LINGUIST List 9.1248

Wed Sep 9 1998

Sum: On/Off--Gradability of Non-Gradable Adjectives

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Hiroaki Tanaka, On/Off--Gradability of Non-Gradable Adjectives

Message 1: On/Off--Gradability of Non-Gradable Adjectives

Date: Tue, 8 Sep 1998 15:43:58 +0900
From: Hiroaki Tanaka <>
Subject: On/Off--Gradability of Non-Gradable Adjectives

 On 31 August, I posted a query on how the non- gradable adjectives,
such as _dead_, _alive_, and _on/off_, are used when they are
intensified by degree adverbs, _very_ and _very much_. To this, 10
people whose names are listed below responded. I want to sincerely
thank all of them.

Earl Herrick <>
Karen Courtnay <>
Mike Moss <>
George Hutter <>
Dan Faulkner <>
Karen Davis <>
Larry Trask <>
Marcia Haag <>
Andrew Barke <>
Monica R. Nobre <>

 For those who missed my query, I cite my original
messgae again below.

- -----------------original query-----------------

 I'm working on gradability of non-gradable adjectives, such as
_very dead_, _very much alive_, _very pregnant_, _very on_. One
conclusive comment I derived from my work is that there must be some
contrast in the pre- context to make these phrases better. The next
example says that the speaker thought that the sisters he was looking
for were dead, but in cotrast they were very much alive.

 (1) In April 1944, I was transferred to Long Island, New York, and
I though that this would be an opportunity to find out if the
Everleighs were still alive, and if they were alive, to learn if
they'd give me permission to write the play about them...
 When I reached New York, I went to see Lait. He assured me the
Everleighs were _very much alive_, living as Minna and Aida Lester at
20 West 71st Street.
 (Irving Wallace, The Golden Room, p. xii)

 If I am right, I can make the following _very on_ sentences better
to put them in the contrastive context like (4) below. As a
non-native speaker's judgement, I find (1a) and (2a) are unaccpetable
and (1b) and (2b) are better than (1a) and (2a), because _very much_
rather than _very_ can be more useful for emphasizing the speaker's
opnion. Of course, these sentences as well as (1) above have comic
flavour or have a tongue in cheek as a Canadian native speaker of
English in my university says. Do you agree with his opnion? Please
judge these senteces below as OK, ?, or * in each slot, and if you
find them accpetable, please paraphrase them into possible
alternatives in the same context. And if you find that _very_ and
_very much_ are different, please state what exactly the difference

 (2) a. ( )The light is very on/off.
 b. ( )The light is very much on/off.

 (3) a. ( )The strike is very on.
 b. ( )The strike is very much on.

 (4) A: At last, the strike has come to an end.
 B: No, you're wrong. ( )It is very/very much on,
 even more on than a few weeks ago.

 (5) a. ( )John had a TV very on/off.
 b. ( )John had a TV very much on/off.

 (6) a. ( )The door is very open.
 b. ( )The door is very much open.
 c. ( )The door is wide open.

 Thank you very much in advance. I will definitely post a summary
soon. Please e-mail me directly to the following e-mail address.

- ----------------------------------------------

The followings are the results of the respondents' answers to the
acceptabilities of (2)-(6). % and OK ->* are shown. (Several of them
pointed out that A TV in (5) should be the TV, to which I agree.)

 (2) a. (?*)The light is very on/off. OK:12% /?:0% /*:88%
 b. (OK?)The light is very much on/off. OK:88% / ?:12% / *0%

 (3) a. (?*)The strike is very on. OK:12% / ?:0% / *:88%
 b. (OK?)The strike is very much on. OK:88% / ?:12% / *:0%

 (4) A: At last, the strike has come to an end.
 B: No, you're wrong. It is (?*)very/(OK??)very much on,
 even (OK?)more on than a few weeks ago.
 very: OK:0% / ?:29% / *:71%
 very much: OK: 57% / ?: 43% / *: 10%
 more: OK: 50% / ?: 25% / *:25%

 (5) a. (*)John had the TV very on/off. OK: 0% / ?: 0% / *: 100%
b. (OK? )John had the TV very much on/off. OK: 50% / ?: 25% / *:25%

 (6) a. (?*)The door is very open. OK: 37.5% / ?: 25% / *:37.5%
 b. (OK?)The door is very much open. OK: 87.5% / ?: 0% / *: 12.5%
 c. (OK )The door is wide open. OK: 100% / ?: 0% / *:0%

As for (2)-(5), the high acceptability of _very much_ rather than
_very_ shows that we need some contrstive context, as some of the
respondents agree with me and make some sentences like below.

 (a) I thought I heard the children playing, but when I went to
check the light in their room was very much off.
 (b) I remember truning the light off--it is definitely not on. ---
It is very on.
 (c) (A and B are in different rooms) A: You can't see anything. The
light's off.
 B: Excuse me? The light's very much on.
 A: Well, it shouldn't be.

 With _on_ and _off_, you can't intensify by _very_, instead you can
_very much_. One reason of this is that _very_ points to the upper
scale of degree above the normal/average point of
brightness/darkness. In _very on/off_ case, we can't think of such
point in real life. On the other hand, _very much_ shows some
contastive point in the pre-context emotionally and emphatically.
There needs be no real life point in _very much on/off_ case.
 On the contrary, _dead_ is the opposite to _on/off_, where _very
dead_ is OK, wheras _very much dead_ seems to be unacceptable as one
respondent says. I found many such examples, one of which is below.

 (d) For your information, George Casselman turned up very, very
dead in his aprtment this morning.(E.S. Gardner, The Case of the
long-Legged Models.)

 One interesting case is _open_. The low acceptability of _very
open_ seems to come from the reason that you can't actually specify
where the exact point of _very open_ is. Once you open the door, you
can say it is open when it is 5cm open, 10 cm open or even 5m
open. You can't set up an exact average point. I think you need a
contrstive context to use _very much open_. This is why _wide open_ is
different from _very much open_.

 Finally, Marcia Haag told me that she wrote an article on Lingua
last year.
 Marcia Haag (1997) 'Continuous and discrete adjectival scales',
Lingua 103, 113-126. Which I found very inetersting.

Thank you very much for all your valuable judgements and
information. For those who wishes to make further comments, please
write to the following e-mail address.

Hiroaki Tanaka

Associate Professor
Faculty of Integrated Arts and Sciences
Tokushima University, Japan

1-1, Minamijousanjioma,
Tokushima, 770,

phone & fax: +81 886 56 7125
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