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Review of  The Syntax of Adjectives

Reviewer: Denis Bouchard
Book Title: The Syntax of Adjectives
Book Author: Guglielmo Cinque
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Subject Language(s): English
Language Family(ies): Germanic
Issue Number: 22.2513

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AUTHOR: Cinque, Guglielmo
TITLE: The Syntax of Adjectives
SUBTITLE: A Comparative Study
SERIES TITLE: Linguistic Inquiry Monographs
YEAR: 2010

Denis Bouchard, Département de linguistique, Université du Québec à Montréal


The book is a revised analysis of DP-internal word order in Romance and
Germanic, and the interpretation of the adjectives. Cinque's original 1994
analysis was very influential on a way to approach data that has crystallized
into the ''Cartography Project'', so it is interesting to see what progress has
been accomplished on that front to further our understanding of language.

Chapter 1 presents two empirical problems that have been pointed out for the
1994 analysis based on N Movement: postnominal adjectives in Romance must appear
in the mirror order of the corresponding adjectives in prenominal position in
Germanic (1) (my examples, DB), and a postnominal ADJ can take scope over a
prenominal one (2) (Cinque’s example (9), p. 4).

a. a [round [Chinese [table]]]
b. un [[[tavolo] cinese] rotondo]]

E' una giovane promessa sicura.
He-is a young promise sure
'He is a sure young promise'

These facts are unexpected in an analysis where adjectives enter the structure
of DPs as phrasal specifiers of functional projections that are hierarchically
merged in such a way that an AP has scope over the APs that follow it.

Chapter 2 reviews a number of semantic distinctions that fall into two sets
(using the terminology of Sproat & Shih 1988):

Direct modification: individual level, nonrestrictive, modal, nonintersective,
absolute, absolute (superlative), evaluative, NP dependent.

Indirect modification: stage level, restrictive, implicit RC reading,
intersective, relative to a comparison class, comparative (superlative),
epistemic, discourse anaphoric.

The positions where ADJs can appear with these readings differ systematically
between Germanic and Romance:

Germanic: IndirectModifAP - DirectModifAP - N - IndirectModifAP
Romance: DirectModifAP - N - DirectModifAP - IndirectModifAP

Chapter 3 presents the core of the analysis. First, DP-internal adjectives are
generated in two different ways: either as direct modifiers in the specifiers of
functional heads dedicated to particular semantic classes of adjectives, as in
the 1994 analysis, or as predicates of reduced relative clauses (RRC) that are
indirect modifiers. RRCs are merged above all the functional projections hosting
DirectModifAPs. The second important point is that Cinque retains the assumption
that ''there is only one order/structure available for all languages'' (p. 39).
The hierarchical positions he attributes to the various FPs hosting the APs
derives the following universal basic order of DP-internal APs (for reasons of
space, I show only some of the semantic classes of ADJs):

Restrictive RCs > complex AP RRCs > bare AP RRCs > APsize > APcolor >
APnationality > NP

This basic order is assumed to be rigid across languages: this is the ''natural''
order for these APs (p. 58). To account for the surface orders that depart from
the basic order, Cinque proposes various phrasal movements, which are detailed
in chapters 5 and 6.

In Chapter 4, Cinque assumes that DirectModifAPs are functional because they
constitute a closed class in many languages. Moreover, despite the fact that
they do not take complements when in prenominal position in Germanic and
Romance, they are nevertheless phrasal. He gives as evidence examples from
Bulgarian and Greek where ADJs are followed by adjuncts in prenominal position
(but at least in the Greek examples, the NP is articulated, so this is an
IndirectModifAP, not a DirectModifAP). ''Languages simply differ as to whether
they allow a complement or adjunct to follow the adjective'' (p. 46). Moreover,
we need two sources for ADJs because if we try to derive DirectModifAPs from
RCs, ''we are forced to posit more and more complex derivations from sources that
differ more and more from one another'' (p. 51).

Chapter 5 gives the analysis of English (Germanic). Germanic manifests the
''natural'' order of DirectModifAPs. Though violations of this order are possible,
they are marked: for instance, the normal order is that size ADJs precede color
ADJs, but their order can be reversed by introducing the color ADJ as an RRC.
Since this source is only available for predicative ADJs, nonpredicative ADJs
are always rigidly ordered (*He is an eléctrical old engineer; cf. an old
electrical engineer). The class of bare ADJs that can appear postnominally in
English is very restricted, even those that have a predicative use. He suggests
that there are two kinds of RRCs, complex and bare AP RRCs. The few postnominal
bare ADJs are introduced as complex RRCs: these are postnominal because the
whole extended NP domain below them obligatorily raises above them (and also
above Finite restrictive RCs). ADJs with complements or adjuncts are postnominal
because they can only be introduced by this complex RRC source. The bare AP RRCs
are part of the extended NP domain that must raise above the other RCs, so they
remain prenominal.

