LINGUIST List 32.2227

Wed Jun 30 2021

Review: English; Romance; Syntax: Moreno (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 19-Apr-2021
From: Valentina Maniglia <>
Subject: Relational Adjectives in Romance and English
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Mihaela Marchis Moreno
TITLE: Relational Adjectives in Romance and English
SUBTITLE: Mismatches at Interfaces
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Valentina Maniglia, Università di Salerno


As the title “Relational Adjectives in Romance and English. Mismatches at Interfaces” suggests, this volume, written by Mihaela Marchis Moreno and published by the Cambridge University Press, presents itself as an attempt to investigate the discord which Relational Adjectives present at the interfaces between different levels of language, namely morphology, syntax and semantics.

Scholars and researchers who are interested in the topic know that the main difficulty involved in studying it is exactly what the author calls a “mismatch” between the form and the meaning of Relational Adjectives, as they have the morphological shape of an adjective but –from a syntactic and semantic point of view – they behave like nouns.

This aspect has caused problems for morphological theories (but also for syntactic and semantic ones), which are also reflected in the different terms used in the literature to define Relational Adjectives, highlighting different characteristics of these elements: “classificatory adjectives”, “associative adjectives”, “pseudo-adjectives”, “attributive-only adjectives”, “denominal adjectives”, “transposed adjectives”, and “denominal nonpredicate adjectives” are some of them.

Most scholars agree, however, that these adjectives present noun-like properties, which is also the main focus of their works. In the analysis proposed by Marchis Moreno in this book the focus is instead on the syntactic and semantic properties at the base of the use of these elements, as well as on their distribution.

The approach used by the author to account for the “non-linear” nature of Relational Adjectives is to analyze them within theoretical frameworks which can help in dealing with this mismatch, which she identifies as “The Distributed Morphology Framework” and “Ontological Semantics”, on the basis of their theoretical assumptions, mechanisms, and approaches.
The study is based on a previous sub-classification of relational adjectives (namely thematic and classificatory adjectives) and is carried out with particular attention to the theoretical discussion of the topic and the description of actual morpho-syntactic related phenomena.

The main aim of the book is to examine the morpho-syntactic and syntactic properties of Relational Adjectives (also in light of other linguistic elements with which they interact or with which they show similarities and symmetries) at the syntax-morphology interface, so as to provide a deeper understanding and a wider perspective on the topic.

The various chapters of the book are a combination of a linear analysis and the insertion of digressions to look at the various aspects which are involved in the study. The book comprises eleven chapters including the first chapter, which is a general introduction describing the main goals, the expectations and the novelties of her approach, and the conclusion, in which the author summarizes the main points tackled in the study and suggests further research.

Chapter 2 (“What Does Morphology Learn from Relational Adjectives?”) illustrates the differences between the Lexicalist approach and non-Lexical approaches, arguing that the latter (in particular the framework of Distributed Morphology) can not only be a helpful tool for the analysis of Relational Adjectives, but that these elements can also represent a good example for explaining the functionality of a non-lexicalist approach, casting light on what morphology is.

Chapter 3 (“Ontological Semantics: Qualifying versus Relational Adjectives”) firstly introduces the framework of Ontological Semantics and shows the main reasons why it can be helpful for the study of Relational Adjectives. In particular, the model elaborated by Ontological semantics can demonstrate how to deal with the “number underspecificity” of Relational adjectives, when this phenomenon occurs at the interfaces between different modules of grammar.

A semantic classification of adjectives (qualifying vs relational) and a differentiation between prototypical vs marginal (relational) adjectives follows. On the basis of morphological, semantic, and syntactic criteria, the author argues that qualifying and relational adjectives differ at each level (the main differences being: 1) the former are morphologically simple lexemes while the latter are derivational categories, 2) relational adjectives cannot occur in prenominal position, and 3) they can’t be graded). Furthermore, the application of different tests based on the different types of adjective’s modification, results in a three-way distinction of relational adjectives: argumental, event modifier, and nominal modifier, all of which have different behaviors and functions.

Chapter 4 (“A Classification of Relational Adjectives across Languages”) comprises a detailed presentation of the treatment of relational adjectives proposed in existing literature on different languages, where they have been mainly considered within the framework of generative semantics, within the standard lexical hypothesis, or within the non-lexical approach (the latter including Marchis Moreno’s approach). The chapter ends with a split classification of relational adjectives: thematic and classificatory adjectives, which, in spite of the differences they show, share the possibility of being analyzed as being underlying nouns, as they have in common a denominal nature.

In Chapter 5 (“The Morpho-syntactic Analysis of Relational Adjectives”), Marchis Moreno discusses the denominal nature of relational adjectives (after illustrating the pros and cons of such an approach). On the basis of this she makes a sharper distinction between Thematic adjectives (which correspond to argument bare nouns) and Classificatory adjectives (which correspond to nonargument bare nouns). Different tests show that both thematic adjectives with classificatory adjectives and argument bare nouns with nonargument bare nouns show similarities from a semantic point of view (as they have the same unspecific interpretation) but they differ from a syntactic point of view (the former being arguments of the noun, the latter acting as restrictive modifiers).

After arguing for the validity of an approach which distinguishes subclasses of relational adjectives (Thematic and Classificatory) with tests and arguments, Chapters 6 through 9 are dedicated to a more detailed discussion of the main properties and behaviors of these subclasses of adjectives. These are compared and/or related to other cases present in Romance languages showing syntactic and/or semantic similarities with them (in particular, she correlates the genitive case of Romanian with Thematic Adjectives —a similarity which can account for their argumental status—and Classificatory adjectives with “de” modifier phrases in Romance, which, can on the other hand account for their modifying role.

