Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Derived Nominals

First post in a while! Blame the administrative duties that I have been forced to take up for the last couple of years. On to the post:

Borer (2014) claims that two interesting and surprising generalizations hold of derived nominals. The first is that derived nominals that are eventive and take VP-type event arguments and modifiers always have completely regular, compositional meanings. Conversely, derived nominals that have special non-compositional meanings may never take VP-type arguments and modifiers. For instance, transformation has a technical sense in the field of syntax, but it may not have this meaning when it takes VP-type arguments and modifiers like by-phrases:

(1) the transformation of the field by the linguist (regular, compositional meaning; Borer 2014, example 5b)
(2) this theory countenances transformations as a grammatical construct (special meaning)
(3) *the transformation of the structure by the linguist (cannot have special meaning; Borer 2014, example 5a)

Other examples cited by Borer include government, constitution, civilization, reading. When used with VP-type arguments and events, these only have the meaning that the verb has, not the meaning that the derived nominal used as a simple noun may have.

The second interesting and surprising generalization is that, according to Borer, derived nominals that take VP-type arguments and modifiers must embed a real, attested verb. For instance, transformation embeds the verb transform, government embeds govern, etc. In contrast, nominals like the following (from Newmeyer 2009, in Borer's footnote 10) are claimed not to allow VP-type arguments and modifiers (her judgments):

(4) the scrutiny of dubious looking tax forms (??by the IRS) (*in order to uncover tax evaders)
(5) the constant mischief by the boy (*for two hours) (*in order to get attention)
(6) the ongoing treason (*by Quisling) (*in order to support Nazi Germany)
(7) the homicide of AltaVista and AllTheWeb (*by Yahoo) (*in order to increase the value of its shares)

It appears to me, however, that Borer does not have either of these generalizations quite right. I will begin with the second one, which just seems to be incorrect, at least for English. All of the English speakers I have asked find the phrases marked as ungrammatical in 4-7 perfectly fine. I have found several possible examples on the web, as well:

(8) You are an emotional girl prone to tantrums and mischief just to get attention even if it is negative!
(9) It will start looking like a scam or mischief just to get people to waste their trade offers.
(10) You can't look at the death penalty in a vacuum. It's merely a justifiable homicide in order to protect others.
(11) Treason by Public Officials? (headline)

It appears that such nominals are perfectly able to take by-phrases and purpose clause, two of the VP-type modifiers that Borer says are limited to nominals derived from attested verbs. Less clear are modifiers like for two hours, but my own judgment is that mischief for two hours is well-formed, as is the scrutiny of tax forms for two hours.

I believe the second generalization to be incorrect, then, at least for English. I also believe that the first generalization, while correct, is actually part of a larger generalization. This larger generalization includes not just derived nominals but also derived adjectives and derived verbs. For instance, adjectival passives may have VP-type arguments and modifiers like by-phrases, but they never have special, non-compositional meanings when they do. The adjectival passive hammered can occur with a by-phrase, as in 12 (embedding hammered under looks guarantees that this is an adjectival passive and not a verbal one). Hammered can also mean heavily intoxicated, but not if a by-phrase is present:

(12) The younger spruce lining this trail look hammered by new snow that fell in fat moist flakes...
(13) She looks hammered (*by all the wine she drank).

Hung as an adjective has a special meaning when it modifies jury, but again this meaning is absent with a by-phrase:

(14) a hung jury
(15) *a jury hung by the convincing arguments of both lawyers

This indicates that Borer's generalization referring to derived nominals carries over to derived adjectives: they may not have special, non-compositional meanings when they take VP-type modifiers.

Note also that adjectival passives can take VP-type modifiers even when they are not derived from an attested verb:

(16) Even good corrections officers feel embattled by dangerous inmates who badly outnumber them.
(17) *Dangerous inmates embattled the corrections officers.

Embattle does not seem to exist as a verb, only as an adjectival passive (at least in my lexicon). This again points to the incorrectness of Borer's second generalization above.

Going back to the first generalization, I believe that derived verbs, which always have argument structure and take VP-type arguments and modifiers, are also always interpreted compositionally. I have not done a systematic investigation, but I have not been able to find any verbs derived with -ize, -ate, -ify, -en, or zero derivation that have an irregular, non-compositional meaning. (See discussion of some possibilities below.)

It therefore appears to me that the larger generalization is that no category that has argument-structure properties and takes VP-type arguments and modifiers may have special, non-compositional meanings. (One can never tell with non-derived verbs: they do not embed any morpheme that they could be compared to to determine whether they are non-compositional or not.) Note that I am being rather vague about what "argument-structure properties" and "VP-type arguments and modifiers" are; see Borer and the references she cites. Nevertheless, it does appear that there is a significant generalization here that must be accounted for.

It does not appear that Borer's own account of the incompatibility between derived nominals with argument-structure properties and special, non-compositional meanings can be extended to derived verbs. Borer explicitly allows derived verbs to have special meanings, and in fact claims that at least two do, namely civilize and naturalize. I do not know any meaning of civilize that is not also a meaning of civil, nor can I find one in the Oxford English Dictionary (although some are said to be rare). As for naturalize, it appears from Borer's footnote 22 that the special meaning she intends is that in naturalized citizen. However, for people who do not know the term natural citizen (see Borer's footnote 22), it seems more likely that this meaning is part of the adjectival passive naturalized and the derived nominal naturalization, and not the verb naturalize. Google searches return numerous hits for naturalized and naturalization in the context of citizenship, but very few for naturalize (only 5 in the first 50 hits). To the extent that naturalize can have this meaning, it is probably a back-formation from naturalized. In any case, the citizenship meaning seems to be available for natural and any word derived from it, so it does not appear to be correct to locate the special meaning in naturalize.

Borer (2013) also mentions patronize, which can have a meaning of "act condescendly toward." However, this seems to be a straightforward extension of the core meaning "act as a patron to," with the addition "act as a patron to inappropriately." A few other potential cases I have found scanning lists of -ize verbs are authorize, organize, capitalize, and weatherize, but all of these seem to have the same meaning in the stem they are derived from: authorize might be derived from authority, and author apparently has a now-obsolete meaning of one who has authority over others. Organ includes the concept of having a particular function; the "profit by" meaning of capitalize is a simple extension of the meaning of converting something into capital. Weatherize means to make weatherproof, not to make into weather, but the stem weather itself can have this meaning, as in weather the storm.

It therefore appears that there really are no derived verbs with idiosyncratic, non-compositional meanings. Borer's generalization actually covers not just derived nominals, but all derived categories that have argument structure properties and occur with VP-type arguments and modifiers. I further conclude that we do not yet have a good account of this generalization, since Borer's account cannot be extended to derived verbs. I also hope that a systematic investigation of the lexicon of English and other languages can be done to verify whether the generalization is actually correct. If it is, it demands an explanation.


Borer, Hagit (2013). Structuring Sense: Volume III: Taking Form. New York: Oxford University Press.

Borer, Hagit (2014). Derived Nominals and the Domain of Content. Lingua 141: 71-96.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. (2009). Current Challenges to the Lexicalist Hypothesis: An Overview and a Critique. In William D. Lewis et al. (eds.), Time and Again: Theoretical Perspectives on Formal Linguistics in Honor of D. Terence Langendoen. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 91-117.