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In English, and no doubt in many other languages, instruments can be subjects. We can speak not only of John (an agent) cutting the canvas, but also of the knife (an instrument) cutting the canvas. As others have pointed out, though I can't find the exact reference, not every instrument can be a subject in English. We can cut paper with scissors, and scissors can cut the paper. On the other hand, we can eat soup with a spoon, but the spoon can't eat the soup. Hence we have a distinction between a secondary agent (the scissors, which do something caused or controlled by the agent) and a tool (the spoon, which helps the agent do something).

My question is, are there languages in which instruments can't be subjects? For example, do languages with semantic alignment permit instrumental subjects? On a hierarchy of animacy, for example, "scissors" are much lower than first person, second person, and active beings like people and animals. So how could a word meaning "scissors" be a subject in such a language in sentences with active declarative meanings where nothing is marked with an inverse morpheme?

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    +1 This is really an interesting question!!! :D I wish I saw more like it on this site. I was thinking about Italian, I think I'd exclude it... – Alenanno Apr 28 '12 at 11:32
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    Linguistically, a spoon could tapdance. But what is grammatical is not always acceptable, and there are sentences that you could feasibly explain but would never have occasion to use. This seems to be a question about those. – Adele C Apr 29 '12 at 4:03
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    My question concerns arguments, not adverbials. "Afoot" is an adverbial, not an argument that stands for an instrument. Perhaps I can clarify my question by rephrasing like so: "Are there any languages whose subjects cannot denote instruments?" – James Grossmann Aug 1 '12 at 6:14
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    After a bit of research, this has become an even more fascinating question to me. There appears to be a rising consensus that 'instrumental subject' is not a real category, but the result of a complex interaction between verbal requirements of agency and nominal degrees of animacy. See for example Grimm, to be published. Given this (and I am no expert on this) it may be the answer would lie not on whether languages allow this or not, but where various languages draw the lines differently. – Mark Beadles Aug 31 '12 at 1:02
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    To others who are wondering about what we mean here: consider the bullet killed the robber vs. *the bullet murdered the robber, one of the prototypical examples. – Mark Beadles Aug 31 '12 at 1:08
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So. I just conferred with my Japanese co-worker about your example.

I believe that Japanese does not permit instrumental subjects.

The English sentence "The scissors cut the paper." can not be expressed as, "*ハサミが紙を切る” (hasami ga kami o kiru) grammatically. Instead it must be spoken with a non-subject instrument "ハサミで紙を切る” (hasami de kami o kiru) The difference is between が (ga) the subject marker and で (de) the instrument marker. The subject is grammatically absent from the latter example, but if explicitly stated would be a person or other agent.

I proposed to him the possibility of motorized scissors that automatically cut paper without human intervention and he found this grammatically acceptable as per the first example, but then the instrumentality comes into question.

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  • But then what about constructions like /hasami ga yoku kireru/? – Matt Oct 4 '12 at 5:46
  • kireru and kiru are quite different. Although they both act grammatically like verbs kireru implies the trait of ableness whereas kiru implies the action of cutting. – Mr. Wizard Nov 9 '12 at 5:26
  • Okay, I accept that argument. How about these sentences? "じぶんのペン・ナイフが浅黒い顔をした男の頬を斜めに斬り裂き..." // "その時既にタイタニックは、右舷を氷山に触れて、船首から船尾まで一線に切り割かれていたのだ。見るに、他愛なく、まるで紙ナイフが新しい本の頁を撫で開くように――。" You could classify these as "the instrumentality comes into question", I suppose, but I think the real issue is that (as Mark Beadles suggests) that Japanese is simply located differently on a non-absolute continuum. It is surely related to the fact that in Japanese the preference for animate subjects is in general more pronounced, e.g. "He was hit by a car" vs "A car hit him". – Matt Nov 16 '12 at 1:56

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