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Review of  Adjective Complementation

Reviewer: Ernest Alan Hogue
Book Title: Adjective Complementation
Book Author: Ilka Mindt
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 23.853

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AUTHOR: Ilka Mindt
TITLE: Adjective Complementation
SUBTITLE: An empirical analysis of adjectives followed by 'that'-clauses
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Corpus Linguistics 42
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2011

E. Alan Hogue, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

The volume under review investigates sentences such as those in (1) and (2) (all
examples from the British National Corpus). In each case, an adjective (“sure”
in (1) and “likely” in (2)) is followed by a that-clause.

(1) I'm sure that he'd never make the same mistake again.
(2) It is also likely that power and water supplies would be disrupted.

The primary purpose is to compare previous descriptive treatments of adjective +
that-clauses, particularly those found in Quirk et al. (1985), Biber et al.
(1999), and Huddleston & Pullum (2002), to the results of Mindt’s corpus analyses.

Mindt identifies a number of questions of relevance to previous treatments: the
classification of such adjectives according to matrix subjects or objects;
whether that-clauses which provide an explanation, like (3), should be
considered along with that-clauses which provide a result, (4); whether the
semantics of these adjectives has any relation to the verb phrase in the
that-clause; and, finally, whether there are possible triggers for that, as in
(5), or zero-that, (6), in such clauses.

(3) Slowly she became aware that it wasn’t quiet at all.
(4) The answer to that is so obvious that I shan’t bother to give it.

(5) But it is possible that the details took time to be formulated.
(6) It’s possible he’s in trouble.

Methodologically, the study is corpus-driven, therefore radically inductive
compared to most other linguistic approaches (e.g., Biber 2010). A bare minimum
of theory and structure is assumed beforehand, and to the extent possible any
additional theoretical apparatus is directly motivated by analyses of the data.
Practically, this means that the target of investigation is defined strictly in
terms of linear order of syntactic categories, and competing analyses are
largely judged by their ability to cover all cases of this pattern found in the
data. As will be seen, however, Mindt does argue that some apparent cases of the
adjective + that-clause pattern do need to be considered separately.

I will begin by outlining M’s major claims before giving details of the
analyses. M notes that there are several apparent types of the linear adjective
+ that-clause pattern which are found in corpora but which are not considered
together in previous studies: the “so…that” construction
(7), which Mindt dubs a resultative construction, cases with direct objects in
the matrix clause (8), and cases in which certain adjectives are preceded by the
verb MAKE (9).

(7) Air is so vital that it is only possible to live for a few minutes without it.
(8) I believe it possible he may be an agent for one of your creditors.
(9) And she was going to make sure nothing stood in her way!

As this is a very inductive, corpus-driven study, M begins with the assumption
that all observed instances of the linear pattern adjective + that-clause are
properly classified together and hence should be studied together. The data is
then analyzed for evidence of differences between each of these possible
sub-types, the assumption being that if these are all indeed properly distinct
patterns, we should find they behave differently in the corpus data. M concludes
that (9) is indeed properly considered a different formal pattern and should
therefore be excluded from the study of adjective + that-clauses. She dubs this
pattern “verb MAKE + adjective ‘certain’, ‘clear’, ‘sure’” and, in Chapter 4,
argues convincingly that these are verb-adjective combinations and therefore not
true examples of the adjective + that-clause pattern.

However, analyses provided in Chapters 3, 5 and 6 lead M to argue that “so…that”
constructions such as (7) should be treated together with canonical adjective +
that-clause constructions like (1) and (2). For M, the construction previously
studied as adjective complementation is more precisely considered to be an
“explanative” construction. This is in distiction to “so…that” constructions,
which she calls “resultative”. The difference between these constructions is
semantic: a that-clause in a resultative indicates the result of the adjective
while a that-clause in an explanative provides an explanation, but otherwise
there seem to be few important formal differences between them. M concludes that
the explanative and resultative constructions are two sub-types of the general
formal linear pattern adjective + that-clause, and therefore should be studied

M confirms the standard classification of adjectives into experiential and
evaluative using hierarchical cluster analysis. However, M argues against
extraposition analyses for cases such as those with impersonal “it”.

After a few introductory chapters, Chapter 3 sets out to determine whether the
adjectives which occur with that-clauses can be classified based on the subjects
with which they appear, and also to what degree previous classifications can be
corroborated based on such an analysis. In particular, the author seeks to test
two common analyses. First, she wants to show that resultatives should be
considered together with explanatives as examples of adjective complementation.

Second, M is highly skeptical of subject extraposition analyses. Subject
extraposition is the traditional name for the notion that (10) is a marked,
non-canonical variant of the unmarked, canonical structure in (11).

