December 08, 2006

Grave and deteriorating

"The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." The opening words of the report of the Iraq Study Commission have been echoing around the world since Wednesday (grave and deteriorating already gets over half a million hits, and the number is rising; there are well over 3,000 hits on Google News alone). We all look upon that statement with great seriousness and a sinking heart. But the syntactician, qua syntactician, also thinks, aha! A very clear case, in carefully considered natural prose, of a coordination in which the coordinates belong to entirely different syntactic categories.

Grave is an adjective. Not only is very grave grammatical (and modification with very is really only possible for adjectives and adverbs, but not verbs), but the word is inflectable (not all gradable adjectives are, even when their meanings would appear to make that a possibility), so we get the comparative and superlative forms graver and gravest. We can also say It seems grave and It became grave, too (these constructions being pretty good tests for adjectivehood). And so on.

But deteriorating is definitely not an adjective. It is the gerund-participle form of the verb deteriorate. I do not say this just because of its -ing ending. There are adjectives that end in -ing. Charming is one. And it has a gradable meaning, so very charming is grammatical. (It happens not to be inflectable, though, so we find more charming and most charming rather than *charminger or *charmingest in comparative and superlative constructions.) But deteriorating fails in every way to exhibit adjective properties. We do not find (for example) *very deteriorating, or *It seems deteriorating, or *It became deteriorating.

What we learn from this (and many more arguments that could be given) is that the simplistic view of coordination is wrong. The simplistic view would say that coordination is a matter of using a coordinator (a word such as and) to link into one grammatical unit a series of adjectives, or a series of verbs, or a series of noun phrases, or a series of clauses...

The real truth, as usual, is quite a bit more complicated. Though not quite as complicated as the situation in Iraq.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 8, 2006 08:20 PM