Event sentences

We now turn to a type of sentence which is very characteristic of the English language. For all its currency, however, neither their grounds nor their ways have completely been accounted for. It is a subject that has intrigued many scholars and has been the object of a lot of research. For this reason it will be treated in some detail.

Event sentences are relatively short utterances typically made up of a non-pronominal subject followed by an intransitive verb. Despite being in broad focus –that is, all the information is new-, the nucleus tends to fall on the noun rather than the verb, so the LLI rule is broken. Why this happens is not very clear, as several authors attest (Carr, 2013; Ortiz-Lira 2000; Roach, 2000). Cruttenden (1997) describes event sentences as typically involving “an intransitive verb which denotes (dis)appearance or misfortune”. This results in utterances such as the following:

 (55) sound_loud_speaker The glass broke.

(56) sound_loud_speaker The bus is coming.

(57) sound_loud_speaker Her mother died.

(58) sound_loud_speaker The baby’s crying.

Some authors (Tench, 1996; Estebas, 2009) stress the fact that, in these types of sentences, the verb is usually predictable and for that reason it has very little semantic content, which might explain the deaccentuation. Tench analyses the following cases:

(59) sound_loud_speaker The doctor’s coming.

(60) sound_loud_speaker The doctor’s running.

(61) sound_loud_speaker An accident has happened.

(62) sound_loud_speaker An accident is being investigated.

As can be seen in the examples above, the verbs with low semantic content (come, happen) are deaccented because, in Tench’s words, they “do not add anything of significance” and “simply fill the obligatory slot of the predicator”. On the other hand, those more charged with meaning (run, investigate) are stressed in accordance with the LLI rule.

The same accentuation pattern applies in sentences like

(63) sound_loud_speaker The kettle’s boiling.

because boiling is considered the likeliest thing for kettles to do and, therefore, a highly predictable event. This might easily lead to the conclusion that in a statement such as The kettle’s exploded the verb and not the noun would be accented, on account of the improbability of such an occurrence. But unfortunately things are never that simple. Not in English, at least. Uttered by a native speaker, The kettle’s exploded would carry the main accent in exactly the same place as The kettle’s boiling, e.g. the subject, because the sentence falls under the category of announcements, which in this respect behave entirely as event sentences.

(64) sound_loud_speaker The kettle’s exploded.

So, it is not only predictable events but also announcements that have to be taken into account and accented accordingly. Estebas (2009) summarizes the main cases of announcement thus: “statements related to body sensations, telephone identifications, machinery breakdowns and the announcement of someone’s death”. These are some of the examples provided by her:

(65) sound_loud_speaker This is Glenda calling.

(66) sound_loud_speaker The car’s broken.

(67) sound_loud_speaker The Pope died.

One of the moot points about event sentences is the role human subjects have in them. The question is, do sentences with non-human and human subjects behave in the same way? Faber (1987) noted that in some cases they do not, and illustrated his point as follows:

(68) sound_loud_speaker The dog’s farted.

(69) sound_loud_speaker Molesworth’s farted.

As can be observed, in the sentence with a non-human subject the nucleus is placed on the noun and the verb becomes deaccented, whereas in the event featuring Molesworth the sentence has two stresses, the crucial fact being that the verb still bears the nucleus. Faber explains that these sentences are distinguished from others in that they all have both (a) human subjects and (b) agentive verbs. Ladd (1996), drawing on Faber’s article, provides a very clear description of this phenomenon: “By contrast [to the deaccentuation of the verb in event sentences], if the subject denotes a human agent and the predicate denotes an action over which the subject is likely to have some control, accent on the verb is more likely”.

Cruttenden (in Ramsaran, 1990) acknowledges his debt to Faber for this insight about the involvement of human subjects in these kinds of sentences and formulates the rule as follows: “In event sentences consisting primarily of subject plus intransitive verb the nucleus goes on the subject, except in sequences consisting of a human subject and a verb not involving (dis)appearance”. He provides the following examples as illustration:

(70) sound_loud_speaker (What’s all the fuss about?) A criminal’s escaped.

(71) sound_loud_speaker (What happened while I was out?) The Jehovah’s witnesses came round again.


(72) sound_loud_speaker (What happened next?) The vice-chancellor swore.

* The vice-chancellor swore.

(73) sound_loud_speaker (What’s going on?) The secretary’s / singing.

*The secretary’s singing.

All the subjects in the above examples are human. The difference is that in the first two cases, with verbs involving (dis)appearance (escape and come round), there is only one intonation group and the nucleus falls on the noun. By contrast, in the following two examples, both with agentive verbs (swear and sing), the sequence is divided into two intonation groups with two different nuclei.

It is interesting to note that Ladd (1996) interprets this type of sequence in a slightly different way. He reproduces the examples proposed by Faber in his article, but not quite literally. Where Faber sees two intonation groups and two nuclei –just as Cruttenden would later do-, Ladd only finds one intonation group and one nucleus in the final verb.

(74) sound_loud_speaker My brothers are wrestling.

(75) sound_loud_speaker The professor swore.

Admittedly, it seems like an elegant solution to the problem.

