LINGUIST List 10.305

Wed Feb 24 1999

Disc: Adjective to Verb

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. Jonathan Centner, Adjective to Verb
  2. Sean Witty, Adjective to Verb transposition

Message 1: Adjective to Verb

Date: Mon, 22 Feb 1999 17:09:44 -0500
From: Jonathan Centner <>
Subject: Adjective to Verb

Mr. Witty:

How does this discussion work for a language which lacks an AP node, say
Nootkan; to be excused rather than accused, despite ones passage
on the Orient Express?

Jon Centner
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Message 2: Adjective to Verb transposition

Date: Sun, 21 Feb 1999 15:26:04 KST
From: Sean Witty <>
Subject: Adjective to Verb transposition

Greetings all!

Numbers in parentheses indicate list references.

1. (10.261) Errata. Many have acknowledged my recent summary concerning 
word usage in "the Simpsons", and also the error contained in paragraph 
#3, where I substituted "cropulent" for "cromulent". Indeed, I extend 
my most heartfelt apologies for the error and would direct subscribers 
to ignore entries in that summary referring to this particular word. 
BTW, this was a tongue-in-cheek analysis :)

2. (10.97) POS: function AND form. It seems that when most of us think 
of POS, we tend to limit it as an aspect of either function or form. It 
is easy to debate the formalist argument by pointing out that Nouns 
sometimes act as Adjectives, and vice versa, without any morphological 
affixation. This leads one to conclude that a form is only a Noun when 
it is filling a Semantic role reserved for Nouns (i.e., Subject or 
Agent). This functionalist argument, however, is itself open to debate 
because the POS of some terms stem from their forms, and not their 
semantic usage. The functionalist argument also begs a question: if 
semantic function dictates POS, why is it necessary for a language to 
have different forms (i.e., 'tall', 'tallness') for different POS?

I am in agreement with Mr. Davis, in that I believe that functions, or 
message categories, play a large role in the assignment of POS. Thus, 
it is easy to distinguish POS without overt affixation, based on the 
usage of the word. POS types are both limited and universal, and POS 
systems operate on similar lines regardless of language. Form, which 
also plays a significant role in POS determination, is a linguistically 
relative concept, however, and the formal rules of one language may not 
work in another. Thus, while all languages may have the same POS, 
assignment of POS to forms would depend on which POS was needed first. 
We can view, for example, "tall" and "tallness" as two forms of the same 
function (which has no POS). Semantic POS emerges from the usage; 
"tall" usually describes Nouns, while "tallness" usually is a Noun. 
Since the base representation of the function is the adjectival form, 
the nominal form undergoes affixation (if there is any - this is a 
separate issue). If the base representation were the nominal form, then 
use of the function as an adjective would usually result in an affixed 
variant of that form.

3. (10.126) Categorical usage. Mr. Lawler expresses dissatisfaction 
with the original example offered by Mr. Maxwell, by citing that in the 
Word program, "new" is a single item on a menu where the other items are 
transitive verbs. This would make "new" guilty of being a verb by 
association. A further extension of this concept, which BTW I do not 
subscribe to, would observe that "file", the name of the menu itself, is 
also a verb. If "file" is a verb, and "new" a sub-category of "file", 
"new" in this case must also be a verb. If not, a situation would 
emerge where the subordinate element of a group possesses 
characteristics that no other element, including the group to which it 
is suborned, possesses.

Mr. Maxwell's example may have been poor, but the question is not. 
Note, for example, that "new" as a verb might also be a back-formation 
of the verb "renew". Logically, one must first be able to "new" a 
driver's license before one can "renew" it. This line reasoning, while 
explaining "new" as a verb, does not, however, explain other zero-affix 
verbs derived from adjectives. Here is a list with verbal examples: 
thin		=> My hair is thinning.
rough		=> We are going to have to rough it for awhile.
quiet		=> The teacher failed to quiet the children.
dry		=> After you wash your clothes, you must dry them.
empty		=> Empty the trash can, please.
dull		=> Alcohol dulls the senses.
upset		=> Be careful not to upset your father.
round (10.142)	=> Round the edges so that it is safe for children.
blank (10.193)	=> The patient blanked out for 15 minutes yesterday.
void (10.193)	=> The bank will usually void a check after 60 days.
wet		=> Young children frequently wet the bed.
slow		=> Slow down, you move to fast, got to make the 
morning last.

 (Hope you find these examples groovy!)

Based on the examples above, the presence of a DO or adverbial particle 
has no bearing on the form of the function, or its potential use as a 

4. The representation of Adjectives as Verbs. As stated above, the use 
of an adjective as a verb is simply the assignment of semantic verbal 
POS to a function whose base form is usually an adjective. In other 
words, the form used as a verb tends to have an affix of some type to 
signal the change in semantic assignment. What this affix is, however, 
is a question of time and language. In modern words, forms used as 
verbs may, or may not, undergo such affixation. To see how this could 
be, given that the purpose of changing the form is to indicate the 
change in POS, consider these sentences:

(1). I have worn clothing. => S + [V (Perfective) + DO]
(2). I have worn clothing. => S + [V + DO (ADJ + N)]

In (1), "worn" is intended as the PP form of the verb used, in 
conjunction with the auxiliary "to have" to demonstrate the Perfective 
Aspect of the verb. Thus, this use of "worn" signifies an aspect of the 
verb and "clothing" is the DO of that verb. In (2), however, the 
function "wear" is a semantic adjective modifying the DO "clothing" (the 
verb here is "to have", not "to wear"). Because the base form of this 
function is the verbal form, however, modification of the form is 
necessary to illustrate the fact that the use is adjectival. The fact 
that these forms are identical is a consequence of speaking English and 
indicates that, although probably an important distinction in the past, 
the use of formal modification to distinguish between POS changes is not 
as important anymore. 

