Is there a term for activities which are only ever accomplished by other activities? If I were to make up a term I'd call them meta-activities. Some examples of what I'm thinking of:

  • teaching - accomplished by explanations, demonstrations, quizzing, giving feedback
  • cooking (potatoes) - accomplished by peeling some potatoes, dicing them, boiling them

While cooking has a primary sense of heating food, I'm not sure that teaching ever does - every example of teaching will be an example of other more basic actions.

I've thought of hyponymy/hypernymy, but it's not the same. Explanation isn't a type of teaching, and not all explanations will teach. None of the other common lexical relations are appropriate either. Any ideas?

  • @Alenanno I don't think the question is off-topic. It's definitely in the scope of linguistics, in this case semantics.
    – Atamiri
    Oct 7, 2013 at 15:45
  • @Atamiri Yes I'm not closing/emigrating it. :) I actually forgot to reply to curiousdannii previous comment so it seemed I still thought the opposite. I deleted the previous comments to avoid future discussions on this. :P
    – Alenanno
    Oct 7, 2013 at 15:58
  • @curiousdannii You need to be careful about using the term activity here - it's already widely used as a technical term for a particular kind of unbounded event, such as running and swimming
    – P Elliott
    Oct 7, 2013 at 23:29
  • @PElliott yes I think these kinds of verbs are activities in the aktionsart sense, but they're more complex than simple activities such as running.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 8, 2013 at 1:16
  • @curiousdannii Ok, cool, wasn't sure if you meant to use it in that sense or not. I can see how they're more complex conceptually, but i don't see any evidence that they're more complex linguistically.
    – P Elliott
    Oct 8, 2013 at 8:13

3 Answers 3


In (neo-)Davidsonian semantics, what you call activities is called events. Teaching/cooking in your example would be complex events.

A typical example is "Brutus stabbed Caesar. Caesar died." vs. "Brutus killed Caesar". Brutus' killing Caesar is a complex event that comprises stabbing and dying (the former causes the latter). It's not an atomic (causative) predicate since there's a time spam between the two events. Google for "neo-Davidsonian semantics" for papers and slides that discuss events in more detail.

  • In the jargon often used by linguists, the typology of 'events' includes 'activities', but this is just informal terminology: properly, an 'activity' is NOT technically AN 'event'; it rather resembles a 'property'. In proof of this, note that the Neo-Davidsonian LF for an 'activity' like 'John sells cars' is NOT (I gloss) 'There exists an 'event' e, such that (e is a Selling) & (Agent of e = John) & (Patient of e = cars) & (Time of e = present)', etc. The car-selling 'activity' entails a SET of selling 'events' which properly are 'Actions' like 'John sold a BMW ', 'John sold a Porsche', etc.
    – user6814
    Aug 5, 2017 at 10:21

I'm don't think that the two examples you mention should be grouped together linguistically as a single class (to the exclusion of other activity verbs).

Levin (1993) classes teach as a verb of transfer of message, along with show, read, preach, etc.. verbs of transfer of message are notable in that they participate in the dative alternation:

(1) John taught Mary the song.
(2) John taught the song to Mary.

Levin classes cook as a build verb, along with arrange, bake, carve, chisel, etc.. Such verbs are notable in that they participate in the following argument structure alternations: The material/product alternation, total transformation alternation, unspecified object alternation, benefactive alternation, raw material subject alternation, and the sum of money subject alternation. The example below is the benefactive alternation.

(3) John baked Mary a cake.
(4) John baked a cake for Mary.

Cook and teach are show very different behaviour. It's not even obvious to me that they belong to the same aspectual class. I don't see any reason why there should be a linguistic term to describe the conceit of 'activities accomplished by other activities'. As far as i can tell, there's no evidence to suggest that the distinction has any relevance to natural language semantics.

EDIT: Forgot to give the full citation for Levin. Here it is: Levin, B., (1993), English Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation


Verbs like teach might be labelled non-homogeneous activities.

David R. Dowty writes:

Whereas we can distinguish homogeneous activities from the class containing non-homogeneous activities and accomplishments (e.g. by Taylor's (57)), there seems to be a sense in which non-homogeneous activities are always defined in terms of more primitive accomplishments/achievements. There may or may not be a verb of English corresponding to this more primitive accomplishment (or series of them), of course. The definition of walk (an activity) would, should we desire to spell it out, seem to involve the accomplishment of "taking a step".

... Yet there seems to be no expressions at all describing the minimal accomplishment which defines chuckling (Taylor's example) or laughing.

Teach could be analysed as a non-homogeneous activity comprising the accomplishments explain, demonstrate etc.

  • I've only come across this terminology today (though it is quite intuitive.) If you're familiar with it, do you think it is an appropriate description of verbs like teach?
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 11, 2013 at 7:01
  • Good answer - i think this is the closest we're going to get to delineating what the questioner has in mind.
    – P Elliott
    Oct 11, 2013 at 10:28
  • Just in case you missed it, I am the questioner ;) I'm also quite happy with the complex events answer, though I thought I'd add this one to show another way of talking about it
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 11, 2013 at 10:34
  • I guess you've answered your own question then :-). I don't personally think the complex events answer answers your question nearly as well. All events are complex, other than perhaps states, so it doesn't delineate the event types you have in mind.
    – P Elliott
    Oct 11, 2013 at 13:25

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