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I've heard some people say that there are two types of instrument: secondary agents and tools.

A secondary agent is something that accomplishes a task when the agent wields it. So we CAN say sentences such as "the knife cut the paper," "the boat crossed the river," and "the oven cooked the muffins."

A tool is something that helps an agent accomplish a task himself/herself. We CAN say that we eat with a fork, but we CAN'T sensibly say "The fork ate the broccoli." We CAN say that we planted a tree with a shovel, but we CAN'T sensibly say that "the shovel planted the trees".

How hard and fast is this distinction? Have counterexamples ruled it out in the literature, is it still an open question, or is it considered established semantics?

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    The distinction between the Secondary Agent and the Intermediary (an independent Agent allowing the main Agent to succeed in some action) would seem to become more blurred, although there is still a difference in volitionality. – Keelan May 23 at 6:05
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    Cross isn’t really a very good example. We can also say that a fork or a shovel crossed the river if the current happened to bring it from one side to the other – cross can be non-volitional. Perhaps ‘the ferry manoeuvred the narrow waters’? – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 23 at 7:07
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    I think @JanusBahsJacquet's comment goes for all the examples- I didn't put my knife away properly and it's cut through my bag; the bodies had lain undiscovered in the outback for 4 weeks and had been cooked by the sun. Is the ferry manoeuvred the narrow waters a case of using the ferry to stand for the captain / crew? If so I guess it would be the primary A. Also, it would be unfortunate if a knife turned out not to be a tool, and the shovel dug deeper and deeper until it struck the chest is OK for me - maybe the issue with planted is that the shovel is not the only tool required – rchivers May 23 at 9:18
  • William Frawley (Frawley 1992) calls them differently, author (or effector) and instrument - see pp. 205-210 for a more detailed discussion with examples and references. routledge.com/Linguistic-Semantics/Frawley/p/book/9780805810752 – Alex B. May 23 at 19:44
  • He mentions DeLancey 1984, which can be found on Academia academia.edu/3985847/Notes_on_agentivity_and_causation or on the journal platform jbe-platform.com/content/journals/10.1075/sl.8.2.05del – Alex B. May 23 at 19:49

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