Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Some Observations on Get Passives

Many researchers have suggested that get passives are ambiguous. For instance, Reed (2011) says that get passives are ambiguous between three different structures and interpretations:

(1) That child got hurt.
a. Verbal passive; much like a be passive.
b. Control; equivalent to That child got herself hurt, but with unpronounced PRO instead of herself.
c. Adjectival passive: hurt is an adjective (get can take adjectival complements, as in That child got sick.)

I focus on the verbal passive and the control structure here. The control structure is supposed to have the surface subject interpreted as something like an agent; as such, it can be modified by adverbs like deliberately (Lasnik and Fiengo 1974):

(2) I think that John deliberately got hit by that truck, don't you?

However, there is some reason to doubt the general availability of a control structure for get passives. First, notice that the following sequence makes sense and is not contradictory:

(3) That truck hit Marvin, but Marvin didn't get himself hit by that truck.

This is because the get passive with pronounced himself asserts more than just the corresponding active (or be passive): in addition to the truck hitting Marvin, Marvin did something to bring that hitting event about. So a truck hit Marvin can be true without Marvin got himself hit by a truck being true.

So, if any given example of a get passive could have a control analysis, we would expect the same non-contradictory pattern. This is not the case, however. The following is a contradiction, just like the corresponding sentence with a be passive:

(4) That truck hit Marvin, #but Marvin didn't get hit by that truck.
(5) That truck hit Marvin, #but Marvin wasn't hit by that truck.

Adding deliberately makes the sentence non-contradictory again:

(6) That truck hit Marvin, but Marvin didn't get hit by that truck deliberately.

From this it appears that the control (agentive) interpretation of a get passive is not generally available, but can only be brought about by the addition of something, like deliberately. Without some such element, a get passive is truth-conditionally equivalent to the corresponding active sentence, just like a be passive.

It is also worth pointing out that get does not pattern with raising verbs in truth conditional equivalence, either. Haegeman (1985), for instance, analyzed get as a raising verb like seem. Note the following contrast, however:

(7) That truck hit Marvin, #but Marvin didn't get hit by that truck.
(8) That truck hit Marvin, but Marvin didn't seem to have been hit by that truck.

The raising verb seem adds additional assertive content and so negating it does not contradict a simple active. If get is a raising verb, it is apparently a semantically contentless one.

A second observation casts doubt on the idea that get plus deliberately should be analyzed like get with an overt anaphor. It seems to me that adverbs like deliberately are degraded when there is an animate by-phrase. In (2), above, that truck is inanimate and can occur with deliberately. Contrast that example with an animate by-phrase:

(9) I think that Marvin deliberately got hit by Mike Tyson.

The example in (12) is acceptable only where Mike Tyson is not agentive, but he simply collided with Marvin. Where the by-phrase cannot be so interpreted, it is degraded with deliberately:

(10) Marvin deliberately got injured (??by his co-worker).
(11) Beckham deliberately got suspended (??by league officials) in order to attend his sister's wedding.
(12) The children deliberately got separated (??by the teacher) from their group (??by the teacher).

Note that there is no incompatibility between get plus anaphor and an agentive/animate by-phrase:

(13) Marvin got himself injured by his co-worker.
(14) Beckham got himself suspended by league officials in order to attend his sister's wedding.
(15) The children got themselves separated from their group by the teacher.

This suggests that get plus deliberately is not the same thing as get plus anaphor, as the control analysis assumes (or at least as Reed's version of it does).

I will make one last observation, which is not obviously related to the ones above. This is that sentential subjects are not very good in get passives, although they are fine with be passives and with raising verbs:

(16) *That the world is round got ignored for centuries.
(17) That the world is round was ignored for centuries.
(18) That the world is round seems to have been ignored.

(19) *That the world is round got shown conclusively in 1522.
(20) That the world is round was shown conclusively in 1522.

(21) *That these nouns behave differently got expressed/captured by this formulation of the rule.
(22) That these nouns behave differently was expressed/captured by this formulation of the rule.

This doesn't seem to be a semantic restriction, since the fact that is fine:

(23) The fact that the world is round got ignored for centuries.
(24) The fact that Columbus miscalculated the circumference of the earth got mixed up with the incorrect notion that medieval Europeans thought that the world was flat.