Based on this first Hypothesis that Thematic-adjectives shows syntactic and semantic similarities with “de” prepositional genitives in Romance (such as their argumental status, ungrammaticality in predicative position and the same semantic interpretation), Chapter 6 (“The Syntax of Thematic Adjectives”) starts with a detailed illustration of the syntactic properties of both elements, followed by an illustration of the similarities and differences, aimed at checking the validity of the proposed Hypothesis . The main differences are the following: unlike genitives, Thematic adjectives cannot occur in complex event nominals; two Thematic adjectives can occur together in a sentence while two genitives cannot; Thematic adjectives cannot control purpose clauses.

As complex event nominals are an important element which divides genitives from Thematic adjectives, Chapter 7 (“Deverbal Nominalizations”) aims at providing an explanation of the incompatibility between Thematic adjectives and complex event nominals regarding different types of deverbal nominalizations in Romanian, on the basis of Cornilescu’s division into those which have an event reading and those which have a result reading, and the aspectual properties they show.

After making these distinctions, Marchis Moreno investigates the behavior of Thematic adjectives with different types of nominals in Romanian. She accounts for the impossibility of Thematic adjectives occurring in complex event nominals in Chapter 8 (“Thematic Adjectives and Nominalization”), where, in fact, the first Hypothesis provided is revised in the light of the different tests showing important differences between Thematic adjectives and “de” prepositional phrases, as well as their non-nouniness (due to their lack of countability).

Chapter 9 (“The Syntax of Classificatory Adjectives”), together with Chapter 6, is dedicated to the illustration of the properties of Classificatory adjectives, the features of which differ from those of relational adjectives both from a semantic and a syntactic point of view. The author’s analysis here, based on several tests (such as correspondence with genitives, predicativity, occurrence with “cel” and correspondence to “de” modifier phrases in Romance), shows that the main differences concern their function in a sentence: unlike Thematic adjectives, Classificatory adjectives are not arguments, but rather modifiers of the noun to which they are added.

The last chapter before the conclusions, Chapter 10 (“Relational Adjectives as Compounding”) has the goal of demonstrating that one way to understand the nature of relational adjectives is to compare them to compounding in Romance (based on the assumption that “a compound always involves two constituents linked by a grammatical relation that is not overtly expressed”). This postulation is built on the classification of compounds in Bisetto & Scalise (2015), who distinguish between subordinate, attributive and coordinative compounds. According to Moreno Marchis, thematic adjectives and classificatory adjectives correspond respectively to subordinate compounds (which express a complement relation: e.g.. “taxi driver”) and attributive compounds (because they express a modification relation: e.g. “blue cheese”)


As is clear from the description of the different chapters above, the book’s structure follows the different steps and aspects tackled step-by-step in the analysis.

One of the merits of this book is that the different aspects involved in the study, as well as the different elements which the author takes into consideration, are systematically described, with the use of digressions so that the reader can have easy access to the useful information needed to follow the logical course of the analysis. On the other hand, a more clear explanation of the order of chapters or a division into different parts would have been appreciated, as the digressions and the interplay between the topics could be a bit confusing for less expert readers.

Nevertheless, it is in my view the structure itself that empirically shows coherence from a scientific point of view. The analysis, all in all, is carried out in line with scientific principles and method: an empirical approach under the guidance of a reference framework; the elaboration of a first Hypothesis; a set of theoretical discussions and empirical data to verify the validity of the Hypothesis; revision of the Hypothesis and elaboration of a second one on the basis of the previous results. Each step is always accompanied by the illustration of pros and cons of the approach used.

A wide acknowledgement and illustration of the existing literature on the topic (but also on other aspects of the research) constitutes another point in favour of the book. The analysis proposed always takes into consideration other existing studies and provides important references for the different aspects involved, another fact which goes hand in hand with the volume’s goal.

As the work itself aims at illustrating the need to take into account wider perspectives and not just focus on a limited research field, the book can be of interest to scholars with different interests such as morphology, syntax, or semantics, but mainly for those who are interested in the interconnection between them (morpho-syntax, semantics-syntax, etc.).

On the other hand, I would not recommend this book for a first approach to relational adjectives, as the work presupposes a pre-existing knowledge (at least a morphological one) of the topic.

Given that -according to the author- relational adjectives (with their features and behavior) could cast light on the theoretical debate between lexicalists and non-lexicalists, both groups of scholars could find “food for thought” in this book.

More in line with the work, however, the author suggests specific further research which, in general, would allow deeper studies in this work’s direction. What Marchis Moreno suggests is the possibility of investigating the interplay between number, case, and aspect in the nominal domain; a deeper study of genitive assignment in Romance versus incorporation in Germanic; the investigation of cross-linguistic variation among different types of compounding in Romance and Germanic.

What I personally would suggest, however, is an extended analysis in other Romance languages, as the examples provided in the book mainly refer to Romanian and Spanish.


Bisetto, A. and Scalise, S. 2015. The Classification of compounds. Lingue e Linguaggio. IV.2, 319-322

Iacobini, C. 2017. Gli aggettivi denominali come basi di derivazione prefissale nel corpus Midia, in R. D’Alessandro, G. Iannàccaro, D. Passino, A. M. Thornton (a c. di), Di tutti i colori. Studi linguistici per Maria Grossmann, Utrecht, Utrecht University, pp. 133-145. (

Wandruszka, U. 2004. Aggettivi di Relazione, in M. Grossmann & F. Rainer (a c. di), La formazione delle parole in italiano, Tübingen, Niemeyer, pp. 382-394.


First year PhD student at University of Salerno (Italy). Research interest: General Linguistics; Morphology.

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