Transitive / Intransitive Verbs and Lexical Semantics

From: Clayton Bartholomew (
Date: Tue May 27 1997 - 08:39:36 EDT

Jim Beale's question about J 3:30 raised a doubt in my mind that I had
a clear understanding how the *Transitive / Intransitive* qualities of
a verb related to the Active \ Middle \ Passive issue.

I took a short tour of the Grammars which were within easy reach and
discovered what appears to be some minor discrepancies in how this
issue is treated.

Porter (Idioms) on page 63 cites Robertson and others to the effect
that *Transitive / Intransitive* is not connected with the issue of
Active \ Middle \ Passive. Dana & Mantey (a footnote on p154) sort the
issue out fairly well. If I understand what they are saying I would
concluded that *Transitive / Intransitive* issues belong to the domain
of lexical semantics, not syntax. When we say that a verb is
Transitive we are talking about what the word means in a particular
context. Dana & Mantey specifically stress the point that transitivity
is contextually determined.

If this is the case, then all the discussion in Turner (Syntax, p51ff)
about transitive verbs being used as intransitive in the NT and vise
versa seems to be to be rather beside the point. If transitivity is an
aspect of a words semantic value in a give context, then why should it
be particularly noteworthy that this value can change either over time
(diachronicly) or in different contexts (synchronicly). Turner seems
to imply that transitivity should be some sort of permanent part of a
verbs semantic baggage and then cites examples where this is not the

I have two questions:

First Question. Is transitivity a part of syntax or does it belong to
lexical semantics, or does this question show evidence of a
misunderstanding somewhere else? Is this a forced sort of either\or
question that shows a weakness in the underlying language model?

Second question: Is transitivity a *permanent* part of a verbs
semantic baggage, and if so does this not violate the model that some
of us are using for lexical semantics which denies the existence of
fixed semantic values for words?

This is a rather muddled series of issues but I a sure that someone on
the b-greek list will be able to sort it all out.

Clay Bartholomew
Three Tree Point

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