An adjective quantified-noun

Back on the best holiday of the year, Mark Liberman [wrote]( on LL about some strange claims about the constituency and plurality of _a million dollars_. In a comment, I noted some perhaps genuinely-strange uses of “a,” leading to [this follow-up]( Having had [the fear of Zwicky]( etched into my brain, I thought I would avoid a too-long comment and just talk about it here.

First, the sentences:

> He was there for a good seven years.
> An additional three people are required.
> A mere four nations recognize that standard.
> She collected an amazing and heretofore unprecedented forty million dollars.

What we have is “a” and then some adjective phrase, and then a quantified nominal. There are some interesting questions to be asked: first, what is the range of adjectives? It seems sort of limited: _a grueling 100 miles_, but ?_an asphalt-paved 100 miles_. All the examples given so far involve some sort of “evaluation” (shock, amazement, disappointment, unprecedentedness, etc.). Maybe someone nice will do a corpus study and report the findings (and of no one does it soon, I might just have to).

Next question: does the whole thing act as a singular or plural phrase, for the purposes of subject-verb agreement? The comments seem to show that, depending on the “context” (how the NP is construed semantically, let’s say – either as a divisible group of individuals or as a lump), you might get singular or plural agreement.

> A good 100 people have/*has arrived.
> A mere four nations recognize/*recognizes that standard.
> A mere four nations is/are not enough

To be clear, it’s not just this funky “a” construction that has this effect: _I think 100 people has the power to convince our boss that he’s acting inappropriately_. That is to say, “100 people signing the petition” or something similar. The CGEL, unsurprisingly, has discussion of this (pages 501 onward, especially 504 on “measure phrases” as contexts for agreement overrides).

Perhaps, in fact, the idea of “measure phrase” is about right for the funky “a” constructions. That brings us to the next (and very related) question: what do these things mean, anyway? Claire (a commenter on Mark’s more recent post) has the intuition that in

> a stunning 19.32 seconds

what we are dealing with is

> a stunning record/time of 19.32 seconds

which has an “equative” _of_, which appears not just in quantified expressions but elsewhere (compare _Seven of the 68 took less than 80% of the prescribed dosage over the study period for the reason of lack of response to DJT._). The idea that the “of” is “implicit” would need some further specification, but the idea would potentially be that adjectival modification of a particular type creates a sort of pseudo-measure-phrase out of the quantified nominal. This might then also explain any variability in subject-verb agreement (since there is both the quantified nominal as well as the singular semantics of the implicit measure phrease).

Radek (replying to Claire) gives some more evidence. One bit is something that I also mentioned in my initial comments, about semantic composition. He notes (and I agree) that in _a mindboggling 281187 words_, which is mindboggling is not the words, but rather “the dummy word ‘amount’.” This is basically what I think, though you don’t necessarily need a “dummy” (unpronounced?) word, but simply a semantic entity — the quantity of words — that can be modified. Whether that meaning has to be represented by some implicit _word_ is a separate question.

Mark, too, I think, was grappling with this when was dealing with the original interesting question, namely what is the constituency structure?

> However, I’ll admit that the constituent structure doesn’t feel like
> [ [a modifier number] noun]
> but rather feels like
> [ [a modifier] [number noun] ]

I think this too involves semantic intuitions influencing syntactic ones (but not being a mind-reader, I could be totally off; there are also prosodic factors to consider, and just plain “well, that’s how it looks to me”). The latter structure would capture the idea that what is mindboggling, shocking, amazing, etc. is not the number _per se_ but the quantified expression.

Going further afield, I have the vague feeling that _he plays a solid third base_ and _she sings a mean alto_ are in the same family of slightly-odd modification and determination. Also in this family might be _the France of my youth_ and _the always-controversial San Francisco_.

[some format editing was done soon after posting…in case you were wondering]

4 Comments so far

  1. radek on July 7th, 2008

    Nice post, Russell. My suggestion concerning the “dummy word” (which is an old term for an empty category) was determined by the syntax- and constituency-driven discussion. Of course, the motivation for having such a “word” in the structure seems to be purely semantic, so if you don’t need/like a direct syntax-semantics mapping, you don’t have to worry about it. The name of your blog seems to point in that direction, anyway ;).

  2. Russell on July 7th, 2008

    Ah, gotcha. I suppose the question of singular and plural agreement might get some syntax into the question of whether there is a dummy word or not – but I’m not up on various syntactic and/or semantic accounts of agreement, so it might be safer not to speculate. =)

    I see one of your supervisors is Mark de Vries — I don’t suppose you have any interest in relative clauses? I ask because recently I’ve been doing some work on some strange appositive relatives in English, and had occasion to read some of his work.

  3. radek on July 8th, 2008

    I’m definitely interested in relative clauses. At least that’s the reason I came to study with Mark. Now my interests have shifted slightly, more towards wh-constructions in general and indefiniteness.
    What are the strange appositives in English that you mention?

  4. AlexM on August 13th, 2008

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!