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)

More on counting people

Just over a year ago I wrote about Anderson Cooper’s description of America’s growing population. Seems it’s about time for me to do sort of the same thing, only with an ad I saw while over in Chicago for the annual meeting of my professional organization. On one of the L trains there was an advertisement for a new book, The Chicago “L”. The ad read something like,

Make a connection to the over 10 billion riders of the Chicago “L”

That was surprising. I thought the current population of the earth was around 6 billion! Anyway, it’s quite clear what is meant, namely that over 10 billion rides have been taken since the opening of the L in 1892, no doubt many involving repeat customers. Fair enough – but do different rides by the same individual require making a new connection with them for each new ride? Sure, some days the trip is special, but whatever connection this book lets me create with, say, Janice Smith going to work on June 3rd, 1985, will probably also work for her going to work on June 4th. Just a guess, of course.

Similarly strange is what is apparently on the blurb (from Amazon):

More than 10 billion people have ridden the “L,” which now carries half a million people a day over 222 miles of track.

Now, I’d like to claim that more than one thousand people read this blog, but somehow I think I would get called on it…

One interesting thing that came out of this was a little research I did into estimations not of the world’s current population, but of the sum total of humans who’ve ever lived. One estimate puts it at just over 100 billion. More than I would have guessed. And according to the same source, about 11 billion people were alive between 1900 and 2002. So hey, theoretically (maybe?) it’s possible that 10 billion individuals have ridden on the L.