Chapter 6 gives the analysis of Italian (Romance): ''the order of Merge is not
immediately visible due to the intervention of (various) movements, which in
some cases are obligatory and in others optional'' (p. 69). First, since
IndirectModifAPs necessarily follow N and any postnominal DirectModifAPs, this
implies that the extended NP with the DirectModifAPs raises not only above bare
RRCs (as in Germanic) but complex ones as well. Second, internally to the direct
modification domain of NP, the NP raises obligatorily above ADJs of nationality,
''but appears to raise above higher adjectives (of color, shape, size, value,
etc.) only optionally'' (p. 71). This difference in obligatoriness ''remains to be
understood'' (p. 72). Since the order of postnominal DirectModifAPs in Romance is
the mirror image of the Germanic prenominal order, the raising of NP is of the
''roll-up'' kind: so for instance in (1), 'tavolo' raises above 'cinese', and then
'tavolo cinese' raises above 'rotondo'. When APs appear in the reverse order of
what these movements predict, the ''more special order'' is ''the result of merging
the rightmost adjective higher up as a reduced relative clause (which eventually
ends up postnominally'' (p. 74). Complements and adjuncts of the NP are stranded
at the end of the DP, because (following Kayne 2000) prepositions ''attract their
'complements,' and force (in VO languages) the entire remnant to raise to their
left, which makes them final in the DP'' (p. 79).

Chapter 7 briefly presents three differences between Germanic and Romance that
relate to the position of DirectModifAPs, concerning referential epithets,
idiomatic readings and special cases of agreement with a series of coordinated

A conclusion summarizes the main points of the analysis, and an Appendix
presents additional evidence for the dual source of adnominal adjectives from
various languages.


The book presents some data in a new light, which is stimulating. It also takes
into account some empirical problems that had been pointed out with the author's
previous analysis. Note that the mirror order in Romance in (1) and the scope
effects in (2) are not actually captured by the switch from Move N to Move NP,
but by adding that pied-piping (roll-up) is obligatory. This could just as well
take place with N movement.

More crucially however, Cinque barely addresses the conceptual problems that
have been raised for this kind of account. Though he regularly claims the
superiority of a movement analysis over base generation, there are so many key
elements that are left undefined, in the end there is no analysis in the present
state of the proposal. Consider the following points.

(i) The scope of DirectModifAPs with respect to one another. To complete the
analysis, we have to know the subcategorization that determines the hierarchical
embedding of the functional categories: why the color FP is the complement of
the size FP, and so on. Cinque seems to have given up on this hopeless task, and
states that the order of DirectModifAPs is part of UG: it reflects their
''natural'' positions, due to some unknown principle (''whatever that turns out to
be'' (p. 38)). There is also the problematic assumption that there are FPs that
redundantly replicate the classes of ADJs.

(ii) IndirectModifAPs have wider scope than DirectModifAPs. The positions of
bare and complex RRCs are also determined by some unidentified UG principle. The
only defining property of these RRCs is semantic: they are ADJs interpreted
predicatively. So the claim is simply that ADJs used predicatively have wider
scope. The fact that their wide scope is directly reflected in their being
further from the noun than DirectModifAPs follows in base generation but is an
accident for movement: the movements conspire to give that result, but we are
not told what triggers the movements, what the empty FP landing sites are, or
what determines their position.

(iii) The direct modification use of an ADJ is less marked than its indirect
modification use. The ''natural'' order [size > color] can be reversed as in (4)
by using a RRC source for 'brown' ''if one wishes to distinguish different groups
of individuals of the same size'' (note 3, p. 131):

(4) I've shown you my black small dogs, now, these are my two brown small dogs.

This appears to be a distinction made on the basis of pragmatic markedness, the
direct modification source of 'brown' being less marked than the RRC source. So
the ''natural'' order is the one that is less marked pragmatically, for some
unknown reason. This assumption of markedness is crucial, otherwise a RRC source
for 'Chinese' and 'cinese' could produce a reversed ''natural'' order in (1).

