kitchen table math, the sequel: adjectives, adverbs, and "sentence modifiers"

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

adjectives, adverbs, and "sentence modifiers"

Reading the thread about Groucho's elephant in my pajamas, I think I see what the problem is. I think FedUp may be talking about modifier clauses in general, while I am talking about adjective clauses in particular.

When I write, I follow different rules for two different kinds of modifiers: adjectives and "adjectivals" on the one hand; adverbs and "adverbials" on the other.

I'm certain I follow a (third?) set of rules for a third category -- sentence modifiers -- but I still don't consciously understand what sentence modifiers are, so I can't take that thought any further. (Katharine's explanation is at the end of this post.)

I'm going to steer clear of sentence modifiers for the time being.

Grammar books, including at least some linguistically-informed grammar books, tell us that adjectives  must be put next to the words they modify, but adverbs can go all over the place.

The black cat is sitting on the roof.
The cat is sitting black on the roof.
The cat is sitting on the roof black.

Adverbs are different:
The black cat is sitting happily on the roof.
The black cat is happily sitting on the roof.
The black cat is sitting on the roof happily.
Happily, the black cat is sitting on the roof.

The same principle holds for adjective & adverb phrases & clauses:

The cat that is black is sitting on the roof. (adjective clause)
The cat is sitting that is black on the roof.
The cat is that is black sitting on the roof.
The cat is sitting on the roof that is black.

Adverb clauses can move around:
The cat is sitting on the roof because she likes high places.
Because she likes high places, the cat is sitting on the roof.
The cat, because she likes high places, is sitting on the roof.
And even, in some cases:
The cat is, because she likes high places, sitting on the roof.
(I wouldn't write that sentence, but I'm pretty sure I've seen the occasional adverb clause dropped inside a 2-word verb.)

According to grammar books - at least according to the ones I'm reading - the words "because she likes high places" are an adverbial clause modifying the verb "is sitting."

I find that explanation confusing, but I don't find the rule confusing. I follow the rule automatically and unconsciously, and I always have. I also follow, automatically and unconsciously, the rule that says adjective clauses must go beside the nouns they modify (though dangling participles are something of a temptation, which I think is interesting.) Importantly, if we're talking about English teachers imposing artificial, made-up rules they learned in books upon captive students, I didn't learn either rule from a book.

I learned these rules from talking and reading. I'm not just a native speaker of English. I'm a native writer.

Katharine on sentence modifiers

I'm starting to think maybe the reason I find adverbials confusing is that the category grammar books call "adverbials" includes the category linguists call "sentence modifiers." I don't know.

In any event, here is Katharine on sentence modifiers and Groucho Marx, and this explanation does make perfect sense to me, which is a great relief!:
It's true that modifiers are generally placed next to the things they modify. But sometimes it's the entire sentence that is being modified, in which case the modifier can go at the beginning or at the end.

In the ordinary interpretation of "I shot an elephant in my pajamas" (before the "How he got there, I don't know" clarification), "In my pajamas" is a sentential modifier. That is, it most obviously characterizes the circumstances of the elephant shooting. In the bizarre interpretation (which becomes obvious only after the clarification), "in my pajamas" is a modifier of object noun "elephant." As such, it cannot be moved to the beginning of the sentence. Thus, "In my pajamas, I shot an elephant." is unambiguous.

The tradeoff is between stylistic concerns (e.g. FedupMom's) and concerns about clarity. Depending on the overall context, sentential modifiers placed at the ends of sentences can be misinterpreted as verb phrase or object noun modifiers, which both tend to go at the ends of verb phrases. Since the end of a verb phrase is often also the end of the main sentence, you often can't tell what an end-of-sentence modifier is modifying from word order alone.

With Dick Cavett, I discussed sex. (unambiguous)
I discussed sex with Dick Cavett. (ambiguous; example from Steven Pinker).


Katharine Beals said...

Quick comment for now (off to teach about dyslexia!)

It's specifically sentence modifiers, rather than adverbs in general, that can move around a lot.

Thus in:
Happily, the black cat is sitting on the roof.
"happily" is a sentence modifier (meaning luckily).

There are two indepdendent dimensions of variance:
1. whether the modifier is a single word or a whole phrase.
2. what it modifies (some "adverbs" modify verbs, others modifier verb phrases, others modify sentences.)

Sometimes you can shift (extrapose) a relative clause away from (rightwards of) the noun it modifies:

I saw a cat that I'd never seen before sitting on the roof.
I saw a cat sitting on the roof that I'd never seen before.

FedUpMom said...

Catherine, if I read this post correctly, you and Katharine actually agree with my point about the Groucho sentence.

You're saying that "in my pajamas" is adverbial (or "sentential"), so it could go either at the beginning or end of the sentence, right? In that case you need to amend your original post on the subject, in which you claimed that Groucho's sentence had a misplaced modifier and needed to be corrected.

Catherine Johnson said...

Katharine - oh!


I don't understand, but I'm intrigued.

Catherine Johnson said...

Fed Up Mom - No, I don't agree with you!

To me, "in my pajamas" is an adjectival. (I agree that if you see "in my pajamas" as a sentence modifier, then it can be located at the end of the sentence.)

Adjectivals go next to the nouns they modify.

You don't say "The cat is sleeping black."

By the same token, you also don't say "I shot an elephant in my pajamas" when "in my pajamas" modifies "I."

Here's a different example:

"The book on the table belongs to Jane."

In that sentence, the phrase "on the table" modifies "book."

(At least, I think it does!)

Assuming for the sake of argument that "on the table" is an adjectival modifying "book," you can't move "on the table" to the end of the sentence.

You can't say: "The book belongs to Jane on the table."

You can't say: "The book belongs on the table to Jane."

Catherine Johnson said...

I saw a cat sitting on the roof that I'd never seen before

That's a shift?

It's not a specific sequencing of adjectivals?

Kolln says that when you have a sequence of adjectivals in different forms, the relative clause comes after the participial phrase:

"the airplane on the far runway waiting to take off which was hijacked by terrorists"

"on the runway," "waiting to take off," and "which was hijacked by terrorists" are all adjectivals (according to Kolln)

If you say, "the large, black cat," you wouldn't characterize "large" as having been shifted away from the noun it modifies ----

Or would you?

Katharine Beals said...

>>I saw a cat sitting on the roof that I'd never seen before

>>That's a shift?

Yes, because the original position of the relative clause is as below:
embedded subject: [a cat [that I'd never seen before]]
embedded predicate: [sitting on the roof].

Here's a more obvious example involving an un-embedded sentence (from our friend Jim McCawley):

A man entered who was wearing a black coat.

And (I'm collecting these!) here's one I've culled from Kipling (The Jungle Book):

My lair is empty that was full when the moon was new.

Catherine Johnson said...


Kolln deals with it differently (I'll find time to get that up----)

Catherine Johnson said...

A man entered who was wearing a black coat.

Oh yes!

That's obvious --- thanks!