Sentential subjects are also bad with extraposition it:

(25) *It got expected/insisted/reasoned/predicted that the Giants would win the World Series.
(26) It was expected/insisted/reasoned/predicted that the Giants would win the World Series.

Apparent PPs are fine, but they are probably NPs; this one was found on the internet: When I vacuum, under the bed gets cleaned too.


Haegeman, Liliane (1985), The Get-Passive and Burzio’s Generalization. Lingua 66: 53–77.

Lasnik, Howard, and Robert Fiengo (1974), Complement Object Deletion. Linguistic Inquiry 5: 535–571.

Reed, Lisa A. (2011), Get-Passives. The Linguistic Review 28: 41–78.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Non-Question Uses of The Hell

Since Pesetsky (1987), wh-phrases with the hell, as in (1), have been extensively studied in the generative literature:

(1) Who the hell is she talking to?

None of this literature, to my knowledge (other than a footnote in Huang and Ochi 2004), ever mentions other uses of the hell. The purpose of this post is to set out some of the data. The syntactic distribution of the hell turns out to be quite limited.

There seem to be two non-question uses of the hell. The first is exemplified by the following:

(2) The hell you say!
(3) The hell I will! (responding to other person's request/command)
(4) The hell she did! (responding to other person's report)

In this use, the hell seems to attach to the left of a finite clause, and vehemently denies the validity of the proposition expressed by the clause. This use seems to be restricted to matrix clauses:

(5) *She said that the hell she will. (OK as quote: She said, ``The hell I will!'')

Note that the subject of the clause can be any person---first, second, third---, as exemplified by (2) through (4). (Plural is also possible: The hell we will! The hell they did!)

The second use has the hell to the left of a directional prepositional phrase (or particle):

(6) Get the hell out of here!
(7) I got the hell out of there.
(8) Get the hell into bed!
(9) The fox ran the hell out of the room.
(10) I drove my car the hell away from there.

Phrases other than PPs are not allowed:

(11) *I fled the hell the scene.
(12) *I got the hell lost.
(13) *I ran the hell as fast as I could.
(14) *I hope the hell (that) she's not there. (not to be confused with I hope to hell that...)
(15) *I wonder the hell where she went.

The hell cannot come before the verb, interspersed with auxiliaries:

(16) I was running the hell away when...
(17) *I was the hell running away when...
(18) *I the hell was running away when...

Although the hell seems to be attached to the prepositional phrase, it does not move as a unit with it. It cannot front with the PP in locative inversion, for instance:

(19) Out of the room ran the fox.
(20) *The hell out of the room ran the fox.

(It also can't be stranded: *Out of the room ran the fox the hell.)

It also can't front in a wh-question or relative clause, although stranding the preposition is fine:

(21) This is the person that he ran the hell away from.
(22) *This is the person the hell away from whom he ran.

Rightward shift seems to be possible:

(23) ?I drove my car on Thursday the hell away from there.

At this point I have no theory to offer of this peculiar distribution. (Few other phrases attach only to PPs; one is right, and that can move with the PP: Right out of the room ran the fox.) It is also unclear whether these three uses of the hell have anything in common, other than some kind of expressive content.


Huang, C.-T. James and Masao Ochi (2004). Syntax of the Hell: Two Types of Dependencies. Proceedings of NELS 34, ed. K. Moulton and M. Wolf, 279–294. Amherst, MA: GLSA Publications.

Pesetsky, David (1987). Wh-in-Situ: Movement and Unselective Binding. In Eric Reuland and Alice ter Meulen (eds.), The Representation of (In)definiteness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 98–129.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Two Constraints on Fake Indexicals

(Note: I wrote this blog post in 2009, but am only posting it now. Other publications may have rendered these two observations superfluous in the meantime, but I am posting them anyway in case they are still relevant.)

