Adverbs modifying nouns?

1. What this question is about

It is about cases where an adverb apparently modifies a word of a type that adverbs aren’t supposed to be able to modify, like nouns and personal pronouns. It is very much related to this post. Prototypical examples I have in mind:

The work is mostly Kim’s.
The work is mostly mine.
The victory was almost Kim’s.
The victory was almost hers.

2. The actual question

It seems to me that there are three possible ways to analyze the examples above, none of which seem to me to be satisfactory. Question: which of these, if any, is the best way to analyze the examples above? I would appreciate it if the answer was backed by scholarly sources at the level of Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartvik and CGEL (as opposed to school or ESL grammars).
Possible analyses:

i. The NP answer: Although, true, Kim’s is a noun, and a nominal, in these examples it is actually the full noun phrase (NP); similarly for mine and hers. And while adverbs “do not occur as attributive modifiers within a nominal, … many can occur as external modifier with an NP as head” (see Sec. 4.1, below). So there is no problem: NPs can be modified by adverbs.

ii. The adjective answer: Kim’s may be a noun, but here it functions as an adjective; similarly, mine and hers may be pronouns, but here they function as adjectives. So there is no problem: adjectives (and, by extension, words that function like adjectives) can be modified by adverbs. (A variant of this analysis says that all these nouns and pronouns actually are adjectives in these examples.)

iii. The verb answer: In these examples, the adverbs mostly and almost actually modify the verbs is and was. So there is no problem: verbs can be modified by adverbs.

3. Why I don’t like the answers 1-3

3.1 The NP answer

This was the accepted answer to this question; so why don’t I like it?

I don’t like it because it seems to open a Pandora’s box. After all, any noun can be the sole constituent of an NP. This analysis would imply a vast number of circumstances under which nouns may be modified by adverbs—potentially, all circumstances in which a noun is the sole constituent of an NP. What then remains of our analysis of adverbs as those words one of the key characteristics of which is that they don’t modify nouns?

Moreover, such an analysis does not seem to capture the extremely limited range of circumstances under which adverbs (seem to) modify nouns and pronouns. For example, surely, the following sentence is not allowed in Standard English:
* Mostly John did the work.
But, on this analysis, why not? After all, John is clearly NP. It is even clear what the sentence means; moreover, I think the sentence is actually grammatical in some dialects (e.g. in Indian English)—but it definitely isn’t grammatical in Standard English.

3.2 The adjective answer

My guess is that this is the preferred answer of traditional school grammars, because such grammars say that in the phrase the Clinton administration, the word Clinton is an adjective (or that it is “used as an adjective”). Why don’t I like it? Because of what CGEL has to say about it:

Traditional school grammar (though not scholarly traditional grammar)
tends to analyse the underlined nouns here as adjectives—or to say
that they are ‘nouns used as adjectives’. From our perspective, this
latter formulation represents a confusion between categories and
functions: they are not nouns used as adjectives, but nouns used as
attributive modifiers. Apart from pronouns, just about any noun can
appear in this function—including proper nouns, as in the London,
Clinton, and Caroline
examples [in the book there are many other
examples, and the nouns in question, e.g. Clinton, appear
underlined]. These words can all appear as head of an NP in subject or
object function, where they are uncontroversially nouns; to analyse
them as adjectives when they are functioning attributively would make
the adjective category far too heterogeneous, and require an
unwarranted and massive overlap between the adjective and noun
categories. (p. 537)

It would seem to me that the same remarks apply to the case of nouns and pronouns in the genitive (see Sec. 4.2, below).

3.3 The verb answer

I’m not aware of any sources that advocate this answer, but it seems an obvious possibility to consider. However, either one of the following two reasons is probably enough to see why no one is advocating this:
i. adverbs normally come before the verbs they modify (e.g. I want to mostly eat, with some drinking mixed in.);
ii. it would never occur to anyone to analyze It is mostly red as anything other than red being modified by mostly.

