Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Adverbial Nouns in the News

Posted by Neal on November 22, 2013

Listening to the various news stories observing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I heard one reporter talking about a commemoration going on in Dallas. She said,

The ceremonies will take place at the very location he was killed.

In my grammar, location doesn’t work this way. I can say either of the following:

  1. the location in/at which he was killed
  2. the location where he was killed

The clause he was killed ___ contain a prepositional-phrase gap (shown with an underscore) where you might ordinarily expect at that place, or in that place, or maybe just there. This gap corresponds to the relative phrase in/at which or the relative adverb where. Somewhat less good are:

  1. the location that he was killed in/at
  2. the location he was killed in/at

In these phrases, the clause he was killed in/at ___ contains a gap where you’d ordinarily expect an object of the preposition in or at, and this gap corresponds to the relativizer that in (3). Or there’s no relative pronoun at all, as in (4). But what definitely doesn’t work in my grammar is modifying location with a relative clause that begins with that or the null relative pronoun, and contains a prepositional-phrase gap. For me, the only word that is allowed to do this is place:

  1. the place that he was killed
  2. the place he was killed

I might also accept spot, but not location (or corner, either). Even though these words are all synonyms, only place has the ability to go with these relative clauses that contain a prepositional-phrase gap. In other words, place is the only adverbial noun among these three. (For an example of place used as both an adverbial noun and an ordinary noun simultaneously, see this post about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)

It turns out that Dad, too, had a brush with adverbial nouns today, in the news coverage of the assassination semicentennial. He called me to say that he and Mom each had an idea for a blog post for me, and his contribution was from the front page of the Houston Chronicle, which referred to November 22, 1963 as

a day the world changed.

Day, like place, doesn’t need a relative adverb like when, or a relative phrase like in which or at which, when it’s modified by a relative clause with a prepositional-phrase gap. That’s why Don McLean can sing about the day the music died instead of having to phrase it in one of these ways:

  1. the day on which the music died
  2. the day when the music died
  3. the day that the music died on
  4. the day the music died on

But it’s easier to parse this kind of relative clause if you have a verb, such as die, that forces you to imagine a prepositional-phrase gap after it. Because die is an intransitive verb, you’re not expecting it to have a direct object, so you don’t parse the music died as containing a noun-phrase gap. Change, on the other hand, can take a direct object, so the first interpretation that came to Dad’s mind, and to mine, was the one in which the world changed the day of November 22, 1963, even though it was clear that the intended meaning was “a day on which the world changed” or “a day when the world changed”.

And as for Mom’s news-related blog post idea? Well, it’s not about adverbial nouns, and it is about something I’d already been considering writing about in a separate post. So separate post it is!

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4 Responses to “Adverbial Nouns in the News”

  1. Barry Mernin said

    I love every bit of this post. Have you read, “Funner Grammar?” I recommend it strongly.

  2. Barry Mernin said

    Reblogged this on Expat Teacher Man and commented:
    Teachers?

    How do you approach grammar teaching in your school. Literal Minded is a step in the right direction.

  3. the ridger said

    It does sound odd when I stop to think about it. But I’m sure I say things like that all the time. The relative adverbs drop easily for me.

  4. dainichi said

    Not a native speaker, so my intuition might not count for much, but for some reason “the day” works much better for me as an adverbial noun than “a day”. Am I the only one?

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