November 23, 2006

Obligatory adjectives and optional articles?

The sharp-eyed Language Log reader will have noticed that Arnold Zwicky's latest post begins with the phrase the sharp-eyed Éamonn McManus. Now, it is well known that proper names of people usually don't take definite articles, allowing for some quite rare exceptions (the Donald for Donald Trump; the Bill Clinton of 1992 for a temporal stage of Bill Clinton's life history; etc.). Arnold certainly could not have begun his post by saying *The Éamonn McManus noticed a gap in the list. Yet sharp-eyed appears to be just an ordinary adjective in attributive modifier function, as in simple Simon, poor Aunt Beth, lucky Pierre, good old John, fearless Evel Knievel, sweet Georgia Brown, Calvin Trillin's locution the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky, and so on; and these are always optional: drop an attributive adjective and what's left is always a grammatical noun phrase. Yet dropping the adjective from the sharp-eyed Éamonn McManus does not leave behind a grammatical noun phrase. It produces something utterly unacceptable. So are attributive adjectives optional or not? How do we give an accurate description of what's going on here?

Don't stand there looking at me. I don't know. Syntax is hard, and people who think everything about English syntax is known already have no idea of the actual ignorance-riddled state of the art.

It's worse than I said, actually. Dropping the definite article from a singular noun phrase is normally impossible unless the noun can be construed as denoting some uncountable substance or stuff: in normal conversational English (I ignore newspaper headlines) we cannot drop the definite articles in something like Yesterday the vice president flew to Iraq to get *Yesterday vice president flew to Iraq. I couldn't have begun this post by saying *Sharp-eyed Language Log reader will have noticed... Yet in the sharp-eyed Éamonn McManus we can drop the definite article: Arnold could have begun by saying Sharp-eyed Éamonn McManus noticed a gap in the list. So is the definite article obligatory with singular non-mass nouns or not?

I repeat: don't look at me. I don't know. I have only a few short decades of experience with this extremely difficult subject.

Thanks to Paul Postal for pointing out I needed to distinguish proper names of people from other proper names. Many proper names (like "the Mississippi") not only permit the definite article, they require it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 23, 2006 06:55 PM