Theta criterion

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In syntax, the theta criterion (in its original form) states that in a grammatical sentence, every theta role that a verb can assign must be realized by some argument, and each argument may bear only a single theta role.[1] So, for instance, for the verb send, which is associated with the theta-roles of Agent, Goal and Theme, a well formed sentence might look like this:

  • Robert sent Mary a package.

Here, the three theta roles are assigned to Robert, Mary and a package, respectively. The sentence would have been malformed if any of these arguments had been absent.

The number of arguments required in a verb determines whether it falls into the category of transitive, intransitive, or ditransitve. The theta criterion states that each argument must be assigned one (and only one) theta role, and each theta role must be assigned one (and only one) arguments[2]

Transitive: NP__{NP/CP} Intransitive: NP___ Ditransitive: NP____NP {NP/PP/CP}

If an excessive argument is present in the sentence, the theta criterion demands this argument must be considered an adjunct.[3]

Apparent violations[edit]

It is often noted that sometimes arguments of the verb are not overtly present, and that sometimes the verb may take more arguments than specified in the lexicon:

  1. Gladius Maximus died the death befitting a Roman soldier.
  2. John ate.
  3. Going to the store, be back later!

Linguists often explain sentences 2 and 3, where the verbs seem to be missing arguments, by positing a silent pronoun (pro) that occupies the phonologically empty argument positions. This can be justified by noting that one cannot get the meaning from sentence 2 that John ate something inedible, such as a rock, and that in sentence 3 there is a clear implied first-person subject.

In sentence 1, however, there is no clear theta-position that the death befitting a Roman soldier is occupying; it is unclear what licenses this cognate object, producing a pseudo-transitive use of the verb died. One plausible explication is the interpretation of the verb die in this phrase as synonym of suffer, undergo or be impaired; thus, the sentence may be interpreted as:

  • Gladius Maximus suffered the death befitting a Roman soldier.

And then, the arguments are complete.


  1. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1981/1993). Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures. Mouton de Gruyter.  See p. 36
  2. ^ Sobin, Nicholas (2011). Syntactic Analysis The Basics. Blackwell Publishing.  See p. 58
  3. ^ Sobin, Nicholas (2011). Syntactic Analysis The Basics. Blackwell Publishing.  See p. 58