Tuesday, July 08, 2008

More on more obligatory adjectives

[After reading this post, please see the response by Rodney Huddleston]

About a month ago, I brought up structures like
  • a further two months passed
  • a surprising 50 students failed
  • a mere two books were lost
The reason these seemed odd to me is that if you remove the adjective, you end up with something ungrammatical.
  • *a two months ago
  • *a 50 students
  • *a two books
This structure came up again a few days ago on Language Log.

In the meantime, I had asked Rodney Huddleston about it. If I follow his explanation, the gist of his argument is that the adjective somehow demotes the noun phrase (NP) to an undetermined nominal by changing the numeral from a determiner to a modifier. (Huddleston doesn't say it this way, and I may be misrepresenting which constituent selects which.)

So, if we start with the example 50 students failed, we get the following tree for 50 students:

This means that we have 50, a determinative functioning as a determiner in a noun phrase (NP). The head of the NP is always a nominal. The CGEL has nominals as the head noun, plus any dependents except the determiner. Here, the nominal consists of only the head noun, since there are no other dependents.

Now, if we add the adjective before the determiner, we get the following structure:
Notice that 50 students is no longer an NP (determiner + nominal). Instead, it is a nominal (modifier + head noun). This nominal is nested in another nominal and modified by the adjective surprising. Huddleston says that the numeral "plays no part in marking the definiteness in these cases." To get a full NP, we need a determiner:

On p. 353, the CGEL addresses such constructions. It says:
"(c) Dependents (or sequences) that select a singular or quantified plural head

[69] another | an additional | a further | a good

[70] i [Another body/*bodies] had been discovered.
ii [Another three bodies] have been discovered.
iii [a further few/*many volunteers] were needed.
iv He ate [a good three hefty steaks] before leaving the table.

A plural head is permitted only if it is quantified by a numeral or by few."
I now feel that I have a better understanding of the constituent structure, but I still don't know why the nominal requires a determiner. Plural nominals don't, typically, you know. We can say exuberant readers rejoiced over the explanation. But we can't say *exuberant 50 readers...

I must admit, I have trouble understanding why the numeral plays no part in marking the definiteness.

[After reading this post, please see the response by Rodney Huddleston]

3 comments:

Me said...

Re: Brett's comment:

'I now feel that I have a better understanding of the constituent structure, but I still don't know why the nominal requires a determiner. Plural nominals don't, typically, you know.':

Hmmm... well, I can't really explain it, either, but it's worth noting one of the the examples given in the CGEL:

[70] i [Another body/*bodies] had been discovered.
ii [Another three bodies] have been discovered.

The use of 'another' in 'another three bodies' would seem to imply that 'three bodies', considered as a nominal rather than a noun phrase, is actually singular. This doesn't explain why it takes plural verb agreement, though...

It seems that we've got the paradoxical situation of a singular nominal that's plural in form ('three bodies') inside a plural noun phrase that's singular in form (judging by the choice of 'another' as the determiner).

Anonymous said...

Brett parses one of his examples as
[ a [ surprising [ fifty students ] ] ]

My naive parsing would be
[ a [ [ surprising fifty ] students ]

Does this bear examination?

Brett said...

"My naive parsing would be
[ a [ [ surprising fifty ] students ]"

John Payne points out the problem with this analysis with the following example:

[a [ surprising [three days and two weeks ] ]