Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Very Frightening

Posted by Neal on January 12, 2013

Life, as we know, is full of tough decisions.

Participles are often described as “verbal adjectives,” but recently I was called on to be more specific with a participle: was it a verb, or an adjective? (Sorry, I can’t tell you why I had to do that; it’s TOP SECRET.)

In high school, I was unconflicted: Participles were a kind of adjective, end of story. Even in a sentence like The kids are frightening the cats, I considered frightening to be an adjective, and frightening the cats to be an adjective phrase, just as proud of themselves is an adjective phrase in The kids are proud of themselves. I was annoyed to lose a couple of points over it in a quiz. However, I wasn’t looking at the bigger picture. I wasn’t considering the other properties of adjective phrases that frightening the cats didn’t have, such as these that I read about in CGEL.

First of all, you can’t make the head participle comparative or superlative, the way you can with typical adjectives. You can’t modify it with very, either:

  • The kids are prouder/proudest of themselves.
  • *The kids are more/most frightening the cats.
  • The kids are very proud of themselves.
  • *The kids are very frightening the cats.

It’s for reasons like these that frightening the cats is considered to be a participial phrase — i.e., more verby than adjectivey.

On the other hand, with frightening by itself, you can make comparatives and superlatives and use very:

  • The kids are more/most frightening.
  • The kids are very frightening.

So by itself, frightening can be considered simply an adjective.

In fact, frightening can even be an adjective inside an adjective phrase. The key is that you can’t just go putting a noun phrase complement (such as the cats) after it, the way you’d do with a verb. Instead, you give it a complement more suitable for an adjective; namely, a prepositional phrase. Here’s how it shakes out with the PP to the cats:

  • The kids are more/most frightening to the cats.
  • The kids are very frightening to the cats.

Frightening is actually an unusual case: It’s a participle that in one guise has completely crossed over to become an adjective, but in another still works as a verby participle in progressive tenses. Other participles like this are loving, (for)giving, disturbing, and amazing. In contrast, participles such as running never pass the comparative/superlative/very adjective tests: Sam is more/most/very running.

So with all that said, now we can talk about what the fictional kindergartner Junie B. Jones has in common with the glam rock group Queen. From Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake, by Barbara Park:

The creamy filling was very squishing between my toes. (p. 25)

From Queen, of course, we have this line from “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with our much-discussed participle frightening:

Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me! (~3:18 in the video)

In both examples, the very tells us to take the participle as an adjective, but other factors force us to take it as a non-adjectival participle. In the Junie B. Jones example, it’s the context of a progressive tense that does it; in the Queen example, the NP complement me.

I wonder why I’ve never heard anyone complain about this aspect of Junie B. Jones’s grammar, when these books have certainly been criticized for daring to have a six-year-old over-regularize her past tenses and use accusative pronouns where nominatives are called for. Probably it’s because the other grammar complaints are so easy to make, while this one requires some analysis in order to put your finger on the problem. (JBJ uses very with other non-adjectival participles, too, such as watering and practicing, also from JBJ:YBF.) As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that song is weird in too many other ways, I think, for people to have focused on the grammar of that one line that comes just between the “Scaramouche” and “Galileo” bits.

There’s more to come about participles, adjectives, and even gerunds, in my next post!

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3 Responses to “Very Frightening”

  1. Eugene said

    My guess is that the participles that don’t work as comparative/superlatives and don’t take intensifiers are the same ones that don’t function predicatively. So “running” doesn’t work (“was running” has to be progressive). Neither does corresponding; nor do existing, following, increasing, leading, missing, underlying, etc., though they all work attributively.
    So you have participles that pass all or some of the adjective tests and others that work only attributively – some are very adjective-like; others less so.
    Most of the present participles work in progressive aspect constructions (unless their lexical aspect is incompatible). It’s too bad that in school they didn’t teach us about progressive aspect when they were teaching us about adjectives; that would have prevented a lot of confusion. They still confuse kids today by teaching them that nouns modifying other nouns are “adjectives.”
    Actually, the lexical category (part of speech) is one thing: the function is another.
    Looking forward to the next post.

    • Neal said

      I agree with your guess. In fact, I think we’re saying the same thing but with different terminology.
      I also sympathize with your lament about calling any noun modifier an adjective. I think it’s just one more example of the fallacy of “conditional perfection” (to use Zwicky and Geis’s term): A conditional statement is unconsciously turned into a biconditional. In this case, “If it’s an adjective, it can modify a noun” gives rise to “If it can modify a noun, it’s an adjective,” which with a slight adjustment gives the rule that people seem to understand: “If it IS modifying a noun, it’s an adjective.”

    • dainichi said

      I don’t think “missing” should be in your list. “missing” can definitely be used predicatively. A missing document is not a document which misses. “missing” is an adjective with a meaning of its own. It’s one of those “you’re either X or you’re not”-adjectives, which is why “very/more/most missing” might sound strange.

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