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The Positions of Adjectives in English


Peter H. Matthews


Oxford: University Press, (Fourth Edition) 2014

Hardcover. ix+191 p. ISBN 978-0199681594. £60.00


Reviewed by Geneviève Girard-Gillet

Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle, Paris



In his new book on adjectives, P.H. Matthews addresses a number of central issues in syntax and in particular the question of the parts of speech: to what extent are they motivated and operational? Categories need to be established if, and only if, there is some general statement that can be made which applies to their members as a class, but are we sure that this process of abstraction will be exhaustive? In English and in European languages some words fall into the category of adjectives, because they differ, in their syntax and morphology, from verbs and nouns. But with numerous examples, analysed in depth, P.H. Mathews shows that various parameters, whether they be syntactic or semantic, need to be taken into account to construe the right interpretation of the adjectives appearing in a sentence. Even a word like old, which is thought to be a prototypical adjective, varies in its interpretation depending on its function (predicative or attributive) and on the semantic combination it enters in: my old school does not mean my school is old, just as an old friend is not necessarily old. Linguists differ as to the importance they attach to such connections and Matthews discusses their various approaches along with his own analyses, enriched with hundreds of examples, with a view to understanding the role of adjectives in English as accurately as possible.

The book is divided into 9 chapters, plus an introduction and an envoi.

The introduction sums up the questions that will be developed in the 9 chapters and posits that English does possess a category that can be labelled "adjectives", even if not all languages have a category that can be so named, according to Dixon (2010 : 62-108). Adjectives can appear in two positions: predicative, the chief is tall, and attributive, the tall chief. But some adjectives have more limited uses, and main, for instance, can be used in the main town, but not in *the town is main. So it turns out that some adjectives are more central members of the category than others (Quirk et al., 1985 : 404). The divergence between positions and their interpretations is the theme of the book and the question that arises immediately is whether there are just two positions. What about they met someone tall or they turned blue? In current grammars this function is presented as a third function. Quirk et al. speak of three functions, the attributive, the predicative and the postpositive (1985 : 418), just as Huddleston and Pullum do (2002 : 528). But they are not to be treated in the same way, and the postpositive is separated from the two others, which leads to various hierarchies which try to account for the various classes adjectives fall into: default, restricted, attributive only, never attributive, predicative and postpositive, postpositive only.

Chapter 2: Which words are adjectives?

Even if there is no dispute that tall is an adjective, things are not that simple, since words that are the same unit can be assigned to different parts of speech, depending on their function. The form fast is the same in she drives fast, and a fast train, but the former is an adverb and the latter an adjective. A distinction can be made by saying that adjectives are added to nouns. The Oxford English Dictionary says that an adjective is "a word designating an attribute and added to a noun, to describe that thing more fully". In the grammars of Ancient Greek and Latin, the class of adjectives had already been identified. But an important development in the Germanic and Romance languages was the distinction that occurred between attributive and predicative positions. There remains to describe the characteristics of adjectives functioning only as predicative. Huddleston and Pullum claim that most are formed with the a-prefix, such as asleep, afraid, alive, but Boyd and Goldberg (2011) wonder how speakers who learn to use most adjectives as premodifiers nevertheless learn not to say *the asleep children, *the afraid people. Another question raised in this chapter is the possible role of conversion. Can we assume that there exists a conversion transforming a noun into an adjective to explain the phrase the library carpet, or an adjective into a noun to construe the meaning of the browns are fading? An answer given by Pullum (2009) is that a word can function like an adjective, without sharing all the features of an adjective. Matthew also suggests, like Aarts (2007), that one part of speech may shade into another. A possible conclusion is that the more abstract a distinction is made, the easier it is to class words, but the level of "microsyntax" cannot be ruled out to account for the range of uses a term may have.

Chapter 3: Can one position be primary?

