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Valency and sentence structure

Valency (verb)
Semantic vs syntactic valency 
Valency class and sentence structure 
Verb and sentence structure
Secondary valency (adjectives)


The valency of a verb is its capacity to combine with a specific number and type of complements.

The verb, or more precisely the predicate, is the central constituent of the sentence. It always consist of at least one finite verb form (= verb form having a specific number and person). A complete sentence always contains a predicate. The predicate largely determines the structure of a sentence. It governs the other constituents of the sentence.

The verb geben, for example, requires three different roles:
  • the role of the giver
  • the role of the receiver
  • the role of what is given.
Cf. the example: Der Großvater gibt dem Enkel einen Euro.

The verb geben also determines which role has to be played by which constituent. The predicate geben requires:

Role Constituent Example
giver subject Der Großvater 
receiver  dative object dem Enkel
gift accusative object  einen Euro

The verb geben has the following complements:
  • giver
  • receiver
  • what is given
or, respectively,
  • subject
  • dative object
  • accusative object.

Semantic and syntactic valency

The above example shows that the complements accompanying a verb can be described from different angles: e.g.
  • semantically (according to their meaning: giver, receiver, gift), or
  • syntactically (according to their function in the sentence: subject, dative object, accusative object).
Our sentence structures describe the structures based on the syntactic valency of verbs (and adjectives).

NB: Semantic and syntactic structures do not always correspond. A semantic structure can be expressed by more than one syntactic structure, and a syntactic structure can express more than one semantic structure.

Valency classes and sentence structures

Verbs combining with the same number and type of constituents belong to the same valency class. A valency class can be described by a sentence structure. The example verb geben has the following sentence structure:

Dative object
 Accusative object 
 Der Großvater 
 seinem Enkel  
einen Euro

The following verbs have the same sentence structure: schenken, schicken, bringen, mitteilen, vergeben, verheimlichen, zurufen, zurückzahlen, and many more.

Subject  Predicate  Dative object   Accusative object 
Sie schickte ihrer Mutter  einen Brief.
Die Angestellten verheimlichen dem Chef vieles.
Der Ober empfahl uns das Tagesmenü.

Sentence structures can be used to classify the infinite number of possible sentences into a finite number of syntactic groups.

Verbs and sentence classes

A verb can belong to more than one valency class. For example:

Der Ball rollt.  Subject   Predicate 
Sie rollt den Ball.   Subject   Predicate  Accusative object 

Er sagt mir etwas.  Subject   Predicate  Dative object Accusative object
Er sagt etwas zu mir.  Subject   Predicate Accusative object  Prepositional object 

These verbs have different sentence structures. The difference in structure often – but not always – corresponds to a difference in meaning.

Secondary valency (adjectives)

Because verbs as predicates are the central constituents of a sentence, verb valency is called primary valency. Some adjectives also have the capacity to combine with other constituents of the sentence. This valency is called secondary valency.

See Secondary valency, Adjectives

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