In conclusion, I don’t much like any of the proposed answers. Is there another possible answer? Or is one of the ones above in fact the correct one, despite the objections I stated?

4. Appendix: Some grammatical background

4.1 Adverbs

According to CGEL,

Adverbs do not occur as attributive modifiers within a nominal, but
many can occur as external modifier with an NP as head. Almost the
whole book
, for example, has the NP the whole book as head, and may
be contrasted with * She congratulated him on his [almost success],
where it is inadmissibly functioning as modifier of the noun
success. (p. 563)

It may be helpful here to recall the distinction between a nominal and a noun phrase:

A phrase consisting of a noun and the constituents that go with it
most closely is a nominal [Nom]; a nominal plus a determinative makes a
noun phrase [NP]… (p. 22)

Example (p. 23):

this clear case of dedication to duty is an NP, whereas

clear case of dedication to duty (note the missing determinative) is a Nom.

It is helpful to note that, if clear is dropped from the above example, then

almost a case of dedication to duty

is grammatical (if awkward), but

* almost case of dedication to duty

isn’t grammatical.

4.2 Nouns and pronouns

According to the source I cited, the genitive form of a noun is still a noun:

Nouns prototypically inflect for number (singular vs plural) and for case (plain vs genitive) Examples: dog-dog’s; dogs-dogs’; child-child’s; children-children’s (p. 326)

Likewise, pronouns in the genitive remain pronouns (p. 327):

nominative     dependent     independent

                            genitive           genitive

          I                     my                 mine

        she                   her                 hers

4.3 The relevant genitive construction

The book lists six types of genitive construction (p. 467). Of relevance to this question is type v, the predicative genitive:

v   All this is Kim’s.     [v: predicative genitive]

Details are provided on p. 469:

In [41V] the genitive marks the relation between Kim and the predicand all this, a relation like that expressible by belong + to. Kim’s here is thus not part of some matrix NP, as it is in Types 1 and iii-iv: here, then, the predicative complement function is realised directly by a genitive NP. Genitive predicative complements are usually subjective, as in this example, but they can also be objective: Let’s call it Kim’s; I regard it as Kim’s.

5. mostly vs. not

User Frank has suggested that mostly modifies the verb is, by analogy with not in The work is not Kim’s. Here I want to explain why that is almost certainly not correct.

Consider e.g. the sentence

[A] The shoe is mostly red.

If the argument by analogy with not were correct, it would follow that in [A], mostly ‘belongs with’ is; in other words, that [A] should be analyzed as It [is mostly] red, because in The shoe is not red, the not belongs with is.

However, no reputable source would analyze [A] that way; instead, it would always be analyzed as The shoe is [mostly red], where mostly red is taken to be an adjective phrase (AdjP).

I will return to not later. For now, let me concentrate on [A] on its own.

5.1 Why mostly red is a constituent

The reason why mostly ‘belongs’ not with is but rather with red is that mostly red is a constituent, whereas is mostly is not. There are several kinds of tests that can help determine if something is a constituent. A very well-known one is that only a constituent can be replaced by a pro-form. And indeed: The right shoe is m̲o̲s̲t̲l̲y̲ ̲r̲e̲d̲, and the left one is s̲o̲ as well (so is a pro-adjective that substitutes mostly red).

To complete the argument, one also has to show that is mostly is not a constituent. For that, we use the principle that constituents always must either be conjoined, [11][22], or nested, [1 … [22] …1], but they cannot only partially overlap: [1 … [21]… 2] (see here). We showed above that mostly red is a constituent. But then it follows that is mostly cannot be a constituent, because it would only partially overlap with another constituent, namely mostly red.

5.2 The analogy with


Let me now turn to the argument concerning the similarity with not. The situation with not is a bit tricky, and it will help if we replace is by seems. This replacement does not change the original question, because now we have The work seems mostly Kim’s, and we can still ask if mostly modifies Kim’s. Now consider

[C] a. The shoe seems not red.
       b. The shoe does not seem red.