Kratzer (2009) proposes a theory of fake indexicals, 1st and 2nd person pronouns used as bound variables, as in the following examples:

(1) I am the only one who takes care of my children. (bound reading: no one else takes care of their own children)

(2) I am the only one who remembers our first meeting. (bound reading: no one else remembers the meeting between them and the addressee or salient other individual)

(3) I am the only one who thinks someone criticized my paper. (bound reading: no one else thinks someone criticized their paper)

In Kratzer's theory, the pronouns in (1-2) start out as minimal pronouns, without any features, and get their features via Agree with v (the head that introduces the external argument of the verb; in (1), this would be the head that introduces the external argument of takes care of). The head v can be inserted with 1st or 2nd person features, which then get transmitted to the pronouns and spelled out. Since the subject is a relative pronoun (who), it is compatible with 1st or 2nd person features, with no clash. In the long-distance case in (3), there is a conflict between the local subject (someone) and 1st person features on v; so Kratzer hypothesizes that in this case, the pronoun has 1st person features to begin with, but a context-shifing lambda-operator can be inserted to bind 1st person to the subject of the higher verb (thinks).

The purpose of this blog post is to point out two generalizations that are not captured by Kratzer's system. In this system, there is no syntactic relation between the 1st person pronoun in the matrix clause (I am the only one...) and the fake indexical in either the local or the long-distance case. Presumably, a condition on v being inserted with 1st person features as in (1-2) is that the context must involve the speaker. However, this is not good enough. There must be an occurrence of the 1st person pronoun in the same sentence, and it is not good enough for the pragmatics to implicate the speaker, as the following examples show:

(4) You see before you the only person who can lick my eyebrows. (*bound reading)

(5) Yours truly is the only person who watches my children. (*bound reading)

(6) Yours truly is the only one who thinks someone criticized my paper. (*bound reading)

In (4), you see before you clearly evokes the speaker. However, the bound reading is impossible with a first person possessive pronoun; it is only possible with a third person pronoun. Similarly, in (5) and (6) yours truly refers to the speaker, but again the bound reading of possessive my is not possible. The generalization is that there must be an explicit first person pronoun in the sentence. Kratzer's theory does not capture this generalization. In fact, this generalization is very difficult to capture in a syntactic way at all; in most theories, there is no direct syntactic relation between the matrix pronoun in (1-3) and anything in the relative clause.

In addition, Kratzer's theory fails to capture a directional asymmetry in mismatches between singular and plural pronouns. In (2), I in the matrix clause followed by our in the embedded clause can have a bound reading, but the reverse order does not allow a bound reading:

(7) We are the only ones who watch my children. (*bound reading)

This directional asymmetry was noted briefly by Rullmann 2004 (her example 19).

Both of these generalizations will be very difficult for any syntactic theory to capture, since, as noted above, there is no apparent syntactic relation between the subject of the matrix clause and anything in the relative clause. I have no suggestions to make, but simply point out the two generalizations, as they are important ones that must be captured by an adequate theory of fake indexicals.


Kratzer, Angelika (2009). Making a Pronoun: Fake Indexicals as Windows into the Properties of Pronouns. Linguistic Inquiry 40: 187-237.

Rullmann, Hotze (2004). First and Second Person Pronouns as Bound Variables. Linguistic Inquiry 35: 159-168.

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.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Negative Inversion and Adverbials (Sobin 2003)

Sobin (2003) discusses some interesting examples of negative inversion that appear to have an adverbial in between the negative constituent and the inverted auxiliary. His three examples follow:

(1) I promise that on no account during the holidays will I write a paper.
(2) I promise that under no circumstances during the holidays will I write a paper.
(3) Never again over Christmas will I eat that much turkey.

(This type of sentences appears to have first been noticed by Haegeman and Gueron 1999 and Haegeman 2000.)

Sobin uses these examples to argue against most accounts of negative inversion, which have the auxiliary fronting across the subject, while the subject is in its normal position (Spec-TP). Instead, he suggests that negative inversion has the subject staying low, below T, while the auxiliary is in T and the negative constituent is in a higher projection (Spec-NegP). The adverbial in between is adjoined to TP.

An alternative that Sobin does not consider, however, is that the negative expression and the adverbial are a single constituent. This possibility is suggested by data in Haegeman 2000 (although Haegeman herself never adopts this position). Haegeman likens the above examples to wh-questions like the following:

(4) Under what circumstances during the holidays would you go in to the office?