Now to round off the theory about event sentences nicely a couple of notes can be added. The first is contained in Ladd (1996) who, drawing on Gussenhoven and Faber, explains that “sentences with generic subjects and sentences that state definitions, eternal truths, and grand abstractions are also often accented on the predicate”. The examples provided are:

(76) sound_loud_speaker Wood floats.

(77) sound_loud_speaker Penguins swim.

(78) sound_loud_speaker Hope faded.

The clarification seems completely apposite, since otherwise one might think that those cases fall under the heading of event sentences or announcements and utter them without placing the nucleus in the right place.

Finally, I would like to mention a contribution also made by Ladd (1980) about the deaccenting of names. He warns that “names seem to be much less accentable than other NPs in identical contexts”, as in

(79) sound_loud_speaker Jesus wept.

The explanation he proposes is that “names are commonly deaccented to refer them to the context in a special way”. In other words, this is a strategy to get across the idea that that specific person who is being referred to counts as shared knowledge, someone known to both speakers.

Let’s now turn to a set of examples taken from real life. The first interesting thing to say is that, no matter how controversial or abstruse the theory about event sentences might appear, they crop up constantly in actual speech, hence becoming easily observable. The examples collected here present varying degrees of complexity, a feature that will allow us to look at them in a slightly unusual way.

A non-native speaker learning about event sentences in linguistics textbooks might think they exclusively consist of bald statements in which someone announces or reports something that comes more or less “out of the blue”. At least, this is what can be inferred from the examples generally provided: the bus is coming, the kettle’s boiling, etc. But this is by no means always the case.

Sure enough, our first three examples fit that description perfectly: three very short sentences in which the notion of appearance is obvious.

(80) Your car’s waiting (Ian Richardson; Edinburgh; Scotland).


(81) Your brother called (Peri Gilpin; Waco, Texas, US).


(82) Papa’s coming (unknown child actor).

Our fourth example, however, is rather different. The speaker, a university professor, is talking about the life of John Calvin, the Swiss religious reformer. He is evidently building expectations about Calvin because he wants to capture his audience’s attention, and at some point, in contrast to what came before and yet strongly linked to it, he makes an announcement which counts, for all intents and purposes, as an event sentence:

(83) sound_loud_speaker But then the reformation happened (Diarmaid MacCulloch; Kent, UK).

If we listen to the whole sequence we realize that the word reformation reaches a high point not only in pitch, but also in terms of emphasis and intensity. The verb, by contrast, becomes completely deaccented. The argument to be emphasized here, then, is that in real speech event sentences don’t always come as isolated as they do in textbooks but, on the contrary, firmly embedded in discourse.

Now there follows a battery of examples where a firm embedding of event sentences within the discourse can be observed as well.

(84) sound_loud_speaker The green movement became very strong in Tasmania (writer Richard Flanagan; Tasmania, Australia).

(85) sound_loud_speaker He had to say that after the Anglo-Saxons arrived, the British, nevertheless, still held on to these islands for two hundred years (Laura Ashe, Oxford University).


(86) Great idea! That’s where your talent lies (Michael Caine; London, UK).


(87) I just walk in and my mouth starts watering (John Mahoney; Blackpool, Lancashire, UK).


(88) I’m telling you, Frasier, my allergies are acting up (David Hyde Pierce; New York, US).


(89) sound_loud_speaker No, I didn’t get the job but something better happened (Johnny Depp; Owensboro, Kentucky, US).


(90) sound_loud_speaker Hey, do you want to know my pet peeve? It’s when you’re in a department store and the clerk is right in the middle of helping you and the phone rings. So he starts taking care of them[1] (Peri Gilpin; Waco, Texas, US).

Event sentences are a good instance of how English and Spanish follow different strategies to focalize a chosen item. In all the cases analyzed so far, a translation into an unmarked Spanish version would probably involve a syntactic movement whereby the SV order becomes VS. In this way the same item (noun) is accented in both languages. In some cases the SV version is also possible in Spanish, but in general a VS seems order more natural.

(91) Your car’s waiting.

(92) Te está esperando el/tu coche.

(93) Your brother called.

(94) Ha llamado tu hermano.

(95) Papa’s coming.

(96) Viene pa.

(97) But then the reformation happened.

(98) Pero entonces sobrevino/tuvo lugar la reforma.

(99) The green movement became very strong in Tasmania.

(100) Lo que en Tasmania cobró mucha fuerza fue el movimiento verde.

(101) He had to say that after the anglosaxons arrived, the British, nevertheless, still held on to these islands for two hundred years.

(102) Él tenía que decir que, después de que llegaran los anglosajones, los británicos aun así mantuvieron el control durante doscientos años.

(103)  That’s where your talent lies.

(104) Ahí es donde reside tu talento.

(105) I just walk in and my mouth starts watering.

(106) En cuanto entro se me hace agua la boca.

(107) My allergies are acting up.

(108) Me salen/molestan/me aparecen todas las alergias.

(109) No, I didn’t get the job but something better happened.

(110) No, no he conseguido el trabajo, pero ha sucedido algo mejor.

(111) The clerk is right in the middle of helping you and the phone rings.

(112) El dependiente te está atendiendo y suena el tefono.

[1] See also contrastive intonation, pronouns.


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