(10) It's true that I don't fancy John any more.
(11) That I don't fancy John any more is true.

Subjects are analyzed on the basis of three criteria: matrix vs. embedded
subject, personal pronoun vs. non-pronoun subject, and intentional vs.
non-intentional subject. Once each subject is analyzed by these criteria, the
data are subjected to hierarchical cluster analysis. The results are very
robust, indicating two semantic classes of adjectives: those expressing
experiences and those expressing evaluations. Not surprisingly, the former occur
with intentional subjects and the latter with non-intentional subjects. When
resultatives are analyzed separately from evaluatives, the same adjectives
cluster into the same groups. Thus their pattern of co-occurrence with subjects
are the same, although they are different both formally and functionally. As for
extraposition, an analysis in which impersonal “it” (i.e. an extraposed subject)
is separated from other pronouns produces essentially the same results. On this
basis the author suggests that these sentences should be categorized based on
linear form rather than a supposed derivational or quasi-derivational relationship.

In Chapter 4, verb-adjective combinations are examined. Of all the observed
co-occurrences of verbs and adjectives, the author singles out MAKE + ‘certain’,
‘sure’, and ‘clear’ as possible multi-word verbs. As before, the status of these
collocations is presented as a way to interrogate another derivational analysis:
here, object extraposition. Both (12) and (13) are commonly regarded as the
result of object extraposition, in which the direct object of the verb is moved
to the end of the sentence, sometimes leaving behind a substitute “it” as in
(13), and sometimes not as in (12).

(12) The statement makes clear that sanctions will be used only in the last resort.
MAKE + “clear”
(13) Officials make it clear that the actual cost is not yet known.
MAKE + D.O. + “clear”

This analysis leads us to consider such sentences as essentially identical, with
only the minor difference of the presence or suppression of an overt pronoun to
distinguish them. Under this analysis, therefore, it would be difficult to argue
that “makes clear” in (12) is a multi-word verb (or phrasal verb, verb-adjective
combination, etc.), because it would be hard to explain why such a multi-word
verb can be broken up by direct objects in closely related constructions.
However, if it can be shown that examples like (12) and (13) are in fact quite
different from each other, then such an analysis becomes feasible, while an
object extraposition analysis is placed in some doubt.

The author adopts five criteria for comparing these structures: (a) their
frequencies, (b) the types of subjects/objects each tends to co-occur with, (c)
how often adverbs are found between the verb and the adjective, (d) any
differences in meaning, (e) complementations other than that-clauses which each
can take.

The results suggest that MAKE + “certain” and MAKE + “sure” are multi-word
verbs, and that at least in these cases they are not closely (derivationally)
related to MAKE + D.O. + “certain”/”sure”. In each case, the meanings are quite
different, and adverbs are rarely found between the verb and adjective (while
they occur frequently in corresponding cases with direct objects). MAKE +
‘clear’, however, differs little from MAKE + D.O. + ‘clear’, consistent with the
hypothesis that these are in fact closely related, and that ‘make clear’ is not
a multi-word verb.

Chapter 5 is very similar to Chapter 3, but focuses on the relationship between
adjectives and matrix objects. M concludes that in sentences with both a subject
and an object, it is the object type which determines the type of adjective
used, not the subject. She again makes a similar argument against object

Chapter 6 returns to the question of whether explanative and resultative
constructions should be considered separately, and to what degree they are
similar. Here, the question is approached through analyses of the adverbs which
precede adjectives. While Mindt admits that these constructions have quite
different communicative functions and convey quite different meanings, her
analysis shows that the two behave very similarly in formal terms (by which,
recall, she means the linear arrangement of syntactic categories). On this
basis, she argues that the constructions should be considered semantic variants
of an overarching adjective + that-clause category.

Chapter 7 compares cases with an overt “that” to cases with “zero-that”, with
the aim of finding any contextual trigger which might increase the likelihood of
one or the other. She considers six candidates: (a) the adjective preceding, (b)
the medium and genre, (c) the matrix subject, (d) the subject in the
that-clause, (e) co-reference between the subjects in each clause, and (f)
intervening elements between the adjective and subject. She finds that no one
criterion has an impressive effect on the (non-)realization of “that”. However,
some fairly weak tendencies were found; for instance, evaluative adjectives,
more formal speech, and non-intentional matrix subjects each somewhat favor
overt that.

