April 03, 2004

The right X and the right Y

A BBC story about the death of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands quotes "Petra Graafland, government worker" as saying "she was the right queen for the right time." The point seems to be that the queen's down-to-earth, bicycle-riding ways were appropriate for the Netherlands in the last half of the 20th century. The quotation is an example of an English construction in which parallel modifiers are interpreted in a special way.

When the California District Attorney's Association calls someone "a bad man with a bad record", they mean that the man is bad and that the record is bad, and they are not suggesting (for example) that some other man with the same record would be a fine fellow. However, when the author of this blog entry says that we should "use the right tool for the right job", what he means is that the pairing of tool and job should be right. He is comparing MySQL and PostgreSQL programs, and he explicitly denies that (as of 11/2003) either can be considered "the right tool" independent of the job it's supposed to do, and also denies that one class of application should be privileged over another.

Aside from this special interpretation of parallel modification, English seems to be deficient in easy or idiomatic ways to talk about the properties of relations as distinct from the properties of the items related. Attempts to express such evaluations in a precise way have a sort of 18th-century flavor. Gibbon, when he discussed the division of talents and labors between Balbinus and Maximus, did not talk about "the right Emperor for the right job", but rather wrote that "...[t]he various nature of their talents seemed to appropriate to each his peculiar department of peace and war...". Few people write like that these days -- and few people read those who do, at least not twice.

Google has 115,000 pages in its index for "the right * for the right", with X and Y instantiated as pairs like war / reasons, toy / age child, tree / place, tree / situation, plant / spot, tool / job, tools / trades, format / recipient, agent / customer, person / job, thing / reason, trucks / jobs. After reading a sample of the examples, I conclude that nearly all of them, like the RDB comparison discussed above, intend to attribute rightness to the pairings rather than to the items paired.

The phrasal template is not limited to the preposition "for":

the right X in the right Y 155,000
the right X at the right Y 724,000
the right X on the right Y 14,500

Nor is the adjective "right" required:

the wrong X at the wrong Y 90,600
the correct X at the correct Y 3,890
the proper X at the proper Y 3,470

Nor is it required that the two adjectives be the same: "the right X at the wrong Y" gets 6,960 ghits. However, I suppose that the paired modifiers need to collectively denote a property that can be applied to the pairing of elements in a relation: "armchair offensive coordinators can use their real-life NFL knowledge to match up a taller receiver with a shorter cornerback".

The pattern can be generalized to n-ary relations ("These reactions must take place at the proper time, at the proper rate, to the proper extent") and to indefinite NPs ("Phifer is guilty only of being in a wrong place at a wrong time"), though binary relations and definite NPs are much more common. The prepositional structure is also not required: "It'll tell them if they are using the right browser and the right version, or not". There are also plenty of examples that don't even have an "and": "...how to put the right information on the right storage devices..."

The only thing that seems to be required is parallel modification -- modifiers with the "right" semantics in the "right" structural relationship. Since some (all?) instances of this pattern can also be interpreted in a more normal (or at least locally-compositional) way, there must either be ambiguous structures or optional principles of interpretation involved.

For all I know, there's a large literature on this subject. Has anyone suggested an enlightening semantic analysis? Even better, does anyone's analysis of modification handle these cases without special "construction grammar" pleading?

I wonder about the generality of the pattern across languages -- "le bon * pour le bon" gets 309 ghits, for example, so this is not a purely English phenomenon -- and about its antiquity in English. If the analogous patterns work the same way in all (or at least many) languages, then it's more plausible that a general theory of modification (applied to the right modifiers in the right structures) should handle them correctly.

[Update: Russell Lee-Goldman emailed:

There's a four-character compound in Japanese,
適材適所 (teki-zai-teki-sho),
which means, morpheme-by-morpheme, 'suitable material suitable place.' It is generally understood to mean "giving a person a job that meets with their skills." Though most of these four-character compond can't be altered, some google searching came up with
適大適所 ('big' instead of 'material,' actually meaning 'size' in this case) and
適竿適所 ('rod' instead of 'materal,' talking about
fishing), and also
適時適所, which literally means 'right time right place.'
Searching for more phrasal equivalents did not yield results (with parallel phrases having adjectives like 'suitable,' 'right' describing heads like person/job tool/job, etc.)


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 3, 2004 07:48 AM