Friday, 23 July 2010

Very extreme adjectives

Prescriptivism again. One of the recurring issues in prescriptivist grammar - the attempt to formally dictate language - is its tendency to firm up 'fuzzy' areas of observed usage into hard rules. An example might be the choice between using "more adjective" and "adjective-er" for comparatives, as discussed in Arnold Zwicky's Language Log post Inflected Adj/Adv. There are adjectives where the inflected "-er" version is impossible. But for others it's merely uncommon; prescriptivists, however, often inflate that observation into a rule that the "-er" inflected form shouldn't be used at all for that adjective.

I just noticed a similar example with "extreme adjectives". This is a fairly new descriptive category - at least in linguistics - dating from the work of D Allan Cruse, who called them "implicit superlatives" in his book Lexical Semantics (see page 216). Extreme adjectives are ones that powerfully emphasise the quality they describe: for instance, "large" is a normal - or 'gradable' - adjective expressing size, but "colossal", "vast" and "humungous" are extreme adjectives.

The central descriptive observation of Cruse and others is that an adjective's "extremeness" influences what modifiers can be applied to that adjective. For example, if "pleasant" and "fabulous" represent normal and extreme adjectives referring to degrees of niceness, "very pleasant" and "absolutely fabulous" are idiomatic, but "absolutely pleasant" and "very fabulous" aren't. This is a probabilistic thing, however. As described in detail in Marcin Morzycki's review paper Degree Modiļ¬cation of Extreme Adjectives and in Extreme Degree Modification, it manifests not as anything clear-cut, but as a "resistance", varying between speakers, to using particular forms in particular cases. Morzycki also observes a difference in the behaviour of "lexical" and "contextual" extreme adjectives. For instance, one overall trend is toward an increasing resistance to using the modifier "very" as the adjective becomes more extreme - but with considerable fluidity according to context.

All such subtlety is lost on the prescriptivists, however. If you Google "extreme adjectives", you'll find any number of guidelines that inflate this variable quality into a simplistic hard diktat that the modifer "very" must never be used with extreme adjectives. It seems to have taken particular root in ESL (English as a second language) teaching.

The problem is, it's a rule that in many cases is completely at variance with actual usage. A few examples:

English in Mind Level 3A Combo Teacher's Book (Cambridge University Press, 2007) claims "very tiny" is wrong. However, large numbers of news items and published books show it to be perfectly normal usage.
"Fascinating already means 'very interesting', so we can't say 'very fascinating'"
- Language in use: Intermediate. Teacher's book (CUP, 1994)
Can't we? See news and books again. It was good enough for Charles Dickens, as in The Old Curiosity Shop ("It is to be remarked of his trade that it is a very fascinating one") and David Copperfield ( "And you mean to say the little thing is very fascinating, I suppose?").
"Extreme adjectives are synonyms, which because they already have an absolute meaning, cannot be qualified with words like very..."
- L'inglese in pratica, Volume 2 (Alpha Test, 2001)
It's interesting to compare Google Books hits for "very *" forms of the adjectives the above book lists: exhausted (15,000), tiny (170,000)/ minute (994,000), disgusted (4,930)/ appalled (97), infuriated (142), delicious (42,900), invaluable (411), soaking (27), boiling (141), astonishedamazed (1,560), petrified (34), horrified (258), fascinating (71,000), agonising (278), thrilled (4,560), huge (15,300), enormous (8,680), marvellous (14,600), fantastic (10,500), delighted (13,400), unforgettable (142). These show the rule to be a sweeping generalisation that's sometimes accurate, but in other cases wrongly rejects constructs that are in widespread usage. I'll make a particular point of citing this counterexample ...
Speaking about this specialised group, he said: "This extraordinary breed of farmer manages to produce food - and very delicious food indeed - in some of the harshest conditions; the weather is extreme, the soil is poor and the topography is some of the most challenging."
... because the speaker is Prince Charles. While I'm not the guy's number one fan, he's useful as a data point. It can reasonably be assumed that if the future king of England uses the phrase "very delicious", it's throughly respectable English. Back to this non-rule and ESL:
"The thing is – You can say very bad, but not very dreadful."
Pavlionka, teaching English at English Baby!
Nope: news and books contradict again. It may be a trifle archaic, but not enough to be wrong.
"Extreme adjectives can not be preceded by very ..."
- English Learners online educational magazine / Extreme Adjectives:
Google hits again for the extreme adjectives cited: hilarious (966), boiling (141), delicious (42,900), amazed (1,560), filthy (21,200), huge (15,300), terrified (1,430), delighted (13,400), freezing (291), exhausted (15,000), spotless (150), furious (14,600). Again, the list mixes genuinely rare usages with perfectly commonplace ones.
"In contrast, 'ridiculous', 'astonished', astounded, ancient (very old) and boiling (very hot) are not gradable"
- Rachel Wicaksono, at the BBC World Service's Learning English site, Sunday, 09 July 2006:
"Boiling", agreed. But "very ancient" gets a solid 938,000 book hits, and it's hardly an unusual construct. It's not difficult to find respectable current examples. For instance:
The researchers believe the fossil to be around 3,000 years old, but say the species itself could be very ancient.
- BBC News, Divers find ancient monkey fossil, July 21, 2010
I'm very astonished that this very ridiculous rule managed to get a foothold in language teaching.

- Ray


  1. Then, of course, there is the contradiction of small, regular, giant, super giant, colossal and humongous shrimp. (Olives, too; look in your grocery store.)

    (believe it or not, we use humongous in medicine; but I won't go there)
    (Spell checker flags humongous, and humungous, but Humongous has a definition. What's the QED say?)

  2. The OCD says "humongous" or "humungous": slang (orig. U.S.) - Extremely large; huge, enormous - first citation to 1970. You can usually beat that by a decade or so: Google Books has definite 1960s examples, and some maybe earlier .. although the metadata is dubious.

    As to the crustacea, there's such constant mission creep that I don't know what to call them. What they call prawns these days are so small that they're shrimps by the standard I was brought up with.

  3. Ah, you have coined the latest dance: "The Crustacean Creep"