January 22, 2007

Breakthrough Collaborative

The Breakthrough Collaborative is a worthy educational cause that sponsors public radio segments so I hear about them occasionally in station breaks during NPR's morning news. And you know, not only is it unclear whether "The" is part of their name (some of their web pages have "The" in the banner, some don't), the rest of the syntax of their name was for some time a mystery to me. Was collaborative (which I knew as an adjective) now a noun, the head noun of this noun phrase, with breakthrough (also a noun) being used as an attributive modifier of it? Or was breakthrough the head noun with the adjective collaborative being used as a post-head modifier, as in rare cases (usually calques of French) like court martial?

The answer to the puzzle does not come from reflecting on the meaning (that's what non-linguists and beginning students of syntax always think). The key is to investigate using morphosyntactic criteria: see how the words inflect. If collaborative is being used as a noun (this usage may be well established, but it apparently had passed me by), then, I reasoned, it will inflect for plural number. So I googled collaboratives.

The number of hits approaches a million now. Sentences like "Collaboratives are designed to achieve dramatic improvements in the quality and outcomes of care in a short period of time...", and also "A collaborative focuses on a single technical area (for example, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV)...", with the indefinite article and no modifier, make it crystal clear. The noun-adjective pattern (like court martial) is very rare and not really productive of new phrases, whereas collaborative as a noun is clearly well established (I didn't know it), and nouns can always be used to modify other nouns (as in London fog or April showers, which show that even proper nouns can be modifiers).

So with overwhelmingly greater than chance probability, I have decided, Breakthrough Collaborative is a noun phrase with the relatively new noun collaborative (formed from an original adjective, which itself is formed by adding -ive to the stem of a verb) as its head, and the noun breakthrough (formed from a verb-preposition compound!) as modifier.

And I didn't even need to look up collaborative in the Oxford English Dictionary as many Language Log colleagues would have urged me to do (I'm sure the new use is probably covered in the Second Edition): you can figure some of these things out from the data on your own these days, which means you can often solve the cases of analysis where the usage is too new to be in the OED yet. Linguistics is sometimes hard, but it's not so hard that you have to give up and go shopping. You can do linguistics together with intelligent friends, and sometimes have a collaborative breakthrough.

Update: Lots of people are mailing me to point out that collective, also an adjective that turned into a noun, is probably the model on which collaborative is based, and some of them report knowing of collaboratives from way back in their murky activist pasts.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 22, 2007 11:47 AM