysław Tajsner

Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland


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Piotr Stalmaszczyk

University of Łódź

Understanding Predication

(…) if we do not understand predication, we do not understand how any sentence works, nor can we account for the structure of the simplest thought that is expressible in language.

Donald Davidson Truth and Predication (2005)

Predication has been the central topic of inquiry in logic and ontology, from Antiquity to contemporary research within philosophy of language.1 Predication is also a core concept within linguistic theory, especially in generative approaches to syntax.2 Williams (1980) and Rothstein (1985) offered detailed proposals for a general account of predication in terms of a primitive syntactic relation (linking relation or coindexation between the predicate and the subject).3 An alternative approach to predication within Minimalist syntax was formulated by Bowers (1993, 2001) and it assumes the existence of the category ‘Pr’ (predicative functional head), along with its phrasal projections. This category “provides a uniform account of the syntax and semantics of every kind of predication relation encountered in natural language” (Bowers 1993: 653).4

Papers collected in this volume investigate the linguistic status of predication, focusing both on its syntax and semantics and the consequences of understanding ← 9 | 10 → it as the nexus between a subject and a predicate expression.5 The issues discussed include appropriate formation of predication conditions, small clause and copular predication, focus as predication, the concepts of theticity and transitivity, and predication and the syntax-semantics relationship. Several chapters assume as relevant theoretical background recent developments in Minimalism (e.g. Chomsky 2000, 2001, 2008); however, the influence of classic studies by Brentano, Marty and Frege is also manifest.

Data discussed in the studies come from a wide variety of languages, including English, German, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Irish, Welsh, Arabic, Ostyak, Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian.

John Collins investigates the linguistic status of predication, claiming that there is “no story to tell about what predication is in general, in abstraction from linguistic structure”. His chapter offers a case against any general philosophical or conceptual account of predication that seeks to explain the semantic significance of linguistic structure. Collins first rejects a traditional philosophical approach that analyses the subject/predicate distinction in terms of a primitive notion of ‘aboutness’, i.e., a predicate expresses something about the subject. This approach is rejected on the grounds that it fails to respect the structure of natural language in trivial ways; Collins also observes that while modern logic is able to reconstruct some notion of predicate, it does not reconstruct the subject/predicate distinction. Next, he assesses a more sophisticated account of predication offered by Liebesman (2015). This account promisses to give a unified account of predication in abstraction from any details of linguistic structure. However, Collins argues that the phenomena Liebesman presents as evidence for his account are readily explicable in ways that precisely turn on the particular linguistic structures at issue rather than upon the general notion of predication Liebesman offers. Collins concludes that we have good reason to give up on a substantive account of predication as one that tells us, semantically or conceptually, what predication amounts to in general, for all cases, but none of the foregoing affects the potential for structural accounts of predication that tie the relation to particular otherwise sanctioned semantic-syntactic relations.

Jarosław Jakielaszek discusses predication and the syntax–semantics relationship in the Minimalist Program. He observes that a minimalist explanation of predicative properties of syntactic structures generated in narrow syntax requires in the current state of the development of syntactic theory that they be appropriately ← 10 | 11 → anchored to properties and operations independently postulated by the theory of UG, and that introduction of syntactic devices specifically tailored to fulfill interpretive requirements should be avoided. The generative operation merge is not sufficient to ensure that predicative properties of syntactic structures will emerge, both external and internal merge applying freely and resulting in syntactic objects lacking asymmetry required for the predicative interpretation to arise. In a merge-based theory of narrow syntax, an anchoring for such properties might be provided by an account of syntactic and semantic relevance of features which participate in syntactic processes. Given the central role of labeling for interpretive properties of syntactic structures, a possible locus of determination of predicative properties may be located in the labeling procedure, as late as immediately before the transition from narrow syntax to interpretive components. Labeling itself, a procedure applied to uninterpreted syntactic objects and determining on current assumptions their interpretability for post-syntactic processes, as well as features eligible as labels, would then have to find a systematic mapping to interpretive properties, predicative ones included. The search for syntactic roots of predicative relations will thus uncover further roles of unvalued features, going beyond their relevance for syntactic computation and the delimitation of phases. Jakielaszek concludes by remarking that search operations applying to features, the labeling algorithm checking properties and configurations of objects constructed by the combinatory operation, formal features themselves – all these are signposts along the road leading from applications of unconstrained merge to the Fregean realm of functions and arguments, essential in providing an account of “the Basic Property of language: that a language is a finite computational system yielding an infinity of expressions, each of which has a definite interpretation in semantic-pragmatic and sensorimotor systems” (Berwick and Chomsky 2016: 1).