Chapter 8 examines verb phrases in the that-clause and attempts to find a
relation between them and the semantics of the preceding adjectives. M first
attempts to find such a pattern in the data without any prior categorization of
adjectives. She then looks for relations between adjectives and modal verbs and
subjunctives. Finally, she looks for any relationship between VP structure using
the distinction between experiential vs. evaluative adjectives. She concludes
that there is no relationship to be found, which contradicts a number of
previous claims, especially those of Quirk et al. (1985), who attempted to
semantically categorize adjectives based on co-occurring VPs in adjective +
that-clause constructions.

M’s study offers an interesting example of the pros and cons of studying
language with a highly inductive approach. Such research can and does have a
salutary effect, as when M provides evidence which calls into question the
relevance of subject/object extraposition analyses in cases with impersonal
“it”, an analysis that is so old and familiar that it is often simply assumed.
On the other hand, the evidence provided against movement analyses have a
circumstantial flavor, because she does not provide any principled basis upon
which to evaluate frequency evidence, and probably there is no such basis. For
instance, M shows that the presumed ''canonical'' or non-extraposed orders in some
cases appear very infrequently, if at all, in the corpus. The assumption here is
that non-extraposed sentences should be more frequent than sentences resulting
from movement, or at least that they should not be rare. On this assumption the
frequency data look quite convincing: the extraposition analysis in these cases
makes the wrong prediction. This may have worried more deductively inclined
linguists in the days of Chomskyan deep and surface structure, and in particular
in the short-lived framework of generative semantics, but the more common modern
theories of grammar do not make use of deep and surface structures, and there is
no reason, in principle, why sentences with extraposition should be less common
than sentences without it. Depending on the framework, movement analyses in
general have become more or less metaphorical. Even in principles and parameters
theory, in which some element may be said to have moved, this no longer implies
that an extraposed sentence has undergone a derivation from an otherwise
well-formed base sentence. And even if extraposition sentences are derived from
more basic non-extraposed sentences, it's still questionable whether we should
expect to find more derivationally simple sentences in corpora. What people
actually speak and write is influenced by many extra-grammatical factors, not
least sociocultural ones. This is not to suggest, as some do, that corpus
studies are useless. But when corpus data is used to infer the nature of grammar
itself, questions of this kind inevitably arise. I would have liked to see more
discussion of this.

Something underlying this objection for many linguists, I suspect, would be that
extraposition has turned out to be a highly useful theoretical apparatus, one
which unites a good deal of otherwise disparate phenomena cross-linguistically.
This is perhaps where the difference between inductive and deductive approaches
is most stark, and perhaps unbridgeable. Those working the Chomskyan vein tend
to judge their theories based on theory-internal factors such as elegance and
explanatory power, while they tend to downplay data from actual language use.
Mindt tends to judge theories based on their ability to cover all (or the
greatest part) of her corpus data, employing a minimum of abstraction. The
former approach can cover a great deal of data (as it is defined), but runs the
risk of providing analyses which are based on faulty and sometimes untestable
assumptions. Mindt's approach minimizes the risk of untestable assumptions
(beyond what is absolutely necessary -- for instance that there are verbs and
nouns), but suffers from a necessarily very narrow scope which may be in danger
of missing important generalizations.

However, although more theoretically-oriented linguists may dismiss these
arguments, based as they are on frequencies, co-occurrence relations, and the
like, more empirical evidence is always better than less, and even if M does not
close the book on extraposition in these constructions, her analysis gives good
reason to revisit this and other assumptions. This skepticism towards
theoretical assumptions demanded by the corpus-driven approach can lead to
useful reevaluations of what may seem obvious truths.

While this book should be of interest to anyone studying adjective
complementation in English, it would probably be of little value to those
studying other constructions or languages. With virtually no theoretical
apparatus it is hard to see how the insights revealed here can be related to
other linguistic phenomena. This, however, is not meant as criticism of this
study in particular, which sets out to do precisely what it does, and does it
very thoroughly and methodically.

Biber, Douglas. 2010. Corpus-based and corpus-driven analyses of language
variation and use. In The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis, Bernd Heine &
Heiko Narrog (eds), 159-191. Oxford: OUP.

Biber, Douglas, Johansson, Stig, Leech, Geoffrey, Conrad, Susan & Finegan,
Edward. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. London: Longman.

Huddleston, Rodney & Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2002. The Cambridge Grammar of the
English Language. Cambridge: CUP.

Quirk, Randolph, Greenbaum, Sidney, Leech, Geoffrey, Svartik, Jan. 1985. A
Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

Alan Hogue is a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Arizona, with primary research interests in syntax, sentence processing and corpus linguistics. He is keenly interested in the philosophy and methodology of linguistic theories, as well as evolutionary theory, formal language theory, and computability theory. He currently uses a combination of corpus-based and experimental methods to study the effect of structural priming on elided structures.