In a., not red seems to function somewhat like non-red, suggesting it is a constituent. To further strengthen that point of view, it seems like we can freely move around not red in a., which, if true, means that not red is indeed a constituent in that sentence (the question mark in front of the following examples means that it is however not entirely clear if the sentences are truly grammatical): ?Not red seems the shoe; ?Not red, the shoe seems. Also, it seems that ‘not+adjective’ can usually be replaced by a pro-form, again suggesting it is a constituent: ?John seems not tired, and Jane seems so, too. Finally, though this is not a conclusive test of constituenthood even if true, it looks like not red can be a stand-alone reply to a question, as in

Jane: I want the other shoe to be red.
Alex: OK, how does this shoe seem to you?
Jane: Not red.

On the other hand, in b., it seems pretty clear that not belongs with does.

And now notice that

[D] The shoe is not red

is ambiguous between being read like [Ca] (The shoe is [not red]) and being read like [Cb] (The shoe [is not] red).

On the one hand, here is some (admittedly inconclusive) evidence of the possibility of a [Ca]-like reading of [D]. Fronting: ?Not red, the shoe is. Answer ellipsis: “What is that shoe?” “Well, not red…” Pro-form substitution: The one thing I insist on is that all items be anything but red. Well, the hat is n̲o̲t̲ ̲r̲e̲d̲, the shawl is s̲o̲ as well, but the shoes are kind of reddish.

On the other hand, the [Cb]-like reading of [D] is arguably the standard one, though I (who am not a linguist) have had trouble coming up with a clear and conclusive demonstration of that fact. Perhaps this is not that surprising, as verb phrases are often more difficult to test for constituenthood than other kinds of phrases. So far, I only have answer ellipsis (sort of): “That shoe is red!” “Is not!”

The fact that [D] seems to be readable two different ways is why I say not is trickier when it follows is than when it follows e.g. seems. The reason, of course, is that negation with is does not involve do: we say don’t say *The shoe does not be red; our only possibilities are the shoe is not red and the shoe isn’t red. (CGEL seems to argue that isn’t and is not aren’t quite the same thing, unlike she’ll and she will, which are. One reason is that isn’t cannot always be expanded to is not, whereas she’ll can always be expanded to she will. For example, That’s a great hat, i̲s̲n̲’̲t̲ it? cannot be expanded to *That’s a great hat, i̲s̲ ̲n̲o̲t̲ it?; the question tag must instead be is it not. There are other differences as well, see CGEL, p. 91, which discusses won’t vs. will not, but it seems like all the arguments there also apply to isn’t and is not.)

And the point of all this, of course, is that [A] is analogous not to the [Cb]-like reading of [D] but to the [Ca]-like reading of it.

Whatever turns out to be the correct thing to say about [D], however, it remains the case that in [A], it is mostly red which is a constituent.


The NP answer is correct. Your objections to it are no good. The Pandora’s box argument doesn’t make sense — just because an adverb immediately precedes a noun and there is nothing else in the NP, this doesn’t mean the adverb modifies the noun. That is what your argument assumes, and it is just not so. In such cases, the adverb modifies only the NP and not the noun.

Your other objection is that in many cases a given adverb cannot modify a NP. But so what? Adverbs can modify many things, and there are all sorts of restrictions and complexities. Just because adverbs can sometimes modify NPs, it doesn’t mean that every adverb can modify every NP.

There is a refinement to the proposal that adjectives are modifiers of nouns that you might like to know about. In McCawley’s TSPE (which gives a very interesting taxonomy of adverbs), it is not nouns that are modified by adjectives, but rather N’ (N-bar). An N’ is (a) a noun alone, (b) a noun with a noun complement (e.g. the P’ in “the father of the bride”), or (c) the result of modifying an N’ with an adjective, relative clause, or whatever. N’ can be replaced by the pro-form “one”, as in “The unbroken red ball hit the window before the broken one (one = red ball) did.”

Source : Link , Question Author : linguisticturn , Answer Author : Greg Lee

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