Monday, June 20, 2011

A-Adjectives Again: Response to Goldberg

Adele Goldberg has responded to my earlier post (3/2/2011) on A-adjectives here:

She responds to the points I made to argue that A-adjectives are actually PPs, and brings up more data, some old, some new, to argue that they are adjectives, not PPs. Here I respond to all of her points, and show that, while most of the arguments are simply inconclusive, there still is positive evidence that A-adjectives are PPs and not adjectives.

First, Goldberg criticizes my earlier post for likening A-adjectives to PPs like at ease and on fire, because, according to her, "(t)hese cases are unusual, in that they necessarily involve bare Ns instead of NPs, and they pattern with adjectives" according to some of the tests given by Goldberg that are reproduced below. However, the analogy to such PPs was purposeful: if A-adjectives are PPs, they are PPs like at ease and on fire in exactly the way Goldberg says: they do not allow phrases following the a- part, but only bare nouns/stems. As we will see below, in every way A-adjectives pattern with such PPs. If one wants to argue that A-adjectives are adjectives, then one will have to also conclude that PPs like at ease are adjectives. In addition, I will also show that A-adjectives pattern with one-word PPs, what are often called "particles," like on, off, out. Again, one would have to conclude that these particle-Ps are actually adjectives, too. And yet there are still ways they pattern like PPs, and unlike adjectives.

To begin, Goldberg produces the list below of ways in which A-adjectives pattern with adjectives, and not with PPs. I reproduce each point verbatim in italics, and then respond to the point. Note that Goldberg says that PPs with a bare N (like at ease) pattern with A-Adjectives on all but point 5, but in fact they pattern the same on that point as well.

1. Semantically, they [A-adjectives] necessarily modify a property of a noun like other adjectives and unlike prepositional phrases.

It is not clear to me what this even means. Let us consider uncontroversial PPs like on the table that specify location. How is a location not a property of a noun? Or PPs like with brown hair: again, isn't this a property of a noun? Postnominal PPs, in particular, seem to predicate properties of the noun they follow, in a straightforward way (the book on the table, the girl with brown hair, the man from Tulsa). Additionally, A-adjectives, and PPs, are predicative when used predicatively, as in The light is aglow/on fire/on. That is, they predicate a property of a noun phrase. There is no semantic difference between adjectives and (at least some) PPs in how they predicate properties of nouns.

However, this does bring up another point, one related to others below. This is that A-adjectives do not like to be used attributively without being in a restrictive relative clause or modified in some other way. The first fact usually remarked upon about A-adjectives is that they do not appear prenominally. But they don't like to appear postnominally by themselves in a restrictive function, either, as Goldberg points out below:

(1) *the asleep man, ??the man asleep

Unless they are modified in a way that makes them predicative, including putting them in a relative clause:

(2) anyone still asleep, the man who was asleep

So, the question is not why A-adjectives do not like to appear prenominally, but rather, Why do they resist being used attributively (as restrictive modifiers) without syntactic help? They resist this function both prenominally and postnominally. Note that the same holds of PPs with a bare N like at ease or on fire:

(3) *the on fire man, ??the man on fire
(4) anyone still on fire, the man who was on fire

It also holds for particle-Ps:

(5) *the on light, ??the light on
(6) any light still on, the light that is on

I do not have an answer to this question, but return to it below. I think it very important that we ask the question this way, rather than focusing on the inability of A-adjectives to occur prenominally.

2. Phonologically, they are inseparable units like adjectives and unlike prepositional phrases.

To this I respond, So what? All this point indicates is that the division between morphology and syntax is not at all clear-cut (something that everyone knew anyway). Syntactically, PPs like on fire and at ease are inseparable, too: *It's fire that he was on. (vs. It's crack that he was on.)

3. The verb seem provides a classic test for adjective status, and readily occurs with the A-adjectives but not with prepositional phases (Lakoff 1970; Jackendoff 1972):
a. The child seemed alive/afraid/afloat/alone/aghast.
b. *The child seemed on the table/at two o’clock

Everyone seems to have concluded that seem only allows adjectives, but that's simply not true (many examples here taken from the web):

(7) NPs: that seems just the thing/just the ticket/just the place to rest; seems just the opposite to me
(8) PPs with bare Ns: those people seemed at ease/on fire/at war/on target/under control
(9) PPs with phrasal NPs: even Charlie seems at a loss; tumors seem on the rise; they seem on the same page; he seems under the weather; it seems beneath the positive things you are doing; win seems within Earnhardt's grasp; post seems within the charter to me; it seems within his character; he seems on his way out; they seem on a collision course; my teen seems on the fringe; school reform seems on a roll

The examples in (9) all have fully phrasal PPs as complement to seem. Many are admittedly somewhat idiomatic, but they are still PPs, and some of them are not idiomatic at all (within the charter, within his character).

Note also that the PPs that are supposed to only allow bare Ns do admit some modification, and can still appear as the complement of seem:

(10) Home ice still seems within reasonable reach for Gophers (

Also, particle-Ps can appear as the complement of seem:

(11) The light seems on/off/out.