Matthews addresses the question of whether a position is primary or not. He first develops the point of view of various linguists for whom adjectives are basically attributive: Croft (2003) and his guiding principle that categories can be distinguished from one another on two dimensions: their semantic class and their propositional act, Baker, criticising Croft, and Tesnière's concept of "transfer of category" (1959). He then turns to the generative approach, and the concept of transformations: Chomsky's nominalising transformation, Lees' derivation of the children are afraid from a relative clause. Premodifiers, for instance, as in the tall chief, can be derived from an independent clause. Then McCawley (1998) claimed that postmodifiers could be paraphrased by restrictive relative clauses. Transformations were needed where the underlying structures differed from the surface structure, but a complication arises when one notices that some adjectives do not form a predicate: an utter disaster cannot be linked to *the disaster is utter. What is clear, in fact, is the importance of the selectional restrictions, as it is the adjective seen as a lexical unit that determines its interpretation in the microsyntax, and consequently no position can be seen as primary.

Chapter 4: How the syntax of adjectives has changed

Matthews finds it necessary to recall the evolution of adjectives from Old English onward to the 21st century, as regards its attributive and predicative role. Two developments explain today's situation. The loss of agreement with nouns in number, case and gender, and the loss of the distinction between the weak and strong form of the adjective. The role of adjectives in determining the definite or indefinite reference of the nouns became redundant when articles took over and the distinction between se blinda man (definite reference) and bind man (indefinite reference) vanished. In Old English, stacking of adjectives was not possible, and coordination was the only possibility to differentiate a young criminal lawyer, from a criminal young lawyer. Matthews comes back to the problems raised by stacking in chapter 6. Other changes, and in particular the combination of verbs and adjectives, since the Middle Ages, have contributed to differentiating between the attributive use and the predicative one.

Chapter 5: Modifiers and Determiners

The evolution of determiners (demonstratives and articles) has played a part in the evolution of adjectives. Matthews describes the various theoretical approaches about the relation that exists between the noun and the determiner in noun phrases: Huddleston and Pullum's layered analysis:

[these [A [happy] N [children]]], then the DP hypothesis:

DP [ D these] NP [A[happy] N [children]]]

in contrast with Bloomfield, Strang, Quirk et al, among others, to better capture the semantic role of determiners. What is clear is that it is necessary to insist on the difference between categories and functions, since some items may have a determining function without belonging to the category of determiners, which is a closed class. In his conclusion, Matthews comes back to the question of the justification of classes, since linguists disagree on how to delineate them.

Chapter 6: Relations between premodifiers

Matthews addresses the question of stacking as opposed to coordination of adjectives, recalling first his own definition of "coordination" and "modification" (1981, chs.8 and 9): Coordination is a symmetrical relation between units neither of which depends on the other. Modification is a relation of dependency and thus asymmetrical. He discusses various examples, among which the following ones: a bold young handsome priest, a red and yellow carpet. Stacking and coordination can be complementary, but not always. The sequence a red and yellow carpet makes sense, but *a red yellow carpet does not (Quirk et al 1985 : 961). In a large fluffy animal, we understand that we have the intersection of two properties, but in a scorching hot day, a different analysis is required, and Jespersen, before the layered analyses, analysed scorching as an adjunct (his term) and it was subordinate to the second, hot. Semantic criteria are thus playing an overriding role in the understanding of the sequences.

Chapter 7: Linear and layered dependency

Matthews develops the points alluded to in chapter 6: is there evidence for layering? How is linking functioning within sequences? What about compounds?

For most linguistics the division of phrases into constituents is uncontroversial: any sentence can be analysed into a hierarchy of smaller and smaller units, and, whenever possible, divisions must be binary (Percival, Matthews, Chomsky, after Bloomfield, Hockett, etc). The divisions are justified by certain operations that can be performed on the sentences (Harris), such as an operation of coordination or of anaphora. This, of course, suggests that it is clear what an anaphoric expression is. But Matthews gives examples of the difficulties easily encountered, when dealing with specific occurrences, even if he acknowledges that constituency must be maximised.