The adverbial here clearly forms a constituent with the wh-phrase, since it can move long-distance with it:

(5) Under what circumstances during the holidays did you say that you would go in to the office?

Additionally, "under what circumstances" and "during the holidays" can combine semantically, quantifying over situations in certain time intervals.

I will argue that Sobin's examples (the three above are all that he provides) all involve a single constituent, and so Sobin's conclusions regarding negative inversion do not follow.

First, phrases like those in all of Sobin's examples can move as a single constituent. Corresponding to (1) is (6); (4) and (5) correspond to (2); and (7) corresponds to (3):

(6) On what account during the holidays did you say that you will write a paper?
(4 and 5 correspond to 2)
(7) How many times over Christmas did you say that you ate too much turkey? (Answer: I said that I ate too much turkey three times over Christmas.)

Second, and most tellingly, adverbial expressions that can be adjoined to TP (on standard assumptions, since they appear between the complementizer that and the subject) but cannot form single constituents with a negative expression are incompatible with negative inversion in their pre-subject position:

(8) He bragged that with a quill pen he could write a paper.
(9) I promise that on no account will I write a paper with a quill pen.
(10) *I promise that on no account with a quill pen will I write a paper.
(11)*On what account with a quill pen will you write a paper?

Note that they cannot be fronted with wh-phrases, either (11). More examples follow, in the same order in each set:

(12) I said that over Christmas I would eat only one type of turkey.
(13) I said that only one type of turkey would I eat over Christmas.
(14) *I said that only one type of turkey over Christmas would I eat.
(15) *What type of turkey over Christmas will you eat?

(16) I said that on Friday I could not find a word about Smith's negativity.
(17) Not a word could I find on Friday about Smith's negativity. (found on web)
(18) *Not a word on Friday could I find about Smith's negativity.
(19) *How many words on Friday could you find?

(20) She said that in front of her house she will not plant any trees.
(21) Under no circumstances will she plant trees in front of her house.
(22) *Under no circumstances in front of her house will she plant trees.
(23) *Under what circumstances in front of her house will she plant trees?

(24) I promise that on that topic I will never write a paper.
(25) I promise that on no account will I write a paper on that topic.
(26) *I promise that on no account on that topic will I write a paper.
(27) *On what account on that topic will you write a paper?

(28) I said that on Friday I remembered to bring a penny.
(29) Not a penny did I remember to bring. (Sobin's ex 2, from a reviewer)
(30) *Not a penny on Friday did I remember to bring.
(31) *Which penny on Friday did you remember to bring?

This is surprising on Sobin's account: any adverbial that can adjoin to TP should be able to appear between a fronted negative expression and the auxiliary in T.

Finally, sentence (1) gets worse when "on no account" is changed to "on no one's account"; the corresponding wh-phrase gets worse in the same way:

(32) I promise that on no one's account will I write a paper during the holidays.
(33) *I promise that on no one's account during the holidays will I write a paper.
(34) *On whose account during the holidays will you write a paper?

This seems to be because "on what account during the holidays" makes sense as a semantic unit, but "on whose account during the holidays" does not. In Sobin's three examples (1-3), the negative expression plus the adverbial together are a single unit quantifying over time intervals. This could not be the case in any of the examples I have provided, and so the negative expression and the adverbial cannot be a single constituent.

I conclude that Sobin's very limited examples all involve a single constituent before the auxiliary. Therefore, none of Sobin's conclusions regarding negative inversion follow. Material before the auxiliary is (and must be) a single constituent, and probably occupies the specifier of whatever projection the auxiliary is the head of. There is no reason to think that the subject is not in its normal position. (One final note: while I am claiming this is true for negative inversion and for the examples of wh-questions given here, it is probably not true for all cases of a wh-phrase followed by some kind of adverbial and then the inverted auxiliary. Haegeman 2000 gives some examples of wh-questions that have this form but where the adverbial is probably not part of a constituent with the wh-phrase. Additionally, a wh-phrase can be followed by a negative constituent, which is then followed by the auxiliary; see Maekawa 2006.)


Haegeman, Liliane (2000). Inversion, Non-Adjacent Inversion, and Adjuncts in CP. Transactions of the Philological Society 98: 121-160.

Haegeman, Liliane and Jacqueline Gueron (1999). English Grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.