Seem, then, does not provide a clear diagnostic for adjectivehood.

4. A-adjectives can be conjoined with uncontroversial adjectives, like other adjectives and unlike prepositional phrases,
a. The man was quiet and afraid/alone.
b. ??The man was quiet and on the table.

It is well-known that different syntactic categories can be conjoined, so conjunction shows nothing (see, e.g., Sag et al. 1985). I find Goldberg's (b) example fine, especially if the PP and adjective are reversed:

(12) the man was in the room but quiet;
(13) the man was next to me and looming;
(14) the man was near the baby and crazier-looking than ever; (and so on)
(15) Pat was healthy and of sound mind. (Sag et al. 1985, example 2c)

Again, this test is simply inconclusive.

5. Like many (but not all) other adjectives but unlike prepositional phrases, afraid (if not other A-adjectives) can occur with of phrase complements:
a. afraid of the man

PPs can take of-complements (or other PP complements):

(16) at risk of fire; on top of spaghetti; in front of the house; within reach of more people; on board with us;

Some A-adjectives even take NP complements, unlike adjectives:

(17) aboard the ship, athwart the deck

Again, particle-Ps pattern the same way: off (of the table), off the table.

6. A-adjectives do not readily appear after nouns except if they have a complement and/or an
intonation break (a), just like simple adjectives (b), but unlike prepositional phrases (c):
a. *The man asleep escaped the police. (postnominal a-adjective)
The man, asleep on the floor, escaped the police.
b.*The man short had escaped the police. (postnominal (non a-) adjective)
The man, short even with his boots on, escaped the police.
c. The man under the bed escaped the police. (postnominal PP)

I addressed this point briefly above. Again, PPs with bare Ns pattern exactly like the A-adjectives (The man at risk ??(of infecting others) eluded the authorities).

More importantly, A-adjectives and PPs with bare Ns do NOT pattern with adjectives in this respect, because the actual property here is ability to be used attributively. Adjectives can be used attributively without any modification (and when they are so used, they appear before the noun); A-adjectives and PPs with bare Ns cannot, nor can particle-Ps, as shown above. Fully phrasal PPs can, patterning with adjectives (except in their position). So, point 6 is simply inconclusive: A-adjectives (and PPs with bare Ns and particle-Ps) pattern with neither category.

Summary of the first six points: None of them indicate that A-adjectives are adjectives; all are consistent with them being PPs. All of them indicate that A-adjectives are just like PPs with bare Ns (like at ease) and particle-Ps. If A-adjectives are adjectives, then so are PPs with bare Ns and particle-Ps. But this conclusion seems silly: such PPs have an obvious P head, and in PPs with bare Ns, pretty much any P can appear in such phrases (see the range of examples above). Moreover, they all allow right-modification, which does seem to be limited to PPs (see below).

Goldberg then turns to the arguments I gave in my earlier post that A-adjectives pattern with PPs. The first one is the small clause complement of have fond memories of. Goldberg appears to be correct that this does allow adjectives (I have fond memories of him sober), so I was wrong that this context shows A-adjectives patterning with PPs.

The second, and most convincing argument in my opinion, is right-modification (also straight and clear). A-adjectives pattern with PPs in allowing right-modification, as in fall right asleep. Goldberg's response to this is to point out that not all A-adjectives allow it. The following are her judgments ("G10" means her example 10):

(G10) a. ??It became right afloat.
b. ??He became right afraid.
c. ??He was left right alone.

I personally find (G10c) reasonably good. I agree that (G10a) and (G10b) are odd, but the point remains that most (if not all) other A-adjectives DO admit right-modification. Goldberg has not indicated any way to reconcile this fact with the claim that A-adjectives are adjectives. In particular, she has not shown that anything that is uncontroversially an adjective allows right-modification. So far as I am aware, it is true that only PPs allow right-modification. ((G10a) seems odd because afloat seems to mostly be stative, not inchoative: it became afloat is itself odd. However, this one seems better: ?It bobbed right afloat. Moreover, I think right afraid could be possible, as in ?They slapped him right afraid, which contrasts sharply with *They slapped him right scared.)

Goldberg also attempts to defuse the ways in which I showed that A-adjectives do not act like adjectives. First, I claimed they could not appear with the to form kind-denoting NPs. Goldberg has found two such uses:

(G11) a. Books are written by the alone for the alone.(COCA corpus)
b. The oppressed will come to you for shelter, and the afraid will find safety with you.

She also says that,

...the ability to be used as a kind-denoting NP is not a good test for adjectives, since not
all clear adjectives (Class I) pass it:
c. ??The full/huddled/pinkish will inherit the earth.
Thirdly, if Class III items [A-adjectives] are dispreferred relative to Classes I and II to some degree as they may
well be, it could well be because the kind-denoting NP construction prefers adjectives that can
readily appear in NPs.

I agree that her two cases sound reasonably good. However, it seems to me that some PPs with bare Ns would sound just as good, as would particle Ps:

(18) Book are written by the under control for the out of control.
(19) The on will succeed and the off will not.

