Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Walking Trail

Posted by Neal on May 25, 2010

Another place we went on our trip two weekends ago was to Magee Marsh, on the shore of Lake Erie in northwestern Ohio, for the tail end of the Biggest Week in American Birding. Yes, there is a biggest week in American birding, Doug and his mother have learned during this past year. It’s the week of the peak of the warblers’ northern migration, as they stop to rest and feed at the shore of Lake Erie before continuing on to Canada. Doug and his mom actually went there the week before, and spent two days looking for birds and listening to talks about birds! Adam and I opted out of that trip. But now, a week later, Doug had read that a Kirtland’s warbler had been sighted at Magee Marsh after his visit, and he was hoping he could see it himself if he took another walk along the boardwalk there. At the trailhead there was this sign:

It reminded me of an error I’ve seen a few times in grammar books or discussions; for example this one. The question is: What part of speech is the word walking in the nominal walking trail? Some (like the author of the book I linked to above) seem to be following this line of reasoning:

  1. Adjectives modify nouns.
  2. Walking modifies the noun trail.
  3. (Invalid conclusion) Therefore, walking is an adjective.

This is like saying, “Dogs dig holes. The guy who’s putting in my swimming pool digs holes. Therefore, the guy who’s putting in my swimming pool is a dog.” The missing piece of information here is that nouns can modify nouns, too. Of course, there is crossover sometimes, when a noun modifier is reinterpreted as an adjective and treated accordingly (see fun and key).

So why not just say that anything that modifies a noun is an adjective? For one thing, you’ve just made it harder on yourself to distinguish between adjectives that can do things like have comparative and superlative forms or be modified by adverbs, and adjectives like walking, which can’t. (Well, you might be able to say “walkingest,” but it would have to refer to something that walks the most. You couldn’t say “the walkingest trail” to mean the trail that is best for walking.) For another, that leads to further reasoning like this:

  1. Verbal adjectives are participles.
  2. (Invalid premise) Walking is a verbal adjective.
  3. Therefore, walking is a participle.

So why is this conclusion bad? Well, now how are you going to explain the difference between a trail that walks and a trail for walking? How will you explain why walking trail in its intended, non-ridiculous meaning means the same thing as trail for walking, where walking is a noun (i.e. gerund)? Calling walking a gerund instead of a participle here is sloppy analysis.

Now lest you think I went all the way to Magee Marsh with my family, only to get carried away by grammar issues that the trail sign reminded me of, let me say that I did learn something about birds, and warblers in particular. I pronounce warble like this: [warbL]. (I’m using [L] to represent syllabic /l/, that is, /l/ that functions as a syllable.) But when I attach the -er suffix, the [L] stops being syllabic, and turns back into a true consonant, so that I pronounce warbler as two syllables: [warb.lR]. (Now I’m using [R] to represent syllabic /r/.) In more ordinary English spelling, I guess it’d be warb-ler. But when Doug says warbler, I was surprised to learn, he doesn’t un-syllabify that [L]. He pronounces it with three syllables: [warb.L.R]. In somewhat regular spelling, that would be warble-er. However, he did cop to shortening it to two syllables, the way I pronounce it, when he’s talking fast. How about that?

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2 Responses to “The Walking Trail”

  1. Ran said

    I pronounce “warbler” as you do, but “wobbly” like Doug does (“wobble-y” normally, “wobb-ly” in fast speech). I think it has to do with “wobbly” being literally “wobble-y”, whereas “warbler”, for me, is just the name of the kind of bird. Perhaps Doug thinks of “warbler” as a more literal designation?

  2. The Ridger said

    I also say “war-bler” but would say “wob-bl-er”. I think it’s because I encountered “warbler” as the name of a bird and “warble” only much later, and didn’t really think of it as what warblers do. Although I suppose it is.

    That is, from noun to verb one thing happens with syllabic L and from verb to noun something else.

    ps – In most of my Russian grammars, verbal adverbs are called “gerunds”. That drives me up the wall!

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