October 18, 2007

Phrasally grateful

If you run out of conventional adjectives and adverbs, the English language stands ready to help. Just package an evocative phrase or two with an appropriate prosodic inflection, and you're on your way, as this morning's Zits illustrates:

Richard Sproat and I discussed this kind of modification in our paper "The stress and structure of modified noun phrases in English" (pp.131-182 in Anna Szabolcsi and Ivan Sag, eds., Lexical Matters, 1992). I don't have the volume at hand, but if memory serves, one of our examples (taken from a 1980s-era business magazine) was "old-fashioned white-shoe do-it-on-the-golf-course bankers" (though I'm not sure I have the punctuation as it was in the original).

I don't know any good, generally-used term for constructions like this. They are sometimes called "phrasal modifiers" (i.e. "modifiers that are phrases"), but that term is more commonly used to mean "things that modify phrases". Without a convenient indexing term, it's hard to search for discussions on line. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

[Update -- Patricia Witkin writes:

Your post reminded me of the relatively recent series of Yoplait ads wherein two young women chat over cups of yogurt, taking turns to describe just how deliciously good the stuff tastes.

Man, I can't stand these ads (and, apparently, short men didn't like the bridesmaid one either. In looking for a link to send I found a letter to General Mills taking issue with the "not-being-put-with-an-usher-who's-shorter-than-you good" line)


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 18, 2007 09:21 AM