Then, this test is simply not conclusive. Since I do not really understand the restrictions here, I will leave it at that.

My second point was that A-adjectives do not take -er comparatives. Goldberg says the following:

The comparative ending requires the adjective be gradient, and most a-adjectives are inchoative and therefore not gradient. Again, all adjectives obey this semantic restriction:
(G12) a. *deader, *sunker
The phonology of these adjectives may also play a role, explaining the few cases that are gradient
(such as afraid) since Class II adjectives [those that start with A but are not A-adjectives; BB] also resist the comparative ending:
b. *absurder, *acuter, *aloofer,
Thus the lack of appearance with -er cannot be taken as evidence for underlying PP status without overgeneralizing the structure to Class II adjectives.

I think that Goldberg's claim about gradience is simply false: deader than a doornail is fine, and most adjectives, including most A-adjectives, can form more comparatives, which should be impossible if they cannot be gradable: more alive, more ablaze, more alone, more aghast, etc. Nevertheless, it does seem to be true that the phonology might be playing a role, since absurd, acute, astute, and aloof also do not form -er comparatives. I will concede that this point is not conclusive, either. (However, I do note that a few hits turn up on Google for absurder and acuter, and quite a few for astuter, like "An astuter man than the French emperor would have found it difficult to resist the system of delicate flattery..." from The Living Age on Google Books. In contrast, I find nothing for *afraider, *aloner, *aghaster, *ablazer. So, I suspect that the claimed phonological restriction is nonexistent, and -er comparatives really do distinguish A-adjectives from real adjectives, but I will not push this point.)

My third point was that A-adjectives do not form adverbs with -ly. Goldberg says this:

This again is not a good test for adjective status since many [regular adjectives] would fail it:
(G13) a. *Sacredly, *fatly, *bigly, *tinily

First, sacredly does exist: there's a book called African American Satire: The Sacredly Profane Novel. However, it is true that some adjectives do not form adverbs with -ly. Nevertheless, A-adjectives fail to do so SYSTEMATICALLY. All A-adjectives are absolutely impossible with -ly, as are PPs with bare Ns and particle Ps:

(20) *at-ease-ly, *at-war-ly, *under-control-ly
(21) *on-ly, *off-ly, *outly

In contrast, the badness of *fatly, *bigly, *tinily seems to be arbitrary. Close synonyms and phonologically similar items allow -ly:

(22) synonyms: fat: stoutly, grossly, etc.; big: hugely, largely; tiny: minutely, infintesimally, diminutively
(23) phonologically similar: fat: patly ("answered patly"); big: sickly, floridly (any adjectives in -ig?); tiny: tinnily, brinily

Since there is no phonological or semantic reason for the badness of -ly adverbs with fat, big, tiny, the restriction just seems to be arbitrary. On the hypothesis that the A-adjectives are adjectives, the fact that they do not form -ly adverbs would have to be arbitrary, too. (Note that there is no phonological restriction as there might be with -er comparatives, because acutely, absurdly, astutely are fine.) That is, it would be pure coincidence that none of them happen to form -ly adverbs. I find this highly unlikely; the restriction appears to be entirely systematic, and once again the A-adjectives pattern with PPs with bare Ns and particle-Ps.

Let me summarize all of the available evidence here:

(24) Ways in which A-adjectives pattern with adjectives: None

(25) Ways in which A-adjectives pattern with PPs: right-modification, lack of -ly adverbs, (particle shift, -er comparatives)

(26) Inconclusive: semantics; phonology; seem; conjunction; of-phrase complements; small clauses; kind-denoting NPs; (-er comparatives)

(27) Ways in which A-adjectives act like neither adjectives nor PPs: inability to be used attributively without modification

Most of the arguments are simply inconclusive. However, there is NO positive evidence for the hypothesis that A-adjectives are adjectives. In contrast, there is positive evidence that A-adjectives are PPs: they allow right-modification, and they do not form -ly adverbs. (I have also added particle shift in parentheses in the table: A-adjectives participate in particle shift, like other one-word PPs. I think we should probably also include the lack of -er comparatives.)

Moreover, in every way A-adjectives pattern with PPs with a bare N and with particle-Ps. I take this to indicate that those three things have essentially the same status. Note in particular that none of these three things like to be used attributively without further modification. In this they pattern with neither adjectives nor PPs. I would take this to indicate that they are a special kind of PP, but one might also conclude that they are some other category altogether, or something with mixed status.

I will leave it at that, but I would like to reiterate that I think we should reframe the question about A-adjectives. The most striking fact about them is NOT that they cannot appear prenominally; rather, they seem to resist being used attributively at all, without further modification. Once they are modified, they pattern with all phrasal nominal modifiers and prefer to appear after the noun. So, the real question we should be addressing is the following: Why do A-adjectives, PPs with a bare N, and particle-Ps resist being used attributively without modification? Once we have answered that, we might have an answer to the learnability issue as well.


Sag, Ivan A., Gerald Gazdar, Thomas Wasow, and Steven Weisler. 1985. Coordination and How to Distinguish
Categories. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 3:117–171.

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