Maekawa, Takafumi (2006). Configurational and Linearization-Based Approaches to Negative Inversion. In O. Bonami and P. Cabredo Hofherr (eds.), Empirical Issues in Syntax and Semantics 6, pp.227-247. (available at

Sobin, Nicholas (2003). Negative Inversion as Nonmovement. Syntax 6: 183-212.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A-Adjectives are PPs, not Adjectives

Many linguistics and teaching publications mention the A-adjectives, adjectives like asleep, afraid, afloat, alive, ablaze. The property that sets them apart and that is noted by all of these publications is that they do not like to appear prenominally, which is a position where adjectives generally do appear:

(1) ??an afraid child, ??an afloat ship, ??an ablaze building
(2) a scared child, a floating ship, a blazing building

This is as far as most publications go, although many point out that some of these are derived from prepositional phrases historically. Most assume that this distributional irregularity of the A-adjectives is synchronically idiosyncratic, and just has to be learned as such. This quote from Boyd and Goldberg, to appear, is typical: ``Since there is no general semantic or phonological reason to treat the members of the class as anything other than adjectives, their unusual distribution poses a clear learnability challenge.'' (Boyd and Goldberg to appear, page 10.)

I argue here that, in fact, there is strong distributional evidence that A-adjectives are synchronically PPs. Basically, I will argue that an A-adjective like ablaze has the same structure as the PP on fire. This explains why they do not appear prenominally: PPs do not appear prenominally, either:

(3) *an on fire building

But both can appear predicatively:

(4) That building is ablaze/on fire.

First, there is abundant evidence that the A-adjectives are not adjectives. They cannot do any of the things that typical adjectives can do. They cannot be used with the definite determiner the to form kind-denoting NPs, for instance:

(5) the scared, the living, the fat, the sleepy, the aloof, the lonely (will be expelled from the earth)
(6) *the alive, *the afraid, *the ablaze, *the afloat, *the asleep, *the alone (will be expelled from the earth)

A-adjectives cannot have comparatives with -er, even though most of them meet the phonological requirements for -er suffixation (maximally two syllables), and there is no ban on morphologically complex stems for -er:

(7) sleepier, scareder (I hear this used), floatier, lonelier
(8) *aliver, *afraider, *ablazer, *afloater, *aloner

They cannot be turned into adverbs with -ly:

(9) sleepily, burningly, fearfully, floatingly, aloofly, astutely
(10) *afraidly, *ablazely, *afloatly, *alonely

So, A-adjectives do not act like other adjectives. As I will now show, not only do they not pattern with adjectives, there are ways in which they pattern with PPs.

First, A-adjectives permit right modification, just like PPs and unlike adjectives:

(11) he fell right asleep, they went right ashore, it went clear askew/awry, it came right alive
(12) it caught right on fire, it went clear off the mark, they stepped right on shore, it came right to life
(13) *he became right sleepy, *he got clear lonely, *it came right lively

Second, it has often been noted that A-adjectives become better in prenominal position if they are modified:

(14) She flashed me an aware, amused glance. (attested example cited in Huddleston and Pullum 2002, page 559)

However, PPs also become better in prenominal position under the same conditions:

(15) She flashed me an at-ease, amused glance.
(16) He gave an on-topic but hastily prepared speech.
(17) a rapidly burning, totally ablaze building; a rapidly burning, totally on fire building

Third, certain small clauses permit PPs but not adjectives. They also permit A-adjectives:

(18) I have fond memories of him at work/ on shore/ with his friends.
(19) *I have fond memories of him crazy/ proud of his son/ sleepy.
(20) I have fond memories of him asleep/ alone in his office/ ashore.

So, there is quite a bit of distributional evidence indicating that A-adjectives are actually PPs. Presumably this evidence is available to language learners, who then construct a mental grammar where the A-adjectives are actually PPs. Given that they are PPs, they do not normally occur prenominally. There is nothing idiosyncratic about the A-adjectives at all.

Finally, this analysis has some consequences for particle shift in English. Some A-adjectives participate in particle shift, a fact that has been remarked upon but is generally thought to be mysterious or archaic (e.g., Bolinger 1971):

(21) They brought aboard the passengers. / They brought the passengers aboard.
(22) They took ashore the passengers. / They took the passengers ashore.

