Consider the following NPs:

[1] an alcohol ban
[2] a cotton shirt

Various discussions in CGEL would seem to imply the following:

P: alcohol expresses a semantic argument of the head noun ban in [1], while cotton does not express a semantic argument of the head noun shirt in [2]

How can claim P be supported?

One explanation:
i. according to CGEL (p. 441), 'complements express semantic arguments of the head noun'.
ii. alcohol is a complement in [1], while cotton is merely a modifier in [2].
iii. thus, P: alcohol expresses a semantic argument of the head noun ban in [1], while cotton does not express a semantic argument of the head noun shirt in [2].1

1In order to prevent circular reasoning, there must be independent reasons for saying that alcohol is a complement in [1] while cotton is a modifier in [2] (reasons independent of whether alcohol and cotton express semantic arguments of their respective head nouns). And perhaps there are such arguments. For example, CGEL would say this: [1] can be paraphrased as a ban on alcohol; in that rephrasing, the preposition on is licensed by the noun ban; 'The licensing criterion is the most basic criterion for complement status of post-head dependents' (p. 440). And perhaps there is no corresponding story about licensing that can be said about [2].

But is there any other way to establish P, a way that does not rely on first establishing that alcohol is a complement in [1] whereas cotton is a modifier in [2]?

  • 1
    @GregLee Sorry, I don't understand. Why think that sudden is an adverb in that phrase? Surely, it's an adjective? Dec 12, 2019 at 0:25
  • Sorry I wasn't clear. I revised my comment and made it an answer. If you think "sudden" is an adjective, what do you make of "a sudden cotton shirt"? Part of the nominalization process is to convert adverb modifiers into derived adjectives.
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 12, 2019 at 0:35
  • @ewawe I am trying to see if it is possible to disentangle questions of distinguishing complements vs modifiers from questions about semantic arguments. The link you posted, as best as I can tell, is solely about distinguishing complements from modifiers. For example, it does not even contain the phrase semantic argument. So, my question is this: is it possible to tell that, in [1], alcohol is a semantic argument of ban without first determining that alcohol is a complement of ban? Dec 12, 2019 at 0:40
  • @ewawe (For what it's worth, CGEL does list many of the tests listed in the page you linked, except it doesn't call them 'tests', probably because it says that 'in the NP, [complements and modifiers] are not as clearly differentiated syntactically [as they are in clause structure].') Dec 12, 2019 at 0:40
  • Thanks, I understand better now. I'm not really familiar with the concept of "semantic argument" on anything but an informal level. Have you seen it treated as a rigorously defined concept? Informally, "cotton" does not seem like a semantic argument to me because anything can be made of cotton, and being made of cotton is the same predicate for all of those things as it is for a shirt. But an alcohol ban is not "a ban that is made of alcohol", and there's no intuitively easy way to generalize what "alcohol" means in this construction except with very vague wording like "to be about alcohol". Dec 12, 2019 at 0:45

1 Answer 1


Actually, "alcohol" is an argument of the verb "ban" (not the noun "ban"). Note the interpretation of "sudden" as adverbial in "a sudden alcohol ban". The NP is a nominalization of a sentence whose main verb is "ban".

  • Like linguisticturn, I'm confused about why "sudden" is described as adverbial in this context. If this is an adverbial interpretation, does "sudden" have any non-adverbial interpretations? Because of its definition, it's hard for me to think of examples where "sudden" is used to modify a noun that cannot be interpreted as referring to an action, and most such nouns have a related verb. (Maybe "sudden darkness" or "sudden heat"?). Dec 12, 2019 at 0:32
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    @ewawe, modifiers of verbs are converted to adjectives in the process of nominalization. It is misleading to characterize "alcohol" as an object of the noun "ban" in the example when actually it is an object of the underlying verb "ban". It would have been an object if the sentence had not been nominalized.
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 12, 2019 at 0:48
  • @ewawe, I don't know how readers figure that out. I don't do discovery procedures.
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 12, 2019 at 0:53
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    I meant how do linguists/you know that "a (sudden) alcohol ban" is a nominalization of a sentence containing the verb ban? Dec 12, 2019 at 0:56
  • @GregLee Thank you for your answer; I think I see your point. I do have some follow-up questions, but I fear they would be too tangential to my present post, which is about semantic arguments. Dec 12, 2019 at 0:56

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