March 08, 2005

Box spaghetti straight

Harry Shearer's radio program "Le Show" has a segment nearly every week in which Harry does all the voices for a sketch involving the 60 Minutes team and various other TV newspeople. Last Sunday morning it was Dan Rather chatting in folksy Texas phrases as he packs his boxes to move out of the NBC building, and at one point he describes another TV newsman approvingly as "box spaghetti straight". (The phrase appears to get no Google hits, by the way.) The phrase provides not just one but two beautiful arguments against the policy of almost all traditional English grammar as regards defining notions like "adjective" and "adverb".

Traditional grammars always tell you that adjectives are defined as words that modify nouns, and adverbs can be defined as words that modify other parts of speech -- they modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and prepositions. As Shearer's fictionalized Dan Rather would say, that dog won't hunt. I have no idea why it has proved so robust, but it sure isn't correct.

Under the traditional view, since things that modify nouns are ipso facto adjectives, it follows that in box spaghetti (meaning "spaghetti that comes in a box"), the word box has to be an adjective. But if it were an adjective, although you would expect a comparative form (*boxer than the other one) and a superlative form (*the boxest I ever saw), instead you get a plural form boxes and a genitive form box's. Clear signs of nounhood. If box isn't a solid, true-blue noun, there aren't any. Calling it an adjective is completely nuts.

And considering the whole phrase box spaghetti straight, what the fictional Rather meant by it is "straight in the way that box spaghetti is straight". It's parallel to rock solid, which means solid in the way that rocks are solid: rock modifies the adjective solid. But if the things that modify adjectives are ipso facto adverbs, then rock has to be an adverb in rock solid — and in box spaghetti straight, the phrase box spaghetti has to be an adverb.

All these consequences come right from the planet Zorbo. The right way to describe things is the way it is done in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Instead of confusing the idea of being an adjective with the idea of being a modifier of a noun, and confusing the idea of being an adverb with the idea of being a modifier of a non-noun, we separate these notions.

The constituent that comes before a head in a phrase to qualify its meaning has the function modifier. Although the modifier in a noun phrase will often be an adjective, it doesn't have to be. In a phrase like London fog, we have a proper noun serving as a noun modifier. In a phrase like box spaghetti, we have a common noun serving as a noun modifier.

And although the modifier in an adjective phrase will often be an adjective, it doesn't have to be. It can be a noun, as in rock solid, or a phrase formed by a noun and its modifier (The Cambridge Grammar calls this a nominal), as in box spaghetti straight.

Box is a noun, spaghetti is a noun, straight is an adjective. Together they form an adjective phrase. This is not what your traditional grammar books will tell you. But that's because those books get it wrong. You can trust me; on matters like this, I'm box spaghetti straight.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 8, 2005 06:29 PM