Archive for adjectives

A warm welcome to a new determinative

Every English dictionary in the world categorizes numerous as an adjective. And quite rightly: it mostly is. But a recent development has seen it pick up a second life as a determinative: a word like all, many, most, none, several, some, that, and this. Crucially, (i) at least some determinatives can form a noun phrase all on their own, as in All were approved, and (ii) at least some determinatives can make up a full noun phrase when accompanied by a partitive of phrase (but no head noun), as in some of my best friends. Adjectives cannot perform either of these feats: *Good were approved and *Happy of my friends liked it are wildly ungrammatical. Articles can't either: the articles a(n) and the are special determinatives that have neither of the properties (we don't find *The was very thoughtful or *An of my friends did it). But in recent writing, numerous is turning up (albeit rarely) with both properties, and thus taking on the syntax of a word like several.

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Modifier targeting: the awkward cusp between error and creativity

According to the BBC News for US & Canada website today, "The Pentagon is set to announce that the ban on gay people openly serving in [the] US military is to end"; and my colleague Heinz Giegerich did a double-take. He notes with puzzlement that he understood it despite the fact that the adverb is clearly in the wrong place. It's not open service that is banned by the military; it's open gayness. How can we possibly understand an adverb positioned as a premodifier of the verb serve when it ought to be positioned before the adjective gay?

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Very not appreciative

This use of "very not appreciative" caught my eye on Sunday:

“I’m very not appreciative of the way she came in here,” Ted Shpak, the national legislative director for Rolling Thunder, told the Washington Post.

This construction is not in my own dialect; it reminds me of the recent broader uses of "so". ("I'm so not ready for this", which I had perhaps mistakenly been mentally lumping together with "That's so Dick Cheney" or "That's so 1960's".)

I'm not sure what's changing, "very" or "not" or both. I suspect that "not" may be moving into uses previously reserved for "un-".

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Adjective phrases: answer to exercise

Let me return to the issue of wildly incompetent grammar text writing and the question (which I posed here) of whether and how you can find three adjective phrases in the following list of word sequences:

  1. thank you said Jim
  2. Janet ran home
  3. the poor injured duck
  4. a shivering and frightened
  5. give me that
  6. with a heavy bag

If you would like the answer, read on.

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Find the adjective phrases

Now for another piece of evidence (I gave one here) that even if you have no clue about grammar you can write grammar textbooks or reference handbooks and make good money by doing so. Here is an exercise set in Pupil Book 4 in the Nelson Grammar series (published by Thomas Nelson, now Nelson Thornes Ltd in the UK; ISBN 0-17-424706-0):

Three of the examples below are adjective phrases and three are sentences. Find the three adjective phrases. Add a verb and any other words you need to make each one into a sentence. Find the three sentences and write them with their correct punctuation.

  1. thank you said Jim
  2. Janet ran home
  3. the poor injured duck
  4. a shivering and frightened
  5. give me that
  6. with a heavy bag

Can you do this homework, Language Log readers? It appears to be aimed at children in elementary school, not older than 8 or 9. You will need the definition of "phrase", which is given on the previous page: "A phrase is a group of words that does not contain a verb" [sic; I swear I am not making this up]. I will now leave you to do the exercise (comments are open). Later I will come back to this and discuss it.

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In the footsteps of Robert Langdon

Language Log readers may recall the link I gave to the Vulture Reading Room discussion of The Lost Symbol on the New York Magazine website, where I made some comments on the extraordinarily heavy use Dan Brown's book makes of redundant (either pointless or already implicit) attributive modifiers. I illustrated from an early passage about renowned Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon's arrival at the Washington Dulles Airport: the Falcon 2000EX corporate jet, the soft leather seats in the luxurious interior, the cold January air, the white fog on the misty tarmac, the middle-aged woman with curly blond hair under stylish knit wool hat who babbles boringly to him about his own choice of attire, and then:

Mercifully, a professional-looking man in a dark suit got out of a sleek Lincoln Town Car parked near the terminal and held up his finger.

(No, I don't know which finger.) Well, by a weird coincidence (truth is stranger than even very strange fiction), last night I myself was flown into Dulles Airport at the invitation of people I have not met. And guess what…

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Invented facts from the Vicar of St. Bene't's, part 2

The Reverend Angela Tilby ended her scandalously unresearched little "Thought for the Day" talk of 1 October 2009 (part of which I have already discussed in this recent post) by suggesting that during the British political party conference season (i.e., right about now) we should try taking a blue pencil and editing out all the adjectives from the political speeches so that we could "see what is really being said about people, places, things, deeds and actions". She holds to the ancient nonsense about how nouns tell us the people, places, and things while verbs give us the deeds and actions but adjectives give us nothing but qualifications and hot air and spin — they contribute no content. And she is clearly implying that she (cynically) expects political speeches to be full of adjectives. But as before, she hasn't done any checking at all, she has just spouted her conjectures straight into the microphone. So let's try a second breakfast experiment, shall we?

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Invented facts from the Vicar of St. Bene't's, part 1

"Thought for the Day" is a four-minute reflective sermon delivered each morning on BBC Radio 4 at about ten to eight by some representative of one of the country's many religious faiths. On the first day of October the speaker was the Reverend Angela Tilby, Vicar of St Bene't's in Cambridge, England. (Bene't is an archaic shortened form of Benedict.) Developing a familiar theme from prescriptivist literature, she preached against adjectives. It was perhaps the most pathetic little piece of inspirational prattle I have ever heard from the BBC (read the whole misbegotten text here).

"Adjectives advertise," claims the Rev. Tilby, and "brighten up the prose of officialdom", but she was always "encouraged to be a bit suspicious" of them when she was a girl: "Rules of syntax kept them firmly in their place" (as if the rules of syntax left everything else to do what it wanted!). This was good, she seems to think, because "For all their flamboyance they don't really tell you much." Adjectives "float free of concrete reality" like balloons, and are guilty of "not delivering anything except, perhaps, hot air." Which aptly describes her babbling thus far. But now, inflated with overconfidence, she risks some factual statements. And steps from the insubstantial froth of metaphor into the stodgy bullshit of unchecked empirical claims about language use.

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