Case, agreement, and unaccusativity in Russian

Stephanie A. Harves, Princeton University

In this paper, I examine two well–known syntactic diagnostics for distinguishing between unergative and unaccusative predicates in Russian: (1) distributive po–phrase constructions and (2) the genitive of negation (first discussed in Pesetsky 1982). Following Perlmutter (1978) and Burzio (1986) I assume that unergative verbs are intransitive predicates that select a single external argument, while unaccusative verbs select a single internal argument. I argue that contrary to previous analyses (Pesetsky 1982, Babyonyshev 1996), the ability of the single argument of an unaccusative predicate to appear in these constructions is due not to the initial syntactic position of the NP, but, rather, to the nature of unaccusative predicates themselves, i.e., to their ability to form impersonal predicates. Consider the data in (1–2) below.

(1) Distributive po–phrases

a. Direct object

Ja dal mal'chkam po jabloku.

I gave boys (po) apple–DAT

'I gave the boys an apple each.'

b. Subject of an unaccusative predicate

S kazhdogo dereva upalo po grushe.

from every tree fell–NEUT (po) pear–DAT FEM SG

'A (different) pear fell from each tree.'

c. Subject of an unergative predicate

*V kazhdoj kvartire smejalos' po mal'chiku.

in every apartment smiled–NEUT (po) boy–DAT MASC SG

'A different boy smiled in every apartment.'

(2) Genitive of negation

a. Direct object

Anna ne kupila knig.

Anna NEG bought books–GEN

'Anna didn't buy any books.'

b. Subject of an unaccusative predicate

Otveta ne pri&shachek;lo.

answer–GEN MASC SG NEG came–NEUT

'No answer came.'

c. Subject of an unergative predicate

*Ni odnoj devushki ne pelo.

not one girl–GEN FEM SG NEG sang–NEUT

'Not a single girl sang.'

Like direct objects, the single argument of an unaccusative predicate may appear as the object of distributive po (1a–b). In addition, the single argument of an unaccusative predicate may undergo genitive Case–marking under sentential negation in the same way that direct objects do (2a–b) (subject to the same definiteness effect). This has led many linguists to conclude that the initial VP–internal position of unaccusative arguments is responsible for their behavior in these constructions. However, note that in both (1b) and (2b), the unaccusative predicate shows a lack of subject–verb agreement, evidenced by the impersonal –o ending in the past tense. In this paper, I argue that the lack of verb agreement in these two constructions is the key to understanding why only internal arguments participate in these constructions. Based on the data in (1–2), in addition to a host of other examples from impersonal sentences in Russian, I show that only unaccusative predicates form impersonal predicates in Russian and that therefore, only unaccusative predicates allow their single NP argument to appear in a Case other than nominative. Thus, unaccusative predicates may be said to be "defective" in Russian, corresponding to recent proposals made by Chomsky (2000. 2001), who argues that unaccusative predicates are "defective" due to their lack of an external argument. Further evidence in support of this analysis comes from distributive po–phrases containing a numeral. Consider the examples in (3) below.

(3) Transitive predicate

a. *Po turistu kazhdyj den' smotrelo fil'my.

(po) tourist–DAT MASC every day watched–NEUT films

b. Po pjat' turistov kazhdyj den' smotreli fil'my.

(po) five–NOM tourists–GEN PL every day watched–PL films

'Five (different) tourists watched films every day.'

We would not expect the external argument in (3a) to appear as the object of distributive po, in light of the external argument restriction mentioned above. However, in (3b) the insertion of a numeral appears to "save" the derivation, allowing the external argument to appear as the object of distributive po. Two points are worth noting here. First, in (3b) the numeral pjat' does not receive dative Case (cf. 1b, 2b). Second the verb smotreli agrees with the plural QP pjat' turistov, in contrast to the impersonal predicates shown in (1b, 2b). I argue that in distributive po–phrases containing a numeral, the numeral functions as the syntactic head of the phrase, allowing it to AGREE with the predicate smotreli. Since unergative and transitive predicates must agree with their subjects, I argue that the addition of an agreeing numeral inside a distributive po–phrase saves the derivation. The example in (3b) thus supports the hypothesis that it is, in fact, agreement that is responsible for the behavior of verbal predicates in distributive po–phrase constructions, rather than the VP–internal position of internal arguments.


Babby, L. (1987). "Case, prequantifiers, and discontinuous agreement in Russian." NLLT 5: 91–138.

Babyonyshev, M. (1996). Structural Connections in Syntax and Processing: Studies in Russian and Japanese. Doctoral Dissertation, MIT.

Borik, O. (1995). Sintaksicheskij priznak neakkuzativnosti glagola (na materiale russkogo jazyka). MA Thesis, Dept. of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Moscow State University.

Burzio, L. (1986). Italian Syntax: a Government–Binding Approach. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Chomsky, N. (2000). "Minimalist Inquiries." In R. Martin, D. Michaels and J. Uriagereka eds., Step by Step: Essays on minimalist syntax in honor of Howard Lasnik, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 89–155.

—. (2001). "Derivation by Phase." In M. Kenstowicz, ed., Ken Hale: A life in language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1–52.

Perlmutter, D. (1978). "Impersonal passive and the Unaccusative Hypothesis." In Proceedings of the fourth annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society. J. Jaeger et al. (eds.) University of California at Berkeley. 159–189.

Pesetsky, D. (1982). Paths and Categories. Ph.D. Dissertation, MIT.