Chapter 8: Adjectives in extended predicative positions

Matthews focuses now on the predicative position, a position in which adjectives combine with be. Adjectives can also appear after seem, sound, or make: that made them happy. He first presents Huddleston and Pullum's analysis and their notion of "predicand", before proposing more complex constructions, such as: we arrived exhausted, they painted the wall blue, which leads to a discussion of the difference between adjuncts and adjectives in the constructions under discussion. Adjuncts are not subject to licensing, and thus no verb excludes one. The notion of licensing helps one to understand the difference between they painted the wall blue, and ?they convered the wall blue. And the same verb can construe completely different inerpretations, which must be syntactically distinguished: they painted the wall blue, and they painted the wall wet. The interest of the chapter lies in the in-depth reading of numerous examples, including occurrences often dealt with as resultatives in Construction Grammars: I polished the stone smooth. Other approaches testify to the difficulty of exhaustive descriptions; Ferris (1993), for instance considers that there are not three main functions only, but eight. And in he considers the prosecution case hopeless, the adjective is 'clausal', whereas it is adverbal in Ali rubbed the lamp clean.

Chapter 9: States and occurrences

In this shorter chapter, Matthews wonders which adjectives can appear with the progressive, and whether they express a property or not. The distinction between they are stupid and they are being stupid lies in the distinction between a state and a situation. The former sentence says that they have a certain property, and the adjective meets Dixon's criterion that a state is denoted, whereas the second does not say that they are always stupid. But many adjectives cannot take the progressive. Why is that so? Adjectives with the progressive have a narrower meaning, and only those which can lead to a dynamic interpretation are felicitous. Givon talked of "active adjectives" and Dixon of adjectives depicting a certain "human propensity", such as nice. It seems that with the progressive, the speaker focuses more subjectively on the activity, since the adjective helpful construes the same truth value in your friends were helpful and in your friends were being helpful.

Chapter 10: The position of modifiers

Matthews comes back to historical influences to explain the order in a battle royal. From an historian’s point of view the position of happy in some happy children, and of downstairs in a downstairs window illustrate the tendency since the Middle Ages for modifiers that could come or come only after a noun to shift to a position before it. There are basic rules but also "special rules", since suitable can appear before or after the noun, as in the only day suitable. When a dependent modifies the adjective, three orders are possible: a larger deficit than usual, a deficit larger than usual, and a larger than usual deficit. The postpositive position can have a restrictive role, and is known to be salient in the sequence. In the buildings adjacent, Ferris argues that the order is chosen for the sake of emphasis. Matthews suggests that we can also say that the term adjacent implies a point of reference: adjacent to ours, for instance. The order is then in accordance with the general rule of adjectives followed by complements.

Chapter 11: Envoi

The envoi is not really a conclusion, since Matthews considers that many points were clear from the beginning, and in particular that the attributive and predicative uses of adjectives have diverged, and that the drift (Sapir, 1912) continues. The divergence is both in syntax and the lexicon. What he considers a possible conclusion is the importance that one must attach to the concept of "constituency", but he immediately qualifies this idea, by insisting on the fact that it does not follow that all relations are between one immediate constituent and another. Matthews resorts to various frameworks not to miss any parameters at work, but he tends to distrust any that seems too exclusive to him.

The book is a fascinating world of innumerable data, and almost each page points to a new question. Matthews' descriptions of the various phenomena alluded to are of course much more complex than a summary can suggest. The book is bristling with complex examples which are analysed with great accuracy. He takes stock of numerous approaches, in particular that of Huddleston and Pullum, who seek to incorporate 'as many as possible of the insights achieved in modern linguistics', comparing them with other standpoints, sometimes criticising them, but always with a view to showing that unexpected difficulties arise whenever too much abstraction is emphasised. Theoretical frameworks are necessary, but they may limit the range of problems worth analysing, and the way linguists look at them. Matthews feels closer to Quirk and his colleagues than to more syntactic theoreticians, but the latter have a role to play in the descriptions of languages.

This book, which builds on earlier analyses, will provide students and researchers working in the field elaborate discussions and suggestions for further interrogations, either in syntactical organisations or in lexical descriptions.


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