February 23, 2004

All Is Real

Allan Hazlett has posted on the difference between pre-nominal and predicative adjectives. Predicative adjectives can occur either before or after the noun:

(1a) Allie is a brown cat. (1b) Allie is a cat that is brown

Pre-nominal adjectives can only occur before:

(2a) Bill Clinton is a former President. (2b) *Bill Clinton is a President that is former.

Allan expresses surprise that pre-nominal and predicate adjectives are claimed to be of a fundamentally different semantic type, but (after thinking about it a few days) it seems intuitive to me. Roughly, the role of "former" is to perform an operation on the noun that it semantically modifies:

(3) "X is a former F" is true iff X was once an F and is no longer an F.

(That's why "former" will modify common nouns only, except in locutions such as "the former Valerie Plame.")

The role of "brown" is independent of the noun that it semantically modifies:

(4) "X is a brown F" is true iff X is brown and X is an F.

Now, "tall" and "good" are predicative. This led me to think that maybe we have evidence that "tall" can't act as a modifier to whatever (possibly implicit) common noun it's attached to--it's got to be set by context or (shudder) invariant.

But, as Allan points out, "fake" is syntactially predicative too. And I'm not sure how you could have "fake" be contextual or invariant--nothing is fake tout court, it's always a fake something or another. For instance, Allan cites

(5) That necklace is fake

but that usually doesn't mean it's a fake necklace, but rather that it's made of fake pearls or some such. Allan compares "fake" to the prenominal "faux," and it's clear that (5) doesn't correspond to

(6) That's a faux necklace

but to

(7) That necklace is made of faux [pearls].

So maybe "fake" requires an implicit noun, and it's impossible to conclude anything from the predicative character of "good," "tall," etc.

[I should add that I expect this territory is pretty well-trod by people who know it better than I do.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 23, 2004 01:34 PM


Posted by: Richard at February 25, 2004 08:29 AM