Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Adjuncts and complements’ Category

Forcibly Arriving

Posted by Neal on May 31, 2018

Last month, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. That rather vague name may not ring a bell for you, but if you’ve been hearing news stories about a “lynching memorial,” that’s the place. An article by Kelly Macias in the Daily Kos argued for the need for such a memorial, calling it a

space that is intentionally designed for us to finally have an adult conversation about the generational trauma and terror black people have experienced since we forcibly arrived upon America’s shores

By context and historical knowledge, I could make sense of forcibly arrive: The blacks arrived, but the action wasn’t voluntary; they were taken by force and transported here. But seeing forcibly used in this sentence was surprising to me.

Forcibly, like a number of adverbs, is agent-oriented. To show what this means, let’s compare it to an adverb that is subject-oriented: willingly. In the first sentence below, willingly describes how Dr. Riviera did the examination. In the second sentence, it describes how Homer underwent the examination. In both cases, willingly says something about the subject of the sentence. On the other hand, when we put in forcibly, then in both sentences, it’s talking about Dr. Riviera. Although Riviera is the subject in one, and the object of the preposition by in the other, in both cases he’s the agent.

  1. Dr. Riviera willingly examined Homer.
  2. Homer was willingly examined by Dr. Riviera.
  3. Dr. Riviera forcibly examined Homer.
  4. Homer was forcibly examined by Dr. Riviera.

So I’m accustomed to agent-oriented adverbs with verbs that can be either in active voice (examined) or passive voice (was examined)–i.e. transitive verbs. What about intransitive verbs? Those can work, provided you have a verb that refers to something that can be dumb forcibly:

  1. Bart forcibly jumped over the curb.
  2. ?Marge forcibly slept.

Now let’s talk about arrive. It’s a member of a class of verbs called unaccusatives, whose subjects don’t have the role of agent. Other members include suffer, die, and the intransitive versions of verbs such as melt. These verbs definitely don’t go well with agent-oriented adverbs:

  1. *Seymour forcibly suffered.
  2. *Maud forcibly died.

So now, coming back to arrive, it’s often classified as an unaccusative verb. The subject is not an agent, and since the verb is intransitive, there’s no object to be the agent, either. No agent in sight. And in that case, how does forcibly get to describe the causer of the arriving? My guess at the beginning of this post was “pure context,” and it still is. Maybe it was even a cut-and-paste error, with an original were forcibly transported replaced by arrived, and forcibly never got changed accordingly. However, I can’t say it’s something that people just don’t say or write, because I’ve found a couple of other examples:

  • In Brazil and Cuba, where thousands of African slaves forcibly arrived each year, slavery dominated most economic activities…. (link)
  • With their ancestors having forcibly arrived to the New World enslaved, and with African females becoming “beast[s] of burden,” newly freed southern black … (link)
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Posted in Adjuncts and complements, Lexical semantics | Leave a Comment »

Superior Complements, Superior Adjuncts

Posted by Neal on August 31, 2015

Adam is a high-school freshman this year, and is now a member of the school’s marching band. Over the weekend, I had to take him in to get measured for his bibbers and jacket. While he was busy with the band’s uniform chair, I noticed this message on the whiteboard in the uniform room:

We're inferior to you!

I stared at this message for a good half-minute or so, trying to figure out what it meant, because I couldn’t believe the writer actually intended to send the message this sentence seemed to be sending–that the band members’ parents and even the band director himself, Mr. Jason Gibson, were inferior to the band members themselves. We were telling a group of teenagers, in essence, “We’re not worthy!”

Having been a band parent for several years now, I knew the significance of the word superior: It’s the word associated with a “1” rating in an Ohio Music Education Association competition. A rating of “2” is “excellent,” and a “3” is merely “good”–basically, “thank you for participating.” I see from the OMEA handbook that there are also ratings of 4 “fair” and 5 “poor,” though I’ve never seen those awarded. I guess bands that are fair or poor know it, and don’t bother coming to the competitions. In any case, band boosters (that is, the band parents and other supporters) love to work superior into any words of encouragement to the band. Instead of saying, “Have a great season,” they’ll say, “Have a superior season!” Get it? Score lots of “superior” ratings at the competitions.

These competitions are a big deal. In fact, many band members and boosters see halftime shows at football games as mere rehearsals for the competitions. If a band gets enough “superior” ratings at OMEA local or regional competitions, it qualifies for the OMEA state competition. (By the way, in central Ohio, when a marching band or sports team qualifies for a state-level competition, they are said to be “going to states,” plural. Not “going to state,” as you may have heard in Friday Night Lights or in your own high school days. I take this to be an analogical extension of “regionals,” which is plural in my dialect. Of course, although there can be several regional competitions, there’s only one state competition, but I guess morphological regularity trumps logic here.)

Last year, the Raider Marching Pride did, in fact, make it to states. It was no small feat, either, given that two weeks of practices had to take place without the direction of Mr. Gibson, who with most other teachers in the district was on strike. The student band leadership and the band boosters stepped up to keep things going during that time.

At states, though, the Marching Pride fell short of a “superior,” earning an “excellent” instead. This message on the board must have gone up as a message of consolation. Remembering that, I had enough pieces to recover the intended message:

In the opinion of these parents and Mr. Gibson, you are all superior!

In syntactic terms, the ambiguity hinged on whether to these parents and Gibson was a complement to superior, or an adjunct to it. When I took superior as an adjective that required a to-phrase to complete it by designating the inferior party, I was taking to these parents and Gibson as a complement. (The mnemonic I use to remember this is that complement and complete come from the same Latin root.) But for the intended meaning, superior doesn’t need a complement to complete it. All by itself, it has its specialized meaning of “worthy of a rating of 1.” In that case, the phrase to these parents and Gibson is an adjunct, because it simply adds some extra information: “in our eyes, in our opinion, as far as we’re concerned.”

This year, though, there’s no strike looming; the show is shaping up to be awesome; the band is ahead of schedule; and Adam’s in it playing baritone! We are anticipating superiority.

Posted in Adam, Adjuncts and complements, Ambiguity, Ohioana | 2 Comments »