Justified adjectivization

This post springs from, but then quickly digresses thoughtlessly from, a question from a student about the difference between the adjectives “justifiable” and “justified”.

My answer at the time, that the difference was whether the process was capable of being applied or had been applied, was probably too first-principlesy to be useful. I probably should have directed her to COCA and let her work back to that conclusion from examples. Incidentally, after doing so myself, it turns out that “justified” is much more common overall, and especially more common in post-hoc rationalizing. That squares with what I said, but I could have found a more brain-friendly way of putting it.

(I find I have to force myself not to correct dangling modifiers these days, perhaps out of some misplaced notion of descriptivism – did you notice the one in the last paragraph? To me, it’s like an ingrown hair that the doctor has ordered me to leave be.)

But the student’s question put me in mind of an error I’d seen in previous student essays, where passive voice and participial adjectives collided and produced an unintended message. In this case, the phrase “lynching was justified” tripped a rather explosive semantic wire. The student had been trying to say, by using the passive voice, that communities rationalized lynching (“was actively justified by white supremacists”, but sounded as if he was saying, with an adjective, that lynching was proper (“was completely justified”). Besides exemplifying the kind of linguistic land mine that language learners dread, this error made me question what causes participles (reminder: “eaten” and “eating” are both participles, as are “excited” and “exciting”) to either molt their verb skins and transform completely into adjectives, retain both their verb and adjective uses, or resist adjectivization altogether.

First, it is interesting to note that many verbs seem to be in the middle of this transformation. In my estimation, most ancestral verbs whose participles have taken on a second life as adjectives maintain a separate existence as verbs. “Justified” is, in my judgment, one of those cases – “justify” still clearly retains a separate usage as a verb, while “justified” seems to have a semi-independent existence as an adjective (ditto its near-synonym “rationalize” – especially in the UK). “Lose” and “lost” likewise seem to live separate lives at this point, as do “use” as a verb and its adjective “used” (as in “used car”). On the other hand, some verbs seem to be dying out compared to their adjectival offspring: “interest” as a verb is much less common than “interesting” and “interested”, “thrilling” and “thrilled” both outnumber “thrill” in corpora, and more foods are “revolting” than anything apparently “revolts”. The reverse, verbs whose participles have never made the journey to adjectivehood, are not too hard to think of: I have never heard an adjectival version of participles from “utilize”, “wear” (besides to mean “degraded”), or “drink” (the PG version). It does take a bit of searching beyond the verbs that first come to mind, but of the effectively endless supply of verbs, most have not seen their participles taken up into regular use as adjectives.

In order to better understand why adjectivization of participles happens, it helps to define in formal terms what exactly happens when “it was justified” (or “I was interested”, etc.) stops being interpreted as a verb and starts being interpreted as an adjective:

  • It becomes a state rather than a recurring action
  • The agent (in passive voice) or the object go from hidden to barely even hinted at. Whether the verb was unergative or unaccusative (either the subject was cause of its own action, like “begin”, or neither the cause nor the recipient, like “fall”) to start with, the adjective is completely mute on the cause of its state.
  • They become objective properties rather than relationships between subjects and objects. For example, it would be bizarre to attribute objective interest to a movie with the verb to interest, like “it objectively interests me”, but it seems more plausible to call it “objectively interesting”, as if the property “interesting” could exist independent of people’s subjective assessments.
  • Because it is now a condition rather than an action, it can be made more or less intense rather than frequent. “Justified” (sometimes an adjective) collocates with “very” in COCA, while “viewed” (not yet an adjective) does not.

(We should note too that not every adjective ending with -ing or -ed is a participle: “three-legged” and “doe-eyed” are part of a set where the -ed means something more like “equipped with”. If the verb form of “opinionated” ever makes a comeback, I think we can chalk it up to backformation. I’m not aware of any other verbs that are backformed from originally non-verb participial-looking adjectives, but they must exist.)

Now, having described what adjectivization entails for a verb, I would like to close by suggesting some conditions under which it is likely to occur:

  1. The verb, once performed, permanently changes its object (“burnt”)
  2. Feelings associated with the object of that verb are distinct from other, already-existing adjectives (“defeated”)
  3. Conversely, a need exists for a word for a particular state, and a participle is available to take it even if the meaning is not exactly the same as the verb (I assume that this is what happened with “drunk”)
  4. One instance becomes such a prominent characteristic that it is capable of branding for life (you can call this the “you fuck one sheep” principle)

…Hopefully that won’t be the only thing the students whose questions formed the basis of this post remember if they read it.

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