Grammatical Relation (definition)

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Grammatical relations indicate the syntactic relationships between a verb and the noun phrases present in a clause. Commonly used grammatical relations include subject, direct object and indirect object. Noun phrases which are not a core argument (i.e., are not a subject or object of the verb) are called oblique. In English, oblique noun phrases are usually objects of prepositions.

1) Smith hit Jones with a kumquat.

In (1) Smith is a subject, Jones is a direct object, and a kumquat is an oblique (an object of a preposition). In (2), Jones is an indirect object:

2) Smith tossed a kumquat to Jones.

Note that now, although the events described in (1) and (2) are similar, the two non-subject noun phrases Jones and a kumquat change grammatical relations. It is important to remember that although grammatical relations correlate to some degree with thematic relations (a semantic concept), grammatical relations are not semantic and they are not the same as thematic relations. Consider (3):

3) Jones was hit with a kumquat.

Here, Jones has the same thematic relation as in (1), but in the passive voice this noun phrase has become a subject.

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  • Payne, Thomas. 1997. Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521588057
  • Carnie, Andrew. 2006. Syntax: A Generative Introduction. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell