Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Clarification on obligatory adjectives

The following guest post is from Rodney Huddleston.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to comment on your `More on obligatory adjectives' of July 08. I wouldn't put it this way. It's not the adjective which demotes the NP to a nominal but rather the determiner `a', although `a' is only possible if followed by a modifier. I think it's misleading to say `if we add the adjective before the determiner': you're adding it before the determinative, but also adding a determiner. (In CGEL we distinguish between `determiner', a *function*, and `determinative', a *category*. In `the book', say, `the' is a determinative functioning as determiner, but there isn't a one-to-one relation between these. The determiner function is not always filled by a determinative: it can also be filled by an NP, usually genitive, as in `Kim's book'. And determinatives don't always function as determiner, as in `these fifty students' or `a surprising fifty students', where the determinative `fifty' is modifier -- or `this big', where the demonstrative determinative is modifier in an AdjP.)

I don't think it's helpful to work in stages, as you do. Your second tree can't form an NP by itself, so it's not comparable to the first tree. I'd skip the second tree and contrast the first and third.

The reason the numeral plays no part in marking the definiteness is precisely that it is functioning as modifier, not determiner: the indefinite property is marked by the determiner `a'. Note that in some cases you can have a definite determiner: compare

`an additional two months'
`the additional two months'

The contrast in definiteness is marked by `a' vs `the': `two' has no bearing on it.

I would say that semantically `a' leads to an interpretation where the plural is interpreted as a quantity or the like: "a further period of two months". In the second example the number of students that failed is surprising. Note here that while you have `surprising' at the beginning, you change to `exuberant' at the end, but it seems to me that `an exuberant 50 students failed' (or `passed') is much less natural than your `surprising' example.

The question is not so much why the adjective requires a determiner as why the determiner requires an adjective -- it doesn't in the construction shown in [71] on the next page of CGEL (p354), e.g. `[That ten days we spent in Florida] was fantastic'.

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]

Monday, July 07, 2008


Language Log is almost always interesting, but rarely do they discuss much that bears directly on English Language Teaching. Yesterday, though, Mark Liberman wrote about High Variability Phonetic Training (VHPT), a method that, it appears, few teachers have heard of. I'm one of those who hadn't. Anyhow, it's well worth a read, as are some of the comments.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Still waiting for that millionth word

Over the years, the good folks at Language Log have ridiculed the claims of Paul JJ Payack and his Global Language Monitor. Mostly, they've pointed out how counting the words in English is simply not a viable enterprise. Payack, though, doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he doesn't even really seem to be trying. Rather he just keeps putting out essentially the same claim with later and later dates.
  1. In 2006, the Times of London had Payack predicting that "the one millionth word is likely to be formed this summer."

  2. Later, he said the date "should fall between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, 2006" (CBS News)

  3. Yesterday, we learned that the magic date has been postponed by about 2.5 years. "Author Paul JJ Payack, founding president of the Global Language Monitor, estimates English will hit the vocabulary milestone on April 29, 2009."

Meanwhile, language blog English, Jack predicts that Payack will continue to mine this publicity seam for at least two to three years to come. The question is: will fewer and fewer editors and reporters buy his line, or will they just keep on dutifully putting his name in print?

July first and the fourth of July

Each year in Canada we celebrate our national day on July 1 and then a few days later, our neighbours to the south celebrate their own day. There are different ways to talk about dates, but in the American case, the holiday is almost always "the fourth of July". It could, however, be known as "July the fourth" or just "July fourth".

In the BYU Corpus of American English, the [MONTH ORD] to [the ORD of MONTH] ratio is about 7.3 to 1 for January (the [MONTH the ORD] is quite rare). We do, however, find [the ORD of MONTH] pattern for most days, with Jan 1 and Jan 15 being the most common of these.

In July, the ratio is closer to 1.2 to 1, still in favour of the [MONTH ORD] wording. Most of the difference is accounted for by the fourth of July with the first of July also scoring highly.

Now looking at the British National Corpus, the July ratio, 1.4 to 1, still favors [MONTH ORD], but here July 4 is only slightly ahead of July 12 & July 1. In January, the same ratio is 3.4 to 1, much less lopsided than the American ratio.

So, I think we can say that both formula are used on both sides of the Atlantic for all dates, that [MONTH ORD] is more common in both cases, that special dates are more likely to be highlighted using the less common wording, and that there is a stronger preference in the US for the [MONTH ORD] order.