Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The exact opposite

"It's all a matter of keeping my eyes open. Nature is like one of those line drawings of a tree that are puzzles for children: Can you find hidden in the leaves a duck, a house, a boy, a bucket, a zebra, and a boot? Specialists can find the most incredibly well-hidden things. A book I read when I was young recommended an easy way to find caterpillars to rear: you simply find some fresh caterpillar droppings, look up, and there's your caterpillar. More recently an author advised me to set my mind at ease about those piles of cut stems on the ground in grassy fields. Field mice make them; they cut the grass down by degrees to reach the seeds at the head... Meanwhile the mouse is positively littering the field with its little piles of cut stems into which, presumably, the author of the book is constantly stumbling.
"If I can't see these minutiae, I still try to keep my eyes open. I'm always on the lookout for antlion traps in sandy soil, monarch pupae near milkweed, skipper larvae in locust leaves. These things are utterly common, and I've not seen one."
-Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Well, today I saw one. It was in an essay by So Hyun Park, one of my students. She wrote, "soon I faced the exactly same situation as Barry Schwartz."

"Of course that's what she wrote!" I thought. "Why wouldn't she?" Adverbs modify adjectives, and same is an adjective, so you would naturally expect *the exactly same. The correct form, though, is the exact opposite.

What we have here is a situation in which one adjective exact modifies another same. This is by no means unique in English, but its rare enough that few have noticed it and even fewer will admit it. John Payne, Rodney Huddleston, and Geoff Pullum discussed it in a paper that came out last year. But as far as I know, nobody, including P, H, & P, have documented this particular case.

What makes it even more interesting is that it seems to be in alternation with another odd construction: exactly the same situation, which is notable because we have the noun phrase the same situation being modified by an adverb exactly.

And the best part of all is that it appears that this is a bit of a pattern. 
There are a number of adjectives that function as head in this construction:
  • the exact same/opposite/right/correct/appropriate/wrong
Although exact is overwhelmingly the most common modifier here, other adjectives do function as modifiers:
  • the exact/identical/precise/approximate/absolute same thing
  • the exact/extreme/complete opposite view.
Much less common, but still attested in modifier function are: diametric, absolute, total, & entire. And most of these appear to be in alternation with the -ly adverb in external modifier position:
  • exactly/identically/precisely/approximately/absolutely/completely the same outfit.
The only exception I've noticed is that you don't find *extremely the opposite position.

Dillard goes on, "`As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious, then you will see deer.' But the artificial obvious is hard to see." It really is hard to see these things that are right in front of us, but it's easier if you have good students.

PS. Rodney Huddleston now points out that this is the same alternation that happens with superlatives:
  • absolutely the best result vs the absolute best result
  • approximately the best solution vs the approximate best solution

1 comment:

Q Higuchi said...

I have always wondered about exactly the same thing - and somehow in my mind it is parallel to these:

exactly [what ...]
precisely [where ...]

My intuition is that the bracketed portion is already 'full', so any element that wishes to modify it has to go outside it, where it cannot get an adjective licence that applies only to 'internal' modification. Yes, I know, this is a very rough, informal way of putting it, but that seems to me to be what's going on.

I believe the superlative pair facts (absolutely the best N / the absolute best N, etc.) are consistent with this.

What I don't know, is exactly what this is. OK, time to wonder more ...