Friday, June 06, 2008

More obligatory adjectives

About a year and a half ago, Geoff Pullum noticed a situation in which it appeared that the adjective was obligatory and the article optional.
"The sharp-eyed Language Log reader will have noticed that Arnold Zwicky's latest post begins with the phrase the sharp-eyed Éamonn McManus. Now, it is well known that proper names of people usually don't take definite articles, allowing for some quite rare exceptions (the Donald for Donald Trump; the Bill Clinton of 1992 for a temporal stage of Bill Clinton's life history; etc.). Arnold certainly could not have begun his post by saying *The Éamonn McManus noticed a gap in the list. Yet sharp-eyed appears to be just an ordinary adjective in attributive modifier function, as in simple Simon, poor Aunt Beth, lucky Pierre, good old John, fearless Evel Knievel, sweet Georgia Brown, Calvin Trillin's locution the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky, and so on; and these are always optional: drop an attributive adjective and what's left is always a grammatical noun phrase. Yet dropping the adjective from the sharp-eyed Éamonn McManus does not leave behind a grammatical noun phrase. It produces something utterly unacceptable. So are attributive adjectives optional or not? How do we give an accurate description of what's going on here?"
I think I may have run across a similar construction.
  • an estimated 227 million people
  • an additional 12 books
  • a good two or three years ago
  • a full 360 degrees
  • a mere 20 feet
If we take out the adjective, we are left with ungrammatical phrases like *a 227 million people or *a two or three years ago.

Any explanations would be welcome.

1 comment:

John Lawler said...

The adjective is just one issue; the real problem for grammarians is the opportunistic use of articles to conversationally indicate practically any distinction. Jerry Morgan talked about this in a 1975 paper:

Morgan, Jerry L. 1975. "Some remarks on the nature of sentences", in Grossman, San, & Vance (eds), Papers from the parassession on functionalism, Chicago Linguistic Society.

Some of his examples are very difficult to deal with by any logical standards; (4) is an example of obligatory adjective:

(1) When we got home, the sherbet was gone, and the empty carton was in the sink.
(2) The reason I didn’t do it was that I got a phone call.
(3) Examining the cabinet, we noticed that a door was marred.
(4) When the presidential plane arrived at Dulles airport, the reporters were greeted by (a / the) sullen and snappish Henry Kissinger.
(5) The unicorn is a mythical beast.