However, I personally feel that I have strong intuitions about these, even though I rarely hear or read them, which is odd if particle shift with the A-adjectives is archaic. If A-adjectives are actually PPs, though, this intuition about particle shift makes sense, because we can have a very simple generalization about particle shift: PPs that consist of a single morphological word can undergo particle shift. This includes the common particles out, up, in, off, and so on, but also the A-adjectives, which are PPs that are a single morphological word.


Bolinger, Dwight. (1971). The Phrasal Verb in English. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Boyd, Jeremy K. and Adele E. Goldberg (to appear). Learning What Not to Say: The Role of Statistical Preemption and Categorization in A-Adjective Production. To appear in Language. Draft dated 10/10/2010 consulted here.

Huddleston, Rodney and Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Idioms and By-Phrases

Idioms have frequently been used to argue for transformational accounts of certain syntactic phenomena. For instance, the fact that part of an idiom can undergo raising is often used to argue for a movement analysis of raising:

(1) The shit hit the fan.
(2) The shit seems to have hit the fan.

Same for promotion of objects to subjects in the passive:

(3) Someone spilled the beans. --> The beans were spilled.
(4) She pulled some strings (to get him hired). --> Some strings were pulled (to get him hired).

It has also been claimed that idioms argue against a transformational analysis of the by-phrase in passives, where it is related transformationally to the active subject, because no subject that is idiomatic in the active can appear in a by-phrase in the passive and retain its idiomatic meaning. A note on references first: This argument is probably a familiar one to most people, but I have had trouble locating a source for it. Bowers (2010, 11-12) cites Marantz 1984, pages 26-27, for the argument, but I cannot find the argument there, or anywhere in Marantz 1984. Postal 2004, page 255, states the argument explicitly as following from the view of the passive in Chomsky 1981, but does not credit the argument to anyone. So, I do not know where the argument originated, but everyone seems to be aware of it.

Now, to the argument itself. There are not very many idioms that include a fixed subject, verb, and object, but there are a few. None of them permit a passive with the fixed subject in a by-phrase:

(5) The shit hit the fan. --> *The fan was hit by the shit.
(6) That's a case of the pot calling the kettle black. --> *That's a case of the kettle being called black by the pot.
(7) Elvis has left the building. (="the event is over") --> *The building has been left by Elvis.
(8) The ram has touched the wall. (="it's too late to turn back now") --> *The wall has been touched by the ram.

The point of this blog post is that this argument and corresponding conclusion are correct, despite several recent claims to the contrary. Postal 2004 (pages 255-256) and Bowers 2010 (pages 12-13) claim that there are idiomatic subjects of actives that can appear in by-phrases in the passive. However, none of their examples are pertinent. Relevant examples have to involve idiomatic subjects, obviously. However, this by itself is not good enough. If it is just the subject that has an idiomatic (or just metaphorical) sense, then this is not good enough. An NP with a self-contained special interpretation should be able to appear in a variety of positions, independent of anything else. It is only when the relevant NP has its special interpretation only by virtue of other elements that it appears with that the example becomes relevant. For instance, in the shit hit the fan above, the shit has its special interpretation only when it occurs with the verb hit and the object the fan. "The shit smacked the fan" and "the shit hit the air conditioner" do not have the idiomatic meaning. That is why separating the shit from the verb hit in (2) shows something: the two pieces must occur together at some level of representation for the idiomatic reading to obtain, since they only have their idiomatic meanings by virtue of occurring together.

So now let us turn to the putative counterexamples. Here are the examples from Postal 2004, pages 255-256:

(9) The lovebug bit Ted. --> Ted was bitten by the lovebug.
(10) A little bird told me that. --> I was told that by a little bird.
(11) Birds of a feather may decide to flock together. --> It may be decided by birds of a feather to flock together.
(12) Old dogs may even decide to learn new tricks. --> It may even be decided by old dogs to learn new tricks.