(iv) Surface orders often differ from the basic order. These orders are due to
obligatory or optional movements, which vary across languages for some unknown

In short, the proposal is that an unknown principle accounts for a universal
basic order of APs, that movements change this order diversely in each language
due to unknown triggers, that the movements are sometimes obligatory, sometimes
optional for unknown reasons, and the moved elements end up in landing sites of
unknown category (''FP'') with unknown principles accounting for the positions of
these FPs. Given the tools that are used, it is possible to match any order of
ADJs with any scope. This is similar to the use of 'predicate raising' in
Generative Semantics, which for example can make an appropriate constituent in
(brother of [(mother or father) of Bill]) for 'uncle' to be inserted in its
place. As Chomsky (1972: 79) comments, ''Such a device will always be available,
so that the hypothesis that Q is a constituent has little empirical content.''

Compare this syntactic analysis with accounts based on semantic, cognitive,
pragmatic principles. Cinque, without discussing any, says that ''none seems
entirely convincing'' (p. 122). Let's look at one and let the readers make their
own decision. Bouchard (2005), following up on Bouchard (2002) and furthering
ideas from Ziff (1960), Vendler (1968), Sproat & Shih (1988), Krifka (1995),
proposes the following principle:

(5) General principle of seriation of adjectives:
The more the property expressed by an adjective makes it likely to form with the
noun a relevant and usual Concept, the more this adjective tends to be close to
the noun, i.e., to modify the noun more directly than another adjective [my
translation from French].

The notion of 'Concept' is used in the sense of Krifka (1995). Concepts are
similar to Kinds, but contrary to natural kinds, Concepts need not be well
established, and are instead construed from scratch. If the context is
appropriate, numerous classes can be considered sufficiently stable for the
speaker to present them as forming a Concept. So for instance, ADJs of
Provenance tend to be closer to the noun than ADJs of size:

a. enormous Chinese vase; #Chinese enormous vase
b. vase chinois énorme; #vase énorme chinois

This is expected according to (5): Provenance is a property that is ''taxonomic''
(Sproat & Shih 1988), i.e., often useful for identifying elements. The strength
of the tendencies depends on cognitive and contextual factors. So despite the
fact that these two ADJs can have both a direct modification and a RRC source,
their order is not free, because they differ strongly in taxonomicity. Cinque
himself appeals to pragmatic taxonomicity: ''In its classificatory usage, a color
adjective will appear closer to the N than a nationality/provenance adjective,
thus apparently contradicting what was taken [...] to be the canonical order
color > nationality > N. See la mele verde canadese (è la mela più buona in
assoluto)'' (note 2, p. 140).

Cinque objects to a preferential approach because the order and scope of the
adjectives appears to be rigid in some cases, such as 'an old electrical
engineer'. But in the context of engineering, 'electrical' is highly taxonomic:
there are university departments and professional orders that are based on it.
It is therefore no surprise that the order/scope is quite rigid (though not
absolute: the reverse order could be used jokingly). The reverse order has a
meaning, but it does not make sense in the taxonomic system that is commonly
shared. Moreover, if we look at ADJs that are clearly direct modifiers (because
they are prenominal) but less taxonomic, their ordering is quite free:

a. un supposé nouveau miracle = new miracle which is alleged to have taken place
b. nouveau supposé miracle = new type of alleged miracle
c. bon futur président = good as a candidate for the presidency
d. futur bon président = someone who will be a good president

This is unexpected under Cinque's (yet unknown) principle (though he could say
that these ADJs ''belong to two (or more) of the classes of adjectives that can
occur prenominally'' (p.118), a doublet strategy that nullifies the claim of
rigid ordering; cf. Siegel 1980).

Principle (4) also accounts for the wide scope and fairly rigid placement of
evaluative ADJs (bon/good, beau/nice) because the properties they express are
quite subjective, hence variable, so it is unnatural to use them as the basis of
a taxonomy, which requires some stability.

