A thoroughly-precedented 38 comments

It’s interesting what sort of posts get commented on at LL. One of the more popular posts of late (and one which continues to get comments an amazingly long 2 days after the initial post is the one mentioned last time, on what may or may not end up being called “funky a” as in, say the title of this post, or earlier in this sentence.

I think the study of the sentences involved illustrates the importance of considering syntactic and semantic features of a construction separately. There are several facts involved, like the strangeness of a plural nominal with a singular determiner, and the fact that adding a non-determinative number expression to nouns then requires the addition of an adjective, and potentially following that a particular determiner. On the meaning side there’s the fact that the adjective seems to modify the amount of the item, not just the amount or just the item on its own. Depending on your view of syntactic and semantic dependences (either syn-syn, sem-sem, or syn-sem relations), each of these facts might lead you to a particular analysis (maybe semantic dependency is always parallel to syntactic dependency, or syntactic selection is always local, etc).

Here’s another addition to the facts. As threatened last time, I did a search of the BNC for “a/an [adjective] [number] [noun]” (with some allowing for non-adjacency, say if the adjective takes local complements or has adverbial modification). Here’s what I found regarding possible adjectives (each list in order of decreasing frequency of participation in the pattern; I stopped looking after the frequency dropped below 7 or so, but scanning the list, it doesn’t look like there are huge categories that I’ve missed):

Mere/Massive-class: mere, good, full, massive, steady, level, small, whole, standard, paltry, meagre, healthy, normal, large, bare, generous, low, scant, nominal

Additional-class: additional, extra, initial, final, closing, further

History/estimation/-ed: estimated, unbeaten, typical, standard, normal, unprecedented, likely, recent, reported, proposed?

Modification of the head: clear, quick, free, bad, difficult, nice, busy, winning, long, hectic, gruelling

Color commentary: staggering, comfortable, astonishing, incredible, modest, remarkable, amazing, superb, fine, typical, respectible, excellent, splendid, disappointing, sensational, magnificent, solid, outstanding, whopping

Total-class?: possible, potential, maximum, minimum, overall, total, net

I’m not wedded (wed?) to the categories, but it seems like each one is slightly different. I’d guess that some might be merged. The “modification of the head” category has basically all units of time or distance as the head noun (a bad few years, a hectic five laps), and as such, I think the adjective is applicable to each unit of time/distance as well as the whole amount: so in a grueling five years, not only are the years grueling as a whole, but also as individual years. This is not the case for the other classes, except maybe the Additional class (in an additional three points each point is also additional)

On losing your shirt to non-specificity

At the beginning of the Double Jeopardy! round of today’s Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek noted to one contestant, “Robin, I see red on you and red in front of you: let’s try to get rid of one of those this round.”

Robin had a negative score, and was wearing a red shirt. Thank goodness for specific indefinites.

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