Friday, April 17, 2009

The categorization of 'so'

The other day I got an e-mail from a colleague who asked about complements to linking verbs. As I was thinking about the various possible complements, the clause it seems so came to mind. "What in the world is so," I wondered. Not really expecting to find any help, I checked a number of dictionaries. The OED has entries for so as an adverb/conjunction and predictably other dictionaries follow suit. But that can't be right.

The word seem can take a variety of complements apart from so. These include:
  1. Noun phrases (NPs) and adjective phrases (AdjPs), typically grouped as predicate complements (aka subjective complements).
    He seems happy. (AdjP)
    She seems a good sort. (NP) more common in British English
  2. Content clauses (aka noun clauses): bare, with subordinator that, and with relative pronoun what
    It seems (that) they have arrived early.
    That did not seem what they intended to convey.
  3. to infinitives
    It seems to be the right one.
  4. Preposition phrases (PPs)
    It seems
    like a good solution.
    They seem out of place
  5. And, of course, the word so. [My aunt reminds me that not can also work here.]
They do not include:
  1. Determinative phrases (DPs)
    *It seems any
    *It seems
    *It seems
  2. Adverb phrases (AdvPs)
    *It seems
    *It seems
    *It seems
    *It seems too.
  3. Content clauses introduced by when, why, how
    *It seems how they did it.
    *It seems why they did it.
    *It seems how they did it.
  4. Bare infinitives
    *It seems be OK.

So, if adverbs are illegal as complements [but note the possibility of not], why call so an adverb? I suppose the reasoning is: if something doesn't fit another category, it must be an adverb, but that's pretty silly.

And what do I think so is? I haven't figured that one out yet. I'll try to get back to you on it.

[Added May 25, 2009: otherwise also seems to have similar properties.]


Nick said...

I have a question: Isn't it "it seems quick"; not "It seems quickly"? I only ask because "to seem" is a linking verb if I remember and this sentence would mean, "it seems [to be] quick."

Nick said...

"so" is a conjunction right? Or do you mean like "so fast"; I would consider that to be informal, but it's being used as an adverb that is modifying the adjective "fast". I'm not sure really on that. I like to look at things semiotically when pertaining to grammar. I don't normally divagate from that.

Nick said...

I've also never heard of "it seems be ok." I've heard of "it seems to be ok" wherein the infinitive is not bare. Normally bare infinitives are subjunctive in nature such as "Let it be so" or "let there be light". Do expatiate on this because I'm curious and you are giving me more ideas for my blog as well.

Brett said...

Yes, the asterisks in front of sentences indicate that they are ungrammatical. It seems quick with the adjective as the complement would be the grammatical alternative.

Brett said...

So has a number of meanings, two of which you mention, but I'm looking at the meaning where it refers back to something previously stated in the discourse: e.g., "She's nice" "Yes, I think so too," where so here means "she's nice".

Brett said...

Sorry, "It seems be OK" should have had an asterisk in front of it. It does now.

Nick said...

Okay, well thanks. You are pretty helpful.

Brett said...

I aim to please.

Q Higuchi said...


I believe it is the verb 'seem' that makes 'so' as in 'It seems so' appear a little peculiar. In the classic sort of transformational account,

It seems (that) they have arrived early.

is derived from the following:

[that they have arrived early] seems

This captures our intuition that what is seeming here is the entire state of affairs, namely their having arrived early. Then the whole clause is shifted to the end of the sentence, and the 'dummy it' fills the subject position.

But the 'they' in that clause can fill the subject position, too, in which case we get the following:

[They] seem [to have arrived early]

Now, here is my point. What if the subject happens to be 'it', not 'they'? For example,

[that it is old] seems
-> (1) It seems that it is old
-> (2) It seems old

When 'so' substitutes the that-clause in (1), you get 'It seems so'. When 'so' substitute the AdjP in (2), you get 'It seems so'.

'It seems so', then, is structurally ambiguous. My humble guess is that this is why you had that sort of linguistic tickling in your mind when toying with 'It seems so'.

Anyway, I hope this makes it even clearer that 'so' is Pro-many-things: Pro-clause (as in the above), Pro-V (I can Verb and so can you), etc.