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)

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

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Tip-top lapnets on your desknote

As far as I can tell, the term desktop computer originated as a way to designate a computational device that could fit on a desk, as opposed to the larger variety that, my elders tell me, took up entire warehouses and required something like an entire army Santa’s elves to operate. Now, though, the more common distinction is with laptop computer.

Now, a laptop is also called a notebook computer, and while I’m not sure exactly what the differences in usage are, there are some cases where you would use one term and not the other. For one, there is a variety of computer called the subnotebook — not the sublaptop. If I had to guess, I’d say that laptop is on a par with notebook computer, but that just plain notebook requires a (little, to be sure) context to be used normally.

Okay, great. So we have {desk/lap}top and then notebook. Then Intel comes along and starts calling the ultraportable, intenet-oriented laptops like the Asus Eee netbooks, presumably to both indicate the functionality and minimal (ahem) differences with full-fledged notebooks. So, what do you call a non-portable, on-the-top-of-the-desk computer with processing capability approximating that of a netbook? Perhaps it will have a word like, say, desk in it? No: they’re nettops. I guess the salience of notebook/desktop is enough to trump the laptop/desktop distinction, and so -top has, at least here, come to mean “desktop.”

Beyond picker upper

It seems like one of those things that keeps getting “casually discovered”–that is, that I hear mention of at least once a year–is the result of applying the agentive -er suffix to particle verbs like pick up and clean out. What’s interesting is that the most common result (according to some study [studies? -I've only seen a 1978 manuscript by Moira Yip cited wrt this issue]) is picker upper and cleaner outer. There are some interesting observations made by David Mortensen in this post of his now archive-only blog.

But how about this: what do you do with take advantage of? Well, today, I somewhat consciously produced taker advantage ofer. A quick search on Google reveals:

Kira I Am: does it say that kkira is the numbe rone drunk girl taker advantage ofer? link

Yes! This seems to be a one-line extract from some sort of IRC or similar chat session. I especially like the semantic undergoer expressed as a pre-modifier.

In any case, this seems like an interesting test case for models of realizational morphology, as there is more than just a head verb and a particle. Exactly which bits of the word are eligible for the morphological process?