Tor A. Åfarli offers a semantic explanation of the subject requirement (the Extended Projection Principle). He argues that the semantic notion of predication plays a key role in syntax, more specifically concerning the verb’s subject domain. Thus, predication is not only semantically central to the verb phrase and to the clause; it is also essential to their syntactic apparition. Following Bowers (1993, 2001) he assumes that the propositional nexus is mediated by a predication operator heading a designated predication phrase (PrP), an integral part of the structure of every clause in any natural language. Åfarli argues that the syntactic subject requirement should be explained as an effect of the workings of the predication operator, and that the non-existence of expletive PRO in impersonal constructions is also explained as an effect of the same. It follows from this analysis that the EPP is universal since Pr is. In his theoretical quest, Åfarli draws on data from several ← 11 | 12 → European languages (English, German, Norwegian, French, Rumanian, Spanish, Catalan, Lithuanian).

Julie Balazs and John Bowers discuss small clause and copular predication. They defend the view advanced already in Bowers (1993, 2001) that predication in both small clauses and main clauses is uniformly and universally represented in syntactic structure as the projection of a verbal head Pr whose complement is a maximal projection XP (X any lexical category), called the predicate, and whose specifier is a maximal projection DP, called the subject. They review evidence that the category Pr is lexically realized in a variety of different languages, defending this claim against a number of recent criticisms. Next, they discuss arguments in the literature, based on data from Irish and Chinese, against the view that small clause predication is cross-linguistically uniform in size, showing that these arguments are invalid and, in the case of Chinese, based on faulty and incomplete data as well. Further on Balazs and Bowers discuss the syntax of copular verbs in a number of languages (Polish, Arabic, Welsh and Irish), showing that what are loosely referred to as copulas vary quite widely in origin from one language to another. In some cases the copula is a lexical verb taking a PrP as a complement; in other cases it is a lexical realization of Pr; and in still others it is a lexical realization of T. Included among the latter are pure equative sentences that project only the category T, found in languages as different as Arabic and Polish. Balazs and Bowers conclude that the PrP model of predication is able to capture a wide range of syntactic variation in typologically diverse languages simply by varying the content and syntactic properties of the Pr and T heads and their possibilities of co-occurrence.

David Basilico devotes his study to theticity and transitivity. His main claim is that a proper understanding of transitivity entails a proper understanding of theticity. He shows that the formal distinctions between high and low transitivity clauses, in the sense of Hopper and Thompson (1980), parallels the formal distinctions between categorical and thetic clauses, in the sense of the nineteenth philosophers Franz Brentano and Anton Marty. Sentences either express a thetic judgment or a categorical judgment. With a categorical judgment, the subject is singled out, providing a predication base. With a thetic judgment form, the subject is not singled out and the clause expresses the existence of an event or state in which the subject is introduced as a participant. Objects of high transitivity clauses, like subjects of categorical clauses, must be present, often show agreement with the verb, appear with a structural case, and are interpreted as definite and/or specific. Objects of low transitivity clauses can be absent, lack agreement with the verb, appear with an oblique case, and need not be interpreted as definite or ← 12 | 13 → specific, often being interpreted as indefinite or non-specific. In addition, high transitivity clauses, like categorical clauses, contribute to the foreground of the discourse, while low transitivity clauses, like thetic clauses, contribute to the background. Basilico argues that these parallels are best captured syntactically. High transitivity objects and categorical subjects are alike in that they appear in a functional projection outside of the VP, while low transitivity objects and thetic subjects appear within the VP projection. Thus, the formal parallels between these types of arguments, subject or object, result from their syntactic position within a functional projection or within the VP. The objects of high transitivity clauses can be seen as the ‘inner’ subjects of an ‘inner’ categorical predication, while the objects of low transitivity clauses can be seen as the ‘inner’ subjects of an ‘inner’ thetic predication. A case study for this approach is given by an analysis of objects in Ostyak (a West Siberian Uralic language). Basilico’s study contributes to the on-going discussion within the generative framework of understanding the syntax of objects by looking at the syntax of subjects; he demonstrates that pragmatic principles, such as given by Lambrecht (2000), are incomplete and that the syntactic treatment provided by the author gives a better account for these parallels.

Anna Bondaruk offers an analysis of the syntax of Polish specificational clauses in the theoretical framework offered by Chomskyan Minimalist Program (Chomsky 2000, 2001, 2008). She argues that specificational clauses in Polish are syntactically distinct from both predicational and inverse copular clauses, and form a class of their own. In her proposal Polish specificational clauses represent inverse predicational clauses, which are derived by means of predicate inversion (along the lines put forward for English specificational clauses by several recent studies). The crucial point of her proposal is the claim that the predicate in Polish specificational clauses lands in Spec, TP. The paper offers evidence to support the Spec, TP position of the inverted predicate based on φ-feature agreement, anaphor binding, and negative polarity items. Bondaruk also demonstrates that subextraction data, which seem to point towards Spec, CP placement of the inverted predicate are compatible with the analysis advocated in the paper provided that, following Chomsky (2008), one assumes that T and C probe in parallel and hence the inverted predicate moves simultaneously to Spec, TP and Spec, CP.