Cinque feels ''that a system that minimizes base generation (to one
structure/order for all languages), deriving all other structures/orders via
independently needed types of movement, is more interesting'' (note 20, p.126),
as in Kayne's (1994) LCA approach. But a system with a simple head parameter
also has only one structure for examples as in (1): merge has applied in the
same way in the two languages, but the linearization follows different patterns.
The linear order of ADJs directly reflects their order of merge. This dual
possibility of ordering follows naturally from design properties of our SM
apparatus: two constituents A and B with vocal content can be linearized as AB
or BA, and as in other arbitrary choices deriving from design properties,
languages must choose and conventionalize this choice (Saussure 1916). Since by
design there are two possible orderings of any structure obtained by merge, the
single order system must add a costly condition that excludes one, which is
exactly what the LCA does by stipulating that there is an abstract terminal 'a'
that precedes all the other terminals: so in this model a crucial element for
linear ordering at the SM interface has no SM properties (see Bouchard 2002:
378ff for other problems with a universal basic order. Celtic languages appear
to raise empirical problems for base generation; however, the facts are far from
straightforward; cf. Bouchard 2002: 191-193).

Finally, Cinque claims that in examples like (8), the direct modification
reading of the prenominal ADJ is exactly the same reading postnominally, and
that this is a problem for Bouchard (2002).

a. le verdi colline della Toscana
b. le colline verdi della Toscana

He attributes this to the optional movement of the NP across the ADJ (this
optionality ''remains to be understood'' p. 72). He notes that (8a) is slightly
different and has a 'poetic' flavor, but gives no indication why. As pointed out
by Bouchard (2002: 95ff) and Sadler & Arnold (1994), these examples may have the
same meaning in terms of truth conditions, but truth-conditional semantics is
not subtle enough to capture the distinction here. In short, the combination
N+ADJ defines two sets, each with their property, and a fortuitous,
non-necessary intersection of these properties, whereas the combination ADJ+N
involves two properties presented as forming a single complex property. The
difference between the two interpretations is brought out by three tests: in a
context of comparison, in D- and non-D-linked questions, and in a context of
negation. The prenominal ADJ has a 'poetic' flavor because ''Something which is
not usually considered as a natural kind in the shared knowledge of a community
of speakers is introduced in a grammatical construction which says it is''
(Bouchard 2002: 105). It is disheartening that the author missed that point.

Recall the original motivation for transformational grammar: it provided simpler
analyses for what seemed to require growing complications in a Phrase Structure
Grammar. We seem to be in a somewhat reverse situation here, the movement
analysis being forced to posit more and more complex derivations with crucial
points that ''remain to be understood'' at every step. Cinque's book demonstrates
indirectly that this kind of movement analysis is no match for a well-defined
analysis of ADJs built on base-generation. The problem becomes critical if the
analysis relies on ''natural positions'': ''as long as they're going to their
natural places, there's no science'' (Chomsky 2010).


Bouchard, Denis (2002). Adjectives, Number and Interfaces: Why Languages Vary.
Oxford: Elsevier Science.

Bouchard, Denis (2005). Sériation des adjectifs dans le SN et formation de
Concepts, Recherches linguistiques de Vincennes 34: 125-142.

Chomsky, Noam (1972). Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar. Mouton, The Hague.

Chomsky, Noam (2010). Poverty of Stimulus: Unfinished Business. Conference paper
presented in Paris, May 29th, 2010.

Cinque, Guglielmo (1994). On the Evidence for Partial N Movement in the Romance
DP. In: Paths Towards Universal Grammar (Guglielmo Cinque, Jan Koster, Jean-Yves
Pollock, Luigi Rizzi and Raffaella Zanuttini, eds.), 85-110. Georgetown
University Press, Georgetown.

Kayne, Richard (1994). The Antisymmetry of Syntax. MIT Press, Cambridge.

Kayne, Richard (2000). A note on prepositions, complementizers, and word order
universals. In R. Kayne, Parameters and Universals, 314-326. Oxford University
Press, Oxford.

Krifka, Manfred (1995). Common Nouns: a contrastive analysis of Chinese and
English. In Carlson, G. & Pelletier, F.J. (eds.), The Generic Book: 398-411.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Sadler, Louisa and Douglas Arnold (1994). Prenominal adjectives and the
phrasal/lexical distinction. Journal of Linguistics, 30, 187-226.

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1916). Cours de Linguistique Générale. Payot, Paris.

Sproat, Richard and Chilin Shih (1988). Prenominal Adjectival Ordering in
English and Mandarin. Proceedings of NELS, 18, 465-489.

Vendler, Zeno (1968). Adjectives and Nominalizations. Mouton, The Hague.

Ziff, Paul. 1960. Semantic analysis. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

Denis Bouchard is professor in the département de linguistique at the Université du Québec à Montréal. His interests include linguistic theory with regards to principled explanation, comparative syntax, and the syntax/semantics interface. He is currently working on a book about the origins of language.

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