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Taking English as an example, as I understand things, the case of a pronominal Subject is governed by the verb—it must be nominative:

  • She loves elephants.
  • *Her loves elephants. (ungrammatical)

Conversely, the verb agrees with the grammatical number of the Subject. So if the Subject is plural, the verb must be in a plural form (i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd person plural form):

  • We love elephants.
  • *We loves elephants. (ungrammatical)

These at first seem like quite similar things: each component must be compatible with the other. So what is the difference between government and agreement. Why do we not say that the Subject governs the verb, or that the Subject agrees with the verb?

In other words:

  • What are the syntactic and semantic properties/elements of government and agreement?

Answers with regard to any particular language are appreciated.


I reserve the right to ask questions (I think) I know the answer to.

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  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. Oct 20, 2022 at 21:46
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    Interesting question. I find that I use govern(ment) to refer to selectional restrictions (English sense verbs can govern all four complement types), while agree(ment) refers to constituent marking (German noun phrases agree in gender, number, and case). Government (by predicates or heads) seems universal, but agreement is a morphological phenomenon and requires paradigms.
    – jlawler
    Oct 21, 2022 at 19:57
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    So, did you have a chance to read Melcuk on government vs agreement? All my comments were deleted, for some reason. I might write a brief summary, when I get more free time.
    – Alex B.
    Oct 22, 2022 at 13:23
  • @AlexB. Shame. Maybe if you stick them in the chat they won't get deleted. (Or post them both there and here). Oct 22, 2022 at 14:00
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    I'm posting the links to Melcuk now, going to add more later degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783110199864.1.31/html and jbe-platform.com/content/journals/10.1075/li.17.2.04mel
    – Alex B.
    Oct 22, 2022 at 15:57

1 Answer 1

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The main thing is that government means that one controls the other, a sort of "If () then ()" relationship, whereas with agreement both arguments can be changed to produce a grammatical sentence. Using your examples, in the sentence "She loves elephants," one cannot change both "she" and "loves" to get some related sentence wherein the word "her" is used, meaning the verb governs the subject. On the other hand, in the sentence "She loves elephants," it would be perfectly grammatical and related to say "She loves the elephant." Disregarding the rules of definite article use (I'm not opening that can of worms), this sentence changed the object while retaining the verb, therefore meaning the verb agrees with the object.

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    The verb doesn’t agree with the object. It agrees with the subject, which remains unchanged. If you change the subject, the verb changes too: “*We loves elephants” is ungrammatical. Oct 19, 2022 at 22:22
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    @JanusBahsJacquet That's a much better and less long-winded explanation XD. Oct 20, 2022 at 2:08

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