Przemysław Tajsner advocates in his chapter a derivational framework for ‘focus as predication’. The theoretical perspective applied by Tajsner is consistent with the postulate of reducing predication to its grammatical core and therefore the paper advocates a view in which predication is primarily defined as a syntactic relation operative in accomplishing an optimal, minimalist derivation. Tajsner advances a syntactic view of predication exceeding the limits of a tense phrase (TP) ← 13 | 14 → and extending into the realms of information structure. He argues that the partition of sentences into topics and foci resulting from Internal Merge is an instance of generalized predication. The proposal, which offers an alternative to cartographic approaches, is illustrated with the account of the two types of discourse-functional constructions of contemporary Polish, known as to-clefts and topic-to sentences. Tajsner provides evidence that the cases of ex situ articulation of topic and focus in Polish result from deriving a non-directional Predication Phrase built around a lexical head to, corroborating thus earlier theoretical considerations advanced in Kiss (2006).

Peter Hallman and Fareed Al-Zamil Al-Suleem develop an analysis of derived predication in Classical Arabic on the basis of descriptive data reported in the eighth century grammar of the language written by Uthman Sibawayhi (d. 796 CE). The authors concentrate on the derivation of a predicate from a sentence containing a pronoun in the clitic left dislocation construction. In this construction, a nominal constituent at the left clause edge (the topic) binds a weak (clitic) pronoun in the constituent that follows. This constituent, though able to stand alone as a sentence, is interpreted in relation to the topic as a predicate abstracted over the weak pronoun. Data from a detailed late eighth century descriptive grammar of Arabic by Uthman Sibawayhi show that topics in this construction may bear either nominative or accusative case. While nominative is a default case, the data reported by Sibawayhi reveal that accusative case is assigned to the topic by the matrix verb. In neither case is the relation between the topic and associated pronoun subject to constraints on movement. Hallman and Al-Zamil Al-Suleem claim that nominative topics are base generated at the left clause edge, while accusative topics are base generated at the left edge of the verb phrase, where they are assigned accusative before moving to their surface position at the left clause edge. In both cases, the derivation of a predicate of the topic is a semantic procedure that does not involve syntactic movement. Though the mechanism of the derivation is the same for nominative and accusative topics, the two cases differ in the level of structure at which the predicate is derived – CP for nominative topics and VP for accusative topics. Additionally, Hallman and Al-Zamil Al-Suleem also demonstrate that Classical Arabic has a generalized mechanism for marking the function-argument relation in the Fregean sense, and they remark that Classical Arabic bears a striking resemblance to Frege’s formal language in this respect.

Finally, Ryosuke Shibagaki discusses grammatical expression of tense and its interpretation in secondary predication (in English, Mongolian and Japanese). He follows the proposals by Williams (1980) and Rothstein (1985) and assumes that predication represents a structure-based relation. Secondary predication (SP) has ← 14 | 15 → two subtypes, resultatives and depictives. In order to interpret SP it is necessary to fix the temporal points where the events denoted by the main and secondary predicates take place, because, by definition, the event of a resultative secondary predicate and that of its matrix clause occur at different times, while the events of a depictive secondary predicate and its matrix clause take place simultaneously. Shibagaki shows that languages differ as to how the event time of SP is specified, and he offers a parametric account for the variation of SP with regard to TP projection. The analysis and theoretical implications in his chapter reveal not only the interpretational mechanism of secondary predicate events in English, Mongolian and Japanese, but also extend to the consideration of secondary predicate events in other languages.

It is hoped that papers gathered in this volume will contribute to the understanding of predication, and hence to the understanding of linguistic structure, which, according to Davidson (2005: 77), is a necessary prerequisite to provide an “account for the structure of the simplest thought that is expressible in language”.6


Angelelli, I. (2017). The Impact of Traditional Predication Theory on the Notion of Class. In: P. Stalmaszczyk (ed.), 93–100.

Berwick, R. C. and Chomsky, N. (2016). Why Only Us. Language and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bowers, J. (1993). The Syntax of Predication. Linguistic Inquiry 24: 591–656.

Bowers, J. (2001). Predication. In: M. Baltin and C. Collins (eds.), The Handbook of Contemporary Syntactic Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 299–333.

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Chomsky, N. (2001). Derivation by Phase. In: M. Kenstowicz (ed.), Ken Hale. A Life in Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1–52. ← 15 | 16 →

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Cocchiarella, N. B. (2013). Predication in Conceptual Realism. Axiomathes 23 (2): 301–321. doi:10.1007/s10516-010-9140-x

Davidson, D. (2005). Truth and Predication. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dudman, V. H. (1985). Towards a Theory of Predication for English. Australian Journal of Linguistics 5: 143–196.

Hopper, P. and Thompson, S. (1980). Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse. Language 56: 251–299.

Kiss, É. K. (2006). Focusing as Predication. In: V. Molnár and S. Winkler (eds.). The Architecture of Focus. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Biographical notes

Piotr Stalmaszczyk (Volume editor)

Piotr Stalmaszczyk is a Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Lodz (Poland), where he holds the Chair of English and General Linguistics. His research is concerned predominantly with linguistic methodology and the philosophy of language and linguistics.


Title: Understanding Predication