5. (10.105) Formal representation of POS change in modE. Thus, in 
Modern English there are three possible formal manners for 
distinguishing the use of functions with adjectival base forms as verbs. 
Mr. Maxwell has done a superb job of outlining these formal 
possibilities, summarized below for convenience:

(1) ADJ + affix	: as in "industrialize"
(2) ADJ + NULL	: presumably the result of transposing an adjective to 
a noun, and then as a verb, which is one possible 
interpretation of the use of colors as verbs.
(3) ADJ		: as in the examples cited in #3 above.

It does not take long to realize that (2) and (3) might as well be the 
same. Considering the universal nature of functions and that adjective 
forms in some languages always have a suffix marker, it is no great 
sacrifice to say that this is true of all languages. In Korean, for 
example, the final syllable of all adjectives, whether a base or 
transposed form, ends in /n/, unless modified by phonology. Anglo-Saxon 
adjectives also had suffixes for demonstrating agreement with their 
nouns, which differed from suffixes used by verbal forms. Thus, since 
adjectives in Korean are always overtly affixed, and Anglo-Saxon 
adjectives were always overtly affixed, who is to say that there is, at 
the very least, no NULL-affixation in modE adjectives? Further, if we 
accept (2) and (3) as being ADJ + NULL, then it seems logical that (1) 
and (2) are also the same rule, and that all adjective forms in English, 
or any language, are ADJ + affix. When the function of an ADJ is used 
as a verb, and the base form is the adjectival form, the affix is simply 
changed from a NULL to whatever form is necessary. In an older form of 
English, for example, this process was used to change "industrial" to 
"to industrial+ize", but in modern English, adjective to verb 
transposition can be realized without affixation, as in "blue" to "to 
blue+NULL". Naturally there are more "-ize" forms than "NULL" forms 
simply because that is the older method AND transposition from 
adjectives to verbs is common.

Logically, I do not agree with Mr. Maxwell's conviction that it is 
either uncommon or impossible to use an adjective as a verb without 
overt affixation. The question he poses, "Why is it easy to use a noun 
as a verb in English, but difficult or impossible to use an adjective 
that way (without an overt verbalizing affix?" is answered; it's not. 
To explain his examples:

*They whited their house.
=> No, but you can say 'They whitened their house' which has the same 
structural form. To say 'They whited their house' would mean 'They 
created or left blank spaces on the house.' Here, the verb 'white' has 
a different meaning.
*They pinked their house.
=> No, but this is because a term for making something pink in color, 
based on the adjectival form, has yet to be coined. Further, many 
native speakers would understand 'They pinkened their house' to mean 
'They painted their house pink.' To say 'They pinked their house' would 
mean 'They pierced their house with a pointed weapon.' As with 'white', 
the verb 'pink' has a different meaning.

*They greened their house.
=> Actually, 'They greened their house' is a perfectly good usage for 
meaning 'They painted their house green.'

*They heavied themselves.
=> No, because this would require the use of a comparative form, a 
characteristic that cannot be expressed by a verbal form. When people 
gain weight, they become heavier, not heavy (people are already heavy). 
If there is a function that means the comparative of the function 
"heavy", then it might be possible to form a verb based on it, if the 
base form of the function is an adjective (good luck with that one). 
*The physicist wants to possible faster-than-light travel.
=> No, because this particular form is derived from a Latin verb 
transposed to an adjective. Should we wish to make this adjectival form 
into a verb, we would need to convert back to its verbal form, in this 
case "posse", and then translate it into English. Thus, 'The physicist 
wants to be able to travel faster-than-light' is the preferred way of 
expressing this idea. Had English borrowed the verb "posse", then this 
would be evident.

6. (10.97) In closing, I would like to re-iterate my original points.

(1) Poor examples. If we must discuss this topic, then we should 
present examples that are not easily subjected to counter-examples or 
can be plausibly explained away. This immediately rules out colors 
because most of their adjective forms are identical to their noun forms, 
and one cannot be reasonably certain that one or the other is the base 
form. Thus, there is the question as to whether verbs based on colors 
stem from the nominal or adjectival forms. Examples should be similar 
to those found in #3 above, where there is no question that the base 
form is an adjective and the usage is verbal.

(2) Logical expectations. Since adjectives can transpose to nouns and 
nouns can transpose to verbs, we should expect that adjectives could 
transpose to verbs directly. This is not to say that there is a 
transposition free-for-all exhibited by English, where any adjective may 
be transposed to a verb without the use of endings. If, however, a 
function based on an adjectival form meets the criteria for usage as a 
verb, and there is not already an affix system for forms of that type, 
then NULL-affixation should be possible.

(3) There is still nothing new here. While we have all been given a 
great opportunity to discuss our different views regarding this 
phenomenon, there still does not seem to be anything earth-shattering 
here. Mr. Maxwell posed a question based on the impossibility of 
adjectives being transposed to verbs without affixation - but this is 
possible. English uses two formal systems, one overt the other covert, 
to mark formal transposition, other languages use only one, and I'll 
wager that still others use more than 2; but they all use at least one - 
something we already know, or should have known, from picking up a 

That's all for today.

Sean M. Witty, PBK
Linguist/Foreign Language Specialist
Kwangwoon University-KILE, Adjunct Professor of English
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