Building and Interpreting Possession Sentences

Building and Interpreting Possession Sentences

By Neil Myler

A wide-ranging generative analysis of the typology of possession sentences, solving long-standing puzzles in their syntax and semantics.





A wide-ranging generative analysis of the typology of possession sentences, solving long-standing puzzles in their syntax and semantics.

A major question for linguistic theory concerns how the structure of sentences relates to their meaning. There is broad agreement in the field that there is some regularity in the way that lexical semantics and syntax are related, so that thematic roles (the different participant roles in an event: agent, theme, goal, etc.) are predictably associated with particular syntactic positions. In this book, Neil Myler examines the syntax and semantics of possession sentences, which are infamous for appearing to diverge dramatically from this broadly regular pattern.

On the one hand, Myler points out, possession sentences have too many meanings; in any given language, the construction used to express archetypal possessive meanings (such as personal ownership) is also often used to express other apparently unrelated notions (body parts, kinship relations, and many others). On the other hand, possession sentences have too many surface structures; languages differ markedly in the argument structures used to convey the same possessive meanings. Myler argues that recent work on the syntax-semantics interface in the generative tradition has developed the tools needed to solve these puzzles.

Examining and synthesizing ideas from the literature and drawing on data from many languages (including some understudied Quechua dialects), Myler presents a novel way to understand the apparent irregularity of possession sentences while preserving explanations of general cross-linguistic regularities, offering a unified approach to the syntax and semantics of possession sentences that can also be integrated into a general theory of argument structure.


$45.00 X ISBN: 9780262034913 472 pp. | 7 in x 9 in


  • This book is a refreshingly new study on variation in the morphosyntax of possession. Myler's approach artfully combines typological investigation and descriptive work on underrepresented languages with sophisticated theoretical morphology, syntax, and semantics to arrive at a compelling analysis. Engagingly written and carefully argued, this book touches on fundamental issues and constitutes a benchmark not only on the topic of possession, but far more broadly on the questions of how attested cross-linguistic variation should be modeled, and how such variation may be constrained.

    Jonathan Bobaljik

    Professor of Linguistics, University of Connecticut

  • Myler builds a system for modeling cross-linguistic variation in the famous HAVE/BE alternation, and supports that system with data from a broad gamut of languages, including his own fieldwork on Quechua dialects. This is the book every student of the HAVE/BE alternation should start with. There is no more comprehensive illustration of how the HAVE/BE alternation can be used to brighten the murkiest problems in the syntax of argument structure.

    Kyle Johnson

    Professor, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

  • Combining original fieldwork on Quechua with a cutting-edge command of argument structure, Myler has produced an innovative account of possession that highlights and resolves an intriguing contradiction in its crosslinguistic character. His balance of clean theory and powerful typology will have scholars returning to this work for years to come.

    Daniel Harbour

    Professor of the Cognitive Science of Language, Queen Mary University of London; author of Impossible Persons