The problem is that these are not true idiomatic phrases that include a fixed subject, verb, and object. What is idiomatic in all of Postal's examples is just the subject itself (and even that is not very idiomatic; it is usually just metaphoric). The verb and object have their literal meanings. In addition, the subject phrase can appear with various different predicates, and with different grammatical roles:

(13) the lovebug has struck Bill, Bill has the lovebug, Bill has the bug
(14) a little bird is broadcasting that, a little bird whispered that to me, I heard it from a little bird
(15) birds of a feather hang out together, they're birds of a feather
(16) I'm an old dog, you can't teach an old dog new tricks, old dogs can't learn new tricks, old dogs and new tricks don't mesh

These "idioms" do not have a fixed form and an unexpected meaning, like the shit hit the fan, but merely a metaphoric meaning: using the bug to refer to some kind of obsession or infatuation; a little bird to mean an anonymous source; and so on. So long as these phrases occur with words that are compatible with their use in this metaphor, such as passing on information in the case of a little bird, there is no barrier to their use. It is therefore not surprising that they can appear in a passive as in Postal's examples.

Just to shore this up with textual data (searches performed 1/14/2011), I find "you've given me the tennis bug" at; "Perkins caught the tennis bug from her older brother" at; "Moving to Atlanta was just the spark she needed to ignite the `tennis bug'" at; and numerous other examples. Googling "heard it from a little bird" turns up 47,400 results; one includes "your little bird is nothing but a tattletale!" (Cheater's Guide to Speaking English Like a Native By Boye Lafayette De Mente, on Google Books.) Googling "they're birds of a feather" gets 28,100 results. Googling "I'm an old dog" gets 361,000 results; of the first ten, two clearly mean it in the sense of "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" (so not all of those 361,000 are relevant, but many are).

Bowers 2010, page 13, adds three other putative examples:

(17) I felt as if a ton of bricks had hit me. --> I felt as if I had been hit by a ton of bricks.
(18) They believe the devil drove him to it. --> They believe he was driven to it by the devil.
(19) Photography/Hip-hop/Syntax/etc. fever has swept the nation. --> The nation has been swept by photography/hip-hop/syntax/etc. fever.

Again, these are not fixed idioms at all:

(20) I felt as if a ton of bricks had crashed down on me; it hit him like a ton of bricks; he'll come down on you like a ton of bricks; (actual expression is "like a ton of bricks")
(21) the devil made him do it, the devil forced him to do it, the devil got into him
(22) she has hip-hop fever; hip-hop fever has gripped the nation; do you have hip-hop fever? (Watch David Letterman and you will hear many different versions of "X fever"; this is just like "the X bug" in Postal's examples in 13.)

Once again, the special interpretation, to the extent that there is any, is just a property of the NP. That NP can occur with a variety of lexical items and in a variety of syntactic positions. Hence, these examples are irrelevant. (Again, google searches turn up numerous examples of these NPs without the verbs that Bowers takes to be part of the "idioms.")

I have not been able to find any counterexamples to the claim that true idiomatic phrases cannot appear in a by-phrase in the passive. I therefore conclude that idioms reveal an important asymmetry between object promotion and subject demotion in the passive. A chunk of an idiom can promote from active object to subject in the passive, meaning that the passive subject is derived from or related to the active object; but a chunk of an idiom cannot demote from active subject to by-phrase in the passive, meaning that the passive by-phrase is not derived from or related to the active subject.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the exact same active subjects that cannot be demoted to a by-phrase in the examples above can undergo raising:

(23) The shit seems to have hit the fan.
(24) The pot appears to be calling the kettle black.
(25) Elvis seems to have left the building.
(26) The ram appears to have touched the wall.

So, it is not the case that these particular idioms cannot be manipulated by syntactic rules. Rather, there is no syntactic rule that relates the active subject to the by-phrase.

This conclusion is problematic for a whole host of analyses of the passive. It is most problematic for two recent approaches that treat by-phrases as being identical to the active subject, namely Collins 2005 and Bowers 2010. Those approaches would have to add ad-hoc constraints to rule out pieces of idioms in by-phrases.


Bowers, John (2010). Arguments as Relations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam (1981). Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Collins, Chris (2005). A Smuggling Approach to the Passive in English. Syntax 8: 81-120.

Marantz, Alec (1984). On the Nature of Grammatical Relations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Postal, Paul M. (2004). Skeptical Linguistic Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.