August 10, 2006

The dying adjective laureate

Would you like to see an utterly clear case of an error in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language? I have one for you. There are very few errors in the grammar's 1860 pages, but I think it's important to point out that grammars do contain errors. It reinforces the fundamental point that a grammar is a set of claims about a language, and those claims can be wrong, and linguists expect evidence to be relevant to determining whether a grammar is wrong or not. Underlining that point is much more important to me than protecting the sanctity of one page of one grammar that I co-authored. The error I have in mind is certainly tiny — a single two-word example phrase that I now see was the wrong one to illustrate the point at hand. The point itself is correct. But what's interesting about this case is the sheer stunning weight of evidence saying our example was no good. It's really extreme. The topic at hand is those anomalous adjectives (there are just a few) that are required to follow the head noun when they play a modifying role in a noun phrase. And the adjective at issue is laureate, as in poet laureate.

We cited a number of adjectives that show the odd behavior of always being after the noun rather than before it. Galore, for example, is always after the noun (there are still mysteries galore), and it's an adjective as far as we can see. Likewise aplenty, and the political adjectives designate and elect, and one use of proper. And we added laureate to the list. It means "awarded a great honor such as the one that the ancient Greeks used to symbolize with a crown made out of a wreath of laurel leaves." Our mistake? We gave (at the bottom of page 560, in [21]) Nobel laureate as our illustrative example.

That was wildly, thumpingly wrong. The evidence indicates that Nobel laureate and poet laureate have totally different structures. (Marilyn Martin has very perceptively pointed out to me why: because "Nobel" is the name of the award, while "poet" is the name of the position. So a laureate can be a Nobel laureate if that is the prize awarded; while a poet can become a poet laureate if thus nominated; but while the poet laureate is a poet, the Nobel laureate is not a Nobel.)

In poet laureate (the title of whichever poet is currently designated as a kind of honorary official poet of the country), the head noun seems to be poet. So the plural is poets laureate, and that's what most people write.

But in Nobel laureate, for some reason, things have shifted. Laureate is the head. It has become a noun. (As several people have pointed out to me, we get phrases like "the laureates this year".) Nobel is an attributive modifier of that noun, as it is in Nobel prize. Hence the plural of Nobel laureate is Nobel laureates, a phrase which gets over four million Google hits. And Nobels laureate, as a plural NP, gets none. There are a very few occurrences of the phrase itself out there (about half a dozen plus a few duplicates, this page being empty when I checked it), but every one of these seems to be an instance of the rare practice of calling someone a "Nobels laureate" rather than a Nobel laureate, as if the modifier were Nobels (it isn't).

On poet laureate, by the way, usage is split: poets laureate is the commonest plural, with 66,800 hits, but poet laureates gets a healthy 44,400. That means about 40% of speakers have reanalyzed laureate as a noun in that phrase too. The adjective use of laureate may well be dying out.

But on Nobel laureate there is no debate; the word is not an adjective at all. For one structure, with laureate as the head noun, we have 4,000,000 hits to illustrate it. For the other, zero. That is what I call overwhelming weight of evidence from usage. Our example was a bad pick. On behalf of Rodney Huddleston and myself (we wrote the chapter together), I offer my apologies for it. But remember what I told you: For rational people at least, grammars can be wrong.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 10, 2006 12:23 AM